Justifying violence

IssueJune - Aug 2003
Comment by Beena Sarwar

The most dangerous form of violence in South Asia is arguably the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan. It colours the statements made by the leaders of both countries and strengthens the extreme right wing in both countries, which feeds off and thrives on the fanaticism of its counterparts next door.

The rhetoric of war, whether it is made by George Bush, Ariel Sharon, Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Pervez Musharraf, gives the cue to these elements to indulge in more violence, and justify it with the rhetoric of religion, patriotism, or nationalism.

Mr Vajpayee's recent “hand of friendship” is, finally, a move away from the tension that has engulfed the region since 9/11, and particularly since the US-led attack on Iraq. It is to be hoped that the Pakistani leadership will respond in kind.

The saber-rattling of Indian and Pakistani leaders had reached a dangerous level in the past months. Furthermore, there was increasing insecurity in the region since the US-led attack on Iraq as the question of “who's next on the list?” started doing the rounds.

Paranoid? Or not?

Many observers have dismissed as irrational the fear that Pakistan could be “next” (as long as it toes the line, as it has been doing), but it is interesting that this fear is not limited to Pakistan, where it is a hot topic, as borne out by letters to the editor and TV talk shows. Surprisingly, there are similar apprehensions in next-door India too.

A “very strange phenomenon” is taking place there, apparently propelled by fear of the US, notes Deepa Kandaswamy of Kerala, India, writing in the web discussion list at Blueear.com. “The press is already talking about India Next (paranoid or not), and this seems to bring India together.” She lists the reasons behind this fear, then concludes: “Hindu fanatics who were pro-war because it was anti-Islam as they saw it during the first week are now anti-war and pro-Islam openly! There is also a leaning towards Be Indian, Buy Indian, the swadeshi mentality - and even the far right are slowly turning centrist or at times weirdly leftist and/or conservative.”

India and Pakistan were until now busy deflecting such an attack, arguing that the other country is a “fit case for a pre-emptive strike”, and calling on the US to attack it. But both government's urgings prompted a cool response from the world's most powerful country - instead, the White House dished out some sensible counter-advice about sorting out problems through dialogue and diplomacy (we won't here get into the argument that its chief inhabitant refuses to follow this course). The US's refusal to rise to the bait (South Asia is the other direction from Iraq/Syria, and besides, we don't have oil) did not initially stop either government from continuing to brandish their metaphorical swords. (The aggression of India's foreign minister Yashwant Sinha paled in comparison to the belligerence of Pakistan's Information minister Sheikh Rasheed, who would win any uncouthness contest hands down for his rude “Bakwas band karo”, barked out at a public rally in Lahore and aimed across the border - where it promptly landed, thanks to private television channels).

International pressure had to be stepped up, despite the diversion provided by Iraq, since these threatening postures could not be dismissed as just so much rhetoric, all sound and fury signifying nothing. If there was even a small chance that they would escalate into more than just verbal abuse, the stakes were too high, and the dangers too great, to ignore. Military experts and peaceniks alike have often warned that any future war between these nuclear-armed neighbours will not remain limited to “conventional” warfare.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric and irresponsible statements aimed at each other, reported constantly by the media, contributed to the escalation of tensions and violence between both countries and within their borders.

Diverting finances

Sadly, violence has become part our daily discourse, internalised and accepted as a norm. Constant talk of war eventually gives the impression that war is inevitable, that there are no other options, thus reducing the pressure to seek other options. The discourse of violence dictates terms in our region, justifying increased military spending, and diverting finances from vital areas like poverty alleviation, food, housing, healthcare, education and social infrastructures - the real issues faced by the people.

Of course, this happens not just in our region. Bush's war may end up costing the US up to $200 billion. This is in addition to the current Pentagon budget of $355 billion - which dwarfs the $40 billion allocated for children's health care, $34 billion for children's education, and $29 billion for affordable housing.

It is not just finances that are diverted - also diverted is people's attention. As Arundhati Roy put it when she visited Karachi last year, when governments talk of war they force activists to digress from the fight for social justice and political rights - such as the fights against big dams and evictions, for the rights of landless peasants, for equality and human dignity.

The impact goes beyond the activists. American businessman Ben Cohen - who co-founded Ben and Jerry's ice-cream as well as the activist website TrueMajority.com - puts it like this: “The continued belligerence of our leaders saps our souls, saps our spirit, and saps our strength as a nation.”

“Collateral damage”

No religion preaches violence, or justifies taking innocent lives. Yet, religion is routinely invoked by extremists - on either side of the border - who justify their violence on some righteous pretext or other. A horrific example is that of a serial killer who targeted sex workers in Gujranwala, near Lahore, some months back. When interviewed in prison by Geo TV, he showed no remorse.

Instead, he justified his actions by saying that he was only following “Allah's orders” in order to stop these women from their immoral way of life. “I did not aim to kill but to disable their bodies,” he said, “If any of them died, that was fate - their time had come.” His statements eerily echo the stand taken by US president George W Bush & Co as they geared up for the attack on Iraq and the inevitable loss of civilian lives. This is not to suggest that the murderer was influenced by Bush or vice versa, but it does illustrate how wrongdoers justify their illegal actions with self-righteous invocations to “God's will” and how the loss of innocent lives is put down to some kind of “collateral damage”.

This is how the unjustifiable is justified. Those who raped and killed in Gujarat also found some way to justify their violence, and place the onus on the victim (“If Saddam had left Iraq, his people would have been spared the suffering of being bombed”). Those who threw hand grenades in Pakistani churches and killed innocent people, similarly must have developed some kind of argument justifying their actions and enabling them to live with themselves after taking innocent lives.

Can't bomb the world to peace

The axioms that violence begets violence, and that it does not pay in the long run, mean nothing to those driven to desperation by tyranny and occupation, or to those who believe that killing a non-believer will win them a ticket to paradise. Least of all do they resonate with those who gain financially from violence, like the contractors and oilmen who are “re-constructing” Iraq and “securing” its resources. (Amusingly, peace activists are writing to Halliburton's chief executive asking him to donate the profits from reconstructing Iraq to charity in order to disprove allegations that his company is a war profiteer!)

Some also argue that when all else fails, violence is the only way to get rid of unwanted despots, whether Taliban or Saddam Hussein (both friends and partners of the US until not so long ago). Certainly, many Iraqis and Afghans are grateful to be rid of their oppressors - but their answer may have been different had they been given a choice between being bombed and destroyed, and having to endure the Taliban or Saddam Hussein for another decade.

In the long run, the people of the world - and the US - will pay a heavy price for the belligerence of Bush and his war-hungry cohorts. As one peace demonstrator wrote on a banner at the Karachi Arts Council at an Artists Against War event on 7 April, “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb the world to peace”.