In so many years of parachute journalism a hack does end up writing on an eclectic mix of issues, but this one has never reviewed theatre. So please do not confuse this for a review of Aamir Raza Husain’s Fifty Day War, currently drawing packed houses on the outskirts of South Delhi. This is, instead, supposed to be a look into the mind of upper crust India, on the way it relates to the great national crisis in Kashmir, its understanding of the war in Kargil and its comprehension of the seriousness of military warfare where young people actually kill others. Or get killed.
Let’s not sit in judgement, at least not yet, on the way top line Delhi audiences have reduced to a picnic what is supposed to be a sombre 150-minute tribute to the spirit of the soldiers who fought such an impossible battle so successfully at Kargil just six months ago. They turnout for the kebab kiosk during the 20-minute intermission, and sign up to buy “Kargil mementoes” nicely polished, engraved brass casings of Bofors shells 155 mm. Full metal jacket. If there were any tearful eyes at the end of the show, which did have its touching moments, I did not see them.
The mood, at the end, was exactly that when trendy crowds leave PVR or any other multiplex at the end of a movie anywhere in India. This, despite the rather heart-wrenching end, with the anchor reading out the names and ranks of the Kargil martyrs while they stand silhouetted against moonlight atop a plaster of paris Tiger Hill, Tololing, Points 5140, 4700 and so on, names that filled our headlines just six months ago.
A nation, and a society, particularly a democracy, must have the right to reduce its military history into soul-stirring entertainment. After all, theWest, particularly America, has done just that. From Patton to Platoon, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan, cinema has been used as a medium to package the bloodiest chapters of this century’s military history into mass patriotic entertainment.
In the US, as a matter of fact, this mushy militaristic romanticism has reached such absurd limits that, at the Special Forces training centre atFayetteville, North Carolina, they have installed a statue of John Wayne,the quintessential commando, as if he won the real McCoy, while the soldiers who actually fought and died were a mere supporting cast. Each one of these films, each one of the hundreds of war novels, packaged pretty much the same national pride and patriotism that Aamir Raza Husain sells in his Fifty DayWar. So what are we quibbling over?
The problem is not with the play, but with the audiences’ (read Indian upper middle classes) simplistic belief that Kargil was the final war overKashmir. The even more dangerous corollary is, now that it has been won as decisively as Husain demonstrates to you, there is nothing to worry about along the Northern Himalayas. So we can sit back and relax, pr-ay that God’s wrath may fall upon Pervez Musharraf, and carry on making more money on theSensex or Mindex or Brandex, if you have been fortunate enough to have a smart broker. Or that wars are fought by invincible Indian soldiers who call their girlfriends from a payphone and spout such lines like “Of course I love you, but I love my India even more” before setting out on a World WarOne style assault. Or that the enemy they face, the Pakistani army, consists of chicken-hearted soldiers and impertinent young officers, who question the motives of their generals who are silly, bloodthirsty thugs anyway with IQs very much within two digits.
The reality is very different. Also very troublesome. First of all, Kargil as the final war over Kashmir is a very dangerously complacent notion. The history of this country is full of such instances, where one glorious battle was confused with a victory forever, with disastrous consequences.Second, this kind of perpetuation of the BJP’s election-time Kargil rhetoric obliterates the truth that Kargil may have been won and secured but that the threat in Kashmir is not just alive, it is greater than before.
While we continue to celebrate the victory in Kargil, while our elites jeer, hoot and clap as Husain presents a ludicrous sequence, supposedly from Pakistan’s embassy at Washington, where its ambassador is cursing his very westernised female press officer for letting India run away with the propaganda victory, the war in Kashmir is still going on. If anything, it is more intense, more difficult and more evenly poised than before. Each day brings back the coffins of three to five Indian soldiers. Many more suffer incredible hardship guarding the ridge lines and peaks of Kargil territory they always vacated during past winters. And we think that we won some sort of a world cup of mountain warfare at Kargil.
Romanticisation of war is one thing. But its trivialisation is quite another and it is not something you can blame Husain for. It is our entire urban upper middle class mindset. Kargil toys, rifles with Kargil motifs likeAK-47s, Kargil cakes and Durga Puja tableaux with `Kargil Ganeshas’ in olive green bandannas and fatigues, all underline this same state of mind across the country. In Mumbai’s Lower Parel, a hosiery shop has had a `Kargil sale’ going for nearly six months. You ask the shop owner what it means and he will tell you it means he doesn’t care what happens to himself or his family, he has to sell at any price. As mindless as, if you take him seriously, the jawans assaulting Tiger Hill.
There are other dangers inherent in this psychology and one of these is a simplistic understanding of a soldier’s profession and his mind. Soldiers are human like us, they love their families and fear for their own safety.They walk the snipers’ alleys and minefields but they also mourn each death.
They do not celebrate martyrdom the way we do in the movies. For most people of the kind that come to watch Fifty Day War, the fear of having a family member serve with an army unit in Kashmir is quite unfamiliar.
Vajpayee did quite well as a leader during the Kargil war. He was rewarded for this in the subsequent elections. He was also among the audience in one of the shows a couple of weeks ago. But once state elections are over, he would do well to put an end to the Kargil hype. It is confusing an entire nation to such an extent that even Kandahar has not shaken us out of our complacency.
We don’t think of the coffins that return every day from Kashmir. We love our soldiers. We celebrate their martyrdom. We buy their spent shell casings. But we won’t send our sons to the Army. The great Indian MiddleClass is seized by a warped new militarism. If you need evidence, go and see Fifty Day War.