Closing the bollywood gap: In its long war against terrorism, India must find a way to make its reality look more like its movies
Can India find a way to stanch attacks by terrorist groups based in Pakistan? For the past three weeks, the question has taken national centre stage as we process the Valentine’s Day suicide car bombing in Pulwama in Kashmir and Indian air strikes in Balakot in Pakistan that followed 12 days later.
Much of the debate so far has focused on the bare facts: who did what and to what effect? These are important questions, and sifting fact from fiction amidst a flood of fake news, motivated leaks and wilful exaggeration can be a full time job. But the outpouring of grief and anger in recent weeks also suggests somet hing conclusive: Many Indians are fed up with the old national habit of turning the other cheek to cross-border violence. They expect their elected leaders to protect them, and to punish their attackers.
As national aspirations go, this is perfectly reasonable. Who wouldn’t want to junk the sordid moral calculus behind India’s supine response to the 2008 Mumbai attacks? India essentially forswore retaliation against the murderous Lashkar-e-Taiba in return for a pat on the back from Washington and a few empty promises from Islamabad. India all but announced that Indian life was cheap.
In one important way this restraint served India well. In the world’s eyes it cemented a contrast between India’s sense of responsibility and Pakistani adventurism that first emerged nine years earlier, during the Kargil conflict. But for India this was merely the silver lining in a cloud of humiliation, an attempt to wring a measure of consolation from an exercise in cowardice.
Twenty years after Kargil, and more than a decade after the carnage in Mumbai, the Bollywood blockbuster ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ vividly captures the quest for a more muscular India.
In the movie, a politically resolute government decides that the aftermath of a terrorist group’s attack on an army camp is no time to worry about what the United States or the United Nations think. The national security adviser approvingly cites Israel’s ‘Wrath of God’ operation, in which crack Mossad agents methodically hunted down the terrorists responsible for killing 11 members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics. When they attack, buff and bearded Indian army warriors slay their enemies almost at will. The message: Indian blood is no longer cheap.
The movie also suggests a longing for a government that reveres the country’s ancient culture while embracing cutting edge technology. An intern in a government lab invents a high-tech drone that resembles an eagle. Of course he names it after Lord Vishnu’s mount Garuda. An intelligence officer secretly geotags the hero’s mother’s clothes to keep her safe. Giant screens in a war room allow the national security adviser to monitor the destruction of terrorist launch pads across Kashmir’s line of control in real time.
How do these celluloid heroics affect the grim real life drama currently playing out in India and Pakistan?
For starters, the film’s strong box office collections – more than Rs 2.4 billion in India alone according to Bollywood expert Taran Adarsh – suggest that the story of flawlessly executed vengeance has struck a chord with millions of people. Many of them will no doubt view the movie simply as a factual account of a reported raid across the line of control – the original “surgical strikes” that India made much of in 2016.
The movie’s flattering portrayal of a resolute and unflappable Prime Minister Narendra Modi only raises pressure on him to live up to his on screen persona. Modi himself has tacitly encouraged this by publicly using the movie’s catch phrase: “How’s the josh?” or “how’s the enthusiasm?”
The movie boasts of a “new India”, which not only punishes terrorists but, in the words of the national security adviser in the film, “will enter their homes and kill them”. Modi’s tough talk since the Pulwama bombing – such as his promise in Tamil Nadu to pay back terrorism with interest – would not be one bit out of place in the movie.
Unfortunately for politicians, reality does not usually mimic the movies. In the screen version, counter-terrorism operations unfold with clockwork precision. Ingenious Indian spies procure the most accurate and up-to-date information from Pakistan. Human error scarcely troubles soldiers or (helicopter) pilots. Only the bad guys are captured or killed.
Nobody needs to worry about pesky foreign experts treating the government’s claims with skepticism, senior ruling party leaders touting without evidence casualty figures that defy logic, or ministers publicly hectoring journalists for the temerity to question the official account of events. In the Bollywood version, Indians of all faiths work harmoniously together against a common foe. Nobody need fret about governors appointed by the ruling party whipping up suspicion toward fellow Indians, or troll armies that appear more consumed by unearthing enemies within than with countering enemies abroad.
This then is India’s challenge: to strengthen the administrative and technological capacities that Bollywood exaggerates while preserving social harmony from attacks by hotheads. Nobody sane believes that India will win its long war against terrorism overnight. But to stand a chance it must aim to narrow the gap between how it imagines itself and how it actually performs.