In a recent essay (Caravan May 2016) on the drift of the times, writer-thinker Arundhati Roy highlighted the link between State-backed right-wing vigilantism and the climate of bigotry, violence and impunity in mainland India. She articulated several uncomfortable truths regarding mainland India amongst which was the complicity of all political parties including the Left in endorsing and upholding what Roy rightfully termed as the horrors visited upon the peripheral regions of the Indian nation-state including Kashmir. Of equal significance was her point regarding the ethnic identity of peoples residing in India’s peripheral (and mainland) regions of repression and revolt. These peoples are mostly Muslim, Christian, Dalit, Sikh and Adivasi or, in other words, non-Hindu. The fact that ethnic groups outside the Hindu fold face the brunt of the Indian State’s formidable coercive and repressive capacity is neither an accident nor a coincidence but rather, as this essay maintains, the logical and inevitable outcome of [a] a nationalism based on the denial of non-Hindu ethnic identity and [b] a secularism in constant deferment to and placation of dominant mainland (Hindu) ethnic sentiment in different forms and scale before and after 1947. Elaborating upon both, I highlight the ethnic hegemony of the Indian State and the implications of this for Indian Muslims in general, and for Kashmiri Muslims in particular.
Reading against the grain of a default, deeply internalised dominant nationalist narrative, it is not incorrect to point out that missing in the armoury of Indian anti-colonial mobilisation was a universal and inclusive language of belonging that appealed to Hindus and non-Hindus alike. Indeed, it was MK Gandhi himself who promoted and popularised a pre-1947 mass mobilisation permeated with Hindu imagery and symbolism that appealed to the largest section of the population, i.e. Hindus. He did so not because he was communal or partisan, but because for him religion and religious metaphor was the easiest common denominator underpinning an eminently pragmatic strategy for mass anti-colonial mobilisation. Means did not matter; the ends did. As Eqbal Ahmad put it, Gandhi was “an antiimperialist opportunist who would do anything within the framework of his nonviolent philosophy that would mobilize the masses.” A language of nationalism imbued with Hindu religious metaphors and symbols meant, to quote Eqbal Ahmad again, that “the Muslim community got very frightened that its own cultural traditions and the common culture was being shunted aside.” Nor did such language and metaphor allay Muslim fears regarding their future in a post-independent Hindu-dominated India. Emerging scholarship such as the work of Ayesha Jalal and Ian Talbot indicates that notwithstanding its upper-class feudal origins the Muslim demand for Pakistan was not exclusively anchored in or driven by religion; rather, it was shaped and informed by claims to rights, and the demand for political equality.
Muslim demands for self-governance in regions where they constituted a majority were rejected by the Congress. In this repudiation and rejection of legitimate Muslim aspiration by a party that claimed to represent all communities lay united India’s greatest and most abiding failure of secularism and democracy. The travesty of political justice vis-a-vis Muslims prior to 1947 was subsequently subject to the most astonishing act of amnesia on the part of mainstream historians and political scientists in modern India by way of its excision from political and historical analyses. August 1947 became the new default chronological entry point for discussion and analysis on Muslims in India. This ahistorical frame helped mask Indian elites’ flawed pre-partition nationalism that would, in successive decades, rebound with cruel irony on Indian Muslims in post-partition India, and on non-Hindu ethnic minorities in independent India’s peripheral borderlands – most notably on Kashmiri Muslims.
But before I move on to Kashmir, I would like to emphasise the tragedy of Muslims in post-independent India whose identity as modern Indian citizens was entirely contingent on relinquishing any claim to political representation by virtue of membership of a culturally distinct religious minority. With hindsight, it is but apparent that having rejected precisely such a claim by Muslims before 1947, the Indian State could hardly be expected to grant the same after independence. Indian Muslims were therefore at best Indian citizens; citizenship claims based on Muslim identity were deemed communal, non-secular, synonymous with Pakistan, treasonous and for all these reasons, illegitimate. Forever disciplined by a hegemonic Hindu elite ‘secularism’ to relinquish and steer clear of all identity-based assertions or movements, and handcuffed to a ‘secular’ national narrative wherein any and all expression of Muslim identity was akin to Muslim perfidy and disloyalty of which Pakistan was permanent proof, Indian Muslims had to prove their secular credentials by foregoing their cultural identity as Muslims for fear of being labelled communal/non-secular/unpatriotic/disloyal. In effect, Indian Muslims became what academic Gurharpal Singh succinctly summed up as “the other” of Indian nationalism. Powerful, poignant and profoundly moving empirical evidence of the continued ‘othering’ of Indian Muslims into the 21st century was captured in a photograph published by The Hindu in 2013 showing a young, destitute male Muslim survivor of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Muzaffarnagar at a refugee camp reaching out to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi to ask why the Congress had wished for Muslims to stay on in India in 1947 if this was to be the fate of those who did.
Equally problematic was India’s self-chosen secular ideal of Sarva Dharma Sambhav or tolerance of many truths that in practice was implacably hostile to claims or movements based on the assertion of religious/cultural difference or divergence from the default Hindu universe crafted by secular elites exemplified by Sarva Dharma Sambhav itself. A day before India’s independence the Naga National Council (NNC) of Nagaland declared independence. According to the Council, except for British rule, the (largely Christian) Naga people shared feelings of separateness from the rest of India and did not wish to be part of the Indian Union. Forced integration was the response of the secular Indian State to Naga claims to different cultural identity and, by extension different political aspiration. Nor did the policy of Sarva Dharma Sambhav not adhere to the secular concept of keeping religion out of public life. Indeed, soon after independence a person as secular as Nehru deferred to Rajendra Prasad’s project to rebuild and celebrate the re-opening of the Somnath temple destroyed by Afghan invaders. As Eqbal Ahmad wrote, “Nehru went along with it. He shouldn’t have. It’s not the business of the state to start correcting historical wrongs done a thousand or two thousand years ago. It’s not the business of the state to correct historical rights and wrongs of a religious nature.” Approximately four decades later, Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi was guilty of a similar act of placation of dominant Hindu ethnic sentiment at Ayodhya. Most tragically and grievously perhaps, Sarva Dharam Sambhav was repeatedly rendered utterly redundant by State actions (and inaction) during the innumerable anti-Muslim pogroms in the life of modern India. The refusal of predominantly Hindu central and State governments to prosecute Hindu State personnel guilty of violence, arson and murder of Indian Muslims across the country was but ethnic expression of the same variant of ethnic hegemony that had denied Muslims political equality as a religious minority in 1947. Secular India’s civil institutions proved unwilling to protect Muslim life, liberty or property. More recently, the hostility and outright rejection of affirmative action policies for India’s large bulk of underprivileged and impoverished Muslim citizens recommended by the Sachar Commission Report (confirming the abysmal socio-economic status of Muslims in India) demonstrated the non-territorial, albeit no less antagonistic forms of Hindu dominance over a non-Hindu – in this case, Muslim minority. Not without basis did PC Upadhyay assert that while the Indian State’s official policy was to treat all religious communities equally, “one would be more equal than others, namely, the Hindu community”. In short, instead of treating all religions fairly, Sarva Dharma Sambhav ended up accommodating and placating majoritarian Hindu interests since 1947. Thus it was that while speaking and preaching secularism, Indian elites wilfully and progressively aligned nation, national identity and national culture with Hinduism.
Having successfully neutralised and appropriated Muslim claims to political equality and self-governance in united India through the creation of new borders and frontiers convenient to the Congress Party, a discourse of formal citizenship rights, and a system of electoral democracy without proportional representation for minorities or de jure safeguards for minority rights, the Indian State proceeded to extend its partisan and parochial hegemony to its bordered periphery.
In peripheral regions peopled by non-Hindu ethnic groups such as in Kashmir, the challenge was different. Demography was an impediment towards the execution and imposition of direct central hegemony in a restive Muslim majority state yet to determine its political future. For a while Article 370 offered a veneer of accommodation of Kashmiri Muslim identity and Kashmiri national sentiment. Inevitably however, once it became apparent that Kashmiri sentiment was not favourably disposed to the premises of an Indian nationalism and secularism based on the placation of dominant mainland ethnic sentiment, the kid gloves were swiftly discarded. Article 370 was eroded to a shell. Its violation came in handy for ensuring meta-ethnic dominance over Kashmir by allowing scores of non-Kashmiri administrators in key positions with no roots among the local population to rule over a garrisoned Kashmiri population. Meta-ethnic (Hindu) dominance was thus entrenched in a territory completely removed from mainland Indian history, culture, geography, or freedom struggle.
The 1989-90 revolt was evidence, if any were needed, of local Kashmiri Muslim rejection of the continued central hegemony and the steady stripping away of all symbols and repositories of Kashmiri Muslim identity through consistent concessions to a hegemonic meta-ethnic centre. The mass mobilisation for azadi exposed the limits of client regimes and their inability to safeguard mainland ethnic interests. A new post-1989 hegemony in the form of AFSPA, military occupation and extraordinary repression ensured mainland meta-ethnic dominance over an ethnic minority non-Hindu population. A ‘State’ of total war against Kashmiri Muslims inflicted incalculable economic, cultural and intellectual loss and destroyed Kashmir’s human and social capital. More specifically it meant that the methods, instruments and practices of repression by State-employed security forces transcended the conventional ‘violence-against-civilians’ frame. The politicisation of Kashmiri Muslim ethnicity – and for this it is necessary to credit Indira Gandhi, ‘secular’ Hindu hegemon par excellence for crafting the Kashmiri ‘other’ by invoking fears of a Muslim invasion during the 1983 elections in Kashmir; and for producing the Sikh ‘other’ in 1984 by representing Sikhs as a ‘threat to the nation’ – translated into partisan, parochial and prejudiced governance practice in Kashmir characterised by a lack of justice or accountability for crimes committed by State personnel against Kashmiri civilians. In such a context, as scholar P. Sahadevan noted, “The state behaves more as an agent of the dominant/majority ethnic community…In many cases, it is virtually taken captive by the majority group to serve its ethnic interests while minority/weaker groups face a threat of those institutions on which they rely for protection, equity and justice…The relevant intermediary institutions of popular representation (parliament) and adjudication (judiciary)…function like a mere rubber-stamp of the dominant/majority community.”
The phase of accommodation (Article 370 et al) was followed by an extended phase of co-option of local Kashmiri clients willing to work in league with a hegemonic centre, backed by Army command and AFSPA. In addition to occupation and repression by a primarily Hindu army, meta-ethnic dominance was further advanced by ensuring that Kashmir’s State Assembly was packed with purchased Kashmiri legislators swearing allegiance to the unity of India even as thousands of Kashmiri people – young, old, men, women and children – were shot dead on the streets of Kashmir for rejecting India’s annexation of Kashmir and an enforced Indian identity on Kashmiri Muslims. Notwithstanding the unconscionable cost in Kashmiri blood, no pangs of conscience troubled Kashmir’s craven and cowardly collaborators who continued to bestow a fig-leaf of legitimacy to Indian tyranny in Kashmir by bartering away the self-respect and dignity of their own people for power and lucre. If subjecting a Muslim population to rule by non-representative local client regimes aligned with a dominant meta-ethnic centre and a primarily Hindu army was not placation of meta-Hindu mainland ethnic sentiment, then what was it?
But the time of collaborators and collaboration ran out too. The flood-gates of Army-backed collaborationist rule in Kashmir under the tutelage of New Delhi were swept aside in 2014 to usher in a malevolent variant of meta-ethnic domination that brooked no interference in its unconcealed, patently anti-Muslim cosmology and intent. Unlike many in India who knew and could sense what was coming, Kashmir’s client collaborators lauded Modi as a person they could do business with. Supping with oppressors for decades had dulled and blunted their perception of reality. The new central ethnic configuration was committed to full assimilation of an already much-assimilated Kashmir into a sacralised Bharat Mata. Its intent was to strip Kashmir of all remaining symbols and spaces of Muslim cultural identity, block all channels of political agency available to Kashmiri Muslims, and reconfigure Kashmir as a sacralised and quintessentially Hindu territory. Hence the Pandit and soldier enclaves, the new industrial policy, the Sharda script, NEET et al. Hence also the much touted PDP-BJP Agenda of Alliance that, in effect, was an alibi for a fully-fledged programme of political, cultural and territorial assimilation of Kashmir into Bharat Mata. A key conjuncture facilitating such assimilation was that for the first time in modern India, the ideology of the RSS was in perfect alignment and congruence with the ideology of a by now ultra-dominant meta-ethnic centre. In contrast to previous meta-ethnic tormentors who allowed a modicum of political breathing space for local Kashmiri Muslim collaborators, the new configuration was contemptuous of and full of visceral hatred for Kashmiri Muslims as well as for the Kashmiri client class willing to collaborate with it. Thus it was that even when local Kashmiri Muslim client capitulation and obsequiousness was at its zenith – as was the case when Mufti Mohammed Sayeed laid out the red carpet to welcome Modi in November 2015 – the Prime Minister declared he needed no advice from his host on Kashmir, indicating the centre’s contempt for Sayeed and Kashmir. No self-respecting Chief Minister would or should tolerate such humiliation. Sayeed did without demur. Demonstrating amazing reserves of unashamed cravenness he went on to praise the very man who had humiliated him by declaring Modi to be the person who would make India a super-power at a time when the BJP and RSS cadres were hunting Muslims in mainland India.
The price of collaboration a la the Agenda for Alliance kept rising; it was far higher in April 2016 than it was in November 2015. And so was the level of craven capitulation and gutless surrender by Kashmir’s client class to the patently anti-Kashmiri Muslim agenda of their meta-ethnic overlords in New Delhi. Mehbooba Mufti was willing to pay the price. She excelled her father in sycophancy by praising Modi for allowing freedom of speech in India (at a moment when mainland Indian citizens were protesting the denial of precisely this freedom in their country) and, more recently, by condemning Pakistan – the highest form of patriotism for the RSS. Such high levels of collaboration imply that the assimilative project for Kashmir commandeered by the Hindu right-wing proceeds satisfactorily. Indeed, Kashmir’s assimilation is continually advanced by the abject surrender and collaboration of clients such as Mehbooba Mufti and rival competitors waiting in line to topple, replace, or overtake the Chief Minister through ever higher levels of capitulation. When or whether this grotesque charade shall end is hard to predict.
To sum up, the tragedies of Indian and Kashmiri Muslims are different albeit similar. Both groups were subject to the homogenising mission of a national and nationalist elite not known to be secular or democratic in practice. Repudiating and rejecting the empirical, lived reality of the sub-continent as a multi-ethnic, multi-national entity, India’s modernising elite institutionalised the placation of dominant/meta ethnic (Hindu) sentiment through territorial division and the repression, discrediting, denial and de-legitimisation of all claims and expressions of other/non-Hindu identity. In doing so they ended up equating Hinduism with national culture and identity. These men were neither communal nor parochial; their pursuit of a cosmology of India as a symbol of Hindu civilizational unity was, as Achin Vaniak maintains, rooted in their own emerging and contingent needs during the early 20th century. Many decades later, the Hindu right-wing seized upon and advanced this original intellectual conceit and political deceit for purposes very different from what its original creators intended to use it for. India’s Muslims and Kashmiri Muslims continue to pay the highest and most tragic price for this great blunder.
(I would like to acknowledge my debt of gratitude to Professor Gurharpal Singh, the late Eqbal Ahmad, Achin Vanaik, PC Upadhyay and P. Sahadvan whose scholarship and insight I have drawn upon for this essay.)