“Even though we knew we were fighting the enemy, we didn’t really feel any sense of national honour. All we wanted was warm clothes and reasonable food, and some strategising so that we were not turned into guinea pigs for our two governments”
– Soldier who fought in the Kargil War
Some weeks ago I was at Delhi airport waiting to board a flight to Nepal. Seated next to me in the lounge was a group of soldiers dressed in battle fatigues. Each one wore epaulettes on his shoulders that said simply: INDIA. Both our flights were late and after a while we got talking. Where were they going, I asked them. To Africa, on a peace-keeping mission. One was from Bihar, another from Punjab and a third was from Tamil Nadu. At some point I asked them how they felt about being part of a peacekeeping force. Were they proud to be part of such an ‘honourable’ activity? Did the fact that they were representing India make them in any way feel nationalistic? Did they feel they were doing something to serve the nation? I admit that my questions were loaded. I knew what I wanted to find out. But they replied readily enough. We’re in the kind of job, they said, where you have to follow orders and we’ve been ordered to go, so we are going. They weren’t particularly happy about being sent to Africa. It was the land of ‘habshis’, it didn’t have much to offer, and who knew what fate awaited them there? (The next week I learnt that 500 Indian soldiers were trapped in Sierra Leone and wondered if my airport companions were among them).
The man from Punjab had fought in the Kargil war (1998-99) with Pakistan. “We faced very tough conditions over there,” he told me, “but even though we knew we were fighting the enemy, we didn’t really feel any sense of national honour. All we wanted was warm clothes and reasonable food, and some strategising so that we were not turned into guinea pigs for our two governments.” Instead, they said, it was their wives who felt more nationalistic back in their villages — their homes were looked upon rather differently because they were homes whose men were out fighting for the country.
As I left to board my flight two seemingly unconnected thoughts passed through my mind: I realised that this was the second or third time in recent months that I had seen soldiers on their way to or from somewhere. They were getting to be a much more familiar sight in our lives than before: evidence of the greater closeness of war and conflict perhaps. I realised too that in the old days we believed that wars and battles were the domain of men. They went out to fight, to conquer or to protect the interests of the nation, and women stayed home, looking after the family, taking care of the home and hearth and occasionally providing backup services for the sick and wounded. This rather simple picture has become much more complex today. Unless they’re really driven by some strong nationalistic feeling – and this is increasingly difficult in this day and age, except in rare cases – men don’t really want to play the role of fighting for the motherland. And women are much more deeply implicated in wars and political conflicts than just as wives and mothers and nurturers of the sick and wounded.
It was what the soldiers at the airport said about their wives that set me thinking about this. Until now, the narratives of war and conflict we have had construct all women as innocent civilians and all men as combatants, with little exception. And yet, as we see all around us today, between these two binaries lies a whole complex reality, which shows how women and men are touched by war and conflict in different ways.
We don’t need to look very far to see this: our own, supposedly peaceable country provides enough examples. Traditionally, India has not been seen as a region of conflict, and there is, of course, a fair amount of truth in this for India has not been driven by conflict in the way that Rwanda, Guatemela, Cambodia or Eritrea (to name just a few) have. But you only need to scratch the surface and this façade of peacefulness very quickly disappears. In the last several years we have seen the escalation of different kinds of political conflict all over the country: war at one international border, continuing tension at others, military, ethnic, communal, caste and other sorts of conflicts within; the growth of militancy and sub-nationalist movements, increases in weaponisation, the greater visibility of the armed forces and, most recently, the dangerous posturing over nuclear power. The danger signals are clear to those who care to see.
War and conflict are everywhere: in newspapers and magazines, in films, in shops which sell ‘Kargil suits’ for young boys, in books and essays and even in weddings with thermocol cut-outs celebrating the Kargil victory forming the setting for tent-house marriages and even birthday parties! Not a day passes without reports of insurgency, police ‘encounters’, violations of human rights, abductions and rapes – all in the context of increasing conflict. Films about conflict (e.g. Border) draw huge crowds. Even publishers – usually a bit slow to rise to the occasion – have not lagged behind and there are a number of new books that deal with war and conflict in India in recent years. These are important in what they tell us, and in the possible solutions they suggest. It’s clear that conflicts today are very modern conflicts, fought not only with an arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, but also with words and pictures, using the media, with arguments and discussions. They’re battles over territory, sovereignty, homeland, power and above all, control, not only of resources, but also of that age-old thing, the mind.
These realities emerge very clearly in a recent spate of books on war and conflict. The first of these, Guns and Yellow Roses, has journalists reporting on the Kargil war, and we see here the terrible pointlessness and waste that war brings. In a similar vein, On the Abyss: Pakistan After the Coup, a collection of essays (once again journalistic) examines the recent past and the possible future of Pakistan, with one essay making a plea for India to be more tolerant because of its larger size and strength. Then there is Raj Chengappa’s book, mysteriously called Weapons of Peace in which he recreates the steps that led to India’s nuclear tests in May 1999 and you see how politics and political balancing acts enter the picture. In a densely argued book George Perkovich makes an analysis of the global impact of India’s nuclearisation (India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation). These are supplemented by Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik’s masterly work, South Asia on a Short Fuse, which makes an impassioned plea for sense, and lays bare the dangerous consequences of nuclearisation not only for India and Pakistan but for all of South Asia.
For many years feminists have argued that the pictures they saw of war and conflict were purely male ones, pictures that were not sex differentiated. Where were the women? Today, we can no longer make such arguments: we do see both men and women, and also children, when we see images of people affected by conflict.