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For whom the bell tolls

Publication Date : 14-06-2012

 

It is a very odd situation in Siachen, the disputed glacier region of Kashmir. How often do we see civilians attired as peaceniks, as journalists or NGOs campaigning to bail out their militaries that have landed themselves in a ditch?

And yet, is there a forum between India and Pakistan where the issue is not raised with empathy and urgency, including by people who have been at the receiving end of their militaries?

The Kashmir issue, where lives are at stake has been put in the slow lane. Siachen, where the militaries are foolishly locked in an untenable one-upmanship, has surged to the fore. How to get the cat down from the tree? Its resolution will decide whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gets to visit Islamabad and Nankana Sahib.

In Siachen, the condition of the armies on both sides is pitiable. The commanders of two indebted and impoverished nations in a low oxygen moment decided to rush off troops to turn an inhospitable ice desert into what experts acknowledge to be a bizarre battlefield that has no strategic value.

It would have inspired Samuel Beckett to conjure a gripping theme for his repertoire of the theatre of the absurd. No bullet has been fired since a ceasefire was called in 2003 but troops continue to suffer mental and physical traumas on the lonely heights.

Now the militaries are feeling stuck. One side lost scores of men recently in an avalanche. The other found its men, in lieu of something worthwhile to do, posing with victims of frostbite for the camera, trying to pass off their dead comrades as enemies laid low. The pictures would fetch gallantry awards and possible promotion had some whistleblower not cried foul.

What does the Siachen dispute have to do with the common people? Nearly all the other issues being discussed between India and Pakistan involve the future of citizens on either side of the fence. Be they talks related to nuclear arsenals, or conventional military prowess, whether it is trade or visas, Sir Creek or cultural exchanges, Kashmir or terrorism, they all impact on the people one way or another. Siachen alone involves the future of the hapless troops.

Since soldiers are in any case at some level exploited human beings, used by a ruthless system which is not very different in our South Asian situation from the colonial days when men were dispatched to the far corners of the globe to die for the glory of the British throne, there is every reason to worry for them. There is also another incentive for the ordinary people to end the Siachen stalemate. It is taking a heavy toll on the environment.

On the other hand, be sure that not even two paisa saved from the billions of dollars being squandered on the madness would go to a school or a maternity clinic in a village in India or Pakistan, for that would be such an insult to the market economy — South Asia’s new holy cow.

So this is how the civilians have got involved in a campaign to ease the discomfort of the military. What has the military done for the citizens?

To begin with its track record in South Asia has been tainted with more blood of its own citizens than of any real or perceived enemy across the borders.

Check out India in Kashmir or in its north-eastern states and consider the preparations under way to assault the restive tribespeople of Chhattisgarh, while not forgetting the bloody sacrilege of the Golden Temple, which still torments memory.

Ditto for Pakistan. Balochistan perennially and the people generally, either directly or through the military’s proxies bred in a religious time warp, are examples of mindless targets of the military.

Take Nepal, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh and the latest entrant to Saarc, Afghanistan. And count the dead their armies have left behind within their own borders. In Sri Lanka’s case, Pakistan colluded militarily and India turned a blind eye to the wholesale rape and carnage of an ethnic minority by government troops.

It was Saleem Shahzad’s first death anniversary on May 31. He was another of the brave Pakistani journalists of whom so many have been killed or disappeared by the state, and not under military rule alone. Would the military help pursue and punish the guilty even if it finds one of its own complicit in the crime?

The new Indian army chief is a fine Sikh officer who has loudly proclaimed his secular belief at the start of his innings. Now it is his chance to also show that he is a just and caring man.

He has to find out the guilty and fix responsibility for the death in 1996 of Jaleel Andrabi. I used to meet the gentle, soft-spoken human rights lawyer in Srinagar during my reporting days in Kashmir in the 1990s. Andrabi’s body wasrecovered from the Jhelum with his eyes gouged out weeks after Major Avtar Singh of the Rashtriya Rifles took him away. A few days ago, the major was killed, apparently a case of suicide, after he allegedly shot dead his wife and two children andcritically injured a third child in their home in California.

The major’s presence in America came to light when he was detained last year briefly in a case of domestic violence. The major must have needed to declare his military past in his US visa application. Till it is found out who helped him escape justice and flee to America, both India and the US will be deemed as complicit in the crime.The generals on both sides of the border might want to heed the gentle call in John Donne’s lines. They inspired Ernest Hemingway’s novel about human souls caught in the vortex of war in Spain.

“No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

 

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