Trapped within the Hindu Nationalist Imagination

On 26 January 1992, Murli Manohar Joshi, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, after travelling by road all the way from the southern tip of India, was airlifted from Jammu to the heart of Srinagar where he half-raised the Indian flag near historic Lal Chowk. All of Kashmir was put under severe curfew, and the army was given shoot-at-sight orders. Throughout the day soldiers shot dead more than a dozen Kashmiris in the streets of Srinagar. Over the previous two years, the Indian government had unleashed a reign of terror on the people, with massacre upon massacre of unarmed protestors dotting Kashmir’s timeline. Joshi’s Ekta Yatra (Unity March), protected and provided of full support by the Indian government, was an important reminder of the nature of the Indian state and the relationship it sought with the people of Kashmir. The event was designed to put on display the majoritarian character of Indian nationhood, and line up power of the state behind it to send barely coded messages to audiences in India and in Kashmir.

In the 1980s, overt Hindu nationalism, after years of keeping a relatively low profile, had been gaining momentum across India. Post-Emergency, Indira Gandhi openly started pandering to Hindu chauvinism. On an election campaign in Jammu in 1983, Gandhi shocked many with her rabid communal pronouncements. The Congress party’s changing discourse gave fillip to even more extremist parties. While Congress soon ranged its guns at Sikhs, other Hindu nationalists gathered storm around the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi, which came to power after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, was not only soft on the rise of Hindutva, but clearly displayed a soft Hindutva of its own. From communally charged rituals, like the foundation laying (Shilanyas) ceremony for the proposed Ram Temple near the 16th century mosque, Hindus in India were mobilized into a frenzied movement that would realize some of the social and political projects whose history dates back to the pre-1947 politics of the subcontinent.

Organizations like Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for decades declared India primarily a Hindu nation, while slowly politicizing the faith of millions of Hindus into a militant nationalism. Despite the Indian National Congress’ secularist discourse, it clearly subscribed to the Hindu subjective view of India as an organically united nation state—a natural home of Hindus. Nehru, the supposed exemplar of Indian secularism, often used Hindu imagery in conceiving India as a nation. Like many Hindu nationalists, he often depicted India as a living territorial goddess. Using religious imagery was in itself not so much a problem, but the fact that the Hindu elite had inherited almost all of the British Indian Empire, and not all of it with the democratic consent of the diverse peoples who inhabited that empire, meant this vision was bound to produce friction. So when, a day after the British officially transferred power to Indian leaders on 15 August 1947, Nehru stood on the ramparts of the Mughal-built Red Fort in Delhi and raised the Indian flag, its Gandhi’s charkha replaced with the Mauryan Chakra, the significance was not lost on many. Nehru was symbolically laying claim over a historic continuity with the two largest empires that the subcontinent had ever seen, the Mauryan and the Mughal. In his book Discovery of India, a book that is foundational to understanding the construction of India as a nation state, Nehru followed a teleological narrative borrowed from the British colonial historians, who had used history instrumentally to construct legitimacy for their rule over the subcontinent’s peoples. This narrative often depicted the British colonial arrival as liberation for Hindus from Muslim despotism. Nehru tweaked it and saw 1947 as the final liberation. History, in a way, had come to an end for India, as Nehru pronounced that the Indian “nation, long suppressed, had finally found its utterance.” The discourse of “India as a nation” sought to naturalize a territorial vision of permanence.

It might have been liberation from direct colonialism, and it did create a possibility of empowerment for the masses, but India’s “liberation” was intimately tied to the enormous costs paid by peoples whose needs and hopes India did not represent. “India” was a colonial construction, and any attempt to retain this artificial territorial behemoth, as it was, required the creation of a national elite with an insured political power, even if this elite was far removed from the particular and unique experiences of this new country’s diverse inhabitants. This elite deeply territorialized the ‘idea of India’, within which the yawning contradictions on the inside were papered over by creating fear of the outside and of territorial break-up. In turn, and more consequentially for such an entity to sustain itself this national ruling class pushed for homogenization, where a supreme Indian identity would gradually subsume, or erase other identities. Templates for such homogenization had been operational for quite some time, the most potent of which was uniting different Hindu communities under the idea of a singular Hindu nation/religion. Ashis Nandy has argued well, however, that this construction of a new Hinduism out of the plural “little cultures” of Hinduism was always more political than religious. This form of Hinduism also represented and secured the interests of upper castes alone, substantively depriving effective political power to the bulk of Hindus. It must be borne in mind that such efforts, in reality, haven’t been completely successful.

Constitutionally, the Indian state was “secular.” The Indian constitution promised political equality to the inhabitants of the successor state of the British Indian Empire. Much of the progressive outlook of this document is owed to the enormous struggles of B. R. Ambedkar whose own community was (and continues to remain) the most oppressed caste of Hindu society. Constitutions, however, are ideal forms, which work only as long as the societies they seek to shape allow them. Majoritarian politics and the contending popular vision of India as primarily a Hindu nation enormously restricted the possibilities of empowerment for non-Hindu communities as well as for smaller nationalities, like Kashmiris. For Indian Muslims, who were regularly administered doses of guilt for the creation of Pakistan the political choices remained confined to seeking a fuller implementation of the promises enshrined in the Indian constitution. Despite their enormous numbers, their representation and negotiating power in Indian politics remained small. Much of the time, the powerlessness and gradual socio-economic destitution was met with silence and grudging quiescence, or of hope of constitutional amelioration, while the social landscape around this large minority shifted decidedly toward Hindu majoritarianism. Resentment against lack of substantive progress was also displaced of to an illusory sense of well being by misidentifying with the over-advertised success of a few charismatic Muslims.

On the other hand, Kashmiris had real political choices. The order of mass politics in British India and in Kashmir was different from the beginning. When the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League took an anti-colonial stance, Kashmiris focused exclusively on fighting for the end of their oppression at the hands of the Hindu monarch. Despite British protection to Dogra rule, Kashmiris did not connect their struggle, in discourse or in deed, with the anti-colonial struggles in the Indian subcontinent. Sheikh Abdullah, the predominant leader of Kashmiris, envisioned an independent state of Kashmir, a vision that only reflected a historically ingrained sense of Kashmir as a realm of its own. The National Conference’s “New Kashmir” document had independence as one of its chief goals. In fact, its entire socio-economic and progressive political program was intrinsically linked to Kashmir as a separate state.

There were broadly two groups opposed to the socio-political vision of National Conference. First, was the leadership of Muslim Conference, who suspected Abdullah’s proximity to Indian leaders as fraught with risks (a suspicion proved right in the end), but was itself close to Muslim League. In the end, Muslim Conference was willing to negotiate with the Dogra ruler a settlement where he could keep his privileges but declare independence. The second was the leaders of the Kashmiri Pandit community, who hoped Kashmir would become part of Hindu India, so that their own privileges, acquired during the Dogra regime, would be safeguarded. Sheikh’s unrelenting opposition to the idea of Pakistan and fondness for progressive and often pluralistic rhetoric of Indian leaders later drew the Pandit community closer to him. Both these groups were quite small, even though their power was disproportionately large. The idea of independence, however, gained predominance among the masses in Kashmir who believed (and continue to believe) that only in a free state could any substantial socio-political empowerment happen. This belief has only grown stronger after six decades of life under the Indian rule.

From the beginning, the Indian state’s claim over Kashmir consisted of a breach of democratic principles, and stood in direct contrast to the spirit of its own Constitution. India’s claim was based on an implicit acceptance of the Hindu nationalist notion of Indian sovereign territoriality. Kashmir, in the view of Hindu nationalists, was an “integral” part, or an “atoot ang” (inseparable body part), of Mother India. (As was Pakistan. That is why India’s Hindu leaders saw Partition of the subcontinent as a tragedy; not because it divided people, but because it divided the organically united territory of the living goddess.) Kashmir was imagined as India’s crown, not so much a “secular crown” as we are led to believe, but an actual crown of Bharat Mata’s image superimposed on the map of India. This Hindu nationalist view is intrinsically arrogant and violent because it denies the histories and unique experiences of Kashmiris. It didn’t matter, for instance, that Bharat Mata’s symbolic, if not militant, equivalent in Kashmir was “Mouj Kasheer,” representing a separate Kashmiri nationhood.

In annexing Kashmir, Indian leaders put aside their progressive anti-colonialism, and pursued a policy that stood in direct confrontation with the goals of struggling Kashmiris. Nehru’s professed derision for princes and despots proved facile in Kashmir in this first real test of his commitment to anti-colonialism and democratic values. His decision to urge the discredited and runaway Dogra ruler to sign the imperial Instrument of Accession, and then accept it, was a defeat for the oppressed Kashmiris who had, with great sacrifices, forced the Dogra ruler out. By recognizing the authority of the Dogra ruler, Indian sovereignty over Kashmir simply replaced the sovereignty enshrined in the Dogra maharaja. But along with that sovereignty, India inherited Dogra rule’s illegitimacy as well. The Indian condition of accession before intervention in Kashmir proved disastrous for Kashmiris. It was not that India couldn’t have intervened without the accession of Kashmir. It has done so a number of times since, in East Pakistan, in Jaffna. Sheikh Abdullah, who was at the head of the Quit Kashmir movement, was released from jail only to discover a new strategic environment where it seemed better to trust India for a while than to be forced to be part of Pakistan. After all, Indian claims over Kashmir were flimsier than Pakistan’s.

The illegitimacy of Indian rule remained at the heart of crisis after crisis that unfolded in Kashmir. To plug one hole in Indian claims many more holes opened. One day Sheikh Abdullah was the “tallest leader of Muslims” but the next he would become a “traitor.” On one end, Nehru promised a principled referendum, yet on the other he let his government indulge in petty election rigging. India had to install its own cronies to nominally rule over Kashmiris, to stave off embarrassing challenges to its rule. And, obviously, India needed to keep a massive military infrastructure in place in Kashmir if it hoped to suppress the inevitable revolts. It had to create a class of beneficiaries who developed a stake in the grey business of illegitimate rule. India has, therefore, continued to hop from one series of desperate measures to another to buffer its illegitimacy with deceit, threats, and outright force.

Kashmir then stands outside the sphere of the Indian constitution, because it was not on the basis of that constitution that Kashmir became part of India. Kashmir was annexed against the wishes of its people who had won their sovereignty from an oppressive monarchy. The political contract between India and Kashmir was one signed by a person with no legitimacy and moral authority to represent Kashmiri will. At the same time, sixty-three years of India-Kashmir relations have proven that it is structurally impossible for Kashmiris (or, for that matter, for many other smaller nationalities and communities in India) to hope for full citizenship rights within the Indian Union. For full citizenship rights to become available would require a fundamental recognition of the Kashmiri right to self-determination. But more importantly, it is structurally impossible because the original form of this forced union is based on a view, which values Kashmiri territory as sacred to India’s self-conception as a Hindu nation, but sees Kashmiri Muslims as alien others. It is no surprise that the most common and popular ‘solution’ Indians want to impose is the removal of Article 370 (already violated beyond recognition), which openly reveals a desire for Kashmir’s land. It should also then not come as a surprise that Kashmiris never really saw themselves as Indians. India was always “neabar” (foreign), in contrast to Azad Kashmir, for instance, which in the Kashmiri imagination remained “apore” (across the wall, but our own).

Murli Manohar Joshi may have been able to stand ground in Lal Chowk for all of 11 minutes on that day 18 years back. The flagpole did come crashing down on his head in his attempt to unfurl the Indian flag. And, he did scamper off as hastily as he arrived. But that event had a message for Kashmiris. The Indian nation-state revealed its subcutaneous Hindu identity directly to Kashmiris. It revealed how the hegemonic vision of “Akhand Bharat” (United India–a conception that includes not only Kashmir, but also Pakistan and Bangladesh–with or without Kashmiris, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) was the way the leaders of the Hindu nation saw the ultimate self-realization of the nation they had forged. This exclusivist, territorial vision often plays itself out in Kashmir. In recent years, state-facilitated pilgrimages have often been used to create a bigoted national territorial consciousness in the Indian public sphere. The coming together of Hindu religious leaders, nationalists and the state apparatus in 2008 against Kashmiri opposition to the Amarnath land deal is not so hard to understand within this context. For Indian nationalists Kashmir’s territory is part of India’s national territorial space within which Kashmiris may live only as long as they profess loyalty to India, but over this territory only the Indian state must make the ultimate decisions.


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