Over the past few decades, the nation states of Southasia have been home to some of the most bitter and costly conflicts of the modern world. Subaltern classes have resisted the hegemony of the elite; areas on the periphery have protested exploitation by the centre. To class and geography have been added the fault lines of language, caste, religion and ethnicity.
No region of the world – not even the fabled Balkans – has witnessed a greater variety of conflicts. Southasians are an expressive people, and so they have expressed their various resentments in an appropriate diversity of ways: through electing legislators of their choosing; through court petitions and other legal mechanisms; through marches, gheraos, dharnas, hunger strikes and other forms of non-violent protest; through the torching of government buildings; and through outright armed rebellion. The record of our nation states in dealing with these conflicts is decidedly mixed. Some conflicts, which once threatened to tear a nation apart, have been, in the end, resolved. Other conflicts have persisted for decades, with the animosities between the contending parties deepening with every passing year.
From this vast repertoire of experience within Southasia, this essay will foreground some of the more intractable of these conflicts: among others, the Kashmir dispute and the Naga insurgency in India, and the rebellion of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. These conflicts have remained unresolved because of the inflexibility and, dare it be said, dogmatism of the contending parties. The question to ask is: Would a middle path of accommodation and reconciliation, adopted by either party to a conflict or both, have helped in reducing or mitigating the violence and the suffering? In search of an answer, let me first turn to some forgotten episodes in the career of a man who might be considered the paradigmatic Southasian, Jayaprakash Narayan, or ‘J P’. He was an Indian patriot, but he retained close links with the republican struggle in Nepal, as well as the socialist movement in Sri Lanka. He worked actively for conciliation between India and Pakistan, and was also an early supporter of the Tibetan people and their cause. Thirty years after his death, J P must be remembered for his idealism and activism, which continues to hold meaning for peace and progress in Southasia.
Within India, J P is celebrated for his role in two major movements: the Quit India struggle of 1942, and the ‘Indira Hatao’ movement of 1974-5. During Quit India, J P achieved countrywide renown for his daring escape from Hazaribagh jail, after which he spent more than a year underground, eluding the colonial police. The movement of 1974-5 was, of course, led and directed by him. Starting in his native Bihar, it soon became an all-India struggle against the corrupt and tyrannical regime of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Both the upheavals saw J P in an uncompromising mode. In 1942, he was a charismatic young leftist, who sought to throw the British out and rebuild India on socialist lines. In 1974-5, he was a charismatic old radical, who sought to throw Indira Gandhi out in the process of bringing about a ‘Total Revolution’ in India. While in India today J P is remembered for his anti-colonial and Total Revolution campaigns of the 1940s and 1970s, what has been quite forgotten is his equally interesting and, in my view, even more noble work during the 1960s, when he tried heroically – if, in the end, unavailingly – to resolve the two civil conflicts that have plagued the Indian nation state since its inception. At either end of the Himalaya, these were the Kashmir and Nagaland conflicts.
Let’s begin with Kashmir. Among the politicians and social workers of mainland India, J P spoke out longest and loudest against the illegalities of the Union government in Kashmir. He was a close friend of the popular Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah, who was jailed by the Indian government in 1953. J P called repeatedly for the release of Sheikh Abdullah, and when the Sheikh was finally set free in April 1964, encouraged the idea of sending him over to Pakistan as an emissary for peace. This was originally a proposal of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and it was opposed across the political spectrum, from the Jana Sangh on the right to the communists on the left. Even the majority in Nehru’s own Congress party thought that the Sheikh should not have been released. Bucking the jingoist trend, two men of conspicuous independence supported Nehru’s idea, despite being, on other matters, fierce critics of the prime minister’s policies. One was C Rajagopalachari, the first Indian Governor-General of India; the other, Jayaprakash Narayan. When some cabinet ministers threatened to put Sheikh Abdullah back in jail, J P wrote, “it is remarkable how the freedom fighters of yesterday begin so easily to imitate the language of the imperialists.”
Nehru died in May 1964; the peace initiative died with him. The next year, Sheikh Abdullah was put behind bars once again. In June 1966, J P wrote an extraordinary letter to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, asking that the Sheikh be freed in time for the next elections. “[To] hold a general election in Kashmir with Sheikh Abdullah in prison,” remarked J P, “is like the British ordering an election in India while Jawaharlal Nehru was in prison. No fair-minded person would call it a fair election.” If “we miss the chance of using the next general election to win the consent of the [Kashmiri] people to their place within the Union,” continued J P,
I cannot see what other device will be left to India to settle the problem. To think that we will eventually wear down the people and force them to accept at least passively the Union is to delude ourselves. That might conceivably have happened had Kashmir not been geographically located where it is. In its present location, and with seething discontent among the people, it would never be left in peace by Pakistan.
This letter received a brief, non-committal reply from Mrs Gandhi. It took another eight years for her to allow the Sheikh to re-enter politics. When Sheikh Abdullah was made chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir in February 1975, J P welcomed the move (despite being, by then, a bitter opponent of Mrs Gandhi). But the concession itself was perhaps eight years too late. For by then the Sheikh had become reconciled to subservience to New Delhi, and in time was to place the interests of his own family above those of the Kashmiri people. What might have been the fate of Kashmir and the Kashmiris, had Mrs Gandhi listened to J P in June 1966 – by releasing Sheikh Abdullah, allowing him to contest a free-and-fair election that he would certainly have won, and then letting him run the administration in the best interests of the people themselves…
The uncompromising west
Let me now move away from India, and J P, to a civil conflict in a Southasian neighbour. In 1966, the rulers in New Delhi were too nervous to allow Sheikh Abdullah to conduct a provincial election in Kashmir. Three years later, the rulers in Islamabad permitted a radical Bengali politician to contest a national election. To their great surprise, and shock, his party won a majority. What were they to do now? The east of Pakistan had begun to be distanced from the west from the very beginning, when, on his first visit to Dhaka, the governor-general of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, told his Bengali audience that they would have to take to Urdu sooner rather than later, because “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan.” Jinnah was already dead in 1952, when bloody riots broke out in Dhaka after the police fired on a demonstration of students demanding equal status for the Bengali language. In 1954, Bangla was recognised as one of the state languages of Pakistan, but the feelings of being discriminated against persisted, fuelled by imbalance in the share of government revenue, in the army and civil service, and even the national cricket team.
Pakistan was under military rule between 1958 and 1970. Towards the end of 1970, General Yahya Khan called for elections. Apparently, he had expected the ambitious politician from Sindh, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, to become prime minister, allowing him to continue as president. But these calculations went awry. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won 167 out of 169 seats in the more populous East Pakistan. Playing on the sense of discrimination, Sheikh Mujib’s party achieved a majority in the national Parliament.
The Awami League’s platform included a federal constitution, in which each wing would manage its social, political and economic affairs, with only defence and foreign relations in the hands of the Centre. Keeping in mind the significant revenue from jute exports, the Awami League also proposed that each wing would get to spend the foreign exchange it earned. The proposals to reform the Constitution were deemed unacceptable by the generals and politicians of West Pakistan. It seemed as though the self-proclaimed martial Punjabi could not abide the thought of conceding power to the allegedly effete Bengali. Another reason for spurning Sheikh Mujib was the large presence of Hindus in the professional classes of East Pakistan. As one general put it, if the Awami League came to power, “the constitution adopted by them will have Hindu iron hand in it.”
Rather than honour the democratic mandate and invite Sheikh Mujib to take office, Yahya Khan postponed the convening of the National Assembly, and in this he was encouraged and abetted by Bhutto. The response was a general strike in all of East Pakistan, and the Pakistan Army decided to settle the matter by force of arms. But with India choosing to ally with the Bengali dissidents, the task was made much harder than the general had anticipated. Eight months of episodic fighting culminated in an all-out war in December 1971, which led to the defeat and dismemberment of Pakistan.
Would Pakistan have remained a single nation state if Yahya and Bhutto had permitted Mujib to take over as prime minister? In asking this question, I certainly do not mean to turn the clock back, or to suggest that the creation of Bangladesh was a mistake. I mean only to highlight how the techniques of suppression, so often used by a state to settle an outstanding conflict, tend mostly to intensify and deepen it. The ruling elite of Pakistan was both obdurate and deaf: obdurate in hanging onto its privileges, deaf to the justice of the demands of those who asked merely for their rights as citizens. In this respect, the break-up of Pakistan holds lessons for the political elite in other countries of Southasia – not least Bangladesh itself – that are challenged by social and political divisions within their boundaries.
As it happens, the language problem is one issue that the Republic of India has been able to more or less successfully resolve. Back in the 1920s, Mohandas K Gandhi and the Congress party had promised that, when India became independent, each major linguistic group would have its own province. But, after 1947, the Congress leaders went back on that pledge. India had just been divided on the basis of religion; would not conceding the linguistic demand lead to a further fracturing? However, in 1952, a protest fast by an Andhra Congressman forced New Delhi to agree to the creation of the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh. Other linguistic groups then intensified their claims for states of their own. A States Reorganization Commission was constituted, which in 1956 recommended that the map of India be redrawn to accommodate these demands.
Fifty years later, it is possible to deem the creation of linguistic states a relative success, despite the occasional hiccup. Contrary to the fears of the Congress leadership, the existence of these states has not threatened the unity of India. If anything, they have deepened this unity. Once the fear of the eclipse or subjugation of one’s language was allayed, the different linguistic groups have been able to live as part of the larger India.
The experience of Sri Lanka went in the other direction. In 1956, the year the states of India were reorganised on the basis of language, the Parliament of what was then Ceylon introduced an act recognising Sinhala as the sole official language of the country. Sinhala was made the medium of instruction in all government schools and colleges, in public examinations and in the courts. The new act was opposed by the Tamil-speaking minority concentrated in the north of the island. “When you deny me my language, you deny me everything,” stated one Tamil MP. “You are hoping for a divided Ceylon,” warned another. An opposition member, himself Sinhala-speaking, predicted that if the government did not change its mind, and insisted on the act being adopted, “two torn little bleeding states might yet arise out of one little state.”
The protests were disregarded. The insecurity of the Tamils was intensified by the Colombo riots of 1958. In 1972, Sinhala was confirmed as the official language of the state, and for good measure Buddhism was added as the official religion. The interests of non-Sinhala speakers were ignored, and the sentiments of Hindus, Muslims and Christians hurt grievously. The Tamil youth became disenchanted by the incremental, parliamentary methods of their elders. During the 1970s, several paramilitary groups were formed, known by their acronyms – EROS, PLOTE, ERPLF and, not least, LTTE.
Many Tamils still kept their faith in the spirit of compromise. However, two events in the early 1980s decidedly put down hopes of a peaceful, democratic reconciliation of the linguistic question. The first was the burning, by the Sri Lankan army, of the great Tamil library in Jaffna in 1981; the second, the anti-Tamil Colombo pogrom of 1983, directed by Sinhala politicians. The Tamils increasingly took to armed struggle to meet their ends. And so, we have had a quarter-century of a civil war that seems unending. If it were to end, it looks likely to happen only though the birth of two torn little bleeding states, rather than through the reunion of the two fragments into one robust, inclusive nation state.
The Northeast’s J P
Now we will return from Pakistan and Sri Lanka back to India. During the 1960s, Jayaprakash Narayan was concerned not only with an honourable solution in Kashmir, but with the restoration of peace in Nagaland. This too had been a most troubled part of the Indian Union. In 1946, a Naga National Council (NNC) had been formed, which was undecided as to whether to join the soon-to-be-free India. During the early 1950s, one faction decided to make a compact with New Delhi. The other faction, led by A Z Phizo, held out for an independent Naga state. This was not acceptable to India; as a consequence, an armed conflict broke out in the Naga hills, between the Indian Army and Phizo’s guerrillas. As ever, the main casualties in the conflict were the communities caught in the middle.
In 1964, after a long decade of civil war, a ceasefire was declared between the NNC and the Indian government. A three-member ‘peace mission’ was formed, consisting of the Anglican missionary Michael Scott, the Gandhian nationalist B P Chaliha, and Jayaprakash Narayan. Sadly, the mission collapsed within a year, due to inflexibility on both sides, and the rebels returned to the jungle. It was at this time that J P wrote an extraordinary if still little-known booklet in Hindi, based on a speech he delivered in Patna on Martyrs Day, 30 January 1965. The booklet is titled Nagaland mein Shanti ka Prayas (The Attempt to Forge Peace in Nagaland). While ostensibly about a dispute within a single small state of the Union, the document is actually a meditation on the meanings of democracy everywhere.
“In the history of every nation,” began J P, “there have been disagreements among the servants and leaders of the nation. Where democracy prevails, these disagreements are discussed and resolved by democratic means; but where democracy is absent, they are resolved by the use of violence.” However, history teaches us that violence begets counter-violence and, eventually, violence against one’s own comrades. Thus, “when disputes arise, past alliances and friendships are forgotten, and allegations of betrayal, traitorous behaviour, etc are levied on one’s opponents.”
J P proceeded to recount the history of the civil war in Nagaland – the recourse to the gun of one side, the reaction of the other, and the brutalities committed by both. Then, in the spirit of his master, Gandhi, he asked each party to recognise and respect the finest traditions of the other. First, he told the Nagas that, among the nations of Asia, India was unusual in having a democratic and federal Constitution. Were the rebels to abandon the dream of independence and settle for autonomy within the Union, the only control they would have had to give up was over the army, foreign affairs and currency. In all other respects, they would have been free to mould their destinies as they pleased.
Narayan recognised the distinctiveness of Naga cultural traditions. While both East and West Pakistan bore the impress of the Indic civilisation, “what we call Indian culture has not made an entry into Nagaland.” That said, J P thought that the Nagas could not sustain an independent country, what with China, Pakistan and Burma all close by and casting covetous eyes on their territory. Why not join up, therefore, with a democratic and federal India? When New Delhi could not dominate Bihar or Bengal, how could it dominate Nagaland, J P asked rhetorically. If the rebels were to come over-ground and contest elections, said Narayan, they could give their people the best schools, hospitals, roads and so on.
Towards the end of his lecture, J P turned to educating his Patna audience about the virtues of the Nagas. He was particularly impressed by the vigour of the Naga village councils. Anywhere else in India, he said, to construct an airport the “government can uproot village upon village,” whereas in Nagaland this could never be done without the consent of the local people. He was even more struck by the dignity of labour, and the absence of caste feeling. In matters of cooperative behaviour, said J P, the Nagas could teach a thing or two to the people of India. He gave the example of a magnificent church that had been recently constructed in a village near the town of Mokokchung: with a seating capacity of five thousand, it had been built entirely with local material and local labour, much of it contributed voluntarily by graduates and post-graduates. J P contrasted this with the contempt for manual work among the educated, upper-caste elite of the Indian heartland.
Pride and prestige
The conflicts of Kashmir and Nagaland had their origins in an inflexible state, but were often exacerbated by recalcitrant rebels. If conflicts are to be successfully resolved, then they require the state to be flexible, as well as the rebels to be more accommodating. That, certainly, is the lesson to be learnt from the most successful peace negotiations of contemporary times, that which led to the demise of apartheid and the birth of a democratic South Africa. Had President F W de Klerk and his National Party not begun a dialogue with the African National Congress, and had Nelson Mandela and his comrades not turned their backs on the gun, there might yet be a civil conflict raging in that country.
One notable aspect of the transition in South Africa was that the reconciliation was racial as well as political. The whites handed over power, but did not relinquish their rights as citizens or professionals. The need for black economic advancement was recognised, but it was not pursued in wanton haste. The comparison with neighbouring Zimbabwe is striking. There, the end of settler colonialism was followed by savage retribution, with the whites forcibly dispossessed of their lands and coerced to leave the country. What was once the breadbasket of Africa has become a basket case.
Looking over to Europe, Southasians may also take instruction from the political transition that took place after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Once run with an iron hand from Moscow, countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have emerged as vigorous democracies. After the hold of the Soviets was loosened – largely through the voluntary abdication initiated by the visionary Mikhail Gorbachev – the different sections of Polish, Hungarian and Czech society eschewed the politics of revenge and retribution. Instead of turning on one another, communists and anti-communists formed political parties of their own and fought elections based on universal adult franchise. Autocrats became democrats, while rebels became governors (most famously, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel). Who, in 1960, or even in 1980, would have imagined a transition as painless and productive?
One might also profit from a look at the recent history of Ireland. After the Good Friday agreement of 10 April 1998, the previously militant Sinn Fein put away their guns and entered the democratic process. The two parts of the island remain under separate sovereignties; but the ceasefire has permitted a deeper engagement with the democratic process within the Republic of Ireland as well as Ulster, a free movement of people across the border, and a sharp diminution of sectarian violence. These changes have led to a surge in economic growth, with investments pouring into an island always legendary for its natural beauty, known also for its rule-bound and largely peaceful society. While it took some time to arrive at a compromise, in ultimately forging it the two sides to the Irish conflict gave up pride and prestige, to gain, in exchange, prosperity and peace.
To return to Southasia, and to move on from political conflicts to social ones, consider the controversy over the Sardar Sarovar dam in central India. The benefits of this project flow wholly to one state, Gujarat, whereas the costs are borne disproportionately by another state, Madhya Pradesh. When it is built to its full height, the dam will displace close to 200,000 people, a majority of them Adivasi. From 1989, the oustees have been organised under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), whose leader is the remarkable Medha Patkar.
Between 1989 and 1995, the NBA organised a series of satyagrahas to stop construction of the dam. Their struggle won wide appreciation, both for its principled commitment to non-violence and for its ability to mobilise peasants and Adivasis. By now, several scientific studies had been published calling into question the viability of large dams. These studies adduced environmental arguments, such as the submergence of scarce forests and wildlife; economic arguments, such as the fact that sedimentation rates and soil salinity had greatly diminished the financial returns from such projects; and social arguments, namely the utter despair and demoralisation of the communities that the dams render homeless.
The struggle and the science notwithstanding, the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam proceeded. In 1995, a group of engineers based in Pune advocated a compromise solution. Given that the dam had already come up to a height of about 260 feet, clearly it could not be stopped. But its negative effects could be minimised. The Pune engineers were proposing a model of a dam smaller than that originally envisaged. The reduction in height would greatly reduce the area to be submerged, yet retain much of the benefits that were to accrue in power and irrigation. The drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra would still get water, while fewer communities would be displaced in the upper catchment.
The compromise formula was rejected both by the Gujarat government and the NBA. The former insisted that the dam had to be built to its originally sanctioned height of 456 feet. The latter insisted that the dam must never be built. The Andolan was continuing with the rallying cry, “Kohi Nahi Hatega! Baandh Nahin Banega!” (No one will leave their homes! The dam will not be built!), even as the construction and displacement continued. A part of the dam was already complete, thousands of tonnes of concrete had already been poured, and no one really expected a reversal of this. On the part of the state establishment, there was not a hint of its willingness to consider a reduction in the dam height.
In retrospect, it is unfortunate that the NBA did not accept the lowered-height proposal. Had the Andolan advocated this alternative energetically, it is just possible that public opinion would have veered more strongly in their favour. The Supreme Court, before whom an appeal was pending, might have given a more favourable verdict. Confronted with the stark alternative of continuing with dam construction as planned and putting an end to the project, it was expected that the court would be inclined to the former course, for many thousands of crores of public money had already been spent on the project. If the court had been adequately alerted to the compromise solution, which would still bring water to the most deprived parts of Gujarat, while minimising the suffering of the displaced, they may have been persuaded towards reducing the height of the dam. In the event of the NBA’s unwillingness to consider compromise, the dam construction now proceeds as planned. In all likelihood the submergence will be complete, and with it the displacement.
The case of Sardar Sarovar forcefully brings home the need for social movements to be flexible in their strategies. What seems feasible and plausible at the start may no longer be so during year five or year ten. (As John Maynard Keynes liked to say, “When the facts change, I change my mind.”) It is past time that two of the most enduring oppositional political movements in Southasia change their approaches and strategies. To be more specific: the Naga people stand enormously to gain if their leaders abandon their dream of a sovereign homeland and agree to be part of the Republic of India. So do the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka, if the LTTE settles for an honourable place in a single, united island nation, rather than fighting on for an independent Eelam.
The civil war in Nagaland has gone on, episodically, for 50 years now. The struggle for a Tamil Eelam is almost as old. In the meantime, thousands of lives have been lost, thousands of families have been broken. But the dream of an independent homeland seems as distant as ever. Should not the rebels now sue for peace, peace with dignity and honour?
That last caveat is crucial – ‘with dignity and honour’. To get the rebels to drop the sovereignty demand will require handsome gestures. As the veteran journalist George Verghese has suggested, the Nagas could have recognition of their distinctive status indicated on their passports – not ‘Indian’, but ‘Naga Indian’. Likewise, Colombo could explicitly disavow the earlier enactment making Buddhism the ‘state religion’ of Sri Lanka, while at the same time placing the Tamil language on par with Sinhalese. Other measures will also be necessary, among them the deepening of federalism to allow true autonomy for the region concerned, special grants to rehabilitate victims and former combatants, and even – why not? – public recognition of the sufferings caused by the state’s armed action.
Were gestures like this forthcoming, would the Naga and Tamil rebels give up their arms and, as it were, join the national mainstream? One cannot be so naïve as to think this very likely. There is the issue of pride: having fought so long for a certain goal, it cannot be let go of easily, or at all. There is also the issue of sacrifice: having lost so many lives in the cause, would it be fair to the memory of the martyrs to settle for less than what they gave their lives for? Sentiments such as these are widespread both among the leadership of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (IM), the leading insurgent group in Nagaland, and of the LTTE, who have for some time now been the main – indeed, unchallenged – representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.
In both the Naga and the Tamil cases, compromise is also made more difficult by the desires of the diasporic community. Nagas in exile and Tamils in exile are even more emphatic in their demands for complete independence. Since they pay for the guns, their voice carries much weight. This is a depressingly familiar story, the story of the expatriate who is more unyielding than those who live on the ground. Palestine might be a less violent place were it not for the Jewish opinion on the East Coast of the United States. The Good Friday agreement might have come earlier had it not been for Americans of Irish-Catholic extraction. Many fewer lives would have been lost in the Indian Punjab during the 1980s had Sikhs in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States not decided to support and encourage the struggle for an independent Khalistan.
The Nagas and the Tamils share certain attributes. They both have a very strong sense of identity, and the pride that goes along with it. Both communities have a better-than-average acquaintance with English, the language of professional advancement in the global economy. As compared with other Southasian cultures, they practice less gender discrimination – here (whether in the Indian Northeast, or the Sri Lankan north and east) many women assume leadership roles as teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs and guerrilla fighters. And if one is able to make the last of these professions redundant, there will be much greater scope for the others. Were this generation of Nagas and the Sri Lankan Tamils to put down their weapons, the next generation would reap untold benefits. They would be part of a larger economy in which, due to their communitarian pride and legacy of professionalism, they would enjoy advantages that other Indian or Sri Lankan communities do not.
The primary hurdle in the way of a successful resolution of the Naga and Tamil issues is the burden of history. Both sides to both these conflicts have much to complain about. The Jaffna Tamils cannot forget the burning of the great library or the pogrom of 1983; the Sinhalas will remember the assassination of their leaders and the bombs that explode and kill innocents in markets. The Nagas recall the promises made and betrayed by the Indian state down through the years; the Indian state remembers only the Nagas seeking Chinese help and the killing of moderates. Looking back to the past, one sees only crimes committed by the other party, crimes real as well as imagined. It is necessary for the contending parties to look to the future instead, to think of the fate of the generations to come. Do today’s rebels want the youth of today, too, to live a life of uncertainty and instability, in and by the shadow of the gun? When is enough enough, and a compromise possible?
History is a burden in another way too. In the thick of the rebellion, insurgency leaders are prone to rhetorical excess, to make commitments and promises that make compromise at a later stage difficult. Thus, the LTTE has often said that it will hold out for nothing less than an independent nation, the Tamil Eelam. The NSCN has likewise stood for an independent Nagalim; to consist of the Naga-speaking areas of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as well as Nagaland. When the rebels do come to the negotiating table, these past promises come back to haunt them. If they are not reminded of these claims by their own cadres, then surely rivals within the movement will make certain to draw the public’s attention to the ‘sell-out’. (In the same manner, Medha Patkar is still constrained by the stirring slogan that captivated her followers when the Narmada movement was at its height: “Baandh Nahin Banega! Koi Nahin Hatega!”)’
These constraints and impediments are real and serious. But they must be overcome if the real and substantial benefits that are to flow to the Nagas and Tamils through a successful resolution of the two conflicts are to be arrived at. For the Nagas and Tamils, especially, the potential gains from giving up the gun are massive indeed. The Indian Constitution does allow for a great degree of devolution. If, as Jayaprakash Narayan told the Nagas long ago, they can run their own economy and promote their own culture, then why does it matter that they do not have their nation and their own flag? A deeper federalism can also handily serve the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. With the attributes that the Nagas and the Tamils share, they stand to gain enormously from the acceptance of an honourable place within the constitutional framework of India and Sri Lanka.
It is, of course, not just the Naga and Tamil peoples who have virtues and traits in common. So do their acknowledged leaders. The main Naga separatist leader, T Muivah, and the Tamil Tiger supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, are both men of extraordinary energy and drive. During the course of lives dedicated to the cause, they have nurtured the strengths and talents of countless cadres and followers. The Naga struggle is inconceivable without Muivah; so, too, the Tamil struggle without Prabhakaran. In the past, their charisma and determination have played a crucial part in the making and deepening of the struggle. Can that same charisma and determination now play their part in forging a compromise? For, if anyone can persuade the Tamils to give up the gun, it is Prabhakaran. If anyone can charm the Nagas into accepting the Indian Constitution, it is Muivah.
These two leaders have a legitimacy and popular appeal denied to their colleagues, and possibly also to their successors. While they are alive and in command, the state in New Delhi and Colombo might consider giving up more than it would otherwise. If a solution is not found within their lifetimes, the state may be tempted to withhold these concessions, in the hope that in their leader’s absence the rebel movement will splinter into factions and thus lose its energy and legitimacy. By the same token, the Nagas and the Tamils may, at present, be able to get a better – perhaps even far better – bargain than might be possible ten or twenty years down the line. Speculation on the future of Tamil separatism when its leader dies or disappears might lead to the conclusion that, if Prabhakaran is no more, it will be the beginning of the end of the LTTE. Likewise, it is overwhelmingly likely that a post-Muivah NSCN will be far less influential and credible than it is now. All the more reason, then, for a deal to be struck and implemented while the leader is still living and in command. As things stand, however, it appears that the claims of passion are winning over the cold logic of reason in both theatres of Northeast India and the north and east of Sri Lanka. Several years of talks have not brought the Indian government and the Naga rebels any closer to a solution. While Muivah is at least talking, Prabhakaran has taken Sri Lanka back into a full-scale civil war.
Back in 1966, when the state was strong and the rebels weak, the Indian government refused to rehabilitate Sheikh Abdullah. What followed has been a continuously violent and unstable Kashmir. The break-up of Pakistan in 1971 was likewise the fault mainly of an arrogant and overbearing state. Looking at the case of the Naga and Tamil rebellions, one is forced to ponder whether the roles have not now been reversed. While the deadlock of the past may be ascribed to the intransigent state establishment, will it be that the window of opportunity in Nagaland and Sri Lanka will be shut principally because of the dogmatism and insecurity of the rebels?
The uncompromised Gandhi
It is entirely likely that the proposals put forward here for a spirit of compromise from the state and the insurgents will be met with scorn and derision, not just from within the Naga and the Tamil fold, but also from scholars and analysts engaged with these issues. But then, as the American critic Lionel Trilling noted long ago, intellectuals have always tended to embrace an ‘adversary culture’: standing against the state, against the market, against the establishment – in fact, against anything and everything but themselves. Conciliation and compromise does not come naturally to intellectuals, whose armchairs tend to be removed from the zones of conflict and who do not suffer the fallout of continuous, decades-long fighting.
On the other hand, conciliation and compromise were an integral part of the vocabulary and political repertoire of a man to whom I owe the title of this essay, the man whom I can, uncontroversially, refer to as the greatest Southasian of them all, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Gandhi knew when to begin a movement, but also when to call it off; when to challenge an opponent, but also when to talk to and seek to understand the adversary. The only thing he was uncompromising on was the use of non-violence.
In many ways, Gandhi was the arch-reconciler, the builder of bridges – bridges between Hindus and Muslims, between India and Pakistan, between high castes and low castes, between men and women, between the coloniser and the colonised. Independent India has had many failures, but also some successes. The most conspicuous of the latter are owed to Gandhi’s political followers having honoured his spirit of compromise. India is not – or, at least, not yet – a ‘Hindu Pakistan’, because its first prime minister followed Gandhi in promoting religious pluralism. The Indian Constitution provided special privileges for Dalits and Adivasis under the inspiration of Gandhi. In fact, the Dalit leader Dr B R Ambedkar was made both India’s first law minister and chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution on the recommendation of Gandhi. It was also Gandhi who first advocated and promoted the idea of linguistic states. All of these initiatives were attempts by Gandhi to reach out to the ‘underdog’ with a hand of conciliation and unforced magnanimity.
Among the all-pervading but little recognised of Gandhi’s successes was the forging of a stable, harmonious and even affectionate relationship between the United Kingdom and independent India. Certainly, nowhere else have Empire and Colony maintained such a friendship after the sundering of the imperial (and essentially inequitable) tie that once bound them. Consider the bitter relations that exist to this day between the French and the Algerians, the Dutch and the Indonesians, the Belgians and Congolese, the Russians and the Poles, the Japanese and the Koreans.
That the citizens of India today do not ‘hate’ the English is owed largely – one might even say entirely – to Gandhi. His closest friend was an Englishman, Charles Freer Andrews. When Andrews died, in 1940, Gandhi wrote that while the numerous misdeeds of the English would be forgotten,
not one of the heroic deeds of Andrews will be forgotten as long as England and India live. If we really love Andrews’ memory, we may not have hate in us for Englishmen, of whom Andrews was among the best and noblest. It is possible, quite possible, for the best Englishmen and the best Indians to meet together and never to separate till they have evolved a formula acceptable to both.
In the six decades since the Raj ended, the ‘best Englishmen and the best Indians’ have met regularly and amicably, to their mutual advantage. A spirit of conciliation helped England and India to evolve a powerful friendship, which had myriad benefits for both. The economic benefit to India from this friendship alone will have been enormous. While the India-England rapprochement was admittedly of a different kind, can there be a time when the same can, or will, be said of Nagas and the people of the heartland of India, or Jaffna Tamils and the monks of Kandy? It would take a great deal of give-and-take on both sides, an honest acknowledgement of error, a willingness to compromise and, perhaps above all, the ability to think of a hopefully harmonious future rather than a bitter and bloody past.
The Naga and Tamil struggles are founded on the principle of identity. These two peoples have a strong sense of who they are and what unites them, this defined by a shared territory, religion, culture and language. It is the denial, both perceived and real, of this identity by the nation-state establishment and its policies that explain the origin and persistence of the secessionist movement. The key to a solution lies in converting the currency of identity into the currency of interest. The groups that are currently protesting about threats to their identity must be provided with a stake in power and decision-making. That is how, for example, the Solidarity generation in Poland, or the leaders and cadres of the African National Congress in South Africa, were encouraged to move from being rebels and freedom fighters to becoming administrators and governors. But, for inspiration, one does not necessarily have to look so far overseas. The Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu and the Mizo National Front once stood out for independence as solidly as do the LTTE and the NSCN today. In the end, however, they dropped the demand of sovereignty, in exchange for a secure place within the federal system.
One may take heart from the history of Tamil Nadu and Mizoram, or study the transformation currently underway in Nepal, where the spirit of compromise evident on the part of the parliamentary parties and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is holding out the hope of a peaceful, stable and democratic Nepal. It is too early yet to say whether this particular Southasian story will have a happy ending, but it has certainly had a salutary beginning. For Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’) to agree to put down the gun and embrace multi-party democracy was, in ideological terms, just as difficult as it would be for Prabhakaran or Muivah to give up on ‘national self-determination’. Credit must also be given to the parliamentary parties, and the elder statesman Girija Prasad Koirala, that they set aside their old animosities and suspicions and welcomed the Maoists into the democratic process by making space in the interim Parliament and interim cabinet.
The examples from Tamil Nadu, Mizoram and Nepal suggest that for there to be peace in Sri Lanka, Velupillai Prabhakaran does not have to become a Mahatma Gandhi. He and his advisers and well-wishers can take their clues instead from leaders and struggles closer to them in history and geography. Mandela’s ANC was once just as devoted to the cult of the gun. C N Annadurai was once just as committed to an independent Tamil homeland – this to be carved out of the Republic of India, rather than the Republic of Sri Lanka. And that other rebel in the jungle, Prachanda, also fought on for years in the hope – and belief – that the struggle would ultimately end in a one-party state dominated by his men. The compromises – honourable as well as effective compromises – made by Mandela, Annadurai and Prachanda might also compel the attention of Muivah, although he has an exemplar even closer at hand, in Pu Laldenga of the Mizo National Front.
In a fine essay on the history of political moderation in the Western world, the historian Robert M Calhoon suggests that “moderates are made not born.” They are “creatures of the moment, and of circumstance, who move away from antagonistic stances and toward [the] middle ground to achieve a goal or serve a purpose through a wider political advocacy and association.” This definition works well in explaining the moves away from extremism of those great rebels Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi – or, indeed, of the ending of repression by their respective rivals, the apartheid regime and the British Raj. Calhoon also writes, “in our own time, moderation rebukes the corrosive partisanship from the Right or the Left.” In our own region, ‘Right and Left’ may be better represented as Rebel and State. It is the task of the moderate, and of moderation, to find common ground between these two actors, thus to replace a regime of suspicion and violence with one based on trust and cooperation.
That said, those who advocate moderation – including this writer – live more in hope than expectation. Calhoon quotes a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where the Greek sage notes that “it is no easy task to find the middle.” Closer to home, this sentiment was echoed by C Rajagopalachari, a close follower and associate of Gandhi, when he wrote to a Quaker friend that “those who are born to reconcile seem to have an unending task in this world.” If not in the whole world, then at least in Southasia, this region that has been so deeply marked by conflict and antagonism between castes, between Hindus and Muslims, between Sinhala-speakers and Tamil-speakers, between the massed armies of its nation states.
It is precisely because our region is such a cauldron of conflict that a special responsibility devolves on the writer and intellectual, who has an obligation to the truth, and additionally to democracy and pluralism. For the signal lesson of the 20th century is that dictatorships of both left and right are equally inimical to human dignity and well-being. Thus, as part of their calling, writers must stand consistently for the right to freely elect one’s leaders, the right to seek a place of residence and company of one’s choosing, the right to speak the language of one’s choice and practice the faith of one’s belief (which may be no faith at all).
These responsibilities are onerous enough, but for the Southasian writer and intellectual there are other obligations still. Because our recent history has been so bloody and divisive, the Southasian writer and intellectual must always be in search of paths that might make our future less bloody and less divisive. For this, he or she should seek, always, to moderate social and political conflicts, rather than to intensify or accelerate them. The extreme positions are well represented and passionately articulated in any case. Rather than take sides on behalf of one caste against another, one religion against another, one nation against another, or to throw oneself in alignment with the state or to be always against the state, the writer and intellectual needs to keep away from an identification with one party to a dispute. Rather, he or she must try to interpret and reconcile opposing positions, to make each side see the truth in the other, thus to urge each party to move beyond dogmatism and self-justification, and towards acknowledging and embracing the beauty of compromise.
This essay is the full text of the inaugural Himal Annual Lecture, delivered by Ramachandra Guha on 4 December 2007, in New Delhi.
~ Ramachandra Guha is a Bangalore-based writer and historian.