We Pakistanis are terribly proud of how we brew our tea. It should be consumed just hot enough that you can feel it coursing through your body. Serving it lukewarm, therefore, is an unthinkable offense. Not long ago, suggesting that the country embrace peace was like offering a cup of tepid chai—an affront to a core part of what it means to be Pakistani. But after years of enduring war, more and more of us are pushing for peace.
As irony would have it, Pakistan and India’s latest squabble began on Valentine’s Day when an explosive-laden truck, commandeered by a young Kashmiri Indian man, slammed into an Indian military convoy, killing 40 Indian soldiers. Even before the funerals were over, India blamed Pakistan, claiming its neighbor was sponsoring the terrorist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, responsible for the attack. Ten days later, India carried out strikes in Pakistan—though it’s unclear what, if anything, it hit. The following day, Pakistan shot down two Indian planes that had crossed into its territory and captured an Indian pilot. The Pakistani government then closed its airspace and imposed blackouts in the Northern Areas so that Indian aircraft could not detect its cities. In an instant, it seemed, the two countries stood daggers drawn, teetering on the edge of nuclear cataclysm.
Yet peace, or the desire for it, caught on in Pakistan. On Thursday, the day after Pakistan captured the Indian pilot, peace rallies were held all over Pakistan, and the hashtag #SayNoToWar trended on Twitter. Groups of Pakistani women photographed themselves holding placards asking women across the border to #SayNoToWar. Aman Ki Asha, a group that has been working on peace efforts for decades by facilitating dialogue between ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, distributed a peace petition. Imtiaz Alam, the secretary general of the South Asian Free Media Association, appealed to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to release the captured Indian pilot.
Still, nobody expected that such an unconditional release would actually happen. Captured soldiers, particularly high-ranking ones like the arrested wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman, are a crucial currency in war; no country just gives them up. Yet, shockingly, this is what happened. On February 28, Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaking at a joint session of Pakistan’s National Assembly, declared that the pilot would be released the next day. He was greeted by raucous applause. A handout given to journalists by the National Assembly of Pakistan stated: “The forum unanimously expressed that they stand united against any aggression against Pakistan and will support the government and its institutions unconditionally.”
For a country whose military has a reputation for being “pro-conflict,” and where in the past the masses have rallied behind calls for holy war against Indians, this outstretched olive branch is a stunning development and promising moral victory. Even the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, who provides the Armed Forces’ perspective in military-loving Pakistan, seemed circumspect. “There are no winners in war. Only humanity loses,” he said from behind his podium, looking at the faces of surprised journalists. Pakistani celebrities got into the peace-championing mood. “Nothing uglier, nothing more ignorant than cheering for war,” tweeted actress Mahira Khan. “We need peace,” tweeted singer Hadiqa Kiani.
But unfortunately, peace fever seems not to have spread across the border to the same extent. The Valentine’s Day attack didn’t garner much attention in Pakistan, where the upcoming visit of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman dominated the headlines. The attack, brazen as it was, gave politicians of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which faces an election in April, a war cry to rally around. On February 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised “a befitting reply” to the attackers and “their patrons.” By February 26, when the incursion into Pakistani airspace happened, Indian politicians and their backers, whetted by Indian media, had worked themselves up into a frenzy. “We want Lahore not surgical strikes,” tweeted one Modi supporter. “It’s not enough to just condemn such acts of terror, it’s time to retaliate with strength & solidarity,” tweeted Bollywood actress Sushmita Sen.
Even after the imminent release of the pilot was announced, Indian media and politicians seemed unsure of how to take the news. On NDTV, one of India’s popular private news channels, the headline remained “Prepared to Respond to Any Provocation from Pak,” and the news of the pilot’s release was spun as “Facing Global Pressure Imran Khan Says Pilot Will be Released Tomorrow.” Modi himself does not seem much interested in backing down either, saying on February 28: “When an enemy country wants to destabilize India, when they attack us in terror strikes, their main is to cripple our speed of progress. Every Indian should stand like a rock in front of their aims.”
Many Indians do seem to be standing like rocks when they should be pushing for peace. The answer to the different stances toward peace likely lies in the Islamophobic vitriol of the Modi government and his Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party (BJP). Modi’s tenure has overseen concerted campaigns to rewrite the country’s history to prove that Hindus were the subcontinent’s first descendants (instead of the prevailing view of the subcontinent as a mélange of many cultures and civilizations). This narrative effectively labels the country’s millions of Muslims as converts who betrayed their original identity and hence should be relegated to second-class citizens.
The social and cultural transformation of India has relied on these distortions, and many, including film producers, who do not blame Muslims for all ills have been punished. Modi supporters have rioted over the Bollywood film Padmaavat, which recounts the mass suicide of an Indian queen and her attendants who chose to die rather than be enslaved by conquering Muslims. There is little historical evidence that Padmaavat actually existed, but it does not matter; the film depicted Hindus as the losers. Meanwhile in Modi’s India, BJP-aligned vigilantes scour the streets for Muslims, who, they believe, may be butchering cows, which conservative Hindus consider holy animals.
Hindutva, a Hindu-nationalist worldview associated with the BJP, sees itself as a martial brand directly and centrally opposed to what it perceives as the meek and submissive postures of those that seek peace. Some of this has bred a paranoia toward Pakistan. In an op-ed published in Fortune magazine’s Indian edition the day after Khan made an offer for peace talks, Hindol Sengupta, a best-selling Indian writer, made the bizarre case that terror attacks happen every time Pakistani leaders adopt friendly postures toward India. These offers must thus be looked at with great skepticism and never accepted until and unless all Indian demands are met.
Undoubtedly, there are many Indians who desire peace, not least the Indian opposition parties that are challenging the BJP in upcoming elections. But it’s clear that swathes of the Indian government and media are enthusiastically promoting endless war. Unlike India, Pakistan has seen more than a decade and a half of fighting. Cities, families, and schools have become targets of terrorist attacks. In the extensive military operations in the country’s tribal areas between 2001 and 2015, more than 80,000 people, combatants and noncombatants, were killed. Battling one’s own countrymen has given the Pakistani military as well as Pakistanis more generally a more nuanced attitude toward war than in the past.
Pakistan’s newfound proclivity toward peace then is a product of war. We know from experience that war leaves only scars and festering wounds. Against this backdrop, the escalation of enmities against India is not the gleeful adrenaline-laden proposition it seems to be for many Indians (or at least those on Indian TV). Disagreements over Kashmir are unavoidable in the near future, but they cannot be resolved by lobbing bombs, imprisoning pilots, or demanding to “hit them harder next time,” as one Indian anchor proclaimed on live television.
Pakistan now seems to be trying to calm the situation. The government released a video in which the wing commander holds a cup of tea and says his captors have been “thorough gentlemen.” When his Pakistani interlocutor asks the critical question—“I hope you like the tea?”—he replies, “The tea is fantastic.”