Azadi and autonomy

Azadi for Kashmir is not likely to have as much repercussions in rest of India as the ultra-nationalist fear.

"… THEN I secede," declared the creator of God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy, in her thought-provoking and celebrated essay "End of Imagination". She was merely exerting her choice to keep away from the tremors of jingoism in the wake of Pokharan nuclear blasts. But she made a much more powerful point than that with her deceptively simple statement: collective identity ceases to be of importance the moment one of its constituents feels sidelined, or worse, alienated.

The unitary form of the Indian state is a post-colonial creation. Right from the village republics of Vedic period, through the Pallavas, Mauryas, Kushans, Chalukyas, Cholas, Mughals and the British, the geographical entity called India has always been a home of many national identities. Even when some imperial powers did succeed in bringing a large part of it together under a single rule, the character of the state remained loosely federal. Apart from paying obeisance to the central authority, local governors or rulers were largely left to fend for themselves. The British did use their ´power of paramouncy´ when needed, but even they were reluctant to overuse it, despite the interpretations of nationalist Indian historians to the contrary.

In Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru used rose-tinted glasses to project the idea that nationalistic India was something that had always existed, only dormant and waiting to be ´discovered´. In the event, he ended up creating it —on the scaffolding erected by the piety of Mahatma Gandhi and the perseverance of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Once the two went out of the scene, Nehru had to face the reality of a crumbling identity that was forged for the particular purpose of gaining independence, and was glued by the charismatic personalities of the struggle for it. But then Nehru was a pragmatic person, a liberal to the core. He rose to the challenge and applied the lessons that he had learnt from the history of Europe. He recognised the aspirations of linguistic movements and agreed to the reorganisation of states.

Identity, however, goes beyond having one´s own language. It has social, cultural as well as economic dimensions. The nativist movementcentred in the sons-of-the-soil concept of Shiva Sainiks in Maharashtra took off from where the linguistic movement had left local aspirations unfulfilled. Then there are the regional movement of the Akalis and the DMK, the concept of cultural pride spearheaded by Telugu Desam, and the assertion of priority rights over resources, including land, by the Asom Gana Parishad. Indira Gandhi, for all her much-vaunted astuteness, botched it all up on a grand scale. Tragically, she paid for this mis¬reading with her life, after she sent battle tanks to silence the religious and nativist aspirations of Punjab. Nehru´s India took the shocks not because his daughter had strengthened it, but because he himself had built a strong foundation.

Even the strongest of foundations can not hold forever. A realisation has slowly started to emerge that India is more than a country — it is a subcontinent in its own right within the South Asian region. Consequently, there is a need to rediscover the idea of India, a geopolitical necessity to reform the power of centralism, and a social urgency to rebuild a state that will not crumble under its own weight —and incidentally crush its neighbours in the process.

Predictably, in the latest moment, this issue has been precipitated by Jammu and Kashmir, a state whose Hindu ruler chose to hitch his wagon with the Indian Union when hordes of aggressors coming down from the Pakistani side of the newly-partitioned Subcontinent forced his hands in surrendering his independence. Even as India annexed the region, Nehru promised it the right of secession, "… if the people of Kashmir wish to part company with us, they may go their way and we shall go ours". However, it did not turn out to be as simple as that, partly because a section of Kashmir remained in Pakistan after the India-Pakistan skirmishes of 1948. Since then, India and Pakistan have fought three full-fledged wars, one all-out confrontation in Kargil, and numerous pitched battles in Siachen, Rann of Kutch, and the Line of Control within Kashmir itself. Meanwhile, as Vidya Subrahmaniam wrote recently in The Times of India, Kashmir itself is like a high-security prison.

The whole population of a state cannot be held in imprisonment forever, and it is getting late to address the aspirations of Kashmiri people. The azadi that Farooq Abdullah has enunciated goes far beyond the demand of autonomy for states. What he wants is a kindAzadi for Kashmir is not likely to have as much repercus¬sions in rest of India as the ultra-nationalists fear.

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