Monday, April 18, 2016

Mukul Kesavan - A daily plebiscite: Kashmir, the Northeast and India

Regarding Kashmir and the Northeast, mainstream Indian political opinion - with some exceptions - ignores or underplays the violence inflicted on people who are formally citizens of this republic. The violence of the past few days in Kashmir - five civilians killed in army and police firing, amongst them a schoolboy - is the latest instalment in a long history of mayhem. In a few weeks (or less) it will become another forgotten episode in this endless serial, a tribute to our genius for pretending that Kashmir is a series of noises off. This self-deluding gift leads to a set of diagnoses and arguments that are quasi-colonial in their logic:

1. The troubles in Kashmir and the Northeast are the work of foreign powers and do not represent the views of the silent majority of these regions.

2. The insurgencies in the Northeast are, in fact, a series of protection rackets and criminal enterprises that has nothing to do with self-determination or subnationalism.

3. The troubles in these regions represent not a general disaffection, but the irrational hostility of one malcontented sect or ethnicity. In the case of Kashmir, for example, it is often argued that the troubles are confined to the Valley and a few contiguous districts. The movement for azadi is sometimes called a Sunni insurgency. At other times, we are told that the troubles are no more than an urban derangement with rural Kashmiri Muslims living in a state of bucolic calm.

These explanations are close cousins to the arguments used by the raj to discredit anti-colonial movements of resistance. All of them contain a measure of truth, but all of them wilfully underestimate the scale of alienation in these regions. They do so because to recognize the enormity of the problem would mean acknowledging the violence done in our name.

By underplaying the problem, we become complicit in not acknowledging the viciousness of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a piece of emergency legislation that has been in operation in India's borderlands for decades. AFSPA is incompatible with the rights of citizenship; the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission recommended its repeal more than ten years ago. AFSPA's imposition creates a state of continuous emergency where citizens become colonial subjects without rights or legal protections.

A law that effectively renders the military personnel of the Indian State immune to punishment for rape and murder is a law that should have no place in the life of a democratic republic. Under AFSPA, soldiers can be prosecuted only with the consent of the Indian government. In Kashmir after two decades and more of conflict and violence where no one, not even the Indian State denies that the police and the army have been responsible for atrocities, the permission to prosecute soldiers has never been granted.

Kashmir and the states of the Northeast have been subject to AFSPA for decades. We cannot, in good faith, both claim the residents of these states as citizens and treat them like helots. By doing this continuously, by deferring to the army's need for impunity, we effectively treat Kashmir and Manipur and Nagaland as real estate, as empty landscapes voided of true citizens.

The republican State has used AFSPA in ways that are more draconian than the practice of the British raj during times of serious insurgency. An AFSPA-like ordinance was passed during the Quit India movement in 1942, when Britain was fighting for its life against Germany. But even in that context, the colonial State required an officer of the rank of captain to invoke its draconian powers. In republican India, that authority has devolved to sergeants.

We speak glibly of the integration of Kashmiris and people from the Northeast into the Indian economy, we cite their diasporas in the rest of India as signs of assimilation. But someone who moves from a state of republican freedom to a state of colonial subordination by taking a train home, is not a citizen but a subject. I experienced subject-hood for two years between 1975 and 1977. Northeastern friends of mine have lived their lives in the shadow of emergency laws. There is a whole genre of writing in the Northeast centred on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Poems, stories, novels, plays, explore military violence and the Kafkaesque consequences of military impunity.

In February, the Indian army was ordered into eight districts in Haryana to control the insensate violence visited upon the state by angry Jat agitators. During curfew hours, the army was ordered to shoot-on-sight. Despite the burning and looting and killing, the army went to extraordinary lengths not to fire upon rampaging mobs for fear of civilian casualties. Through days of mayhem, it didn't fire once. Contrast this with the army's hair-trigger willingness to fire upon young protesters in Kashmir. 

The difference isn't hard to explain: AFSPA turns citizens into subjects and a republican army into an occupying legion. Even if Kashmiri protesters don't consider themselves Indians, the Indian State doesn't have the luxury of treating them like hostiles. A republic can't disown its citizens.

For us to look the other way, to ignore AFSPA and all that it implies, is cowardly. AFSPA compromises our claim to being a democratic republic. It endangers us all; draconian laws invariably end up being used on the general population, not just in insurgent areas. We can't invoke India's inalienable right to Kashmir if we are unconcerned about the suspension of the civil rights of Kashmir's Indian citizens. Unless, of course, we're keener on Kashmiri houseboats than Kashmiri human beings.

The azadi campaign does itself no favours with its trivialization of Kashmiri Pandit suffering. The 'serve-them-right' dismissal of their exile, the insinuation that Pandits brought this upon themselves as pliant stool pigeons of the Indian State, has been an unattractive characteristic of spokespersons for Kashmiri self-determination. The argument that Kashmiri Pandits were willing accomplices in a State-inspired conspiracy to create a countervailing grievance, is an odious one. Given the documented violence against Kashmiri Pandits in the Nineties, to argue self-victimization at the GOI's behest demonstrates an almost ironical lack of empathy.

The Indian citizen outside the valley has three options. He can support self-determination in Kashmir knowing that it might mean either a sectarian Muslim statelet or more territory for a larger sectarian state, Pakistan. He can endorse the military occupation because, in the larger scheme of things, Kashmiri Muslim suffering is the price that must be paid for the greater good of a pluralist India. Or he can press for the abolition of AFSPA, the demilitarization of Kashmir and the Northeast and the institution of a process by which atrocities by the security forces, especially in the period between 1989 and 1996 are investigated and the guilty punished. If the Indian republic wants to demonstrate its good faith, to make some reparation for the history of State violence there, this is the absolute minimum that it must do. If it claims the allegiance of the people in these areas, it must treat them as rights-bearing citizens, not mutinous subjects.

Indians committed to the nation's territorial integrity need to recognize that a democratic republic's claim on its constituent territories is, in the last instance, under-written by consent. Unless the republic creates the conditions for earning that consent by withdrawing AFSPA and returning the army to its barracks, it runs the risk of permanently damaging its claim to political legitimacy. Without legitimacy, governance shades into occupation.

In his famous lecture of 1882, "What is a Nation?", Ernest Renan dramatized this principle of consent with a metaphor: the nation, he argued, is a daily plebiscite. In AFSPA-land, this is a plebiscite that the Government of India is in danger of losing by default. The first step towards trying to win it ought to be the summary abolition of this nation-corroding, anti-republican law.


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