It’s just the chicken coming home to roost
India’s writers, artists, scientists, historians, film-makers, academics and members of civil society have rightfully condemned the creeping climate of violence, prejudice and intolerance sweeping across the country. Such protests are a moral and ethical force amidst a deepening darkness. Extraordinary as the protests are, their focus is on developments in mainland India. Missing entirely from the critical panorama (of historians too) is the history and subjective experience of approximately 55 million people (Source: Census of India 2011) living under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) across the northern and eastern periphery of the Indian nation-state i.e. Kashmir and the north-east. These populations have lived for decades in conditions far worse than what is presently the case in mainland India.
This amnesia, inadvertent or otherwise, is both telling and tragic. It is telling because it reinforces a hierarchy premised on the perception that what happens in the periphery of the Indian nation-state is disconnected and irrelevant to what happens in mainland India. And it is tragic because it is precisely this dichotomy that has both fed and legitimized parochial and majoritarian constructs of nation and national identity, and the denigration of cultural difference so apparent in mainland India today. Yet sadly, with few exceptions, there was little disquiet or public remonstration when for decades on end, tens of thousands of citizens of peripheral India paid with their lives for demanding the very same constitutional freedom of speech and expression, and the right to cultural difference–whose denial Indian civil society decries today. Indeed, much before the ascent of Hindutva across mainland India, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir had already been stifled and strangulated by the very darkness shrouding mainland India today. Freedoms of speech, assembly, cultural diversity in peripheral regions were trampled upon; citizens from all these regions did not and do not possess the right to life.
This darkness mirrored a reality of two Indias–a mainland where, generally speaking, the right to life, and the freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly were available, and a peripheral India peopled by what scholar Sankaran Krishna accurately characterized as the ‘ethnic other’ where the denial of these very rights was enforced at the point of a bayonet. For the very few from mainland India who protested this tyranny was reserved the charge of sedition and/or ‘anti-national’ activities. For years on end, India’s Parliament and ‘diverse’ polity was not only ‘united’ in firmly opposing democracy and fundamental rights for ‘other’ ethnic minorities in the periphery; both were equally committed to extending–year after tragic year–draconian legislation such as AFSPA backed by impunity whose outcome was violence, widespread civilian killings and human rights abuse, dispossession, and the destruction of rich and diverse cultures and communities on a grand scale. Indeed, with regard to this ‘national’ tyranny there was extraordinary ‘unity’ between parties as ‘diverse’ as the Congress, the CPI (M) and the BJP. None wished to extend to the periphery the freedom or tolerance they themselves never tired talking about in New Delhi and in Western capitals.
The freedoms being debated in mainland India today have been absent in the periphery for decades. Section 144, lathis, water-cannons, pepper spray, pellets that blind and bullets that maim and kill took care of peaceful assembly; repeated detention under laws like Public Safety Act, disappearance and torture were effective anti-dotes against youth and civilians opposed to an intolerable local status-quo; the denial of judicial review deprived peripheral citizens of a crucial legal safeguard against the denial of fundamental rights; impunity protected the perpetrators of murder, torture, mass graves and rape, not its victims.
This unstated, silent compact on peripheral India shared by a purportedly ‘liberal’/non-Hindutva mainland India polity denied to peripheral citizens the very freedoms sections of this very polity so vociferously uphold for mainland citizens today. But those who live in glass houses cannot afford to throw stones. And indeed it was only a matter of time before this self-crafted paradox of mainland India finally caught up with its patently non-liberal, deceitful and opportunistic creators. The steady strangulation of the periphery through violence and repression by a tyrannical centre has now moved inexorably and inevitably into India’s heartland. India does to her mainland what she has done to her periphery for decades. With the periphery stifled, it was only a matter of time before the noose tightened around the centre. In a sinister twist though, those political parties and personalities guilty of presiding over the killing of thousands of ethnic minority citizens, and the denial of the freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly and expression in peripheral India now don the mantle of defending the rights and freedoms of religious minorities in mainland India.
While it is entirely justifiable and legitimate to hold the present regime responsible for the climate of prejudice, hate and vigilante violence, the roots of this crisis cannot, for the just stated reasons, be laid entirely at the door of Hindutva. For decades before Hindutva circumscribed the freedom of thought, expression and cultural identity in mainland India, India’s non-Hindutva polity and non-Hindutva civil society elites were fixated on crafting a ‘national’ identity at the cost of denying peripheral citizens the very same right to life, dignity, dissent and cultural difference they now demand from mainland Hindutva rulers. That India’s own empirical realities were in complete contradiction to the ahistorical, reductive and alien concept of ‘national’ citizen. This was never a concern for such non-Hindutva liberals who enforced this indignity on ethnic ‘other’ citizens through coercion and repression. Nor was there any demonstrable commitment from mainland India’s non-Hindutva ‘liberals’ for the culture, identity or aspiration of peripheral ethnic minorities. This was because the ‘equal-respect-for-the-cultural-other’ imaginary was inimical and irreconcilable with the ‘national’ imaginary and its associated centralized state structure upon which such rulers and allied elite have drawn and sustained power since 1947. Moreover, for all these diverse elites, the glib, canned ‘unity in diversity’ slogan was an expedient and handy tool in warding off political challenges from troublesome ‘ethnic others’ in peripheral India who resisted such undignified impositions. The cliché ‘unity in diversity’ masked a complacent mainland consensus around a unitary centralized state. Geography and centralized power seemed durable and permanent bulwarks against recalcitrant peripherals in their distant wooded, hilly and mountainous homelands. In the wake of protests by peripherals against centralized mainland tyranny, mainland citizens were told the ‘nation’ was in danger and that the Army was dealing with ‘anti-national’ peripherals.
Sending the Army was the easy bit. Yet each and every time a brigade landed in India’s periphery to quell resistance by the ethnic other, mainland India ceded its moral claim to democracy, as well as its claim to respect or tolerate cultural difference. Backed by centralized power and a non-Hindutva polity united in ideological diversity against peripheral India, mainland India continued to deny to peripheral India the rights to life, peaceful assembly, speech, dissent and cultural identity it flaunted as a marker of democracy in mainland India. The unstated consensus was that as long as peripheral India’s dirty wars and grisly killings, rapes and torture remained shielded from mainland India and from the world at large, they could continue. They did. Despite mainland complacence however, peripheral India did not yield or surrender; it continued to resist. Such resistance–symbolized by, among others, peripheral women like Irom Sharmila Chanu from Manipur and Parveena Ahanger from Kashmir–left mainland India morally isolated, yet peripheral India was unable to wrest free of the mainland’s stranglehold because of the possession of superior miltary force by the latter.
The odds in mainland India today are not half as fearsome or terrifying as the daily indignities and outrages experienced by local societies in their peripheral, occupied homelands. But they are daunting. Only by bridging the mainland-periphery divide by extending a hand of demonstrable support, empathy and solidarity to the besieged, battle-scarred, dispossessed and neglected peripherals whom they have consistently betrayed and deceived, can those talking of freedom, respect and tolerance in mainland India hope to sound credible and succeed.
—Seema Kazi is a New-Delhi based researcher and writer