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SOUTH ASIA: Of Nationalism and Love - Part II

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By Shivam Vij *

When Rohrabacher explained his position in an article in the Washington Post, he wrote:

...every Pakistani ambassador to the United States for the past 20 years is well aware of my support for the Kashmiri people. Indeed, at the Feb 8 House subcommittee hearing on Baluchistan, I compared Baluchistan to Kashmir. In 1995, I introduced a resolution that stated in part: “a cycle of violence exists in Kashmir as a result of the Indian Government’s refusal to permit the people of Kashmir to exercise their right to self-determination.”

Rohrabacher’s clarification, however, did not receive much attention in the Subcontinent because it pleases neither Indians nor Pakistanis, not even Kashmiris. It only pleases the Baloch, who don’t have much of a voice in any media.

A South Asian tragedy

Kashmir and Balochistan are both part of the unresolved problem of nationalism in Southasia, but they are not alone. In contrast to the popular armed rebellion in Kashmir, the revolt of Indian Punjab in the 1980s was, by all accounts, never a popular one, though there was widespread disaffection with the Indian state amongst the Sikhs. Remnants of that disaffection came back to haunt India recently after the president decided not to forgive the death sentence of a Sikh citizen who assassinated Punjabi chief minister Beant Singh in 1995. Yet that was not the only high-profile assassination in India’s history. In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her own Sikh bodyguards. Her assassination was avenged through riots in Delhi and elsewhere, in which over 3000 Sikhs were killed. Leading members of Indira Gandhi’s own Congress party are accused of perpetrating those vengeful killings. So the Sikhs have a point: why will you not punish those killers of Sikhs, but hang Beant Singh’s killer? Such is nationalism: those who do not want a flag imposed on them seem to deserve no justice, only death.

In the Indian Northeast, the picture is even more complex. Some ethnicities and states have withdrawn their demands for secession from India, making some Indian analysts theorise that rebellions and insurgencies are like children who cry for attention, but are ultimately loving and loyal towards their parents. Other states and ethnicities still demand freedom from India, some insurgencies are coming to terms with the end of their struggle, and some still want greater autonomy within the Indian Union. Yet from Assam to Nagaland all rebellion, regardless of scale or kind, is crushed with the heavy hand of the Assam Rifles. The Northeast remains massively militarised. Many Indians know and understand what has happened in Kashmir, even if they don’t acknowledge it, but most don’t even know what has been happening in the Northeast. 

The nature of the conflicts in the Northeast was mirrored somewhat in the two decades of conflict between a newly independent Bangladesh and the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. A peace accord in 1997 ended that insurgency, but the conflict isn’t entirely over even today. That conflict is only one example that India and Pakistan are not the only Southasian states to behave like empires. 

Sri Lanka recently declared victory over the Tamil rebellion, yet the Sinhalese-dominated state sees no need for reconciliation. Victors don’t want reconciliation, only the arrogance of victory.  There was talk of emulating the Sri Lankan strategy to crush the Maoist uprising in central India, but that talk has thankfully been put to rest, at least for now. While human-rights violations by Indian state security forces are reported almost every day – especially the indiscriminate targeting of those seen as ideologically sympathetic to Maoist politics – New Delhi has refrained from deploying the army. The army refuses to do the dirty job of crushing a rebellion unless it is granted impunity under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), and there is some noise in New Delhi that we can’t do that to ‘our own people’. That is only further proof that people on India’s peripheries – in the ‘disturbed areas’ of Kashmir and the Northeast where the AFSPA permits unspeakable state-sanctioned brutality – are not regarded as ‘our own’. In other words, the nationalist mainstream unwittingly admits that the people of Kashmir and the Northeast are not part of the imagined Indian nation.

The ‘happy’ state of Bhutan also proved itself capable of nationalistic cruelty when, in the 1990s, it expelled at least a hundred thousand of its own citizens because they were of Nepalese origin. Many of those people languish in refugee camps in Nepal to this day.

Such conflicts are not peculiar to Southasia. China’s actions in Tibet are well known, but few in Southasia are aware of the conflict in a place the Chinese call Xinjiang, and which its inhabitants – the Uyghurs – call East Turkistan. Some years ago I met a Uyghur refugee in Delhi. He tried to explain me, amongst other things, that his home and its conflict weren’t as far away from Southasia as I thought. “It’s right here, behind Kashmir!” he exclaimed in broken Hindustani. I wondered about this way of thinking about geography. Xinjiang is in China. East Turkistan is ‘behind’ Kashmir. The latter, my political scientist friend Nivedita Menon told me, is a post-nationalist way of thinking about the world. In this way of seeing, good old geography rather than man-made borders define us.

Indigenous imperialism

For those who cannot bring themselves to see through a post-nationalist prism and still insist on forging nationalism by the gun, here’s a question: Does militarily crushing a popular rebellion make it go away? By gunning down citizens who take up guns against the state, by incarcerating or killing citizens who dare to be ‘separatist’, do we solve the problem? Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse would perhaps answer that question in the affirmative, but all Sri Lankans should look seriously at the costs of what he has done. The authoritarian regime in Sri Lanka affects the Sinhalese and their democratic rights too.

Take the example of Kashmir. For a variety of reasons, the insurgency in Kashmir began to give way to what the Indian government called ‘normalcy’ by 2002. Indian analysts were still touting the arrival of ‘normalcy’ in 2006. In 2008, the Kashmiri people rebelled again, this time with stones and words and marches. The dispute was not over, the grievances remained, and the Kashmiris still wanted azadi. India allowed some expression of such opinions, but in 2010 decided enough was enough, killing over 120 protestors to put an end to mass demonstrations of people shouting, “Hum kya chahatay? Azadi!” (What do we want? Freedom!)

Every time Kashmir erupts, Indians go back to the old keywords – Pakistan, ISI, Islamism, paid separatists, etc – to deny any Kashmiri problem of India’s own making. Last summer in Kashmir I met a few young men who were born in or around the fateful year of 1990. They told me how they sometimes wake up in the middle of the night after having nightmares about the military ‘crackdowns’. I met a 14-year-old who spoke of avenging his father, who was left with debilitating mental illness after being tortured by Indian forces. His idea of revenge was to die pelting stones at the people wearing the same uniforms as those who took his father in.

I have great sympathy for Indian military and intelligence officers who have the unpleasant task of administering an occupation in Kashmir while pretending that there isn’t one. Sanjay Kak, whose film Jashn-e-Azadi is a vital document of the Kashmir conflict, pointed me to the film Battle of Algiers, where French liberals ask their army not to commit human-rights violations in Algeria. The army chief replies that the violations will cease, but only if France is ready to let go of Algeria. There is no such thing as a good occupation.

Indian analysts who talk of a ‘post-conflict’ situation in Kashmir today speak as if the occupation never existed. India is back to the old charade of peace talks, while the army refuses to allow the elected civilian government of Jammu & Kashmir to lift the AFSPA even from Srinagar, which sees no militant activity. The AFSPA effectively negates the fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution – yet more proof that Kashmir is treated as enemy territory.

As an Indian, I have learnt from Kashmir that the only thing sadder than crushing a rebellion is having to govern a crushed people. The Indian government has to administer an occupation while pretending that democracy is flourishing. As my Tamil friends in Sri Lanka tell me, reconciliation becomes well-nigh impossible after the human-rights violations required to break the will of a people. The people ask: after such knowledge, what forgiveness? It’s like the British trying to pretend the Raj was for India’s own good after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

The analogy with British colonialism is neither rhetorical nor facetious. Mridu Rai, a historian of Kashmir, points me to a 1934 article by Jawaharlal Nehru in which he condemned the British Indian government’s repression of protests at Chittagong and Midnapur as part of the anti-tax campaigns of 1930. Nehru wrote:

It is a strange record, worthy of preservation for an incredulous posterity… large military forces are brought from distant places; they occupy territories in a way no alien army occupies the enemy’s land in wartime. They treat almost the whole population as suspect and force even young boys and girls to go about with cards of identity of various hues with photographs attached. They limit the movements of the inhabitants and even lay down the dress that must be worn. They turn out people from their houses at a few hours’ notice. They close schools and treat the children en bloc as enemy persons. Under various pains and penalties they force the people to welcome them publicly, and to salute the flag which has become the sign of humiliation to them. Those that disobey have to suffer heavily and to face reprisals.

A strange record worthy of preservation – indeed! How did we become what we once stood against? We have inherited from colonialism the evil of nationalism.

In Battle of Algiers, Algerian separatists go about killing French civilians – clearly there is no such thing as a good rebellion either. All nation-states are formed and kept together by violence; this is as true of the occupier as it is of the rebel. In which case why should we privilege one upon another? The absurdity of the nation-state will dawn upon the world only if nation-states multiply like amoeba! A world full of smaller nation-states, rather than monstrously big ones, will be a world without Empires. Only then will nation-states become less overbearing than they are.


* Shivam Vij is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. He is @DilliDurAst on Twitter. This essay is dedicated to Ilmana Fasih, an ‘Indian Pakistani’. This was first published in Himal Southasian on 19 June 2012.

Click to Read Part I

Image Shivam Vij |Courtesy: Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting

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