Exercise restraint

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In the spring of 1987, a team of academics from some prominent universities were taken on a visit of the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) based in Omaha, Nebraska. On the tour, the academics received a thorough briefing on every aspect of American preparedness for a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. They were led into the underground headquarters and showed how one could communicate with every missile silo and bomber base in America. At the end of the visit, the academics were finally taken on board the giant aircraft the U.S. President would use during a nuclear attack. The plan, they were told, provided for the President to lift off in the plane to escape the attack and continue to direct the war. The plane was jam-packed with communications gear and trailed a huge antenna so that the President could communicate even with a submarine commander submerged in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Everything was planned down to the last detail – and a trained crew of eighty stood ready to take to the skies at any time of day or night.

The tour followed a question-answer session and the team of academics started asking questions they wanted to ask. Willian Ury, one of the mediation specialists from Harvard Law School, who was also part of the visiting team, raised his hand and asked the guide, a Department of Defense official: “… If I were in the president’s shoes in the middle of a nuclear crisis, the first person I would want to talk to would be the Soviet premier so that we could figure out how to stop the war. Do you have a communications link on this plane to the Hot Line and a Russian translator on board?”

Obviously there was nothing of the sort on board the President’s plane or at the SAC headquarter. So, perturbed by this query, the Department of Defense official replied: “Communicating with the Russians is not ‘our’ job. It’s the job of the State Department.”

This same attitude is what we are witnessing when it comes to India and Pakistan. Even as it goes without saying that both the countries will have to talk if they really want to improve their relations, which is the only guarantee for peace in South Asia, there has been a disconcerting belligerence on their part vis-à-vis having communication channels open with each-other. Instead both countries seem to be talking with the ‘other’ through hawkish retired generals and war-mongering news anchors. In these war-rooms set up inside the TV studios, the former army generals and so-called security experts spew venom only to ensure some degree of post-retirement relevance for themselves. Similarly the owners of TV channels and their news anchors want to grab higher share of TRPs and hence advertising revenue. And for this they are escalating tensions without giving a damn about the destructive potentials and fallouts of war.

Ending hostilities is too important an aim and a task to be sacrificed to the whims of some hot-headed news anchors or some ex-generals and diplomats who certainly lack the extraordinary foresight and leadership qualities. Country’s interests as well as the prospects of peace cannot be made subservient to the abstract entity like jingoism or for that matter partisan interests of political parties. Talking is important and it becomes far more important when tensions are running high and chances of escalation are sharing in the eye. There are only two ways of dealing with it – one is to go for war, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt has put it, for it’s “the ultimate arbiter of differences among the nations”; and the other is to talk it out. This is a choice not only India and Pakistan will have to make. Can they afford to go for the “ultimate arbiter” by escalating their tensions to a level wherein bringing it down would cease to be in their control, or choose an alternative to coercion?  The choice, after all, should not be very difficult to make.

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