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Why Indians and Pakistanis Want a War
Most South Asians are too young to have experienced the horrors of the conflicts fought in the region. That’s one reason why they’re quick to clamor for one.
As the world’s media once again covers familiar flash points between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed states, one fact is often ignored: The populations of both countries have only a fading living memory of war. And that demographic fact not only explains the dangerous jingoism on both sides of the border, it also may end up pushing them closer to conflict.
The median age in India is just 28 years. In other words, half of all Indians were born after 1991. Pakistan is even younger. With a median age of 24, half of its population was born after 1995. What this means is that a majority of Indians and Pakistanis today were either too young to remember or not yet born when their countries last fought a war, in 1999. Nor will most people in either country remember the terrorist attack that took place on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi in December 2001, which led India to move its troops along its border with Pakistan.
A far smaller percentage of Indians and Pakistanis will have real memories of 1965, when the two countries fought a bloody war, or of 1971, when India helped turn East Pakistan into Bangladesh. For the first time in a generation, young people in both countries have grown up without knowing what a real war is, or the toll it can take on the economy and on the families of soldiers. The youth of both countries have also grown up smug in the knowledge that both sides have nuclear weapons—the two countries tested in quick succession in 1998—and that the presence of those missiles can deter all-out war. In the two countries’ jingoistic media, audiences are made to think of military confrontation as if it were a good game of cricket. The result is that the people on both sides are in the mood for a tournament.
Pakistani policy hasn’t helped matters. Ever since 1971, when India helped create Bangladesh and dealt a major blow to Pakistan, the Pakistani state has employed terrorism as a foreign-policy tool against India, sponsoring or training jihadi groups and helping them cross the border into Punjab or Kashmir. For most Indians today, India’s defining national moment is not 1965, 1971, or 1999, but 2008, when the Mumbai terror attacks rocked the country’s financial capital. It is now well documented that the attackers came to Mumbai from Pakistan. And those attacks, in which nearly 200 people were killed, have since been seen as India’s 9/11—even though India didn’t mount an analogous response. But patience is now wearing thin: A 2018 Pew Research survey found that 76 percent of Indians saw Pakistan as a threat, with 63 percent calling it a very serious threat.
Several polls support the theory that being tough on Pakistan works well with Indian voters. In 2016, another Pew survey found that 50 percent of Indians disapproved of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies on Pakistan. Later that year, 19 Indian army personnel died in a terrorist attack in the Kashmiri town of Uri. New Delhi responded with a cross-border raid across the so-called Line of Control between the two countries. Later, a national poll showed 86 percent of Indians endorsed the military action—despite the clear risk of escalation. The extrapolation for Modi’s government was clear: The people want toughness, no matter the risk.
The latest terrorist attack on the Indian military took place in February, in the Kashmiri town of Pulwama. In response, Indian fighter pilots crossed into Pakistani airspace to launch strikes across the border. Months later, in May, despite rising unemployment, voters endorsed Modi for a second term in power—being seen as tough and decisive had worked once again, no matter the risk of war.
Surveys show a growing appetite for military confrontation in Pakistan as well. A 2015 Pew poll found that 61 percent of Pakistanis rated India as a very serious threat—more than the 55 percent who gave the Taliban that designation. The same poll showed only a third of Pakistanis had unfavorable views of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. And a 2017 Pulse Consultant survey in Pakistan found 95 percent of respondents viewed India as Pakistan’s “worst enemy.” The election of Modi couldn’t have helped matters, given not only his reputation not only for being tough on Pakistan, but also his government’s statements and policies on Muslims.
The most recent tensions between India and Pakistan have been sparked once again over the disputed territory of Kashmir. On Aug. 5, when Modi announced the revocation of Indian-administered Kashmir’s autonomous status, the broad consensus across India was that it was a step in the right direction—despite the fact that the actions were taken without consulting the Kashmiri people or their politicians, and despite the curfew and internet shutdown India imposed on the state. Again, most Indians don’t remember a war over Kashmir—in their minds, Kashmir mainly represents a security problem that needs to be solved with bitter medicine. An entire generation of Indians has grown up with no consciousness of the wars of 1965 or 1971, but only of terrorism coming from or through Kashmir.
New Delhi’s move in Kashmir sent Islamabad into a tizzy. In a special session of Parliament, Pakistan’s opposition was so strident in its demand that the government respond strongly that Prime Minister Imran Khan asked in exasperation: “What do you want me to do? Attack India?” But later that month, Khan made that very threat in an essay in the New York Times: “If the world does nothing to stop the Indian assault on Kashmir and its people, there will be consequences for the whole world as two nuclear-armed states get ever closer to a direct military confrontation.”
Khan devoted a considerable portion of his Times article explaining the Hindu nationalist roots behind Modi and his party, as well as documenting crimes against Muslims, Christians, and Dalits in India. And Khan had said the previous week that “India has been captured … by a fascist, racist Hindu Supremacist ideology & leadership.” In Khan and Pakistan’s perception of Modi as a Hindu nationalist leader ideologically against Muslims, there is no room for rapprochement. But Pakistan can scarcely afford a war as it deals with the fallout of the failed Afghan peace talks, as well as its own considerable economic woes and debt, and so it has focused its narrative on how India has put 8 million Kashmiris under lockdown. Khan has also warned of “false flag” terrorist attacks in Kashmir or India—attacks that India might carry out itself as a way to blame Pakistan and spark war. Irrespective of who is responsible for the next attack—it is a question of when and not if—the ensuing finger pointing could lead tensions to boil over on both sides of the border.
News headlines in India are already preparing people for another war. One Hindi news channel advised its viewers how to deal with a nuclear attack: Take off your clothes and get inside a bath in a basement, it advised, since clothes could get infected by radioactive material. The media takes much of the blame for warmongering. But it’s not just the media’s fault: in an age where ratings drive advertising, and with advertising the main source of income for Indian television channels, news anchors are merely giving people what they want. And the people seem to want war.
The media in both countries are all too happy to follow the government line on the conflict. But this also allows both governments to use the media to claim their respective victories and ratchet down tensions. And in a mood of jingoism, the TV channels get higher ratings, no matter the facts. There’s also a new complication: Both countries have begun actively using social media for disinformation campaigns. We now have a bizarre situation where the Pakistani army’s spokesperson and Indian defense reporters reply to each others’ claims on Twitter. Social media is making it harder for the governments to control the narrative. Ultimately, that could prove to be a tipping point in an increasingly war-hungry climate.