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June 2, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

But The Men Die

Pakistan's deputy high commissioner in India, one Akbar Zeb, paid a visit to our ministry of external affairs a couple of days ago. There, he collected an irate scolding. India "strongly condemns this act of cowardice and savagery," he was told, "and expects that those who are guilty of shooting Ahuja in cold blood will be prosecuted by the government of Pakistan for the murder and punished."

The reference is to Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, a pilot whose MiG jet was shot down over Kashmir a few days ago. When Ahuja's body was returned to Indian authorities, they found it had two bullet wounds. Those wounds suggest that he was killed after he bailed out. Air Vice-Marshal SK Malik described this as a "cold-blooded murder." At Ahuja's cremation in his home village of Kili Nihal Singhwala, opinions like this were repeated by such big shots as Punjab's Chief Minister P S Badal and BJP vice-president K L Sharma, both present there.

I read all this in a growing wonder. When we sent Ahuja up in his jet to fight our nasty war for us, we knew and he knew that death was a likely outcome: this was no training mission, this is war. His plane was shot at by an enemy that aimed deliberately to strike, to destroy his plane, to kill him: this is war, not Sunday afternoon target practice for the boys. Ahuja was hit, but managed to bail out before his plane slammed into the ground. And when he touched down himself, the bullet wounds tell the story: apparently he was shot by Pakistani soldiers.

In the whole tragedy of Ahuja's death, it is only this last detail that gets us worked up. Sending Ahuja into battle is fine because he fights for India. His death is acceptable because he died for India. But the way he died -- "in cold blood" -- now that is shameful.

Would we have been as worked up if he had died as soon as his plane was hit? Would it have been any less shameful? Why or why not?

It is not the manner of Ahuja's death that is tragic, it is that he died at all. Yet a set of peculiar war conventions, a benighted code of conduct, turns that on its head. It persuades us to bemoan how he died. Not his death itself.

Which persuasion, as far as warmongers everywhere are concerned, is a good thing to do. Because then the rest of us are conditioned: to accept deaths like Ahuja's as necessary when they are not. To consent to the sacrifice of young Indian lives. To swallow such flag-wrapped rhetoric as the glory of war, the honour of fighting and dying for your country. And the subtlest, but most profitable, warmongering benefit of all -- to hate the other country, to come to believe they are a bunch of deceitful, cowardly savages.

Indeed, on the edit page in The Times of India (June 1), somebody called AM Sethna writes: "[W]e are dealing with a country ... capable of extreme cruelty. [Ahuja's death] bears this out. In such hands, officers and men reported missing face being skinned alive or horribly mutilated before being killed." That's right, it's that time-honoured way of conducting war: turn the enemy into a slavering ogre.

Let's be clear: it is not how Ahuja died that is obscene; the war that killed him is obscene. A code of conduct doesn't make it any less so. It is a mere pretence of humanity, a pretence whose sole intent is to obscure the obscenity of war. Ahuja's death -- and the deaths of dozens more young Indians in Kashmir -- is India's tragedy. By itself, his death is too high a price to pay for whatever is going on there. Yes, rather than reclaim some 17,000 foot peaks, I would have him and those other Indians back -- whether saying so brings me ridicule or not.

But since breathing life back into our dead is not possible, I would like the next best thing. That's an answer to the question: What did they die for? You see, the violation of the conventions of war angers us so much, we forget to ask this most vital war question of all. We forget to hold those who send us into war to an explanation of why we are fighting. And they would rather not explain. It would throw up too many more questions that need answers.

But let's ask, shall we? Just why are we fighting today? Because we have to evict a few hundred Pakistani infiltrators who have occupied some dizzy heights in that part of Kashmir. Because such occupation is an attack on that nearly sacred concept: India's "territorial sovereignty."

Fine. Still, the infiltrators infiltrated several months ago: in January, some reports tell us. How did they enter? Why were they not stopped then? Have our borders become so full of holes that a few hundred men can walk across, settle into their hideouts, not be noticed for months and turn into a major threat to our sovereignty?

Obviously, they have. But it was only last year that we tested those famed nuclear bombs. Afterwards, our prime minister told us that nobody would dare attack India now. Our security was "enhanced", he said, our defences made "impregnable." It was only in February that he took that famed bus to Lahore, much drummed up hoopla accompanying him, and returned waving the Lahore Declaration. For that, he was hailed as a Messiah of peace; hawks lost no chance to coo that the bombs, nothing else, had made his journey possible. And finally, it was only in April that we fired the famed Agni missile. When that happened, our own defence minister reminded us again: no one can threaten India now.

No one can threaten India, but mere infiltrators manage to breach those impregnable defences. Our security is enhanced, but the bombs cannot keep six hundred men off those heights. The men of this government love being described as hawks, but do nothing about these other men walking in. The Lahore Declaration brought peace, but crumbled on the wings of Ajay Ahuja's shot down MiG fighter.

And this far from the fighting, I feel considerably more insecure. That feeling is not reduced when I read the Pakistan prime minister's gleeful noises about his own nuclear bombs. It's no use telling me I really am safe under the umbrella of Pokhran. When Nawaz Sharief issues dark nuclear warnings, I feel terrified, period. How should I feel secure when I know, right now, that the hawking pretensions of Vajpayee, Advani and Fernandes mean only that I have become a target? That I might be only seconds from nuclear nirvana?

And that's the truth, isn't it: the fighting in Kashmir is the weightiest repudiation of Vajpayee's bomb and bus bluster there is. Nuclear bombs will never buy us security. A bus ride can never bring us peace. Today, Indians are dying in Kashmir even though Vajpayee and gang told us we were strong and secure. They are dying because these men, like their opposite numbers across the border, like those who went before, are not really interested in the hard work of peace with Pakistan.

You search for answers in war, they are not pretty. That's why war needs those codes of conduct, those heroic phrases about glory and honour. You hear them in every war: from Gallipoli to Guam, from Kosovo to Kashmir. You hear them, but men die.

As I write this, 33 Indian soldiers are dead, 12 are missing and 130 are wounded in Kashmir. Nowhere have I seen listed the names of these 175 Indians. I wish someone would list them. Because then we might feel the sadness a little more keenly. Because each one of those dead Indians hurts more than the possibility of losing a few peaks to Pakistani infiltrators. Indeed, I would much rather have Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja back than some mountains.

For I know this much: without our Ahujas, without life, those mountains are no more than piles of rubble.

Dilip D'Souza

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