India and Pakistan Are Already at War on Truth
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the predawn hours on Feb. 26, India launched an aerial attack -- unprecedented in peacetime -- on neighboring Pakistan, in retaliation for a suicide bombing 12 days earlier that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers in the disputed valley of Kashmir. Pakistan predictably responded the next morning with its own air strike into Indian-controlled Kashmir.
The confrontation could spiral out of control quickly. But fortunately, apart from a wounded Indian pilot and a Pakistani villager hit by falling rubble, the only confirmed casualty so far seems to be truth. Right now, the more extensive and damaging war in South Asia is the multi-pronged assault on reality by the warriors of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and hyper-nationalist news channels as well as mendacious governments.
India’s public sphere was the first to erupt with war cries. “Mess with the best,” declared one aged Bollywood action hero on Twitter, “die like the rest.” Even the few commentators ostensibly wary of Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, succumbed to patriotic bloodlusts. India’s leading television channels vied with each other in urging more bombings and broadcasting transparently fake footage of the attack.
As this war porn went viral, it was hard not to feel déjà vu. A similarly murky “surgical strike” by Indian forces in retaliation for a 2016 terrorist attack in Kashmir also incited a euphoric unanimity -- though it achieved nothing, apart from an abysmal Bollywood tribute. Enraptured by #surgicalstrike2 (the trending Twitter hashtag), far too many powerful and influential Indians appear determined to give war a chance. These smartphone bombardiers were shockingly incapable of grasping a simple fact -- that assaulting hills and dales deep in Pakistani territory would do nothing to forestall more terrorist attacks in Kashmir while guaranteeing Pakistani escalation.
The key to such wildly delusional behavior lies, as does much else, in broad and radical shifts in Indian politics, communication technologies and self-perceptions. Many Indians have found themselves ushered by digital media into a frantic realm of hyperreality -- one in which extreme feelings and continuously simulated experiences replace the obdurately dull facts of real life.
Read more: Avoiding Catastrophic Conflict in South Asia
While a jingoistic mass media brazenly dissembles, social media offers easy escape to many from deep feelings of inadequacy into grandiose notions of self and nation. Having a skillful self-publicist in power has only accelerated a stunningly widespread descent in India into self-aggrandizing fantasy.
A deft hand at social media, Modi has triumphantly worked with the assumption that, as Hannah Arendt wrote in “Lying in Politics,” “half of politics is ‘image-making’ [and] the other half is the art of making people believe the image.”
Indeed, abject economic failures during his nearly five years in power have rendered Modi desperate to make voters believe in images of his martial prowess, especially as he faces challenges in upcoming general elections. Hence, his government’s savage crackdown on Kashmir, where violence has dramatically spiked in recent months, and now India’s equally unprecedented shock-and-awe attack on Pakistan.
But, as the pointless “surgical strike” of 2016 already proved, fantasies of spectacular violence won’t change the reality on the ground. Certainly, Kashmiris, especially brutalized at home during Modi’s reign and now exposed to lynch-mob fury across India, will continue to produce young militants. And Pakistan’s pathologically India-obsessed security establishment has already seized the opportunity to further raise the threshold of escalation.
The cruel lesson from recent days for Modi and his reckless cheerleaders should be clear: They have catastrophically lost a sense of reality while replacing political processes -- in Kashmir and with Pakistan -- with image-making.
Writing about systemic American deception during the Vietnam war, which included “phony body counts” and “doctored after-damage reports,” Arendt marvelled at how “image-making” for domestic consumption came to replace clearly defined military and diplomatic goals. The aimless bombing turned into an attempt for “a superpower to create for itself an image” which would convince everyone that it was indeed a superpower and could do whatever it liked.
Deception in this case was not just a by-product of the fog of war; it became a shared objective. The mass media manufactured images to sell the war to ordinary citizens; the politicians and strategic experts waged war in order to bolster those images.
The result of directing all efforts to project a mere image of great power was, of course, a profound disconnect with the realm of objective facts. The U.S. failed for too long even to acknowledge, let alone learn from, devastating failures of policy on the ground.
In India’s case, the habitual deceivers were always likely to end up deceiving themselves more harmfully. For, if superpowers such as the U.S. have big heads, aspiring or thwarted superpowers have even bigger heads -- and much more tender egos. Insulted, they are prone to take bigger risks with their image-making. And they continue to miscalculate until it is too late.
History has shown, from Vietnam to shock-and-awe campaigns in Iraq, that image-making through violence belongs, as Arendt wrote, “in the huge arsenal of human follies recorded in history.” It is, ominously, the tactic that Modi, unmoored from real-world objectives and goals and trapped by his own bellicose rhetoric, has deployed against a nuclear-armed neighbor. One can only hope, as Pakistan predictably retaliates, that he knows when to stop.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”
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