Drawing lessons from European conflicts: The Tribune India
IN 2006, the Chinese were glued to a television documentary produced in China, The Rise of Great Powers. He noticed that there was no “fall” of great power. On the contrary, what was once a great power has simply become irrelevant; the world changed and evolved, the former great power continued to do what it did – sometimes with ever greater energy and ferocity – not realizing that it had become unnecessary. Some of that seems to be playing out in the world right now. Are we in India ready to face the resulting transformations? Or are we going to follow Indian tradition and go unprepared?
As winter approaches, European countries could decide to impose their will on those who hold the key to energy. Remember that in four Indo-Pakistani wars, neither of the warring parties attacked major infrastructure in the territory of the other. By contrast, in Europe, months away from hostilities, rivals are already inflicting fatal injuries, targeting civilians and even hospitals. Attacks on Nord Stream pipelines and the Kerch Strait Bridge were just the beginning. The warring groups have already promised to intensify mutual destruction. Sometimes they promise limited annihilation; sometimes total annihilation.
Today, one need only scan European and American newspapers to realize that these societies and their leaders are already preparing a prelude to another great fight of mutual destruction. “Serious, devastating and threatening” is how Pope Francis officially described the situation in Europe in his statement of October 2, 2022. No one paid attention to him.
For India to come out on top in such a scenario, we would need to be mentally prepared and understand that European conflicts quickly escalate into endgames. This has been the European way for many centuries and we ignore it at our peril. The two great European wars of the first half of the 20th century were not unique in their cruelty; they were consistent with a long historical pattern that underlies the history of Europe in which rivals attempt to destroy each other as completely as physically possible. In these wars, India found itself embroiled because it had no choice. However, if India does not get entangled in future European conflicts, their nature is likely to create problems for India. How India deals with these issues would greatly affect the lives of Indians.
For historical and cultural reasons, the Indian mental landscape finds it very difficult to imagine destruction, let alone total. In the fall of 1947, we were caught napping by the Pakistanis who invaded Kashmir. More than a decade later, in the fall of 1962, we were caught off guard and lost in the Chinese invasion. These defeats were quickly forgotten and reconstructed into an unsuccessful blame game. The thing to remember is that Indians tend to avoid threatening subjects. They prefer to “adapt” to whatever comes their way than to force change. Adapting to each other, adapting to nature and finding the right balance are characteristics that have characterized the Indian way of life. This ignores the possibility that there may be challengers, transformations, which may not lend themselves to mutual adjustments. For the Indian mental landscape, such a possibility never seems real.
In this sense, we have been significantly different from Europe and much luckier. Muslim chroniclers tell of invasions of India from the 12th century and boast that hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims were killed, but even those memories faded after a while, giving us the opportunity to live in a country where a person’s belief system doesn’t matter. In becoming our own master in 1947, we used a word of European origin, ‘secularism’, to describe this very Indian lived reality.
Few in India have bothered to notice that even the idea of secularism emerged in Europe after hundreds of years of mutual murder in the name of religion. The peoples of Europe until the 17th century were condemned to have the same religion as their sovereign. In the end, after millions were killed in the religious wars, the pope intervened to suggest a more civilized way of life, that is, the people would not be forced to be of the same religion as the ruler. Over the years, this thought has been called “secularism.” In India, people were always free to practice the religion of their choice.
This quality of life, of accommodating differences in thought and belief, is something Indians take for granted. Until the East India Company showed us this, we never even believed that leaders could have much impact on the life of the common man. We certainly never believed in annihilation.
Total annihilation with nothing to achieve seems foreign to Indian thought. The mythological tandav performed by Shiva is even said to have the purpose of regenerating good.
With its population of over a billion, India survived as a democracy because there was a substantial but tacit consensus that we should not step on each other’s toes, allow each to flourish and, if necessary, use the authority of the state to stop those who try, intend, hope, impose themselves on others. After Independence, we preferred to attribute this to our Constitution or our leadership. We have forgotten that similar so-called Constitutions in other formerly colonized nations survived only a few years, before being replaced by dictatorship. This social consensus essentially continues to exist.
What seems to be missing is a sense of self worth. We continue to assess ourselves primarily through Western eyes. That would never do. According to our own judgments and our appreciation of lived realities, it is always better. To achieve this, we need greater self-confidence. We also need a much stronger sense of reality on the ground.
An apocalypse could be around the corner. To prepare for it, physical resources in terms of food, money and ammunition are not enough. We must accept that others may be involved in an endgame. To survive as a society, we must mobilize our mental resources. Above all, we must value our way of life and be prepared to defend it.