Managing cognitive dissonance, the Rawalpindi way
In Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River, Alice Albinia’s chronicles her journey from the mouth of the Indus in Pakistan’s Sindh province to its source in Tibet. It is part-travelogue, part-history book, part-commentary on contemporary society and completely readable. Here she is on the Pakistani side, trying to get close to the Line of Control.
Engaged to be married, (the soldier) is being sent to Siachen once he has returned me to Skardu. The tone in which he utters that name betrays his dread. All the soldiers hate it: the glacier where nothing else lives, the high altitude, the inhuman living conditions. They shave off their heads before they go, then slam on their caps and do not remove them until they get back to Skardu, such is the danger of frostbite. In Baltistan, Siachen is known cynically as the army’s Kuwait: ‘the soldiers are paid double, they get very rich,’ a jealous resident of Skardu tells me. But the shiny-cheeked officer protests at the unfairness of this statement: ‘We spend all our extra pay just on rations to make life bearable.’ he says.
‘What is the point?’ I ask. ‘Why are you doing it?’ He looks shaken, and hesitates before answering: ‘To serve my country.’
(Ever since their first foray into the valley of Kashmir in 1947, the army has been labelling the incursions of its own soldiers ‘militant activity’). In 1999, the army once again called the soldiers ‘Mujahideen’, but in Skardu, I meet a man who was employed during the war to cross the border and collect these dead ‘martyrs’. ‘That’s when we Baltis knew there was a war going on,’ he says: ‘wen we saw the bodies of our relatives.’ Even after India captured some of the ‘Mujahideen’, and proved that they were army soldiers, Pakistan continued to insist that the men were not ‘regular army recruits’. This was semi-true: most of those sent to die in Kargil were soldiers local to the disputed Northern Areas, and thus not part of a standard regiment. Forbidden to wear uniforms, disguised instead in tracksuits as militants, the soldiers were ill-equipped for war.
Then there was the ordeal of fighting their co-religionists. The Northern Areas is predominantly Shia—as is Kargil in India. ‘Wo bhi kafir hain [They too are unbelievers],’ a Sunni officer was rumoured to have shouted at a reluctant Shia soldier.’Shoot’.
The Punjabi officers threat Shias as Kafirs, and lies are peddled to young recruits, to make killing fellow Muslims bearable. During the journey from Skardu to Hamzigon, my shiny-cheeked escort draws a parallel with army operations in Waziristan: ‘Ninety-nine percent of the militants killed there by the Pakistan Army were non-Muslim,’ he says. ‘So?’ I ask, amazed. ‘They were Russian, Spanish, Italian,’ he says; ‘internal army reports have confirmed this.’ [Alice Alibinia/Empires of the Indus pp248-250]