Four chance encounters after Pulwama proved once again what this writer has always felt, that social media is not reflective of ground reality. The war cries drowning WhatsApp groups after at least 40 CRPF jawans were blown up in Kashmir on February 14, made one believe that the entire country was engulfed in war hysteria. After all, WhatsApp is now a national addiction.
But casual conversations with three men, far removed from one another in social background, reassured me that social media had not completely killed common sense. The questions asked by an auto driver, a doctor and a lawyer in three separate social milieux in Mumbai were similar. The attack had left them wondering how such a large quantity of RDX could have got through the innumerable security personnel stationed in the Valley. And why had the warnings of the possibility of such an attack not been heeded?
These three men are far removed from the “anti-nationals” who doubt everything the ruling party says. The lawyer, in fact, has represented the BJP government a number of times. Their questions sprang partly from J&K Governor Satya Pal Malik’s admission of a failure of intelligence, which had been front-paged in all newspapers the day the Pulwama attack made headlines. Their uneasiness about the timing of these two events were confirmed by BJP veteran Yeddyurappa’s declaration that the Balakot strike would help his party sweep Karnataka in the coming elections. Soon after, the Jharkhand BJP president made the same prediction for his state.
Even if these two leaders had not spelt this out, the politicisation of Pulwama and Balakot by the ruling party’s topmost leaders have been obvious to even those not politically inclined. The faces of the slain jawans and that of the freed Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman have formed the backdrop to stages where election rallies have taken place, and hoardings asking for votes for the ruling party. You don’t need the brother of a slain jawan to tell you that the politicians milking the death of the jawans don’t bother to visit their families.
But are these politicians merely reflecting the national mood? Does the “nation” in fact want war, as social media suggests?
This brings me to the fourth encounter I had a few days after Pulwama with two vegetable vendors from Tamil Nadu. A casual remark by a customer on the poor quality of vegetables available these days was enough for the father-son duo to launch into a diatribe against the kind of “development” being pursued, that was destroying not just their livelihoods, but the earth itself. As they railed angrily against once pristine rivers getting polluted, expressways, the mining of ancient hills, and police firings on and mysterious disappearances of those protesting all this, a conversation with them five years back played out in my brain. I recalled their belligerent words that their vote would be for Narendra Modi, because only he could put Pakistan in its place.
Today, these vendors are not alone in being besieged by fears that have nothing to do with Pakistan. It might seem unbelievable, but the struggles for survival being waged by large sections have not come to a standstill after Pulwama and Balakot. Indeed, a day after the Balakot strike, the Centre had to beseech the Supreme Court to stay its order to 21 states to evict almost 12 lakh tribals from forests. The war cries could not stop tribals from marching in large numbers across states, including the capital, to get the Centre to act. No fear of being labeled “anti-national” stopped Dalits, angry at the slashing of reserved posts by the 13-point roster system, from joining tribals in imposing a Bharat Bandh last week.
Be it hugging trees slated for cutting for another unnecessary road in Nagpur, or working class commuters in an overcrowded hall in Mumbai complaining about the hardships caused by the deliberate reduction of buses by what was once the country’s best public transport corporation, urbanites are leaving their TV sets and actually taking to the streets to fight for what’s dear to them—and it’s not war. Maharashtra’s kisans embarked on yet another long march to its capital days after Pulwama; and in Uttar Pradesh, teachers in Lucknow and traders in Kanpur struck work and blocked the streets. Not even the shock of Pulwama could make the Gujjars of Rajasthan agitating for reservation get off the train tracks; they called off their agitation only after the Rajasthan government gave in to their demand.
There exists this world too, though it doesn’t figure in WhatsApp groups, and the press pushes it to the inside pages. But to discover it, we need to turn away from the overwhelming stranglehold of social media and the screaming television anchors enacting war in their studios. We need to also make the effort of looking beyond the headlines and front pages of our newspapers. It would be worth the trouble to do all this to discover that war is not exactly the topmost concern of our fellow citizens.
Freelance journalist based in Mumbai