from Asia Unbound

Flying Objects, Different Zeitgeists

November 07, 2013

India launches a satellite carrying the Mars orbiter on November 5, 2013.
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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Since November began, I’ve been struck by the great gulf in the zeitgeist between India and Pakistan. I don’t mean the gulf in how each perceives the other, though, or any preoccupation of Indo-Pakistan relations—I mean the vast difference in current events in each and the public debate surrounding them.

On November 5, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched a Mars orbiter mission, “Mangalyaan.” It will remain in the Earth’s orbit until December 1, at which point Mangalyaan will be launched to its Mars orbit destination, where it should arrive in some 300 days. Mangalyaan has been heralded as a demonstration of scientific research at comparatively low cost—said to be a $73 million mission—and once in place will be able to test for methane, take pictures of Mars, map the surface using infrared imagery, and analyze the atmosphere. NASA is slated to play a supporting role with data download and tracking. The mission has stirred up some controversy, however, with some commentators critiquing the cost at a time of economic slowdown in India and substantial human development needs at home. FirstPost ran a helpful budget comparison showing how the Mangalyaan undertaking stacks up against other big-ticket expenditures in India, such as election rallies in Uttar Pradesh or “four big Bollywood movies.” Sounds like a relative bargain.

Meanwhile, across the Indus, following the November 1 drone strike against Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, public debate seems as if from another planet. Politician Imran Khan, whose party controls the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has angrily threatened a blockade of NATO supply lines in response. The head of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chapter of the Jamaat-e-Islami called Mehsud a “martyr.” The prime minister’s office said he would chair a meeting to review ties with the United States. This, for the head of a designated terrorist group with a long list of claimed attacks, according to the New York Times’ backgrounder, including the attempted bombing of Times Square in 2010 and the shooting of Malala Yusufzai last year, not to mention numerous other attacks in Pakistan with devastating impact on Pakistanis.

One country aims for the heavens and its citizens debate whether taxpayer funds would be better spent on advanced space research or on critical development investments. The other, suffering from vicious terrorist attacks, nonetheless has a public divided over whether terrorists who attack Pakistanis and would deny education to girls are dangerous threats to Pakistan’s own development—or whether they are martyrs in the fight to stand up to the United States.