The recent escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan highlights weak state-citizen relations in both countries that are actually very similar in nature. Better accountability relations between states and citizens could discourage both of these nuclear-armed countries from their intermittent war-mongering.
The tensions started with a terror attack in Indian Kashmir claimed by a terrorist organisation, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) based in Pakistan. India claimed that the Pakistani state was implicit in the attack, most ostensibly by providing a safe haven for and for refusing to move against JeM. Pakistan denied any involvement and asked for evidence. Indian Air Force jets then crossed into Pakistani territory and bombed a target in the province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. Then Pakistan did the same in response in India. This first episode ended with an Indian Air Force pilot in Pakistan’s custody. Although the pilot has been returned to India there is a general and heightened fear in the region that this may be the start of a more drawn out conflict, despite the fact that the Indian Foreign Minister and Pakistani Prime Minister have both emphasised their interested in de-escalation of tensions.
The incident provided a real insight into the malfunctioning and fractured links between states and citizens on the Indian sub-continent, weak relationships of accountability, and overall bad governance. Here are three instances:
Lack of truth from official sources while the media remains complicit
India claimed that its jets had destroyed a JeM militant camp in retaliation in Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, incurring a large number of casualties. Pakistan counter–claimed that India had only hit a forest and there had been no casualties. Pakistan said it had gone into Indian territory to display its capacity to do so, India claimed that it had done so to target military installations but had been thwarted by its jets.Amidst all these claims and counter claims, there is also little clarity on how an Indian plane came down in Pakistani territory. In fact, the only thing both sides seemed to agree was that there was one Indian pilot in Pakistani custody (though Pakistan originally claimed there were two). But when Pakistan offered to return the pilot, the conflicting narratives reasserted themselves: in Pakistan, this was a magnanimous gesture of peace with calls for Imran Khan to be awarded a Nobel Peace prize (at least on Twitter #ImranKhanForNobelPeacePrize), whilst in India, the news was covered as a major climb-down for Pakistan, with Imran Khan caving into international pressure.There seemed to be little objection around these completely opposing sets of narrative, despite the fact that information and news are easily accessible (online) and understandable on both sides of the border, since both India and Pakistan share languages (English, with Hindi and Urdu being understandable to one another). There was much finger-pointing on social media but few were calling for the ‘what actually happened’ truth of the matter. No one seemed to object to this lack of information and truth from either government. This could be down to citizens only reading or watching news from one country and not both, and the media being either entirely complicit or at least uncritical on both sides. It could be that even if people did follow the news, no one would believe the ‘other side’. Or it could be that the need to hold our governments accountable to the truth simply does not exist, as long as ‘our guys’ look like they are winning. Whether what we receive as news in such moments may actually be propaganda does not seem to matter.
As a South Asian, it is difficult to imagine that in the aftermath of all this, anyone is going to hold any public official accountable for disinformation, lack of honesty, or plain lying about the facts on either side. It is not just war-like circumstances that make blatant lies or alternative facts acceptable. It is also the rise in uber-nationalism and populist politics on both sides in which polarisation and ‘digging in one’s heels with one’s own bunch’ is the norm and fully acceptable. The situation may well be different if we could imagine there being serious costs associated with misrepresenting or misreporting on something as serious as an impending war.
Defence budgets vs. hunger and poverty
If there were ever two countries that should not be resorting regularly to wargames and spending scarce public resources on building huge military complexes, it is India and Pakistan. The two countries between them account for about half the world’s extremely poor and malnourished population.Yet, they are both nuclear powers that invest large parts of their annual budget in their armies, largely because of each other. But again, neither is held accountable for their malnourished children, the shocking lack of good and accessible public healthcare, the continuing low literacy figures (amongst the lowest in the world), and the social misery of large parts of their female population.
Kashmir and terrorist groups
At the very heart of the conflict lie major issues that each country needs to think about. For India, this is the movement for self-determination in Kashmir and the high levels of discontent and marginalisation experienced by Kashmiri citizens vis-à-vis the Indian state. For Pakistan, this is the existence of multiple terrorist groups on its soil and the state’s complacency (at best) or complicity (at worst) with this. Neither government is focused on these issues, even with an Indian election coming up. That is not unexpected.What is troubling is, once again, the extent to which such interrogation or introspection is simply not part of the state-citizen relationship in South Asia. Citizens can be whipped into action by the prospect of war and teaching the other side a lesson, including those with liberal credentials, but not by obvious neglect, marginalisation, blatant lies, or bad policy choices.
Democracy and good governance are based on a need for truth-telling and open flow of good information. Those are the bases on which democratic checks and balances operate, such as injunctions against perjury, impeachments, or accountability trials. The governments of India and Pakistan see no need to be honest with their citizens, possibly because citizens do not expect such honesty from their governments. The two countries may share more in common than either one would like to admit to: large armies, hungry populations, and weak state-citizen relationships based on a lack of accountability.