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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jammu & Kashmir - A Tangled Web- The IIC Quarterly

2: At the Crossroads

In Praise of Federalism

et me begin with a dramatic over statement. Kashmir today offers what could be the greatest opportunity for lasting peace in the sub-continent. It also has the potential to take a leadership role in radically redesigning the architecture of democratic federalism in South Asia and serving as a model for decentralized governance based on the principles of subsidiarity. Yet, more likely than not, the national and security mindset, which dominates policy thinking, will once again convert this opportunity into a threat and reinforce those traditions of political conservatism and pusillanimity that have repeatedly thwarted any attempts at revitalizing the peace process. Kashmir’s greatest tragedy has been that is too disturbing a reminder of policy failures and the shallowness of our commitment towards a genuinely pluralistic and federal democracy. Forces of

centralism do not like to be disturbed and Kashmir threatens these forces in very fundamental ways.

But let us for a moment suspend cynical disbelief and explore this unique opportunity. Every recent visitor to Jammu and Kashmir has been struck by the overwhelming, all-consuming yearning for peace, cutting across all segments of society: for restoration of the humdrum routine of daily living; for a life free of curfews and sand-bagged check posts, the ‘concertina wires and jack-booted surveillance’; for the freedom to pursue the aspirations of normal middle-class youth anywhere else in India, and for the young to be able to dream the same dreams as the young in Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore. It is also evident that the current phase of unrest is qualitatively different from all earlier ones, although obviously there are connecting strands. It is dominated by the youth. It has seemingly touched a chord with a much wider cross-section of people than all earlier phases of militancy. It has a massive groundswell of popular support without any visible signs of political engineering. These outbursts are spontaneous; they are not the conspiratorial inventions of Mr. Geelani or the Hurriyat. Given its spontaneity and unpredictability, the popular upsurge seems incapable of being handled either by brute force or by economic packages, sops or concessions. The protests have increasingly taken the shape of a movement that has no clearly identifiable centre and can any day blossom or burgeon (depending on one’s perspective) into a Tehrir Square-like mass, direct action, campaign. The conventional political formations, including die-hard secessionists and all shades of the Hurriyat, are now being led by the movement rather than being the ones leading it.

In a situation of such flux, genuine and sincere efforts towards dissipating public anger and communicating a commitment towards carrying the conciliation process through to finish can have an electrifying effect. At the same time, any procrastination can so irretrievably damage the emotional balance that the call for secession will become the rallying cry, shutting out voices of moderation. If this opportunity for reconciliation is missed, it is most unlikely to feature again in a hurry.

While recognizing that the situation in the Valley today is qualitatively different from what it was even two years ago, our discussion of the problems invariably reverts to a political discourse that is insensitive to these differentiates. It is a discourse trapped

in the vocabulary of the past, in dead and meaningless clichés, and derived from constructs that have long outlived their social and political significance. We forget that the language we use determines not only the tone, tenor and timbre of any dialogue that we are engaged in, but defines its very substance. It serves little purpose now to continue repeating ad nauseam that ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’ or that ‘there can be no discussion outside the framework of the Indian Constitution’, or to talk of the ‘Pakistan factor’ and look at Kashmir in the context of ‘the external security scenario’, to view the phenomena of mass popular protests as a ‘law and order problem’ and talk of the sufferings of people in terms of ‘grievances’. Such phrases trivialize the situation and ensure that any dialogue becomes nothing more than a repetition of the rigid positions embedded in the syntax and the idiom of a dead discourse. From the Kashmir side, this means repeating ‘recognition of the Kashmir dispute as an international dispute’, ‘the inherent right of the Kashmiri to self-determination’, ‘Freeing Kashmir of Indian occupation’ – phrases that immediately trigger a hostile reaction from large sections of the Indian middle class. In fact, it is because the repetition of these clichés from both sides provokes a predictable response that they continue to be used. This ensures that the enormous vested interest that has developed in perpetuating conditions of hostility and conflict finds ready sustenance. The existing language of discourse, therefore, will not allow the reconciliation process to take root.

This is a bigger problem than it might seem. Language creates conceptual constructs. Constructs are often taken as being fundamental, immutable and sacrosanct. Some constructs become so loaded with emotional and political meanings that whole ideologies get built around them. Questioning the construct, then, is inevitably seen as an attack on core, fundamental value systems that must be resisted and thwarted at all costs. Wars can be and are fought to defend the sanctity of the construct. The problems get compounded manifold when the construct acquires a religious dimension in addition to a political one.


One such construct is that of the ‘sovereign nation-state’. This construct has now taken such a vice-like grip on the Indian middle-class mind that it unthinkingly accepts that the idea of India is the same as the idea of the Indian State and that the word ‘nation’ means the same as the ‘nation-state’. It is widely believed that until colonial rule consolidated the empire and created the basic structure of the Indian State, there was no real entity called India – a land of thousands of fragmented principalities, feudal fiefdoms and fractious village communes. This was a belief actively perpetuated by colonial rulers and uncritically accepted and internalized by most of us as a ‘fact’. In a seminal article on sacred geography, Professor Diana Eck cites Sir John Strachey as saying: ‘This is the first and most essential thing to learn about India, that there is not and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to European ideas, any root of unity, physical, political, social and religion, no Indian nation, no people of India of which we hear so much’. To the imperial mind, the bewildering diversity of a civilization – that refused to fit into any of his classificatory boxes – represented utter chaos that could only be brought to order and unity within the unity of the imperial state. In fact, it was probably not until the British and the Europeans introduced the idea of a ‘nation’, that Indians began to be troubled at the lack of an essentialized core to the complex network of relationships among a diversity of individuals and communities that was their most distinguishable feature as a civilization. ‘There is, therefore, no central something to which the peripheral people were peripheral. One person’s centre is another’s periphery’ (Wendy Doniger – Hinduism, An Alternative History). Before the idea of the nation as a unified community took root, this absence of a centre, therefore, was never a cause for anxiety and could explain why neither a unified religion nor a unified state was found necessary for forging a national identity.

Yet the idea of India existed many millennia before the formation of the modern Indian nation state under British imperial rule. In a seminal article (Rose Apple Island – Feb./March 1996 – India Magazine), Professor Diana Eck, cites the Greek scholar Eratosthenes giving an account of certain informants who, in the fourth century, could describe India to Alexander and to Megasthenes, as a land ‘which was a quadrilateral shape, with the Indus River forming the western boundary, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush stretching

along the north, and the seas skirting the other two sides.’ She further quotes Alexander Cunningham who in 1871 was a major general of the Royal Engineers writing: ‘The close agreement of these dimensions given by Alexander’s informants, with the actual size of the country is very remarkable and shows that the Indians, even at that early date in their history, had a very accurate knowledge of the form and extent of their native land’. Professor Eck goes on to say, ‘It is remarkable that long before there was any semblance of Indian political unity, those who described India to Alexander’s company apparently thought of it and described it as a single land.’

The idea of India, therefore, is much larger, much subtler and more sophisticated than a constitutional, juridical one. It must be viewed as a civilizational entity, consisting of an intricate web of social, cultural and economic interrelationships within a distinct geography, which has survived and continuously evolved over thousands of years and continues to do so even today.

If, therefore, one was to look for the one, ‘essential’, defining feature in this idea of India as distinct from the idea of the Indian state, that feature is India’s diversity. Diversity is not merely something that exists around us. It constitutes us. It is an integrative phenomenon, not a divisive one. Were we to ask the simple question of who, or what, is an Indian, the answer invariably has to stress our plurality and diversity. We are what we are because of our diversity, not in spite of it. We are one only because we are many. This may appear an obvious truism but is easily forgotten, and – worse still – seen by many as a societal failure that can only be overcome by some form of homogenized cultural nationalism.

Before we consider the political dangers of viewing our diversity as a weakness, it is worth understanding why it is so important to us. Looking at the world of nature, we know that the interdependence of species requires bio-diversity and it is through bio-diversity that Nature maintains its balance. It is bio-diversity that provides ecological sustainability and it is through bio-diversity that species get cross-pollinated and enrich one another. Diversity in human societies is, for the same reasons, as important as it is in nature. It strengthens the mutual interdependence of individuals and groups. It ensures social and cultural enrichment through a cross pollination of communities – languages, customs and cuisine. It maintains balance, in society as well as in individuals, by ensuring that multiple

identities remain dynamic and do not get frozen. The culture of diversity as much as the diversity of culture leads to a broadening of minds, a cosmopolitan outlook and a natural affinity for the values of tolerance and mutual respect.

Diversity as an organizing principle is applicable as much to individuals as to society or nature. Plurality and multiplicity of identities exist within individuals as well as in groups and communities. There are identities that are in a sense given and that are not easily changed – gender, skin and hair colour, place of birth, parentage and ancestry, mother-tongue and genetic characteristics. But most others are contextual, and dynamic – religion, faith and belief systems, professions, languages learnt and acquired, education, class, food preferences, politics, to name just a few. Every human being is a composite of these multiple and diverse identities with a considerable degree of dynamism and fluidity among these identities. Some identities can be altered, modified, reformed, reshaped and revamped; some can be, and are, outgrown or subdued or discarded; some are engineered and re-engineered and some constructed and reconstructed, produced and reproduced. Every human being continually and seamlessly shifts and moves within these identities and the identities themselves grow and change in relation to time, place and the environment.

As long as the plurality of these identities is seen as natural, matters remain simple, uncomplicated and conflict-free. Problems arise when people start ranking identities hierarchically in some perceived order of importance. Identities get frozen and ‘essentialized’ – being treated as primordial, immutable and superior in relation to other identities. This happens particularly in the case of identities of race, colour, religion and caste and it happens when individuals and groups cease to celebrate diversity and instead seek homogeneity. When this occurs, then instead of identities revolving around politics, people start playing politics around identity.

At the national level, similarly, when we stop celebrating our diversity and instead search for an elusive homogeneity or a single, hegemonic, unitary identity – be it around religion or cultural nationalism, as propagated by the Sangh Parivar or the construct of the ‘nation-state’ – we begin sowing the seeds of division and conflict. Unfortunately, our constitution makers at the time of framing the Constitution were themselves trapped in a mindset that saw

plurality and diversity as a challenge, rather than as a blessing, to the creation of a modern state. They were fearful men, as many continue to be now, of what they perceived as ‘fissiparous and centrifugal tendencies, which could be contained only by giving the constitution a bias towards a strong unitary state’. It is precisely the same fear, that were it not for the monolithic Indian state (which at best would grudgingly yield some space for regional identities strictly on terms set by it) the country will break up into a thousand different parts, that provides the state legitimacy in unleashing fierce repression to subdue any semblance of resistance to its omnipotence. The fact that Ms. Arundhati Roy can be criminally charged with sedition for speaking out against the Indian state and that such an action is seen as justified, shows how widespread and how deep-rooted the fear of the break up of the State is. The survival, of the State and its machinery, whatever be the cost in human terms and whatever the implications for democratic processes, becomes the paramount objective, expressed in terms of ‘national interest’. ‘National Interest’ becomes synonymous with the interests of a homogenized, unitary state with the Constitution acquiring the force of an ideology. People become creatures of the Constitution rather than the Constitution being a creation of the people. It acquires the status of divinity and defending it becomes a sacred duty.

Few realize the dangers of this. An ideology that justifies unchecked trampling of human rights, of violent and coercive means of defending the authority of a unitary state, can easily descend into a kind of secular fascism, not very different from the theology or cultural nationalism, peddled by the RSS. In fact, because the ideology of the State is ostensibly secular it is even more dangerous as it allays liberal middle-class opinion against the repressive behaviour of the State.

The architecture of Indian democracy is consequently based on fear

– the fear of diversity. The State fans this fear because it sets itself up as the cementing force that holds together disparate communities, each having its own geography. It is then natural for a whole range of vested interests to coalesce around a strong, unitarist state that views genuine federalism with extreme suspicion. Such vested interests aid and abet the gradual militarization of the State, and make State brutality appear acceptable – a necessary evil for the defence of its integrity. In short,

they fuel the propagation of a ‘national security’ mindset in which democracy has to be subordinated to the interests of security.


The Kashmir problem has to be viewed within the dynamics of this interplay between democracy, diversity, identity and the State. It does not help that in this interplay as the Indian polity becomes more and more federal, or even confederal, systems and structures and processes of government become more and more centralist. There is constant need for increasing the number of Central Police forces, central investigation and intelligence-gathering agencies and expanding the role of the military.

At one level the fight in Kashmir, therefore, is a natural resistance to the forcible submergence of the Kashmiri identity within the Indian nation-state identity. The insistence on treating the ‘nation-state’ identity as the superior one to which the Kashmiri identity must be subordinate not only makes the resistance to it more fierce, it also accords a statist dimension to a regional identity in a way in which the cry for secession acquires an emotional edge. The sharper insistence on the part of the State to have its omnipotence unquestioningly accepted, the deeper the desire on the part of Kashmiris to raise the hackles of the Indian state by demanding separation, little realizing that the notion of secession itself is caught within the nation-state construct that they oppose. Having Kashmir as a separate nation-state does not solve anything. It only replaces one coercive rent-seeking apparatus with another, probably much worse, one.

How do we get out of this trap? It is here that in the character of the current phase of what is happening in Kashmir at present, there lies a great opportunity. The first opportunity is to try and see that any dialogue that is resumed is led by a new set of players: new faces, mainly of the youth, who do not carry with them the baggage of history of the older generations. Most of them have a refreshingly different, ‘out of the box’, approach to issues and while they share with the older generation the cumulative rage against a repressive, insensitive and uncaring state, their political understanding is very different and free of the clutter of clichés and rhetoric. They are capable of using a different language and writing a different script.

Here arises the second big opportunity. One word on every Kashmiri lip that has become a rallying, cry for all age groups in the valley is that of ‘azadi’. In its fullest sense azadi is a very creative, liberating word with very positive connotations. Unfortunately, on both sides, it is the narrow, limited, statist construction of it which gets adopted and it is immediately assumed that it is a call for secession. Many begin to see in it a reiteration of the two-nation theory. It is possible, however, to use the emotional appeal of the word to initiate a collective exploration of its creative potential. In libertarian, non-statist terms, such an exploration can be a unique opportunity for a designing a new architecture of federalism and democracy not just for the state of J&K and the rest of India but for the entire South Asian region.

A beginning in this direction has already been made by the J&K Peoples’ Democratic Party in ‘The Self Rule Framework for Resolution’ they brought out in October 2008. While this document shares similar concerns with the earlier National Conference document on ‘autonomy’, it has a much broader, supra-national focus inasmuch as it brings Pakistan and the concerns of Pakistan Administered Kashmir into the ambit of ‘Self Rule’. In many ways, this is one of the most remarkably well-crafted documents to come out of a political party and it is a great pity that policy analysts and policy makers have generally ignored it. As a working blue-print for a bold new architecture of federalism, it can give substance and focus to any dialogue, especially as it has been formulated in very sober and reasoned terms.

A critical problem in discussing the concept of ‘self-rule’ and ‘shared sovereignty’ in respect of Kashmir, is the tendency to view the problems of Kashmir as something unique, and very different from other regions/states in India. This is primarily on account of the history of the ‘special status’ accorded to it in the Constitution and the special circumstances of its accession to the Indian Union. From the Kashmiri point of view, this means seeking a resolution that is Kashmir-centric, as for them any accent on their separateness from the rest of India is a part of their self-identity. This insistence on separateness invariably provokes the opposite reaction from the non-Kashmiri who tends to treat Kashmir as an aberration and their demands as the demands of a spoilt and pampered lot. At the policy level, this means a constant effort to try and dilute the special status

for Kashmir and have Kashmiris accept that their identity has to be subordinated to the Indian identity. Stalemate situations are thus in-built in the design of the dialogue itself. It is this suspicion of proposals that are a seen as the precursors of separation that has kept mainstream political opinion distant from the otherwise extremely practical solutions proposed in the PDP Self-Rule document.

It is in this context that it is more important than ever to treat diversity as a fundamental organizing principle for the architecture of federalism in the country. By recognizing and celebrating diversity, we paradoxically bring the focus to the commonality and similarity of problems and issues among diverse entities rather than to the differences. The concept of self rule and shared sovereignty, therefore, is a concept relevant not only to the state of J&K and Pakistan Administered/Occupied Kashmir, but to almost every state in India, most particularly, the states in the North-East.

It has the potential for a radical redesigning of India’s federal architecture in which Kashmiris can take a leadership role. It may be worthwhile to conceive of a South Asian Commission on Federalism under the SAARC umbrella that is mandated to look at new political superstructures for all South Asian regions and sub-regions, work out a phased programme of economic integration that transcends borders and suggest appropriate restructuring of the Constitutions of the nation states involved. If the idea is too radical for all of South Asia, an experiment can certainly be made within India to have an All India Commission on federalism led by representatives from Jammu and Kashmir. In one stroke, this takes away the stigma of separatism from the proposals for Self Rule and expands its applicability to a larger national, regional and even international context. It also becomes a means for broadening and deepening the debate on the slogan of ‘azadi’ and exploring how the slogan can be used for conducting a mass participatory dialogue on the nature of democracy in South Asia.

The conduct of such a debate can also make a beginning of taking the federalism debate out of the trap of the ‘State’ and the ‘nation-state’ constructs in which it has been stuck for long. As long as it remains confined to these constructs, it becomes primarily an instrument for containing secessionist impulses, or a means of reconciling, accommodating, managing or resolving diversity-related conflicts. The question then is: who accommodates whom, who manages whom, and who acts, as a conciliator for whom. Inevitably,

this is taken as the role of the state that then uses federalism as a means of perpetuating itself through a system of distribution of legislative and executive process, fiscal equalization, assymetric decentralization, etc. The inherent potential of federalism to question the state itself and rethink and redesign systems and institutions of governance gets lost. It is, therefore, important that in exploring this potential, the radical and subversive edge of the slogan of ‘azadi’, is not diluted but is given a positive, innovative twist.

One person who had a profound grasp of the radical potential of the concept of ‘azadi’ was Mahatma Gandhi. As late as 1946, just a year before our independence, when asked to give a picture of the independent India of his conception, he said: ‘Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic or a Panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.’ He then goes on to say: ‘In this structure of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening, never ascending circles – the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.’

The metaphor of oceanic circles is important because it articulates decentralization. A completely different meaning – power being simultaneously ceded outwards and drawn inwards, rather than being handed downwards in a hierarchical order. Gandhi had obviously prefigured the concept of self rule and shared sovereignty in a way that was so far ahead of its times that our Constitution makers could not really comprehend its true significance and pushed it into the margins. From what should have been the framework for the structure of Indian democracy, is it possible to hope that, in the process of elaborating proposals for self-rule, political leadership in Jammu and Kashmir can revive the Gandhian vision to suggest major alterations to the Constitution that are applicable not just to the state of J&K but to all states and sub-regions in India?

It is necessary here to touch briefly on the ‘Within the Constitutional framework’ cliché – constantly bandied around whenever the Kashmir issue surfaces, as though the Constitution is a millstone around our necks and prohibits any innovative changes from taking place in the Constitutional scheme. The Indian Constitution is meant to be an enabling and empowering framework and not a constraining one. It is dynamic. It is flexible. It allows for a great variety of forms of

sub-national governance, and it enables major institutional reforms. It is doubtful whether any substantial section of Kashmir political opinion wishes to question the fundamentals of secularism, of the overall scheme of Indian democracy, of Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law. So let us not see the Constitution as a road block and let us accord the Kashmiri people the privilege of leading the exercise to recommend alterations in the Constitution for deepening federal democracy in the sub-continent.

A note of caution about the government-centricity of our political processes, particularly when such processes are designed and scripted by the executive arm of the government – both the political-executive, as well as the bureaucracy. Too often initiatives are trapped within the short-term opportunistic, political goals of the government in power and are reduced to meaningless, bureaucratic waffle and double-speak. The dialogue process, therefore, will have to be led by alternative institutions in which independent think tanks, civil society groups, non-state organizations play a much bigger role. In the joint Memorandum submitted by Mirwaiz/Yasin Malik for the All Party Delegation that visited Kashmir last year, it had suggested the creation of an empowered Kashmir Committee to enter into a process of engagement with the representatives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Is it possible to think of such a committee as a subset of a Federal Commission of which the Vice President as the Chairman of the Council of States be made the Chairperson?

It is time to rescue the Federalism debate from ‘practical’, ‘nitty­gritty’, ‘nuts and bolts’ issues within a statist framework and go back to its philosophical roots to rediscover its poetry. For too long the debate has been hijacked by political scientists, policy analysts, constitutional experts and ‘practitioners’ at the political and administrative levels who ensure that the debate continues to remain confined within its conventional categories. Kashmir is the land of the Sufi poets, musicians, mystics, philosophers and artists and a land of bewitching beauty. Is it too much to expect that the youth in Kashmir will now pick up the debate, take it out of the worn-out clichés in which it has been wrapped and imbue it with the beauty of their land and the elegance of its people? Who knows whether the next Gandhi is waiting to be discovered in this paradise?



Razdan said...

I am still trying to grasp your visionary idea and its potential implementation. But though you might find this interesting


I appreciate your clean breast mien.
Contents are good,somewhat Longish.Pre'cis,Crisp would do better
Impact.However,you have captured the cultural ethos,with all the tonal variants, is remarkably good.

krb150 said...

Dear amitabha, Such wisdom should not go waste. After your retirement you deserve to be employed as the political adviser to Dr. Manmohan Singh.

amnah khalid said...

Interesting thoughts of different aspects like diversity, nation-state, Kashmir and the identity of India.Although constitutionally it's been defined in the Preamble as, socialistic, republic, federal, India is more of point where civilizational ideas met and converged simply because of the non monotheistic nature of Hindu religion and hierarchical set up of society. The very idea of 'the other'coexistence was challenged otherwise. Interesting reds are Kymlika and Neera Chandhoke's work.Thank you for sharing.

Anirban Mukerji said...

Sir, very interesting, maybe you could take the help of so many of your young admirers to improve the visual readability of your blog