It is difficult to imagine that in late September, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi challenged Pakistan to a war against poverty, a host of commentators were praising his strategic restraint. A few days later, the government went public with details of a raid along the border that it termed a surgical strike. Once again, there was no shortage of commentators who were lavish in their praise for Modi. In a column titled, “End of History, Beginning of History,” Shekhar Gupta, the former editor-in-chief of the Indian Express, identified the move as momentous and described the current government as one that saw “national benefit” in disrupting status quo.
It has since turned out that in the game of kabaddi that has been played out for decades between Indian and Pakistan across the Line of Control, this was but another raid. It is still not clear what the aims or objectives of this exercise were, so the question of asking whether it achieved its end does not arise. The beginning of a new history, if we are to believe Gupta, lay in the fact that we had decided to own up to this raid.
Security establishments across the world, obviously including the one in Pakistan, are well aware of the history of such raids between the two countries. Clearly, the Indian government’s messaging was not about ability or intent, it was about alerting ordinary citizens. By choosing to withhold any evidence that would independently confirm the raid, it became clear that this messaging was directed at citizens within the country, most of whom are always eager to buy into acts of self-assertion in a climate of heightened border tensions. It was unlikely that people elsewhere would buy the unsubstantiated claims of an alien government.
The immediate provocation for the raid seemed to have been the need to assuage the sentiment of the public, which had come to expect something other than business as usual, largely because of Modi’s rhetoric in the past. Since the announcement of the raid, the Bharatiya Janata party has fallen into a familiar pattern. Within days of the public statement, posters and hoardings extolling the surgical strike were plastered across Uttar Pradesh, which is due for elections next year. In Varanasi, Modi’s parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh, such posters depicted him as the Hindu god Rama, Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif as Rama’s nemesis Ravana, and Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, as Meghanad, Ravana’s son.
It was evident that this was not just the independent initiative of low-level party functionaries, particularly once it became known that Modi may not make an appearance at Delhi’s Ramleela for Dussehra, as is customary of all prime ministers, and will instead, travel to Lucknow to burn an effigy of Ravana. In fact, even as evacuation efforts were underway at the border villages in Punjab (the government of Punjab has since revoked the orders to evacuate the villages), Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, seemed to find the time to meet party workers in Lucknow and Agra, where he was felicitated by the BJP for the strike.
The internal impact of these raids has largely been ignored by most security analysts, who tend to see issues solely in terms of the strategic dynamic between India and Pakistan and have a poor understanding of what is unfolding within the country. Their analysis, thus, counts for little because the raids will do little to change the Indo-Pak interaction, but will have a considerable internal fallout.
Modi’s entire political career has been built on making Muslims the scapegoats for much that is wrong with India. In doing so, Pakistan has served as his shorthand for the Muslim threat. Since the time when Pervez Musharraf was not Musharraf but Mian Musharraf and Rahul Gandhi was not the yuvraj but the shahzada, to the recent speech in which Modi called on his party to not shun Muslims but to purify them, he has shown a consistency in following the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s line that sees Muslims as a contamination in India and Pakistan as a consequence of letting that contamination get out of hand.
So far, given their context, the Muslims in India have been among the most vocal in supporting the raids. But from this point on, as the BJP leverages the strike in the run-up to the UP election, its rhetoric will be anti-Muslim. During the national elections that brought Modi to power, the Muzzafarnagar violence served as a tool for majoritarian mobilisation by the BJP. Since then, the issue of cow slaughter has been used to keep communal issues alive under the guise of cow protection. When, in the wake of the border raid, the Parrikar compared the Indian Army to Hanuman, it was in keeping with this sentiment. It is no coincidence that shortly after, following the death anniversary of Mohammad Akhlaq—a 50-year-old man from Dadri who was beaten to death on the suspicion of storing beef in his house— the body of one of those who were accused of lynching him and had died of a medical ailment, was kept in a coffin draped in the tricolour because he was considered a protector of “Hindu values”.
The tactics of the Hindutva right in this country run parallel to what is happening with the right wing in the rest of the world. The conservatives under Theresa May after the Brexit in the UK, the Republican party under Donald Trump as he continues his surprising run in the presidential elections in the United States of America and the strengthening right wing mood in Europe have largely had an external focus—immigration —which is used to target diversity and minorities within the country. In India, Pakistan serves as the external focus, but is constantly used by the Hindutva right to target the large Muslim minority in the country.
This is the dynamic that has resulted in the deepening of the divide in India between the Hindu majority and the large Muslim minority at each stage of the political rise of Narendra Modi. The 2002 violence in Gujarat, abetted and condoned by the Modi administration, resulted in increased segregation not just in cities such as Ahmedabad within Gujarat, but even those outside the state such as Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. His national rise has also been built on utilising this divide to consolidate his voting base.
Ironically, as the terror strike in Uri was built into an existential threat, ignoring the fact that the large number of fatalities was a result of command error, the overall context of terror in the country was overlooked. As perceptive observers have noted, India’s greatest protection against the rising threat of Islamist terror has been the good sense of its Muslim minority, which has largely refused to cooperate either with Pakistan’s intent. This is why we never hear of a terror strike at an Army installation far from Jammu and Kashmir, or for that matter frequent ISIS-like attacks targeted at civilians, as in Europe.
The long-term danger lies in the fact that the current government’s attempts to win political mileage from the strike—which does little to change the Indo-Pak equilibrium—will undermine the internal coexistence that has largely kept us safe from the kind of terror that the ISI and the ISIS would ideally like to see in much of the country.
It is unsurprising that our analysts tend to ignore this fact. Even if we grant that individually, each of them may be sincere, the fact that the collective of these hawkish analysts consists mostly of Dasguptas, Maliks, Dhumes, Charis and Guptas, tells us why it is blind to what is happening to the minorities and the potential long-term security threat this poses. Pakistan remains a mere nuisance in comparison. The very muscular communal ideology of the current dispensation that these analysts extol is what is steadily weakening our ability to resist terror.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.