Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Kashmir, Secularism and Indian Identity

Malini Parthasarthy and Subramanyam Swamy have two op-eds (here and here) side by side in today's edition. Malini exhorts the Congress to fight harder for the secular project and Swamy asks India to not negotiate with Pakistan over Kashmir but to prepare for war to safeguard Kashmir and India from the Islamist project. If there is one thing common to both, it is their unjustified confidence in their own beliefs notwithstanding evidence to the contrary and a consequent failure to introspect.

Malini needs to wake up. If the idea of secularism had been so ingrained in our ethos, Kashmiri secessionists would not have had the traction they do - the fact that they do enjoy considerable popular support is good evidence of the failure of the much proclaimed secularism. Swamy, on the other hand, calls for India to deny Kashmir self-determination. This absolutist position is a recipe for never ending confrontation in the years to come. India has already spent a fortune on this state and will be forced, by adopting such a rigid position, to spend much more both on security and development - if peaceful protests do not succeed, they will once again give way to violent insurrection with the next generation of jihadis getting ready to fight the India once again. Swamy's legal games cannot distract from a simple fact: bereft of popular support, no government, whatever its ideals, can survive forever except by brute force, an option that should be reserved for the end.

When the Constituent Assembly ratified the Indian constitution, the word 'secular' was not to be found in it. And with good reason. While the state did not see a role for itself in the religious affairs of the people, it did not prevent the state either from identifying with popular beliefs even if they are inspired by religion. In addition, Art. 370 allowed Kashmir to retain its own Constitution even as the provisions of the country's constitution were kept apart to give the state the political space to create its own laws. Even as this autonomy has steadily eroded, anger against these special priveleges to one state has mounted across the country. The trouble with Malini and others who perceive the issue similarly is that their approach has dismally failed to resolve either of these grievances. On the one hand, she reiterates the myth that a strict enforcement of secular doctrine will keep the Kashmiri separatists at bay - the Amarnath controversy did not create the Islamist constituency, it only provided the latest pretext for Islamist mobilization against the state. On the other, she insists that fighting the Sangh Parivar forcefully will make the other question of popular anger over the special treatment go away. False again. The reason for the rise of the BJP has been the popular anger over special treatment to minorities. The only way to make that go away is to either do away with these concessions or to provide convincing justification for them. No secularist has managed either and not surprisingly, nor does Malini.

The problem is not of the Congress winning or losing electoral battles against the BJP but of its inability to counter the ideological framework of the Sangh. The answer (at least the principles of one) for secularists is actually quite simple. They need to start by distinguishing between values they perceive to be vital to the state's well-being and the system that only imperfectly reflects them but can withstand the vicissitudes of popular sentiment. They and the parties they patronize have long focused upon the former which is certainly important for mobilizing support for electoral battles as well as to generate public opinion towards an idealized goal. But it is only the latter that can create and sustain enduring political institutions and resolve the difficult political problems of our time.

In practice, this means the government must negotiate with Pakistan and with the Hurriyat. It must be willing to draw a line that is wide enough to allow some elements of an Islamic political order in an eventual Kashmiri constitution. And it must be willing to concede some leeway to religious values in other states as well. Unless, the country is willing to dismount from the high horse of secular fundamentalism, the anti-establishment undercurrents that have grown stronger in recent years will only lead the state towards a crisis of legitimacy.


Anonymous said...

"Swamy, on the other hand, calls for India to deny Kashmir self-determination. This absolutist position is a recipe for never ending confrontation in the years to come."

Why not self-determination for Khalistan? And in the period just after independence, the DMK wanted a separate Dravidasthan (claim subsequently reduced to just a separate Tamil Nadu). Why not self-determination in this part of the sub-continent also?

No other Raja or Maharaja laid any condition for accession to the Indian Union. It was a mistake on the part of chacha Nehru to have accepted pre-conditions (for a "special status"), particularly when the Kashmir king was desperately seeking help from the Indian army!

Dirt Digger said...

While I concur with you that Malini needs a reality check (and a psych evaluation), India seriously lacks a domestic policy for Kashmir.
The state is dying with the cancer called Islamic militancy and throwing wads of cash alone will not solve the issue.
Swamy's pragmatic analysis that the eventual failure of Pak in the near future is very likely scenario.
For India to hold discussions with a state which cannot control its intelligence agency and army, makes those discussions look foolish.
I've penned my thoughts in a post.
Waiting to read your response.