The debate “Nationalism vs. Separatism” on NDTV last week looked promising in the beginning. For once the host, Barkha Dutt, keeping aside her usual national-security drivel, began by asking some pertinent questions, and the academic voices in the panel set the tenor of the debate right. Given NDTV’s habit of pulling together a big crowd of relevant and irrelevant speakers, however, the debate lost track and sank into a pointless and an all-too-familiar noise. This noise, let it be said, works perfectly well for the Indian establishment because it gives them a chance to say, “Look, we give ‘em an opportunity to speak; what a great democracy we are!”. And Kashmiris, the few carefully selected for a momentary right of free public expression on their TV, come off sounding tired and tedious; their voices lost in the din.
Sunil Khilnani, who is a US-based academic, asked the right question: the trouble is with the idea of India itself, in the way it seeks to run roughshod over different identities and affiliations with its singular, homogenous Indian identity. The point, in fact, goes even further, one which Khilnani did not (could not get a chance to) speak about. The real problem is the twin construction of India and of Hinduism as organic wholes—territorial consolidation of one, and the ‘semiticization’ of the other—with the former acting as the sacred space where the latter, the sacred community, must exercise its sovereignty. That there was nothing called “India” or “Hinduism” before the Brahmanical elite and their British colonial masters found it entirely in their own interest to engineer these territorial and cultural monoliths, has not been in much popular discussion. Both concepts are so naturalized and consecrated in public consciousness that questioning them is tantamount to blasphemy. In its present shape India is actually an empire which is masquerading as a modern state. The Indian rhetoric of “secular nationalism” has acted as a liberal cover in international fora for a swelling Hindu imperium, which was territorially achieved in 1947. The Indian elite has gratefully allowed the use, and continuous manufacture, of a Hindu civilizational self-identity to justify the empire.
Khilnani spoke only a little about the idea of India. He did not extend his argument to reflect on how the Hindu consciousness underlies the idea of Indian nationalism. Yet even the preliminary remark that there are a number of nationalisms jostling for recognition within the territorial space of the Indian state is appreciable. It, at least, gave a lie to the binary of the show’s name: “Nationalism” vs. “Separatism”. To give due recognition to Kashmiri nationalism has been unthinkable in India; they call it by other names: separatism, terrorism, extremism, and pro-Pakistanism. In an earlier show, on the same TV channel, Swapan Dasgupta, a rightwing columnist for ‘The Pioneer’, in fact, criticized the host of the show for allegedly affording a moral-equivalence to “Kashmiri separatists” on par with “Jammu nationalists”. (The host was not doing that, but the nervousness was palpable). No one asked Dasgupta as to why Indian nationalism should be the touchstone of morality. But this becomes easier to explain once we realize how Indian nationalism has become akin to a religious faith and India a god worthy of worship.
It is important here to reflect briefly upon the original issue of the Amarnath Yatra to illustrate the point about Indian nationalism as a religious faith in the service of the Hindu empire. Let me not speak of how India’s political elite goaded, duped, threatened, and forced the peoples of different regions of British India and the princely states to merge with India; it was the same process through which Kashmir was annexed. Let me not speak, too, of how most people of the subcontinent that were called “We, the People of India” had virtually no say in the formation of what was called the “Union”. Let me just say that Nehru inherited an empire from the British, and he wanted to consolidate his spoils by making it look like a state. Not for nothing did he stand atop the Red Fort (a symbol of the Mughal empire), on August 16, 1947, with a flag that no longer had Gandhi’s Charkha, but Ashoka’s Chakra (a symbol of the Mauryan empire)—an act to declare continuity with past empires of the subcontinent. Nehru was touted as a secular democrat, but one can find plenty of evidence to show how he gave in to the inexorable march of the Hindu nationalists, many of whom decked his own cabinet. The rebuilding of the Somnath temple, to assuage the feelings of the Hindu nation “for until then they would not think that the real freedom had come” (the words of Vallabhbhai Patel, clearly showing from whom was freedom desired), was just a starter.
Hindu nationalism, which ran amok over, what Ashis Nandy has called “the little cultures of Hinduism”, actually came in handy in the drive to turn the empire into a state. Hindu pilgrimages were boosted to this end; new places to worship were found and given nationalistic appeal. Issues like Ram’s birthplace, and in recent times ‘Hanuman’s bridge to Lanka’ (the Sethusamudaram) were made national issues to rally a fictitious nation around fictitious symbols. In short, a sacred geography for Hindus was outlined where it did not exist. India became synonymous with Bharat Mata, the territorial Hindu deity to be worshipped through deshbhakhti. Kashmir, which is called “the secular crown of India” without any hint of shame or irony, was actually imagined as “the crown of Bharat Mata”, and only so because the crown of the bejeweled image of Bharat Mata, often juxtaposed against the map of India, was where Kashmir was. Kashmir in the same vein also became the atoot ang (an unbreakable body-part) of the anthropomorphic goddess Mother India.
The Amarnath issue stems from here. By bringing in millions of Hindus from across India, facilitating their travel, increasing the number of pilgrimage months, and trying to create permanent bases for them, the state seeks to firmly place Kashmir within the Hindu imagination, as another point on the sacred map of Bharat Mata. By doing so, Kashmir ceases to be the land of Kashmiris, but becomes an abode of Baba Bole Nath. The consolidation of this vision, along with parallel efforts to invent ancient Kashmiri links to India (read the debates on the Institute of Kashmir Studies), in effect seeks to integrate Kashmir with India in its Hindu sense. What else can explain the comical demand of Jammu Hindus that their lost honour could be regained only if Kashmiri land is given to them (perhaps the entire Kashmir should be given to them in lieu of their lost Dogra honour!), and what else can explain the whole of India, the state and the nation, rallying behind Jammu Hindus?
Despite the spin Indian strategists gave the recent protests that they are an issue between Jammuites and Kashmiris (remember the monstrous lie about discrimination), or however much space the Indian media gives protests in Jammu as compared to the mammoth pro-Independence rallies in Kashmir, the fact of the matter remains, it is India, in its true Hindu colours, that is strutting in front of the powerless Kashmiri nation. I, for one, was not a wee bit surprised to see the saffron Hindu flags getting replaced by Indian flags in Hindu protests in Jammu, and chants of “Bam Bam Bole” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai” being raised together. I am not surprised to see Muslim Kashmiris getting killed by the dozen in protest marches or massive military clampdowns on peaceful rallies, or bullet injuries sustained by thousands of Kashmiris—many in India (like Tavleen Singh) wonder why the government isn’t actually pushing Kashmiris, sans Kashmir, into Pakistan. Marches in Jammu, by comparison, look like a party, what with soldiers standing around for photo-ops. No one has been killed in Jammu city in any kind of police action, even though many protestors went on a rampage, and attacked, injured and forced out many Muslims of the region. Despite the easy protests in Jammu, the government looked desperate to talk to the Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti, and scrambled a committee comprising a Kashmiri Pandit and a few Jammu Hindu bureaucrats. The “talks”, which looked like a family affair, ended with government respectfully and expectedly giving Kashmiri land to the Amarnath Shrine Board for exclusive use for three months each year (for the only months the land could be used anyway). The government, shamelessly, put out advertisements suggesting it consulted political parties and the civil society of Kashmir before stealing their land; one wonders when, during its brutal clampdowns and large-scale arrests, did government find time to consult Kashmiris? Or, is Farooq Abdullah again the sole spokesman of Kashmiris?
This brings us back to the NDTV debate and the very intriguing answer that an ex-military person (one of those irrelevant speakers on the debate on nationalism) gave to a question from the audience as to why the army kills so many Kashmiris. His answer: Kashmiris get killed because they happen to be at the scene of action. How can you argue with such a reply? One might say that perhaps Kashmiris get killed because the action happens on them, that their bodies are the scenes of action. His answer, in any case, derailed the debate, an attempt which Mani Aiyar of the Indian National Congress was also making by trying to take the argument away from Kashmir toward the “North-east” (I put Northeast in apostrophes because this description links it cartographically to India, when I think the region is closer to southeast Asia). Aiyar’s insistence on talking about other places is not different from all those noises with which Kashmiris are silenced by drawing contrasts to violence in other places: “so many get killed in Bihar”, “so many rapes happen in Delhi”, what are you Kashmiris whining about? (It is a separate matter that nationalist Indians inadvertently, thus, equate their state with criminals of Bihar and rapists of Delhi).Though issues in Nagaland, Manipur, etc. are similar to Kashmir, in the sense that they too emerge from the rather predatory “idea of India”, but Aiyar was using it to suggest, rather bald-facedly, that there are other people demanding independence, what are you Kashmiris whining about. Let us call it, for the sake of a better phrase, killing (occupying) Kashmiris by comparison.
It is also time we put to rest the phrase “Autonomy”. Kashmiris don’t want autonomy. Even National Conference, its original votary, does not look enthusiastic about the word any longer after its much-fêted proposal was consigned to the dustbin in Delhi without even a discussion. The point is Kashmir had autonomy; that is where India started with Kashmir. When the NC says they want to go back to the pre-1953 status, it automatically means that Kashmiris were there once. For all these years India has slowly gnawed it into shreds. Going back to that political status will mean trusting India over something of which it has proved totally untrustworthy. Who wants to give India another try for another 62 years? Perhaps, the NC?
Aiyar, at his noisy best, kept saying ad nauseam, that the Kashmiri “separatists” should participate in elections to prove their representative character, forgetting in the process an entire ignominious history of rigged elections in Kashmir. Those “mainstream” parties that India sees as representing Kashmiris cannot, by their own admission, bring so many Kashmiris out on the streets as pro-Independence leaders have in Kashmir over the last many years. And this is despite the presence of 700 thousand Indian soldiers to muzzle Kashmiris. If one sixth of the Kashmiri nation is out on the streets on a given day demanding Independence, one can imagine the level of support and endorsement the “separatists” command. How many people joined the Quit India marches at the height of India’s independence struggle? A lakh? Two? India says Kashmiris are confused; that they don’t know what they want. India describes the need for Kashmir’s freedom as an aspiration, a Kashmiri desire. Kashmiris, however, are talking to them as straight as possible. When a million Kashmiri voices rose together in August 2008, they told India something quite uncomplicated: Leave.