Peace activists in Pakistan and India are attempting desperately to be heard above the din raised by warmongers - elitist by all counts and claiming to be patriotic as well - in the wake of the Mumbai carnage. Jingoism is in the air - be it from so-called nationalists (posing as analysts on television) advocating a nuclear attack for the defense of their country, or the man on the street. Be they from Pakistan or India, they speak of war with great abandon as if it is child's play. For the electronic media it is a race for sensationalism.
Extremist and militant parties with fundamentalist agendas in Pakistan (Jamaat-e-Islami) and India (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sanghthe or the RSS) have also jumped into the fray. Mr. K.S. Sudarshan, the powerful supreme leader of the RSS (the military wing of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh or BJP) called on India to be prepared for war, admitting the situation could easily turn into a nuclear confrontation. He added, "Whenever the Aasuri (demon) powers start dominating this planet, there is no way other than war ... It will be nuclear war and a large number of people will perish ... But it is very necessary to defeat the demons. And let me say with confidence that after this destruction, a new world will emerge, which will be very good, free from evil and terrorism."
In television talk shows nuclear weapons are treated on par with conventional weapons, with some experts taking pains to explain the theory of mutually assured destruction and its deterrent effect that would presumably prevent the armies of the two countries from pressing the nuclear button. The line between sanity and madness is becoming blurred.
The fact is that Pakistan and India went nuclear in 1998 without ever educating their public about the horrors of nuclear war. With a low literacy rate, the region has poor understanding of what a nuclear holocaust means. Some have watched documentaries on National Geographic and other foreign channels (the local channels have no time for such irrelevant stuff) and have heard of Hiroshima but cannot relate to it in a personal way. As for the educated (who also happen to be the privileged class), their hope lies in fantasy. Many may have seen films like The Day After but they are convinced these horrors only befall only ‘others.' Warnings of the terrible destruction nuclear weapons can render do not make an impact. Small wonder then, that A.Q. Khan, Pakistan's father of the bomb, is a darling of a section of the country's media.
It is time the media in Pakistan and India, which have become informal but effective actors in foreign policy and defense strategy making processes, started behaving more responsibly. They must stop glorifying war and make the people aware of the human tragedy that war brings in its wake.
Apart from peace activists and human rights groups, there are a few brave individuals who are advocating sanity on both sides of the border. I am so grateful for these voices. Award winning novelist Arundhati Roy, India's most famous champion of India-Pakistan friendship, wrote in a recent newspaper article, "We have a military occupation in Kashmir and a shamefully persecuted, impoverished minority of more than 150 million Muslims who are being targeted as a community and pushed to the wall, whose young see no justice on the horizon, and who, were they to totally lose hope and radicalise, end up as a threat not just to India, but to the whole world ... What we're experiencing now is blowback, the cumulative result of decades of quick fixes and dirty deeds ... The only way to contain (it would be naïve to say end) terrorism is to look at the monster in the mirror. We're standing at a fork in the road. One sign says Justice, the other Civil War. There's no third sign and there's no going back. Choose."
In Pakistan, Irfan Husain, a renowned columnist, wrote in the most widely circulated English language newspaper, Dawn, "Most Pakistanis have become so accustomed to terrorist attacks on their soil that they have forgotten that this is not the norm elsewhere. Instead of asking, ‘What's the big deal?' they should be putting themselves in the place of the victims. If, as it seems very likely, the group that attacked Mumbai was trained and armed by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, it is a very big deal indeed."
I have always been a pacifist, but two personal experiences made me hate war actively. I became acutely conscious of the destructiveness of war in 1971 when the Pakistan army turned on its own people living in East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh). After the military crackdown on Dhaka in March of that year, Mukti Bahini (the Bengali rebel forces) rose against the non-Bengalis who had been living in their midst for decades. The following month I met a woman who had been evacuated from the war zone to the relative safety of Karachi. When I learned of her story, the inhumanity of war hit me full blast. Just a few months earlier, this woman had been surrounded by a happy family, but was now mourning her ‘disappeared' husband and five-year-old son who was shot dead in front of her. Now she was alone, nursing an injured daughter, shot in the eye. But she was not the only one grieving her losses. There were many others like her.
Twenty-four years later, my aversion for war was reinforced. Emiko Okada, a 67-year-old hibakusha (survivor of the nuclear attack), visited Pakistan in 2005 as a member of the Hiroshima World Peace Mission on the 60th anniversary of the U.S. attack that left hundreds of thousands dead, injured and suffering from the painful effects of radiation.
Okada was eight years old when the bomb fell. Her entire family was exposed to the blast - its radiation left them badly burned and injured. Describing her own condition, she said, "Because I had breathed the radioactive gas, I was vomiting frequently and was very ill. I couldn't move for two days. I was bleeding from my gums and lost my hair. I often felt weak and had to lie down."
She also bore the emotional scar of losing her 12-year-old sister. Emiko recalled, "My mother would spend hours and hours searching through the rubble for Mieko. My parents had believed till the end that my sister was alive and they died without submitting a notification of her death to the municipal office. We don't have her remains and belongings (those who died instantly from the blast simply vaporized). All we have of her is a letter she wrote to her cousin looking forward to the end of the war."
Mieko could be one of us. She died waiting for peace. We should live to avoid war.