Even as we reel under Covid-19 and nearly 2 billion people live under lockdown, the scale of the crisis is such that it will have a staggering impact on each one of us for a long time to come. There will be changes, for better or for worse. This is an apt moment to consider whether, even in the face of this calamity, wars, armed conflicts and militarily settling scores should continue. It may appear incongruous if not Utopian to raise this issue when there is an overriding sense that we are living in a dystopia. But war is not a permanent state of existence. Nor is it desirable, for an exhausted people coming to grips with a pandemic. Consider that in the face of this pandemic most neo-liberal economies, which dogmatically preached “austerity”, are coming out with stimulus packages. So the crisis is also an opportunity to change course where wars are concerned.
For far too long, citizens of our republic remained mute and acquiesced in military suppression of their own people, because governments did not have the political will and the inclination to address the root causes. Instead, they chose to meet every demand for democratic resolution of a problem by escalating the conflict instead, through recourse to strong-arm measures, leading at times to full-scale military suppression. The cream of our youth, on both sides of the divide, perished in these wars and scarce resources were sacrificed in these futile ventures, some of which smoulder even today, sapping and robbing our country of its vital human and material resources.
In a timely reminder, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres drew our attention to how the “...fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war”. He has appealed for immediate global ceasefire and an end to armed conflicts so that the world can focus on fighting Covid-19. However, his appeal fell on deaf ears, because even the media ignored it. A pity, because a crisis is also an opportunity to change tack and rally everyone around to a common cause.
Ironically, the only place where any effort is being made to bring a war to an end happens to be in India’s neighbourhood, Afghanistan. And even this is happening because the United States under President Donald Trump is anxious to get out of Afghanistan before the November presidential elections where “bringing the boys back home” from a futile and a long-drawn war unleashed by the United States and its coalition partners since 2001. Although even here the rival “presidents” in Kabul have refused to heed United States pressure to unite and form a unity government to negotiate with the Taliban.
This prompted the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to say that rival power groupings in Kabul posed a “threat to US national interests” and announced a $1 billion cut in military aid in the current year and for 2021. He then warned that “we have made it clear to the leadership” against launching military operations that could undermine the peace process with the Taliban. He also reiterated that the United States “will not back security operations that are politically motivated nor support political leader who order such operations”. All the while, the likelihood of a calamity, in the shape of Covid-19 pandemic, stares at the war-torn country.
Whatever be the United States’ motivation, the fact that they are keen on withdrawing from Afghanistan offers a glimmer of hope to the Afghan people. The war torn Afghan state will urgently require outside help to tide over the new crisis caused by a virus. None of its South Asian neighbours are in a position to render much assistance. Pakistan is already reeling under rising incidence of Covid-19 infections and deaths. And India is pre-occupied with the calamity too.
However, without a ceasefire in Afghanistan no efforts can get off the ground.
Unlike Afghanistan, in Libya, the European Union and NATO countries, which unleashed the war in the first place and paved the way for a proxy war to take over, have fallen silent after having destroyed a country. Now a new lot of outside powers have been fishing in Libya’s civil war, forming alliances with rival warlords to gain a foothold there, motivated by their own myopic self-interest. The Libyan people are completely at their mercy.
As for the Palestinians, they continue to remain ignored and suffer from the double whammy of living under occupation at a time of a pandemic.
Closer home, neither in Kashmir nor in forested Central India has the armed conflict been halted. And there are good reasons for why India should heed the United Nations Secretary General’s appeal. Especially when it is our own people on both sides of the divide.
Forget for a moment about the rights or wrongs of the wars taking place inside India. The important thing to note today is that if social distancing/isolation are the key to fighting the pandemic and containing the Novel Coronavirus, then deployment of a large number of forces to carry out operations is the wrong course to adopt. Soldiers also mostly live cheek-by-jowl in crowded camps with neither running water nor proper hygiene or the sanitary conditions that are necessary to meet the Covid-19 challenge. Indeed, if the situation gets out of hand, which is not unlikely, they will be called upon to assist the medical and health workers to attend to the sick and the needy. What happens then?
It would have also helped if the government of India had announced a halt to the diversion of forest areas until at least the threat of this pandemic comes to an end. Instead, the government, which delayed preparing to meet the pandemic challenge despite having over 50 days of advance notice, has released a new draft for Environmental Impact Assessment. This draft focuses more on easing the process of ‘diversification’ of forest land, and proposes to blunt public hearings in order to attract more investment.
In other words, the government is showing scant regard for forest dwelling citizens as well as the soldiers.
This indifference to a global pandemic is even true of rebels such as the Maoists in Central India, who, unmindful of what the world faces today, have persisted with their counter-operations in forested Central India. If they were motivated by concerns for the Indian people and their welfare, they could have announced a ceasefire or at least appealed for one. Instead, they have launched deadly ambushes, signalling their unconcern for people in whose name they claim to be fighting. If Covid-19 is not a matter of concern for them when it is for the entire humanity, then they are only living up to the image of them painted by the authorities.
The situation in Kashmir is worse. The thirty year long insurgency and counter-insurgency saw it converted into one of world’s most militarised regions, with all the restrictions that this brings into play. Ab-normalcy has been the norm. Normal functioning of health services is an oxymoron here because they, the medical and health personnel, have been responding to one emergency after another for over three decades. COIN operations are still being carried out and these entail putting a large number of soldiers to work in close physical proximity to each other. Even otherwise how is social-distancing possible inside camps?
Instead of reaching out to the people by ceasing operations and asking them to pressure the handful of militants to desist from their activities, the Indian government shows little political imagination.
On the other side, nearly 500 persons, men and women, remain in overcrowded jails of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Here is a good moment to show Kashmiris that the government cares, by releasing the detenues and easing the pain of their kith and kin who have to travel long distance for jail visits, which too have now been suspended, causing great concern. Or at least the government could transfer them to jails in Kashmir, but until now, the government has exhibited little concern.
All said, this is an opportune moment to change tack and reach out to every citizen, discarding old attitudes and dogmas. Why? Because the post-pandemic world will be in great need for healing. The ruptures and rifts which the BJP government brought about and/or accentuated through their acts of omission and commission will need to be healed. So is now not the best time to change course?
An opportunity exists for a strong leader to rise to statesmanship, by discarding old and new dogmas and change course to where our collective energies can be put to better use. Or will the politics of bloodshed be allowed to carry on?
The author is a human rights activist. The views are personal.