By Shubh Mathur
Neither the pasts nor the futures of South Asia can be contained within the borders of 1947. The question in the South Asian context is not about the feasibility of small independent nations like Kashmir and Nagaland, but whether the behemoth is viable. Militarily and politically speaking, the answer is, possibly yes, but at what cost? Can the inequality, structural and physical violence, and regional imbalances underpinning India Inc. be sustained? Collectively they reveal a society that has no moral compass, no social conscience in regard to its own people, no plan and no investment in negotiating peace with its neighbours.
This is almost exactly what the Nagas saw when faced with the prospect of becoming part of India over sixty years ago. Reading the words written by the Naga leader AZ Phizo in 1951 is a painful experience for an Indian:
“The Indians repeatedly tell us that we cannot manage our national state, and all that. But what we see in India? Their dead bodies are abandoned to the jackals in the fields. Those who die in the hospitals, even their own relatives very often refuse to claim them! Millions of their sons and daughters are pitifully roaming about in the streets in their awful cities begging and stealing. Why? No work, no land, no self-respect….And this is not to traduce them but they must know that Nagas are not ‘fools’ to be bluffed or frightened to give away their fatherland. Their society is absolutely their own concern. We thought helpless humanity is to be pitied whatever race they may belong to; but when these hopeless race wanted to grab our national state and usurp our birthright by sheer force of preponderant might, why! it is entirely a different matter….NAGAS DO NOT WANT to be associated with, much less to become citizens, of a people who have no sense of human honour in their make-up, and no human compassion even toward their own sons and daughters.”
While Indian leaders and intellectuals dismissed the Nagas as primitive and tribal, Phizo wrote: “There is no pauper in Nagaland. There is no social ‘out-cast’ in our country. There are no professional beggars up to this very day. There is no families who are houseless anywhere throughout Nagaland. There are no landless persons among us. We do not pay even land tax, which is always a crushing burden to the mass citizens in many other countries. We have no unemployment problem. Economically, Nagaland is on a strong foundation.” Though they pitied the disprivileged Indian masses, Phizo and the Nagas had no wish to join them. While the sixty-odd years since Phizo wrote have seen India transform into a middle-income country and a regional power, the callousness and poverty remain. They do not unduly burden the national conscience, which speaks only with the voice of arrogant power.
The winner-takes-all model of centre-state relations implanted at independence has led to insurgency after insurgency, bringing death and suffering to the target populations and creating in the heartlands a nation that is united only in cheering executions and demanding war. Like Nagaland, Kashmir, Manipur, Mizoram, and all the borderlands have unique histories and cultures. Located outside the mainstream of the hegemonic Hindu caste system, they wished to remain so. Despite their diverse cultures, they had one thing in common: social aspirations grounded in tribal, Christian and Islamic notions of equality, dignity and social justice. When liberal Indians wonder how Kashmir would survive as an independent state, they only display their profound ignorance of the wellsprings of the movement for Azaadi.
The stunning counterexample comes from Punjab, where the “successful” defeat of the insurgency opened the way to inequality on a massive scale. The Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973 was as much an economic document as a political one. The notion of economic justice was grounded in religious belief: “The chief sources of inspiration of the economic policies and programme of the Shiromani Akali Dal are the secular, democratic and socialistic concepts of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh. Our economic programme is based on three principles: (a) Dignity of labor. (b) An economic and social structure which provides for the uplift of the poor and depressed sections of society. (c) Unabated opposition to concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the capitalists.” It represented an early attempt to counter the ill effects of the Green Revolution and to provide a more just distribution of its benefits. Farmers’ agitations in support of these demands were met with a military mobilization. The breadbasket of the country was “saved” through a ruthless counterinsurgency that cost tens of thousands of Sikh lives. Punjab now has some of the highest rates of farmer suicides and child malnutrition in the country. Clearly the victory of the nationstate carries a heavy baggage of deprivation, a burden that the weakest sections of society are made to carry. No wonder the Kashmiris and Nagas fight on. The strategies have changed, from armed resistance to political protest, but the goals have not.
The toxic confluence of the inequalities of caste and capitalism that dominates India is not capable of self-correction. The answer lies with the peoples and beliefs we have labelled as “anti-national” while claiming their homelands as an “inalienable” part of India. The shock and grief felt by Kashmiris at the execution of Afzal Guru found an echo among the dispossessed. Dalit, Indian Muslim, Sikh and Tamil voices along with other people of conscience supporting the Kashmiri struggle have a much more sophisticated understanding of, and respect for, Kashmiri aspirations. This solidarity is the Indian state’s worst nightmare. As an alternative vision for a South Asian future, one that does not cold-bloodedly prepare for perpetual and even nuclear war, it is worth serious thought.
One of the arguments against Kashmiri independence, deployed by Indian liberals, is that it will open up the way for other, similar demands. This might be a good thing, rather than a worst case outcome. It will be the best opportunity to correct the mistakes of 1947 and 1929, replacing the extortionate, highly centralized state with a genuine federal structure, where independent Naga, Manipuri, Sikh, Tamil and other republics can live in peace and friendship. Such a South Asian Federation is not a utopian idea. It is no more unrealistic than the blueprint for endless injustice and endless war into which we are locked at present.