War by other means

War by other means

In conversation with writer and academic Mona Bhan on militarisation and democracy in India in the wake of the Kargil War.
A memorial to Kargil's fallen.<br />Photo: Wikicommons / Ashoosaini2002
A memorial to Kargil's fallen.
Photo: Wikicommons / Ashoosaini2002

Nawaz Gul Qanungo (NGQ): India and Pakistan committed serious ceasefire violations along Kashmir's Line of Control (LoC) in 2013. Given the paucity of media coverage and the absence of independent sources, you've continued to have doubts over what was really happening between the two armies and why. Having spent years near the LoC and witnessed such escalations first hand, what are your impressions, and how do you see the recent escalations?

Mona Bhan (MB): Violent skirmishes are one way borders are made. In Kargil, routinised albeit theatrical events both justify the military's presence on the borders as well as transform spaces and places into national territory. In a region where borders are impossible to define – physically as well as socially and culturally – states resort to violence to 'make' borders. This can include shelling or even beheadings – both overt displays of state power and the ways states assert their sovereignty. So, while the brutality of such incidents is inexplicable, what is clear is the way statist media has used – and continues to use – these events to represent the 'enemy nation' as savage, barbaric and inhuman, characterisations that play a critical role in sustaining institutions of war and violence.

In Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India, instead of emphasising the geopolitical triggers behind crossborder 'skirmishes' (a word that I think trivialises the lived experience of crossborder violence), I talk about how village communities in Kargil view crossborder shelling: in their view, the intensive shelling during and after the Kargil war 'brought the border closer' since their access to highland pastures and other resources became severely limited. The border seemed closer in 1999 also because, unlike in previous wars in which technology wasn't as developed, new and sophisticated weaponry had collapsed the distance between 'home' and 'battlefront'. For many who seemed accustomed to such incidents, shelling was also seen as a way soldiers across the border announced their presence in order to prevent 'crossborder infiltrations'. Sometimes, crossborder shelling was seen as a 'play' between men who were excited to use their weapons or were simply bored. In other words, contrary to media representations that use such incidents to shore up nationalist fervour and generate support for aggressive foreign policies, for people on the border, such incidents – to an extent – depict the banality, and the boredom, of serving on the LoC.

NGQ: What are the meeting points between people's daily lives and the overwhelming levels of militarisation in Kargil and its surroundings that you talk about in the book? What kind of an interface are we looking at?

MB: There's an intense militarisation of life on the border, which means the military has become part of people's everyday life – from less organised activities like going to the army canteen to buy toothpaste or soap to more structured events in which the military organises bada khana for villagers to 'hear out their grievances'. Soon after the war of 1999, the economy also shifted dramatically. The transformation of people from shepherds (pajlus) to porters has been noticeable, a shift that has disrupted the existing division of labour between men and women, and thereby transformed existing codes of masculinity. All of this has become even more pronounced within the context of the Indian Army's Operation Sadhbhavna (Goodwill), a counterinsurgency strategy branded as 'heart warfare'.

During the Kargil war, the Indian army recruited local men to fight. For many young men, fighting the war was a rite of passage into adulthood and many were hired under the false pretext that their wartime enlistment was permanent, the hoax being part of a wider corpus of military stratagems that allowed the systemic exploitation of Ladakhi bodies and landscapes, creating a sustained and permanent geography of sacrifice on the border.

Scholars who study war upclose will tell you that the lines between war and peace are blurred; this is instantiated most clearly in Kargil where an economy geared toward war and war preparation has energised the military as an institution since the 1940s. There are villagers who are forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in safer areas. For instance, many folks from Kaksar live as refugees in Kargil. A villager once told me how being a border resident was even worse than being a beggar. Moreover, the intensification of conflict often also leads to the reinforcement of troops and weapons, transformation of local land for military use, and increased emphasis on defence and national security. These are all state imperatives that have disempowered democracy and rendered it profoundly ineffective. In Drass, for instance, people are yet to receive compensation for land that the military occupied in 1999. Likewise, Brogpas cannot access many of their highland pastures. Like many of their counterparts in Kargil they are still demanding compensation for their occupied land and resources.

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