“I prefer the most unjustest peace to the justest war that ever was waged” (Cicero, Letter to Atticus)
Cicero was very perceptive when he said these words, because he was living during one of the bloodiest periods of Roman history. He had seen violence at close quarters. Those who have been in the middle of events in a brutal war have witnessed some of the ugliest dimensions of human nature. They ask themselves from time to time whether they had ceased to be human beings for a brief while. It is the nastiest question one can ask oneself.
Honouring battle heroes have often become a stratagem that war leaders far away from the front use to deceive the general public and incite young fighting men to become cannon fodder. Asoka said after the Kalinga war, ‘I deeply regret’ the deaths I have caused and the sufferings I have imposed. Our civilization is built on that discovery: Dharma alone counts. The echoes of this message reached the Chinese court and the Japanese shores.
Veterans soldiers (of Vietnam or Afghanistan) wake up at night with horror, not so much thinking about the dangers they had faced, as about the beastly devastation they had inflicted on others. No wonder, then, as a war moves to a conclusion, the entire population shouts, “No more again, no more!” It is an echo of Asoka’s grief.
But human memory is short. We had heard of such cries as the World Wars came to a close, as the Korean and Vietnam Wars ended, after the Balkan bloodbath came to a grinding halt. But the reverberations of those cries grow faint in a short time and are heard no more when other ambitions rise in society and other grievances pile up. The events are not forgotten, but the emotional burden of those who went through lengthy suffering caused by war is not effectively handed down to serve as an educative memory. Philosophic wisdom based on centuries of human experience is coolly set aside.
Populist spokespersons who seem to address immediate issues in aggressive language win the attention of the crowds. Over a century ago, The Futurist Manifesto of the Italian nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio (1909) read thus “We want to glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the anarchist, the beautiful ideas for which one dies...”
This is a text that inspired Hitler and Mussolini. Today it would sound like a demented statement. But in those days it thrilled hundreds thousands of disoriented youth in Europe, who often verged on being anti-social elements in society, much like the cow-vigilantes, lynching-mobs and Hindutva brigades of our own days. These constituted highly inflammable human material that could be used by mob-manipulators and leaders who subtly managed public thinking (mann ki baat).
Vinayak Damodar Sarvakar had many masters. His prison library included Treitsche, Herbert Spencer, and Giuseppe Mazzini, all calling for aggressive self-assertion. He had a personal admiration for Richard Wagner who emphasized the need for an enemy to develop an identity of the ‘self.’ Savarkar wrote “Nothing makes the Self conscious of itself so much as a conflict with (the) non-self. Nothing can weld peoples into a state as the pressure of a common foe. Hatred separates as well as unites.”
For Savarkar the minorities in India constituted the enemy. It is struggling against this enemy that the Hindurashtra could emerge strong. For some today, the enemy may be a neighbouring country. In either case, the Savarkar formula is suicidal to the nation.
Wizards in mass-psychology know the advantage of projecting an enemy, building up a sense of victimhood, creating a moment of collective anxiety. That sets the climate for assuming ‘special powers.’ That is what happened all through human history. In situations of danger someone in society assumed (or was given) special powers: the judges in Israel, the tyrannus in Greece, the dictator in Rome, citizen Napoleon in France, il duce in Italy, Fuhrer in Germany, Comrade Stalin in Soviet Union, the Great Helmsman (Mao) in China. Do we need to grow anxious that someone specially gifted in symbolic action and morale-boosting techniques may be preparing the ground for assuming special powers in India? Where is the nation being led?
Chinese leadership has used its exceptional economic performance to justify the exercise of absolute authority. Though all in China would not agree, there was a certain amount of tacit acceptance of this favourable reality. Indian leadership is trying its best to show a measure of achievement, if not in the field of economy, at least in the area of political manipulation: purchasing MLAs, welcoming turncoats, commissioning vigilantes, empowering MPs to beat up airlines personnel with their slippers.
Dictatorship has already begun, when the most illiterate vigilante can order the most illustrious intellectual to sing the Vande Mataram at his whim and shout Bharata Mata ki Jai at his order.
“Not in our name,” shout many honest citizens.
“With a divided society we cannot confront a common enemy,” cry others. “Seeking to impose Hindutva on Kashmir, they seem to have led things to a point of no return. Cow fervour has alienated more than a third of the Indian population ( dalits and Muslims).”
“Take on China in a stimulating economic competition,” say some sober-minded citizens.
“World Powers in Europe collapsed with World War II and became non-entities,” point out historical observers. “Asia will collapse before it rises,” they add.
“Europe destroyed itself during the 20th century, Asia is preparing to destroy itself even as the 21st century is just beginning,” mourn others.
“The greatest beneficiaries from a war will be the weapons-makers,” comment cynics. India has been the biggest purchaser of arms in the world for some years, they remind us.
“Europe lost more than 70 million people during the last century; if India and China go to war with nuclear weapons, they are going to lose hundreds of millions,” many conclude with a sense of horror.
“A serious war may break up the two nations,” caution prophets of doom, “even the names ‘India’ and ‘China’ may become mere geographic expressions. It will take generations before East Asia and South Asia will recover.”
But one question may be asked at this time. “Who has the right to drag three billion people into a mortal conflict over the possession of a few yards of territory?” Such an earth-shaking decision is not the same as horse-trading with MLAs or waiving farmers’ loans or raising diesel prices. It is playing brinkmanship with the future of two mighty civilizations. It is setting at naught two immensely rich human heritages. It is the rejection of all that is precious in human thinking. War is crime.(Published on 14th August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 33)