When it comes to Kashmir, don’t fetishize national identity
By Palash Krishna Mehrotra
The grinning applauding laddoo-eaters celebrating the ‘integration’ of Kashmir into the ‘mainland’ forget what Indians often forget: that, for at least three generations, we’ve taken peacetime for granted.
If you’ve never lived in a war zone — there are 600,000 troops on the ground at the moment -, if you’ve never been fired upon, if you’ve never been humiliated by an ‘occupying force’ and made to rub your nose on the ground, you have no right to celebrate someone else’s ‘liberation’ or, rather, the clamping of chains.
India might not be a rich country but in large swathes of it people have gone about their daily business like clockwork automatons for decades: job, marriage, kids, roof above one’s head. Peacetime offers the lucky millions a luxury not afforded to those in areas of conflict: the privilege of being bored, of being exhausted by the mundanities of everyday life.
Films will come to theatres, ATMs will dispense cash, (demonetisation was the closest experience of a war-like situation for most of us), chemists will be well-stocked, veggies and fruits will eternally make their way from farm to fork. The mundanities of a war zone are different, more like a pathological boredom. You want to get out and make your space in the world, do your thing. But you cannot. The moment you step out you will be in the crosshairs of a gun, blinded in the eyes, maimed, killed.
The BJP was supposed to be the harbinger of big bang economic reforms that would unleash ‘animal spirits’. Instead, it has unleashed the ‘plant spirit’: plant animosity, plant saffron, plant hate.
Modi nipped the suit-boot ki sarkar/ pro-big business jibe in the bud. If there is one Congress PM he secretly admires, it’s Indira Gandhi, the strongwoman. From her he took the ‘garibi hatao’ line and rebranded himself as a messiah of the poor.
Simultaneously, Project Bharat was put on the fast track; this is where the big bang reforms are taking place: the NRC in Assam, Yogi in U.P., fighter jets crossing over into Pakistani territory, annexing Kashmir.
The alarm bells ringing in the automobile industry have been put on snooze. Employment is an issue but it’s not as important as it’s made out to be. It doesn’t sway voters anymore. Amit Shah and Modi have the uncanny knack of the soothsayer. Nobody reads the public mood better than them — just look at the celebrations. Critics will argue that the two don’t read the mood as much as assemble and manufacture it from thin air.
Modi has elevated the discourse for the common man, the little Indian. He’s injected it with a moral impulse whose motherlode is nationalism. Nationalism is one of the oldest yarns in the book, but Modi spins it on a different charkha.
He uses it to persuade the little Indian to rise above the insolvables of their daily lives: price rise, jobs, rapes, leaking roofs, potholes, creaking buses, e-rickshaws, garbage, dengue. The pettifogging Indian is offered an opportunity to be part of a Grand Narrative. He is endowed with a transcendental moral purpose.
Why think of earthly lack when you can imagine India on the moon, India in a fighter jet, India expanding into the land of fair women, beautiful landscapes and cheap plots. Modi has a way with words, from crusader to avuncular. Modi, the storyteller, borrows the technique of magic realism from Latin American novelists and applies it to the terra firma of Indian politics.
Protests have already erupted in Kashmir; teargas and pellet guns are back in action. But, even if Kashmir explodes, or if there are retaliatory terrorist strikes in other parts of the country, Modi still wins at the ballot box. The Indian voter will see it as the Kashmiri’s fault; Modi (and India) did his best; a genuine offer was made. Like with demonetisation, it will be proof that his heart is in the right place, the intention’s genuine.
In many ways, there are no surprises here. The BJP-RSS idea of an Akhand Bharat has been in the public domain for the longest time. The BJP in its second term is only executing this idea, on the double, and to loud cheering. What we are witnessing are the ripples of a muscular fantasy.
The broad brushstrokes of history are not a pretty sight to behold. Overnight, equations change; status quos perish; there is bloodshed. With the passage of time equations are reset again. Mao, Stalin and Hitler all rose and fell. In our times we have seen militancy, followed by peace, in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Punjab. It might not sound like much of an insight, but when the combined power of the state is brought to bear on you, there is little room for manoeuvre.
It’s ironic that Amit Shah, who calls Muslim immigrants ‘termites’, now hopes to solve the Kashmir problem with immigration from mainland India. It’s what China did in Tibet and Israel in the West Bank.
What will the Kashmiris do now? The Kashmiris are not a homogenous entity, far from it. The options are not limited at the conceptual level; in fact, there are options aplenty; they’ve always been there: become an independent Islamic jihadi state; merge with Pakistan; be an independent secular country; be a part of either Pakistan or India and yet retain a degree of autonomy; or it can descend into perpetual bloody chaos.
My point is this: whatever the motivations of Hindutva might be, this deed is now done. Insurgencies die a natural death only when the people get tired of it. The desire to be a part of the mainstream and reap its benefits, unremarkable as they might be, is a resilient undercurrent. The initial sense of anger will make way for a sense of resignation, which in turn might just translate into a sense of ‘getting on with it’. This is what the BJP is banking on. In the end, Indians too forgave the British, though only after gaining Independence, the crucial difference.
Life is short and most young people around the world want the same things: the freedom to make love and money, the freedom to practice one’s religion or not, and to reap the fruits of modernity: movies and streaming videos, mobile phones, coffee-shops, American street fashion, rap music, films, automobiles. The Instagramable life is now a universal ideal.
I once attended a talk and a reading given by the Tibetan poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue. He said that while he knows that a free Tibet is a country that will never concretise, it’s important to keep the idea alive. I’ll add to this: keep the idea alive but non-violently so.
Another way of looking at the Kashmir-India equation is to say: Look, you can forcefully marry two people but you cannot make them fall in love. They will co-exist but in a living hell. As bureaucrat turned politician Shah Faesal told The Indian Express: ‘A new wave of indignation has begun from August 5. It’s the extremist side that will get traction now. Kashmir might enter a new phase of conflict, which we have never imagined.’
Good things though can emerge from bad ideas. We shouldn’t rule out that possibility, fight the liberal tendency to sink into an apocalyptic despondency, to compose awful aphorisms in the Twittersphere.
The Kashmiris can treat this as an ‘opportunity’, forsake violence and grab it with both hands. Perhaps I’m being an optimist but history also has a way of disposing off old ideas and ringing in the new. Hindutva might be here today and gone in forty years. To keep one’s hopes alive, one has to think the long haul.
To willingly be a part of a larger cosmopolitan Indian identity is not a bad thing in itself; it might even have its temptations. In the long run, integration can work wonders, even as the Hindutva era gradually fades away. All ideologies lose their pull eventually. The lifecycle runs itself out. Even saints turn to dust.
A recent survey conducted by the Centre of English Identity and Politics at Winchester University found that only one in ten people in England now think that being white is important to being English. What we are seeing here is a form of post-racial identity. Similarly, one can imagine an India of the future where minorities want to be a part of a larger collective identity, an Indian identity, and their religious identities either map neatly onto this larger identity or are slowly erased — the latter is what the Hindu Right wants. The BJP fictionalises and fetishises Hindu hyper-identity.
As Tom Slater writes on Spiked: ‘I don’t think national identity is anything to demonise. It can in fact offer a more inclusive and expansive identity than the limited racial, gender and sexual identities pushed today by the identitarian left. National identity can provide a framework within which we can transcend our differences.
But while I don’t think we should demonise Englishness, I don’t think we should fetishise it either. We shouldn’t treat it as something fixed and definable, something that either needs to be rediscovered or built from the ground up. Society is more fluid and complex than that.’
(A shorter version of this column appeared on DailyO, 13–08–2019.)