Observing the politics of his day many years ago a wit in Britain is said to have remarked “Patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel!” The wag in India would be forgiven if in a reference to political practice here he were to replace ‘patriotism’ in the bon mot with either ‘nationalism’ or ‘secularism’. Right now, however, it is the observation on the uses to which the former is often put that is all too relevant for this country.
Even as we have grown accustomed to election time being turned into silly season by rival political parties scrambling for attention, nothing could have prepared us for the latest missive from the University Grants Commission (UGC), a body originally conceived to nurture our institutions of higher education. It is reported that the UGC has issued notice to the universities that they should prepare to commemorate the ‘surgical strike’ on India’s north-western border which we are informed had taken place on September 29, 2016. This is disappointing to say the least, for we build public universities so that they hold up a mirror to ourselves, not so that they serve the interest of the government we elect. Public universities in a democracy are to be allowed independence from the government of the day and, equally important, its individual members must be assured freedom from the dictates of the majority within them. This is not a utopian proposal as much as something essential for the advancement of knowledge, to which our progress is tied.
As in the age-old dictum, “all is fair in love and war”, everything appears acceptable to this government as it prepares for the election of 2019 looming ahead. It has gambled on the value in its game plan of keeping alive the memory of India’s response to a cross-border intrusion in the recent past.
Two questions arise when we reflect upon the action that is to be commemorated. First, how significant was it? Second, is it a wise thing to do to bring details of a military action into the limelight? In the history of India’s defence engagements on the western front since 1947, the action in question is hardly the biggest or brightest.
Surely, India’s response to the infiltrators from Pakistan who had invaded Kashmir in 1948 was more impressive. While, of course, the wars of 1965 and 1971 were far bigger, in 1948 India not only was struggling to find its feet after the trauma of Partition but also was a fledgling country beset with economic hardship. That in the midst of all this the Indian armed forces air-lifted to Srinagar were able to achieve what they did is remarkable, especially given the terrain. Only the political leadership of the time is accountable for why the action did not fully secure India’s borders by removing the invaders from the entire State of Jammu and Kashmir, an outcome believed to have been considered attainable by the then Brigadier, K.S. Thimayya, who had participated in the action and had asked for some more time to achieve the end.
In an inexplicable move, Nehru had vetoed this proposal and taken the matter to the United Nations. The Mountbattens, who were allowed to influence events in India for far longer than they deserved to, are believed to have had a role in this. But whatever is the truth, nothing that could have been achieved at the border in 2016 can match the action of 1948. Surely the people of India can see this, arousing scepticism over the motive for the commemoration of a mere ‘surgical strike’. None of India’s Prime Ministers had gloated over victory in war. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s humility helped him steer clear of this in 1965, and Indira Gandhi, not given to undue modesty, did not make capital out of the India-Pakistan war of 1971, which had left the adversary not just bloodied but halved. It was left to others to liken her to Durga. In their dignified silence, India’s former Prime Ministers had followed the practice of great leaders who refuse to glory in aggression. The countries of Europe remember the sacrifices of their soldiers in the two World Wars but they do so with restraint. Can it be said that they love their country less for merely wearing a flower for a day, not requiring their great universities to celebrate victory in war?
A second reason for avoiding public remembrance of the ‘surgical strike’ of 2016 would be that it undermines any advantage that may be possessed by India. While it may at times be necessary to pursue infiltrators to their lair, it can be strategically unwise to keep advertising your past actions. Here Oscar Wilde’s advice to the young that “one must always be a little improbable” is a good principle to follow even in matters of defence. The enemy should be left constantly guessing how you will react, so that you would be able to exact even greater damage when he attempts to hurt you the next time round. Politicians reveal their amateurishness in matters military when they boast in public of the deeds of our soldiers.
In general, it is unfortunate that India’s politicians are unable to make common cause when it comes to national security. Something of this kind is much needed in a matter that is being aired in our television debates right now. In a relatively rare moment of sanity emanating from them, an anchor suggested that henceforth defence acquisitions be made through bipartisan committees so that there is transparency. This would avoid the mud-slinging that we are left to witness over the Rafale deal and ensure that the national interest is upheld.
Above all, dragging our armed forces into a jingoistic nationalism to serve some narrow political end stems from an ignorance of India’s eternal tradition. Ashoka Maurya renounced violence after his victory at Kalinga and spent the rest of his life spreading the idea of non-violence. The Chandela kings, after victory in war, built exquisite temples at Khajuraho, leaving them for the use of their people. For a soldier to aspire to reward, whether of wealth or fame, was considered a fate far worse than death. This after all is the message of the Bhagavad Gita. Apparently some of India’s politicians are unaware of their inheritance.
Nations are imagined communities. They first arise in the minds of the people. The state can only tap into this national spirit; it cannot create it. Ashokan edicts in the four corners of the country, erected at a time when transporting people and communicating ideas was a Herculean task, testify to the fact that at least some Indians had imagined a community long ago. This imagination had revolved around ethical conduct and transcended cultural, linguistic and religious differences. Over two millennia later it was to erupt in the form of a national movement when Gandhi’s call to unite against a colonial power was instinctively heeded by millions of ordinary Indians. By the 21st century, Indians imagine themselves as a community, it may be said, of diverse nationalities. They must view with amusement the ersatz nationalism being manufactured over a routine action somewhere along India’s north-western border.