India, Pakistan, and Pigeons

Tensions between India and Pakistan have been on the rise since an attack by four heavily armed terrorists on September 18, 2016, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Uri attack was reported as “the deadliest attack on security forces in Kashmir in two decades.”

The following week the Indian Army responded by launching surgical strikes across the border into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), killing thirty-eight terrorists and destroying seven terror launch pads. Islamabad denied Indian forces crossed into its territory. Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attack and the Pakistani government has denied any role, a new suspect emerged from the midst of all the confusion: pigeons.

Kashmir Map / Creative Commons
Kashmir Map / Creative Commons

Earlier this month, a pigeon was found in the Indian state of Punjab with a letter addressed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Urdu. It was signed “Lashkar-e-Toiba,” an Islamist terror group based in Pakistan. On October 3, two pigeons were taken in custody by Indian police. They stated that the pigeons were discovered in Indian territory in suspicious circumstances, and ordered a heightened level national-security as a result. Last year, a pigeon was discovered with a mysterious number imprinted numbers on its feathers, raising fears of espionage – a top concern among authorities of both countries. The letter and its messenger were apprehended by India’s Border Security Force (BSF).

History of Pigeons and Espionage

The use of pigeons can be traced back to the ancient Romans, who used pigeons for chariot races to tell owners how their entries had placed. Genghis Khan established pigeon posts much throughout Asia and much of Eastern Europe, and Charlemagne restricted pigeon rearing to the nobility. By World War I, French pigeons were well trained for battle, as were the pigeons of the other combatants. The Germans even had photographer-pigeons with cameras strapped to their bellies. By the end of the war, France had mobilized 30,000 pigeons and had declared that anyone impeding their flight could be sentenced to death.

In South Asia, pigeon keeping dates back to the days of the Mughal Empire. Even today in parts of the subcontinent, men sit around for hours enjoying pigeon talk about how to pick a good bird by looking at his eyes, about how some folks feed pigeons powdered gold and silver to make them stronger and test their birds’ endurance by racing them in extreme heat. Pigeon keeping can be very lucrative. There’s big prize money and lots of gambling on the stretching from the subcontinent to the Middle East. Pigeon keeping and flying is an old tradition in East Asia too, especially in China.

Security concerns arising from birds isn’t new and is definitely not limited to India and Pakistan, or Europe in WWI. In 2014, China carried out ‘security checks’ for over 10,000 pigeons as a precaution during the country’s national day celebrations. The birds were checked for electrodes and explosives. These checks were carried out against the backdrop of the rising ethnic tensions from minority groups in the Xinjiang and Tibet provinces, as well as the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

In 2013 a swan was detained in Egypt on suspicion of being a spy. The bird, allegedly working for the French government, was captured in a citizen’s arrest by a fisherman who spotted that it was wearing some sort of electronic device. Puzzled officers called in veterinary experts to examine the bird, fearing the gadget was a bomb or spying equipment. Disappointingly, it was a tracking device used by scientists studying the bird’s migration patterns.

Future of India & Pakistan

In a new twist of events, some cultural ties between India and Pakistan are being severed indefinitely. The growing animosity intensified when Indian directors vowed not to hire actors from Pakistan in response to a major Indian cinema group’s declaration that it would not screen films with Pakistani casts. Recently, the Pakistani government banned all Indian television, radio, and movies, further aggravating the situation in the subcontinent. India has even pulled out of a regional economic summit to emphasize its disagreement with Pakistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the BRICS summit in India to attack the Pakistani government in front of the heads of state of Russia, China, Brazil, and South Africa. While the focus has shifted from pigeons, there is no real end in sight to the growing animosity between the two nations. One cannot help but wonder what the future of the two nations will look like.

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