Thank providence: India has gotten away relatively lightly from the scourge of real war
On February 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the National War Memorial, homage to nearly 26,000 military personnel who have laid down their lives for the country since Independence. This occasion of solemn commemoration was somewhat marred by the PM introducing a note of dissonance by launching a very political attack on the Congress party.
What is striking to this writer about the memorial is not its design or even purpose. But the fact that India has been uniquely privileged among the major nations of the world to have gotten away relatively lightly from the scourge of real war. This is especially important to understand in a period where on social media and TV channels people are baying for war against Pakistan. Neither they, nor the generation of their parents, have even approached the horrors of war.
In the last 70 or so years, the US lost 36,000 soldiers in the Korean war, 58,000 in Vietnam on a population base of just 175 million. Iranians lost anywhere up to 1,50,000 in their war with Iraq in the 1980s. China, which lost 1,14,000 in the Korean war, lost another estimated 26,000 in its brief punitive expedition to Vietnam.
Civilian casualties of these wars were multiples of the military dead. Neither will the numbers capture the scale and intensity of destruction that often meant the obliteration of entire cities, towns and villages. In our own living memory countries like Iraq, Libya, Syria have degenerated from functioning, well-off societies, to living hells, people killed and maimed, cities destroyed and millions made refugees.
Indian has fought three, and two half wars, against Pakistan, and one against China in the past 70 years. The halves are the limited Kargil war and the longer Pakistani covert war that continues. Two of them in 1965 and 1971 lasted less than a month, the Kargil war went on for three months in a very small unpopulated part of the country. The first Kashmir war began in October 1947 and ended a year and more later on December 31, 1948. The Sino-Indian war of 1962, too, was a month-long affair. Acutely aware of their own vulnerability, India and Pakistan have generally avoided the deliberate targeting of economic and civilian areas even during their wars.
We have, however, seen major inter-religious violence and displacement in north-west India following Partition. And we have an ongoing insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir which has led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths as well.
We can therefore thank providence India has not really experienced war which can be about sacrifice and heroism, but always brings in its wake death, injury and destruction. The last time the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse rode across our land was in the First War of Independence, the so-called Great Rebellion of 1857-59. Though limited to a region of northern India, British retribution – villages depopulated, men strung up on trees along the roads and vultures picking off the dead – can never be forgotten. Hundreds of thousands killed and forced to abandon their villages, the cities of Lucknow, Kanpur and Delhi devastated.
Efforts have often been made to make war humane, an oxymoron if ever there was one. There are Geneva Conventions, guidelines of the Red Cross and so on. The UN was created because of the catastrophic destruction of World War II. It created a Security Council of the big powers to deal with threats to peace. It also accepted the notion of the right to self-defence and just war.
In the real world, the best guarantor of our security remain powerful and capable military forces. In this endeavour, soldiers may have to sometimes lay down their lives. We cannot bring them back, but we should ever remember them and hence the Memorial. And even as they blow the conch shells of war, our chicken hawks should not forget those who our heroes left behind – wives, children, parents – for whom their passing brought unmitigated catastrophe.