The Indian Nation and Kashmir

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There is nothing especially surprising about the actions of the Indian state in Kashmir over the past few weeks. Faced with public protests in the valley after the killing of the Hizbul Mujahedeen “terrorist” Burhan Wani, Indian security forces have used force, killing about fifty civilians, injuring scores with twelve-gauge shotguns euphemistically called “pellet guns” (blinding several in the process), and brutally beating others. Little of this is new, in Kashmir or elsewhere in India, where lethal force is commonly used for crowd control and police violence against the weaker sections of the population – the poor, Dalits, Muslims, women, tribal people, homosexuals – is routine. This is part and parcel of illiberal democracy, in which colonial mechanisms of coercion have been substantially carried over into a republic premised on rights, because (as those with rights understand) not everybody understands rights, and because rights must accommodate entrenched social hierarchies.

What is remarkable, however, is the ubiquitous legitimization on Indian public forums of the state’s assault on Kashmiris. Legitimacy is typically not a relevant factor in the public’s reaction to state violence in India. Police brutality and “crowd firing” are unpleasant facts of life, like crippled children and dirty public toilets: one deals with them by not seeing them, which is not difficult because they usually happen to other people. Yet here we are in Kashmir, or rather in Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore looking at Kashmir, bending over backwards to justify the unspeakable. We would not see such behavior on the part of the state or the citizen in the United Kingdom or Canada, if Scotland or Quebec sought to secede. It is not that Britons and Canadians are not patriotic. But nationalism in South Asia (especially India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) has a particular stridency and desperation to it. Where civil society is underdeveloped, the national fetish is exaggerated in compensation. So the Pakistani cricket team publicly thanks the army after winning a Test match, and all conversations with Bangladeshis lead to "amader muktijudhdho," our glorious liberation war. The Indian nationalist posture on Kashmir, however, goes beyond that. The rationales that have been extended to justify the beatings and shootings, home invasions and disappearances, indicate an advanced rot within the ideology of being Indian.

The rhetoric of legitimization is neither simple nor uniform. It forms a cluster of discrete arguments and assumptions which can be deployed alternatively: when one fails, the Indian patriot uses another. They are also semi-disingenuous. The patriot holding out a particular rationale of state violence does not necessarily believe it to be true, but extends it anyway to cover an anxiety or awareness that he or she fears is too crude to articulate. There is the hoary insistence that Kashmir is “an integral part of India,” implying not only that Kashmiri separatists are traitorous and perverse, but also that the Indian response is justified by sovereignty itself: it is our “internal matter,” we will do what we want. There is the equally stale suggestion that the separatists are a small minority and agents of Pakistan, and that most Kashmiris are loyal Indians. There is the “What about the Pandits?” argument, implying that the ethnic cleansing of Kashmir’s Hindu minority makes Indian violence against the Muslim majority just and necessary. In a related vein, there is “What about the POK?”, or the insistence that the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir should be freed first. Then there are the arguments that appear to be based in Realpolitik: India apparently has no trustworthy negotiating partner with whom to negotiate a solution, and an independent Kashmir would become a Pakistani proxy, a hub of jihadi terror and a threat to Indian security. Finally, there is the argument of existential anxiety: if Kashmir is allowed to secede, it will set a precedent that will be followed sooner or later by other Indian states, destroying the union.

Few of these arguments are entirely specious, which is why they should be taken seriously rather than dismissed out of hand. It is only then that we can understand their shortcomings and see behind the curtain they represent. The “integral part of India” line sounds a blandly bureaucratic statement by the Ministry of External Affairs. It is true, nonetheless, that Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947 had the support of the National Conference (the main political party in Kashmir), and was validated by the victory of the National Conference in state-level elections in 1950. But it also disguises the nature of the National Conference’s allegiance to India. Isolated by geography, historical education and political realities, the National Conference and its leader Sheikh Abdullah were Kashmiri nationalists, not Indian nationalists. Since their primary adversary, the Dogra ruling family, was a client of the British colonial regime in India, Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru were able to form a partnership. It was not entirely an arrangement of convenience; Sheikh Abdullah did not regard Indians as aliens. His sense of his Indianness was, however, different from that of B.C. Roy or Rajagopalachari. For Sheikh Abdullah, Indian nationhood was confederate, not unitary. Kashmir could be one of many sovereign components. All national histories are inherently fictitious, and Kashmiris had learned to value a different fiction from what Tamils, Maharashtrians and Bengali Hindus had absorbed over the past century.

We tend to forget that in the 1940s, the idea of multiple Indias had adherents of many different ideological stripes, including Jinnah, Benoy Sarkar, Sarat Bose and Shahid Suhrawardy. And however much Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi patriots may deny it now, multiple Indias are precisely what emerged in 1947 and 1971. Sheikh Abdullah's outlook on the "Indianness" of Kashmir can be located in this context of acceptable detachment and contingent attachment. When Kashmiri nationalists agreed to join India, they joined as partners, not as an “integral part.” A partner can disassociate if the terms of the partnership are no longer satisfactory. By 1953, with Article 370 of the Indian Constitution already rolled back significantly, the terms of Kashmir’s membership in the Indian Union satisfied neither Kashmiri nor Indian nationalists. This is true regardless of whether the revisions of Article 370 are justifiable. (By the norms of a unitary nation they are; by those a confederation they are highly provocative.) The subsequent behavior of the federal government – the dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah’s government and his repeated imprisonment, the naked political interference and rigging of elections in the 1980s, and then the brutality of the counterinsurgency – have made the resumption of a partnership extremely difficult, although perhaps it is not impossible. But the “integral part” rhetoric is at best a mistake, based on a misreading of the original relationship between Kashmiri and Indian nationalisms.

Likewise, the idea that most Kashmiris are “loyal Indians” is not entirely baseless. Many Kashmiris have participated in the Indian state, or at least, some aspects of the Indian state, since 1947. They have voted (in numbers that have fluctuated wildly with the political mood), worked in government offices, and even joined the police. After the demise of the accord which Sheikh Abdullah had reached with Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1974, and the active sabotage of the state’s election process by the Congress in the 1980s (initiated, ironically, by Mrs. Gandhi herself), that willingness to participate has become even more sporadic. Kashmiris continue to need the state to provide jobs and basic services, much as any occupied population needs the occupying power. Indians before 1947 also cooperated with the colonial regime on an everyday basis, voting in municipal and provincial elections, staffing the government offices and joining the police. Nobody except delusional apologists for the empire would have mistaken that participation for loyalty. No Indian administrator who has spent time in the Valley, now or before the insurgency began, believes the line that most Kashmiris are cheerful citizens. If the Indian government believed otherwise, it would have held a plebiscite in its section of Kashmir and put the question to rest.

The idea that Pakistani control over western Kashmir is equivalent to Indian control over the Valley (or even worse, as many Indian patriots insist) reflects a similar ignorance of the history of the dispute, as well as a willed distortion of present-day realities. In 1947, when the various interested parties (the Congress, the Muslim League, the National Conference, the Dogra monarchy) staked their claims, the National Conference and its Kashmiri-nationalist but pro-India agenda was strong in the Valley but not in the western regions that subsequently came under Pakistani control. The Muslim League and its argument for two nations had greater public support in the western areas, where there was a substantial Punjabi presence. Thus, in a rather convenient twist of military circumstances, the Pakistani-held portion was relatively pro-Pakistan, whereas the Indian-held Valley was already inclined towards India if the conditions of partnership were met. While there was undoubtedly dissatisfaction with the particulars of Pakistani control in western Kashmir, it never added up to the level of anger that developed in Indian Kashmir, and it did not require similar levels of violence to suppress. “Azad Kashmir” is misleading terminology, but less so than “integral part of India,” and there is no crisis in “Azad Kashmir” that calls for an immediate solution.

If we look at the predicament of the Pandits, we cannot deny that they have suffered: brutalized by representatives of the local majority, ethnically cleansed from their homeland, consigned to refugee camps elsewhere in India. It is reasonable to argue that justice for Kashmiris should include justice for the Pandits as well. But to use the Pandits as an excuse to reject Kashmiri aspirations is neither reasonable nor sustainable. First of all, the expulsion of the Pandits happened in the course of the militancy and the counterinsurgency; it was not a triggering movement for either. Second, the counterinsurgency has not helped the Pandits. Instead of producing the conditions of safety and confidence under which they might return to Kashmir, it has generated only a bizarre plan for segregated settlements under constant Indian military protection. If that plan is implemented, it will only institutionalize the alienation of the Pandits from Kashmiri society, and produce a new political-military problem reminiscent of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Finally, the narrative of the martyred Pandit ignores the fact that the small minority group was overwhelmingly favored by the Dogra monarchy, and continued to enjoy a very large share of government jobs, contracts and administrative access after 1947. (It can be pointed out that they also occupied the Indian Prime Minister’s chair for about forty years.) Such disproportionate power inevitably generates resentment. Justice for the displaced Pandits can be achieved, if it is not too late, only within the larger framework of justice for Kashmiris. It will have to come from the Kashmiris (many of whom are sympathetic to the Pandits but not to their patrons); Indian attempts to force it will backfire.

The Realpolitik arguments are no less shaky than those based on misreading the specific history of Kashmir’s relationship to India. They collapse the different layers, phases and affiliations of Kashmiri nationalism into a single plot that can be described variously as “terrorist,” “jihadi” or “Pakistani.” No distinction then remains between a secular Kashmiri-nationalist outfit like the (now almost defunct) JKLF, a religiously-inspired but also Kashmiri-nationalist organization like the Hizbul Mujahedeen (which, unlike other "mujahedeen" such as Al Qaida or ISIS, has no agenda beyond Kashmiri sovereignty), and groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which are not Kashmiri at all, but transnational jihadi organizations based in Pakistan and controlled (not always effectively) by Pakistani military intelligence. There are also the many political groups, some stridently separatist and others inclined to cooperate with the Indian state, that form the Hurriyat All-Parties Conference or political umbrella of Kashmiri nationalism. The outliers, clearly, are the non-Kashmiri jihadis, who by any reasonable definition of terrorism, are the only “terrorists” in this cluster of factions opposing the status quo. It is only they who have consistently attacked civilian targets, both in Kashmir and in India proper. Their presence and impact in the Valley have been declining for the past fifteen years. (The Pakistani military has partially “turned off the tap,” so to speak, under US pressure.)

Yet it is the non-Kashmiri jihadis – and their leaders, like Hafeez Sayeed – that hard-headed Indian observers apparently fear when they say that Kashmir without Indian control would become a terrorist den. The anxiety misses not only the weakness of such groups in the Valley, but also the reality that the Kashmiris themselves tolerated them because they troubled the Indian occupiers. Without an Indian occupation, that tolerance would dry up, and foreign jihadis would have little to do in Kashmir. They would not even have a reason to carry out attacks in India, which they attack in the name of Kashmir. If they wanted to do so at the bequest of the Pakistani military, they could do it from across the Punjab border.

To assume that “terrorists” would take over Kashmir if there was no Indian occupation underestimates the strength and substance of Kashmiri nationalism. It is a fully-fleshed ideology and infrastructure that goes back to the National Conference in the 1930s and that is represented today in the Hurriyat. There is, in other words, no shortage of negotiating partners for the Indian government whose objectives are as rational, and as irrational, as those of any other nationalist: sovereignty, self-government, independence. There is every likelihood that the Pakistani government will seek to maintain its influence over a sovereign Kashmir, but there is no guarantee that it will succeed. (If such influence could be taken for granted, Bangladesh would be an Indian client state, which it most assuredly is not. The reasons are the same as in Kashmir: Bangladeshis may have welcomed Indian intervention in 1971, but they did not throw off Pakistani control to replace it with Indian overlordship.) On the contrary, any negotiated independence for Kashmir would almost certainly include provisions for limiting or excluding direct Pakistani military control, just as Indian control would be limited or excluded, either through demilitarization or through joint Indo-Pakistani protection of Kashmiri sovereignty. But the primary limit would be Kashmiri nationalism itself.

If the Indian defense of the national posture on Kashmir was based merely on bad history and mistaken assumptions, it would not be so resilient. The resilience comes first and foremost from the emotional power of the nationalist imagination, which, for all its noble protestations of loving one’s “fellow man” (albeit within national limits), is even more basically a narcissistic vision of the self. For Indian nationalists, more than most, that vision has long been tied to an anthropomorphic map – Bharat Mata in her sari, like a bazaar calendar – in which Kashmir forms the head. There is no denying the power of that map; no Indian who grew up with it is immune to its visceral appeal, which is the appeal of birth and survival itself. That is how Indian nationhood was fleshed out, with Bankim’s motherland acquiring the features of Abanindranath Tagore’s Mother India and Savarkar’s geography of Hindusthan. Within this imagination, “losing” Kashmir amounts to decapitation, or an almost unimaginable mutilation of identity.

The map at the center of that identity is, ironically, a colonial map. It is not an old map. Its basic shape emerged in 1849, when the British completed their conquest of Punjab. It does not coincide with any ancient Indian state, and the concept of Bharat Mata did not exist before the nineteenth century. It is not even a single map, because the original fetish that moved the nationalists of the Swadeshi era was replaced, in 1947, by a relatively slender figure. Then too, outraged nationalists cried “vivisection” and “mutilation” (and blamed the British), but soon became entirely accustomed to the new map, to the extent that they lost nearly all familiarity with the severed “arms” and had no difficulty thinking of them as enemy territory. In the slimmed-down, post-Partition Mother India, Kashmir remains the head, but had Kashmir become a part of Pakistan in 1947, Indians would have adjusted, just as they adjusted to the rest of the “vivisection.” The unthinkable prospect of decapitation reflects an inability to see past one’s nose of the moment.

The fundamental consequence of that excessive attachment to a recent map is that land, rather than people, has become the substance of Indian nationhood. Keeping one’s cartographic head has become essential; the inhabitants might as well be lice. A recent article on the Internet featured images of the Kargil region and reminded readers that Indian soldiers had died to protect the beautiful landscape. This is popular wisdom and patriotism. There has, in fact, been a significant shift in Indian discourse on this point. For much of the history of the republic, Indian nationalists insisted that Kashmiris were Indians too, even when they protested otherwise. That insistence distinguished the Indian position on Kashmir from the Israeli stance on Palestine: whereas the Zionists claimed the land but rejected the native inhabitants, India claimed the land as well as the people, preserving a saving grace of sorts. In the virulent rhetoric that has surfaced since the killing of Burhan Wani, however, it has become common, and acceptable, for Indians to suggest that if Kashmiris do not wish to be part of India, they can simply “go to Pakistan,” or even more simply, be killed by the army, leaving the land to Indian tourists, who can, presumably, enjoy the houseboats and mountains without the complicating presence of so many Kashmiris. The latter are desirable only when they agree to be part of the landscape.

We have arrived, thus, at a point where the disconnection of Indian nationhood from the consent of the governed has become both naked and respectable. It is not that nobody can see the similarities with the Pakistani position on Bangladesh in 1971: “integral part of Pakistan,” “most are loyal, only a few troublemakers instigated by a foreign power,” “terrorists,” “traitors,” "anti-national elements," “Indian incursions.” It is that a map in which the citizen sees his own human image makes it traumatic to attach value to the concept of citizenship, which is a concept of rights invested in a community that has consented to its association with a particular territory, including, most basically, the right to live in that associated territory. The “go to Pakistan” line has typically been used in India to threaten Muslims, who are already enshrined as barely tolerated aliens in the national body. (Indian tolerance ceases to operate when a Muslim complains about intolerance. He or she is immediately shouted down and advised to go to Pakistan.) Now that line is applied to an entire people in its own territory, effectively turning Kashmiris into just Muslims, who – like Muslims in Maharashtra or Uttar Pradesh – may or may not be tolerated on “Indian soil.”

The irrelevance of consent also informs the argument that Kashmiri secession would lead other Indian states to leave the union, destroying the republic. The the principles of the republic, rather than its geography or map, form the leading edge of this narrative. For that reason, there is a poignancy to it: a faith in liberal democracy, in secular and constitutional government, and in the Nehruvian principle that the independent Indian state would be a force for justice, both within and without India. Nationhood and sovereignty, in this vision, do not simply exist; they need a purpose, which Nehru summarized as the willingness to “wipe every tear from every eye.” This, I think, is the most serious objection to “letting Kashmir go.” It is also, however, fundamentally self-defeating.

The fear of disintegration reflects a lack of confidence in the republic: an anxiety that is woven into Indian nationalism, which has coped by devaluing the republic itself. The anxiety is the whispered belief that the Indian state is inherently the project of a minority that can, at best, maintain a benign coercion as its modality of governance. And indeed, the fear is valid. The nationhood of justice and fundamental rights was only occasionally the dominant ideology of the Indian state. They were compromised from the very outset; the Constitution is not a pristine document of liberal democracy, as even a cursory glance at Article 19 (which deals with freedom of speech) will show. For the middle class, i.e., the national vanguard, the purpose of justice almost immediately became secondary to the purpose of “security,” by which they meant the security of their class and the security of the map they fetishized. They also meant consuming the pornography of security: fighter planes and tanks, tales of military “glory” and exhortations to remember “sacrifices.” As in Pakistan, celebrities (M.S. Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, assorted movie stars) were encouraged to associate themselves with the military, and one can hardly read the news without being subjected to the mandatory worship of “bravehearts” (the term borrowed from a Hollywood movie) and “Lest we forget” headlines (borrowed from British sentimentality in the First World War). It might be said that whereas Pakistan is a highly militarized society, middle-class India desperately wants to be one, especially if somebody else can be persuaded to do the fighting. But the embrace of the soldier – not the voter – as the ideal citizen, and the consumption of security, has never meant the security of tribal populations, the poor and religious minorities, let alone the right of Kashmiris to be secure from the agents of security. Even the middle class now finds itself subjected to the vocabulary, boots and batons of security, as university students, professors, journalists, activists, and critics of the government are immediately labelled “anti-national.” Being for the most part good nationalists, they do not make the connection with Kashmir. But the connection is real: anybody can become an honorary Kashmiri. Nationhood, in which justice is a luxury (in the sense that it is frivolous and also in the sense that it must be purchased privately), and “security” is the vital consideration, becomes pathological if the state must be held together by force, losing even its benign premises.

It does not, however, automatically disintegrate. Whatever its purpose, and whether or not it is experienced as benign, Indian nationalism is a powerful ideology and institution; if it were not so, Kashmir, the states of the Northeast and even Tamil Nadu would all be long gone from the union. But it is not equally strong everywhere, because the various pieces of the map did not come through the same experience of colonial rule and anti-colonial mobilization. There is a core and a periphery, easy enough to identify. Not even Indians are persuaded by the Indianness of the northeast, for instance, in spite of decades of counterinsurgency and AFSPA. The northeast, like Kashmir (or Pakistani Bengal) is a kind of desperate afterthought to the nation-state. In the core, Indian federalism has successfully (although not easily, if one recalls the language crises of the 1950s and '60s) organized and accommodated linguistic diversity within a common nationhood with a shared historical narrative; there is little danger here of disintegration along ethnic lines. That is, indeed, an extraordinary achievement, with few parallels elsewhere in the world. Religious diversity has found no such accommodation. The secession of the only Muslim-majority state in the union, or a part of that state, would be a blow to a particular fantasy of secular India, but it would not necessarily shatter the core. Even without the head, the body would probably survive. If it does not, it does not deserve to, and should not. It is worth preserving, but not at any cost, when somebody else must pay the price.

The poignancy of the fear of disintegration also lies in the fact that the Indian map can, and does, represent a romantic cosmopolitanism: the coming together of Punjabis and Upeewallas, Malayalis and Oriyas, on a shared historical stage. It is the romance of a big country and big identity, and even in the moth-eaten India that emerged from the Partition, Indianness has become progressively bigger. Bengalis in the early twentieth century still imagined living in Delhi or Bombay as a kind of exile; their descendants in the present time are very much at home in Rajasthan, as Marwaris are in Calcutta. “Interstate” marriages, “mixed” children and competence in multiple vernaculars are no longer unusual. This cosmopolitanism is an aspect of justice: a transcendence of provinciality and pettiness, an expansion of one’s sense of home and kinship, of what is normal, what is malleable. There is something humanizing about growing up with the acceptance of difference, and with the understanding that old hierarchies and prejudices must give way to, or at least make room for, new civic and social relationships. It has appealed, historically, both to nationalists of the right (like Savarkar, who wanted a Bengali sister-in-law) and of the left (like Nehru); it appealed also to those who (like Rabindranath Tagore) came to see nationalism as a childish constriction of identity and empathy, but retained their sense of being rooted in a particular land.

There is, however, a critical difference between the cosmopolitanism of the left, and that of the right. It is a wonderfully expansive thing for a Bengali to stand in Karnataka, or in Kashmir for that matter, and feel that he belongs there. It is something else entirely for him to feel that it belongs to him, even when the people who actually live there feel otherwise. There is, in the latter case, no romance of kinship: the Midnight’s Children phenomenon of a community that is miraculous not only because it has discovered itself, but also because it has made itself. There is only pathetic insecurity and the nationhood of self-occupation, in which rights and kinship are simultaneously sacrificed to a map and a Mel Gibson movie.

July 28, 2016