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Cover Story: General Election 2019

Modi’s Tryst With Militarism

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The Balakot air strikes, which are paying electoral dividends now, were a result of Modi’s clear comprehension of public anger and a new nationalism forged after the Kargil War

ON FEBRUARY 26TH, 2019, IN A PRE-DAWN air strike on the terror factory of the Jaish-e- Mohammad at Jabba Top hill, Balakot, Indian Air Force’s Mirage 2000 fighter jets dropped 1,000-kilo powerful precision bombs with penetration warheads, killing many jihadis. Within seven minutes, they were back from deep within Pakistani territory. BJP President Amit Shah later tweeted that it clearly demonstrated new India’s resolve and determination. It showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to take a bold risk and send a telling message to a neighbour who, over decades, has been bleeding India slowly through repeated terror strikes, confident that she would be forced to the negotiating table, hands tied.

The Balakot air strike was a radical new chapter in India’s relations with a terror-sponsoring government in Islamabad, leading to far-reaching results. Modi called the nuclear bluff that had fettered previous governments in New Delhi. It was not surprising that the Balakot air strike would resonate through the nation weeks later during the General Election campaign, played out in many different ways during Modi’s stump speeches.

Weeks after the air strike, addressing thousands of first- time voters, Modi appealing to the youth, cajoled, “Can your first vote be dedicated to those who carried out the air strike? Can you dedicate your first vote to the veer jawan, the veer shaheed who died in the Pulwama terror attack?” The message was clear: dedicate your vote to the ruling party that had the spine to avenge the deaths of the martyred soldiers. In contrast to his own demonstrated boldness, there was utter confusion in the ranks of the opposition parties. It was a body blow to their campaign focusing on many charges directed at Modi. He was three steps ahead with every twist and turn in the reaction of his opponents—jibing, aiming, attacking and questioning the way they were dishonouring security forces by demanding proof of the numbers dead. With public opinion firmly behind him, Modi jumped ahead on the popularity charts. Every Indian was invested with the honour of a bold warrior in a fell stroke. With Balakot, Modi successfully weaponised this election and authored a decisive epilogue on the battle for “the soul of India”.

In the days after the Pulwama terrorist attack in which 40 CRPF troopers died, ‘analysis’ of a strange kind began appearing in the press, instead of looking at the reasons for the attack and its possible consequences for the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) situation. One article dissected the caste-composition of those who died, claiming that only 5 out of the 40 of those killed, or 12.5 per cent, were from upper castes while 31 were from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. The intent of this argument was clear: men from underprivileged backgrounds had been sacrificed at the altar of Hindu nationalism.

A caste-wise break up of those killed in a terrorist attack is historically misleading. The composition of India’s armies and the reasons for their particular make up has been the subject of scholarly studies for long. While little is certain of ancient Indian armies, the nature of later armies, especially from the Mughal times is better known. The British Indian army and that of independent India are even more closely studied. What emerges is that caste is only one aspect of military manpower in India.

Historically, two key factors have determined the nature and composition of India’s armies. One, geographic/ecological and two, the market for military labour. Much of what is visible in contemporary settings owes its origins to these factors. The Dutch historian Jas Gommans in his study Mughal Warfare (2002) points to the two zones of India—arid and monsoonal— with very different organisation of agriculture. In monsoonal India—mostly the western coast of India, a part of the eastern coast in south India, basically the two ghat areas and the bulk of eastern India—multiple crops were the norm. This led to little, if any, manpower being surplus or available for other occupations. In arid India, in contrast, a single annual crop was routine. As a result, after agricultural operations were over, a vast pool of labour, basically a melange of peasant castes, began hunting for work. It was this pool, as diverse as upper-caste Rajputs, middling castes and the vast bulk of the peasantry that technically belonged to the bottom varna, which formed the reservoir of military labour.

The dual focus on nationalism and the sacrifice of security forces is at the roots of the Modi government's decision to carry out the air strike on the terror training factory at Balakot, ignoring the nuclear blackmail that had shackled previous Indian governments

The second reason is closely linked to this aspect of available armed men. India was a ‘sellers’ market for military labour. There was literally no shortage of men ready to bear arms. Later reasons of policy are another matter but this was a structural reason why India never had conscript armies where people were forced to devote a part of their life to military service. The same reason makes it absurd to claim that people have been forced to serve a particular ideal. For a very long time, Indian men have become soldiers for the simple reason that it affords them work opportunity in an otherwise work-scarce environment. In independent India, this changed but the historical rhythm has persisted.

This also had far-reaching implications for the stability of the Mughal Empire and, to a lesser degree, British colonial rule. Gommans argues that the stability of the empire required that this military manpower had to be monopolised as much as possible. This was essential to prevent any real or potential rivals from presenting an armed threat to the empire. In this, caste was only of secondary importance. He notes that, ‘The extent to which Indian society was an armed society may be gathered from the many travel accounts that speak of a countryside that was ‘protected’ by a multitude of armed bands and studded with little forts or fortified temples. Whether peasant, artisan or trader, it appears that almost every Indian male had some kind of experience with arms and combat, either as a part- or full-time soldier.’ This is a far cry from theories that say only upper castes had a monopoly on bearing arms.

The result was that local notables like zamindars, whose armed retinue comprised not just cavalry and armed troopers, but also peasants and artisans, had to be—willy-nilly— part of the ruling apparatus: without them, their men would automatically be available to anyone who bid for them.

It is against this background that the various rebellions that broke out in 18th century Mughal India should be seen. The rebellion in 1669 of Gokul Jat of Mathura has been viewed as a ‘Hindu rebellion’ against Aurangzeb. That is true but another part of the story, based on what Gommans has analysed, is that the Mathura doab area was ‘free’ of any imperial service. What originally began as a skirmish with imperial officers in 1669 had by the end of that year turned into a full-blown confrontation with the Mughal emperor. In the end after a bloody battle near Tilpat, not far from Delhi, the Jat army was defeated and Gokul was hacked to pieces. Technically, Gokul belonged to the lowest varna. He and his men were not forced by anyone to pick arms but did so, on their own volition.

The Satnami rebellion of 1772, again during Aurangzeb’s time in the area that is currently Haryana, was of such intensity that some of the highest-ranking officers of the empire had to be dispatched to quell the ‘disturbance’. The caste composition of this group was similarly of a low or a middling nature.

As a comparison, one can cite the story of Kuyili, a Dalit woman commander of queen Velu Nachiar in the Sivaganga area of Tamil Nadu. Queen Velu’s story of resistance against British colonialism with help from Hyder Ali, is the stuff of legends. But it is less well-known that her commander Kuyili—regarded by some as the first suicide bomber in the subcontinent—sacrificed her life at a key moment in battle so that her queen could wrest back her kingdom. This story, from arid India, conforms to Gommans’ theory about military manpower in India.

These deep rhythms of history continue to have resonance in independent India as well. The British organised their army on the basis of the discredited ‘martial races’ theory. But in reality, this manpower often came from those regions and districts of India where surplus agricultural manpower often looked to a military career as an economically viable option. In modern India, regimental structures based on regions and castes have been retained and are the bugbear of ‘secular’ intellectuals for allegedly keeping caste as an organising principle. Of late, this theory has been inverted to say that lower castes are ‘cannon fodder’ for upper castes. Historically, all this is misinformed.

The Kargil conflict has often been referred to as India’s first ‘middle-class war’ and rightfully so. It was the first ‘war’ in post- economic liberalisation India that connected directly to and brought up close and personal notions such as valour, courage and patriotism to classes that, cutting a broad swathe across castes, had economically progressed enough to insulate themselves.

Reflected through small screens, news of the soldiers and officers who lost their lives in the Kargil conflict invigorated, re-packaged and democratised patriotism in a neo-liberal environment. Analysts also contend that the developments surrounding the Kargil conflict—defined by some as India’s unstated third war with Pakistan—allowed Indians to re-craft their identity as both intellectual and courageous, ready to sacrifice physically for their country.

The massive processions countrywide post-Pulwama and the throngs at the funeral sites of martyred troops show that muscular nationalism is no longer an exclusivist domain of the upper class or caste. And Modi has fine-tuned that sentiment beyond what prevailed during the Kargil war

The trickle-down effects of the intermediary classes owning nationalistic fervour meant a resurgence in acknowledging and honouring soldiers down the pecking order in military ranks too. Military masculinity and nationalism enjoyed a massive revival after the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan. This wave received a fillip with the compensation dispensed to several families of the armed forces personnel, the Kargil memorials and gates erected in memory of those ‘martyred’. The word ‘martyred’ itself gained more common coinage as bodies reached homes across India to resounding cries of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, a slogan promoted aggressively by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Subliminally, these developments forged a resurging sense of democratised nationalism countrywide, cutting across caste and class.

The higher numbers of CRPF jawans from the so-called lower castes and poorer families among those who died in the Pulwama terror attack may have been coincidental. But one thing was distinctly clear: the recruitment process in the country for the security forces is organised along democratic lines and had reached out to all social groupings and geographical areas.

Nor would it be factual to assume that all reform movements, whether nationalist or social, were purely upper-caste phenomenon. While many started as one, the passage of time focussed on adherents lower down the social ladder. In fact, the abiding strength of many of these reformist movements were judged by the popular support that strengthened them. Even the freedom movement began as resistance by lawyers and professionals from the upper class. Globally too, this has been the case. Just as in the struggle for societal reform and freedom movement, nationalism is now swaying a large social mass.

In terms of both political and socio-cultural consciousness, the vigour of this democratised nationalism has only grown stronger in the Modi era. The massive processions countrywide post-Pulwama and the throngs at the funeral sites of martyred troops show that muscular nationalism is no longer an exclusivist domain of the upper class or caste. And Modi has fine-tuned that sentiment beyond what prevailed during the Kargil war to forge a new nation defined sharply by an elevated pan-India sentiment of nationalism.

In contrast to the 90s, what is resounding in the aftermath of the Pulwama massacre and, more particularly, post the Balakot air strike, are the slogans of a new, united nation. The Hindi movie industry, despite being scoffed at by liberals and intellectuals, has had a key role to play in forging this neo-nationalism. With its wide reach, Bollywood, in sync with the armed forces and the growing confidence of a vernacular elite, is ensuring that the nationalist constituency is no longer intimidated by the liberal elite’s cosmopolitan veneer. Against that canvas, nationalism has far more resonance than the commentariat’s take on the futility of waging war and incessant calls for generosity towards an implacable force like Pakistan.

Gommans has rightly argued that the subcontinent was for centuries a considerably militarised society. While state- approved history may have air-brushed the many million cuts and wounds inflicted over time on the subcontinent as a civilisation, the demolitions of temples, the colonial invasions, the cultural oppression, all of these remain etched indelibly in the psyche of the people and persist in the muscle memory, as it were, of communities. Subaltern studies in campuses like the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi may not showcase this but vernacular literature and culture, folk tales, legends and music are saturated with stories of a people grossly wronged and continue to remain a living testament to the oppression.

HE PREACHING of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on non-violence notwithstanding, a large section of the country considers it desirable to use military means to achieve national good. That has been accelerated by circumstances. The Kargil conflict was itself one such, when the Pakistan Army transgressed our borders and prompted Indian forces to respond. The idea of martyrdom found itself on a pedestal in its wake, venerating and legitimising sacrifice. Modi added to it by ringing in better service conditions for soldiers, like accepting the long-standing demand of OROP (One Rank, One Pension) and repeatedly according public credit to their duties.

The dual focus on nationalism and the sacrifice of security forces are at the roots of the Modi Government’s decision to carry out the air strike on the terror training factory at Balakot, ignoring the nuclear blackmail that had shackled previous Indian governments. He discovered space below the threshold, similar to the action taken by the US Navy Seals on Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad, to retaliate against Pakistan. Despite the very real and even terrifying risk of an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, vast sections of the country backed the action against Pakistan. The air strike undermined Pakistan’s strategic calculation that constant terror strikes would force New Delhi to the negotiating table.

Having been a grassroots worker from his RSS pracharak days, Modi has a keen sense of public anger and the realisation that Indians have both the stomach and the stamina to face risks when it came to national interest and pride. In the aftermath of the Pulwama massacre, the public mood, while counting its dead, was one that cried for revenge. It was a rage that Modi deciphered clearly. He acted disregarding advocacy on the need for strategic support, firm in the belief that the vast majority supported him.

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