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McDharma: A pre-existing love affair with American culture, combined with admiration for America's war on terrorism, has given India even more reason to declare war on Pakistan.

War to Go, Please

Peaceful past aside, India wants in on America's international war against terrorism, starting with the country next door

By Marisa Handler

DELHI, INDIA--India, as Indians are quick to attest, is a historically peaceful nation. It has never initiated a war, but only responded to aggression--as in its three wars with Pakistan, in 1948, 1965 and 1971, and the proxy war waged by Islamic militants in Kashmir since the mid-'90s.

However, the impact of Sept. 11 in America, combined with India's belief that Pakistan is harboring Islamist militants, has shifted the national perspective when it comes to Pakistan to a combative course. "It is time for India to take action," says Govinda Arora, owner of a bookstore in Jaipur. "Right is right. We have put up with too much."

India has been amassing troops and weapons along the border with Pakistan since Dec. 13, following a suicide-squad attack on the Indian Parliament in Delhi. Half of its army of 1 million is currently deployed there, and nuclear-capable, short-range ballistic missiles have been moved within close proximity.

After five months of heavily armed tension, few observers are surprised that artillery exchanges finally erupted, resulting in casualties on both sides of the conflict.

"I'm worried," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview, noting that he had been in touch with Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf. "We should be worried."

In a speech given earlier this year, on Jan. 11, India's army chief, Gen. S. Padmanabhan, declared that India would not initiate a nuclear conflict. If, however, India was attacked with a nuclear weapon, "the perpetrator of that particular outrage shall be punished so severely that their continuation thereafter in any form of fray will be doubtful." Both India and Pakistan wield hefty nuclear arsenals.

When it comes to Kashmir, there is very little diversity of opinion in India, a nation of more than a billion: Kashmiri militants are trained and funded by Pakistan's ISI (the equivalent of the CIA) in a stubbornly aggressive attempt to annex Kashmir to Pakistan. Despite its Muslim majority, Kashmir belongs to India, Indians believe, as was resolved by the famously indecisive Kashmiri king following Partition in 1947.

Within India, resentment against Muslim fundamentalist terrorism--which takes its daily toll of military lives along the Line of Control that divides Kashmir--is frequently expressed as outright hatred for its ascribed collective perpetrators. "Pakistan is a bastard country," says Mukesh Purhota, a marble artisan living in Jaipur. "I hated the Taliban, and I hate Pakistan."

For many Hindus here, there is not much difference between the Taliban and the Pakistani government. Both are perceived as regimes of fundamentalist Muslim warmongers. And because Pakistan is a Muslim country--and the historical division between India and Pakistan is a religious one--the enduring conflict manifests itself within India as religious tension.

The rift between Hindus and Muslims here is a profound one. It has exploded as recently, and as acutely, as the religious riots in Bombay--far and away India's most metropolitan and Western-influenced city--in 1995. A series of urban bombings was presumed to be the work of Islamic fundamentalists; directly after the bombings, enraged gangs of Hindus wreaked vengeance upon the city's Muslim neighborhoods, killing and looting while police purportedly turned a blind eye.

Tension Points

India is the largest democracy in the world; it has made notable progress in many social arenas, ranging from caste discrimination to female infanticide. Yet Hindu-Muslim tension prevails, amply fueled by the ongoing bloodshed in Kashmir.

"Muslims are uneducated and fanatic," says Manoj Shah, owner of a handicraft shop in Jaipur. "Now they all think bin Laden is God." The sentiment behind Shah's words is not unusual. Hindus here frequently equate the zealotry of the fundamentalist minority to the entire Muslim world. However, it is often the Muslims in India who provide the voice of dissent, albeit largely ignored, when it comes to the current standoff with Pakistan.

"We don't believe in war in India," says H.F. Shaikh, a Muslim civil servant living in Ahmedabad. I am wandering past his home when he stops to introduce himself. He is quick to assure me that, in his neighborhood, "Hindus and Muslims live together jointly and happily." His Hindu neighbor, summoned to corroborate, smilingly concurs.

"We don't have proof that these attacks were ordered by Pakistan," Shaikh continues. "War is a last resort. The leaders should sit at a table and talk." Any Hindu would agree with the pacifism inherent in this statement. The Indian heritage, they maintain, is one of peace. Yet that sentiment is consistently followed by the contradictory statement that there is no other option but war. The singular difference between the two religious communities here is that Hindus generally feel India has reached its last resort.

"We want peace for India," says Ravi Kantsharma, a bookstore owner in Pushkar. "But look at America. One terrorist attack, and they go to war. We've had 30 years of terrorism, and we do nothing. I'm happy that Osama bombed America. It opened the world's eyes to terrorism."

The events of Sept. 11 have definitely brought terrorism onto the global stage, with lights and sound blazing. Moreover, the American response--war in Afghanistan--has provided righteous justification for an overtly aggressive response to terrorism. It has given superpower sanction to the concept of one nation attacking another nation on the basis of violence perpetrated by a tiny minority of the latter's (presumed) citizens.

Both the act of Sept. 11 and the retaliation around it have inspired others to take similarly extreme actions: the continuing war in Afghanistan; Israel's war in Palestine. If America went to war, reason Indian citizens, why can't we?

There is growing resentment here over the partiality of a "global war against terror," particularly given the imputed hypocrisy of American appeals for restraint on the part of India.

"The American government is controlling the whole world," says Shah bitterly. "It's not fair. They have a war against terror, but they are being selfish. Why can't we solve our problem? Why does India need American permission?"

Yet Shah respects the U.S. government for taking action. "Bush is a good leader. ... If Bush hadn't attacked Afghanistan, the American people would be angry. It is the same here, and that is why I don't like Vajpayee--he doesn't do anything."

Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee's increasingly hawkish rhetoric (along with sustained military preparations) is a calculated response to alarmingly low popularity ratings over recent months of "doing nothing."

Still, there are Indians who ascribe less blatant motives to the American attacks on Afghanistan. "It's not just a war to end terrorism," says Thomas Kutty Andrews, an accountant living in Bombay. "America entered Afghanistan because it wanted to liberalize Afghanistan, and this was dictated by the business mind. America wanted a market there. Now they will be able to penetrate to the Afghan market."

U.S. market penetration is an issue in which Indians are well versed: corporate America's global reach has not left this nation unscathed.

"Before, you only found Coke in big cities here," says Shah. "Now, you find it on any street in every village."

Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Hollywood--all have found a young and vast market here, hungering for the accouterments of Western modernity. These desirable toys and tidbits are touted in sophisticated commercials that impressively synthesize an understanding of contemporary Indian bourgeois culture with the incontestable virtues of the world's sexiest jeans.

A Different Jingle

India is a nation with an ancient history; it is a country where, for the vast majority, daily life is governed by the rituals of puja, or devotion. Culture runs deep here, and for the older generations and the poor, religious tradition takes easy priority over the daily grind and its compensatory trinkets.

But for the young and moneyed, it's a different jingle. "I tell my children not to drink Coke but instead to drink Thumbs Up [an Indian soda]," says Shah. "But they don't listen. It's all about Coke and jeans now. This culture is going backwards. In 50 years, India will be very different."

Priya Ahluwalia is a writer/director living in Bombay. She is young, hip and well paid, but she, too, makes an active effort to patronize Indian companies. "America is too strong, too busy trying to imprint its opinion," Ahluwalia maintains. "It's not our lifestyle, yet the boundaries between the cultures are disappearing. America is moving in--like you see in horror movies, [with] tentacles spreading out."

Pop Politics

The clash between the heritage of this nation and contemporary political realities follows in the footsteps of its passion for American pop culture. The concepts of dharma and karma have been overshadowed by the hawkish example provided by the most successful nation in the world.

While media attention moves to the recent fronts of wars taking place in Palestine and elsewhere, relations between India and Pakistan remain volatile and liable to explode at any time. The eyes of both nations remain firmly fixed on the actions of a superpower shouldering a global war against terror.

U.S. pop culture sells America to the rest of the world; it sells modernity, coolness, power in a package. When I confess to curious natives that I'm an American, the general response is one of awe and delight: America is the modern-day land of milk and honey. Young Indians love America, because all they see of it is beautiful people, catchy music and shiny gadgets; they love it with an adoration akin to idolatry, like a teenager at a rock concert.

It is American pop culture that has given iconoclasm to the rest of the world, shrink-wrapped and ready to go; rebellion against it is antiquated. For those craving the pot of gold at the end of America's rainbow, there simply isn't any groundwork for a critique of the political actions of the world's superpower.

Within his first few months in office, Bush dropped the Kyoto Protocol, abandoned the ABM and initiated Star Wars. Following Sept. 11, he claimed that those nations who weren't with the United States stood against it. And its allies jumped to agree. Economics cannot be separated from this equation, but there is no doubt that American pop culture has paved the way for its current political actions--and for those countries that look to it for an example.


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From the June 6-12, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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