“The View From Afar”: Nation-Building and Its Consequences in the North-East and Kashmir

By Shubh Mathur

I recently came across a picturesque and devastatingly accurate metaphor for nation-building, that of a ‘‘handsome neoclassical building in which political prisoners scream in the basement’ [i]. Despite the truth we that we almost instinctively recognize in this image, the authoritarianism and violence ‘“symbolic and physical – implicit in the project of nation-building in India have received little attention in the social sciences. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, legal experts ‘“whether nationalist, Marxist, Subalternist, post-colonial ‘“who have documented and theorized peasant and tribal rebellions against colonial rule, are strangely silent when the same rebels take on the nation-state and suffer the consequences. Liberal writers across the decades spoke of the need for ‘national integration’ and for minorities to ‘assimilate’ to the ‘national mainstream’ ‘“the need for nation-building was unquestioned and the only matter for debate was how this might be best accomplished.

The ‘view from afar’ allows us step backwards, as it were, and to put both the theory and practice of nation-building in perspective. The idea that the view from the margins is essential to understanding the complete picture is found consistently in anthropological writing, from Levi-Strauss’ travels in the Amazon in the 1940s to contemporary work on peoples living on the margins, be they Arctic hunter-gatherers or West African immigrants in New York city. In the Indian context, this would mean that understanding the consequences of Indian policies in Kashmir and the north east, (for this essay, specifically Nagaland) is essential to understanding post-Independence state and society.

The transformation of these areas from cultural centers and hubs of economic, social and political linkages into isolated border regions, inhabited by ‘suspect communities’, in the course of securing the entirely contingent boundaries of the post-colonial state, has much to tell us about the workings of the Indian state and its democratic institutions. It allows us to measure the claims of the Indian state to be a secular, constitutional democracy against actual practice, and through this practice, to explore the notions of identity, belonging and difference that have shaped the destiny of the nation and its wholly unwilling conscripts.

In the Indian public discourse on Kashmir, dominated by the ‘national security mindset’, the problem is one of securing national frontiers against ‘outside interference’. Comparing the different regions however, shows that the national security and counterinsurgency policies followed by the Indian state since 1947 in the north-east, Punjab and Kashmir, have followed a remarkably coherent pattern. These policies have been shaped above all by the perception of cultural difference ‘“religious, linguistic, ethnic ‘“as dangerous and somehow suspect. Religious and ethnic groups falling outside ‘the national mainstream’ have been viewed as potential or actual traitors to the post-Independence task of ‘nation-building’. The experience of diverse minority groups thus falls within the context of a single political order, which has responded to challenges to its legitimacy with armed force, seeking military solutions to political problems.

Comparing two regions ‘“Nagaland and Kashmir ‘“very remote from each other and having very different histories and cultures ‘“shows us similar policies producing very similar consequences. In both cases, guarantees of regional autonomy written into the Indian Constitution were eroded and protests stigmatized variously as rebellion, ‘separatism’, ‘communalism’ and ‘foreign interference’. There is a great deal of continuity between colonial and post-colonial policies in dealing with these recalcitrant regions. The second half of the nineteenth century in Nagaland was marked by a series of ‘rebellions’ against the expansion of British influence and tea plantations which disrupted traditional land use patterns. These ‘rebellions’ were met with ‘punitive expeditions’ ‘“the last and worst in 1879-80 ‘“about which Alexander Mackenzie wrote in 1884 ‘the punishment inflicted by our troops had been far more severe in its results than was at first supposed’[ii]. These ‘punitive expeditions’ constitute the origins of scorched earth counterinsurgency tactics which were continued and elaborated in the 1950s. These became the model for the nation-state’s responses to protest and dissent in ‘border areas’. In Kashmir, protests and dissent against the autocratic and exploitative Dogra regime were met with harsh repression ‘“jail, torture, death, exile. From the 1930s onwards, such dissent could be further stigmatized as ‘communal’ ‘“after 1947, it could be labeled and treated as ‘anti-national’.

The contingent borders of 1947 transformed both Kashmir and Nagaland from centers of trade and cultural routes to isolated peripheries, no longer the foci of local and regional networks but dangerous border regions inhabited by un-reliable and un-trustworthy ethnic and religious minorities. Kashmiri political scientist Noor Ahmed Baba uses the phrase ‘a secluded periphery’ to describe post-1947 Kashmir (I refer here to the Indian-administered portions of Jammu and Kashmir), cut off from its cultural, social, economic and political context. Pre-1947 Kashmir was linked to Central Asia, China, West Asia, and westwards to Muzaffarabad and Rawalpindi. In purely logistic terms, the Cease-Fire Line of 1949 left the Kashmir Valley connected to the outside world only by a road that used to be known as the ‘Maharaja’s cart-track’, turned by prodigious efforts of the Border Roads organization into the Srinagar Jammu highway. This is even today a very unreliable connection to the outside world, often closed due to landslides and accidents, invariably shut down in the winter and the rains.

In social and cultural terms, the Cease-Fire line of 1949, renamed in 1972 the Line of Control was an arbitrary partition, marking only the limits reached by the Indian and Pakistani armies. It literally divides families, villages, fields, orchards, herders from pastures; family members who happened to be on the far side of their property or village, or traveling, found themselves cut off from their homes and transformed overnight into ‘foreigners’ and when they tried to return, ‘infiltrators’. Any contact between family members separated by the Line became ‘conspiring with the enemy’.

Working against the logic of history, culture and geography, the transformation of Kashmir into the prize of Indian independence was a tremendous act of nationalist will. The events of 1947 in Kashmir are told in the heroic mode when writing the history of India ‘“the story of VP Menon pressuring the Dogra Maharaja to sign the ‘Instrument of Accession’, airlifting troops to confront ‘tribal raiders’ from Pakistan, building the Jawahar Tunnel to link Srinagar to Jammu. I want to emphasize the cultural argument here, and will return later to consider the consequences of this form of imagining the nation’s borders. At this point I will refer only to the logic cited by V.P. Menon, then Secretary of the Ministry of States, to explain the events of 1947: ‘Personally when I recommended to the Government of India the acceptance of the accession of the Maharaja of Kashmir, I had in mind one consideration and one consideration alone, viz. that the invasion of Kashmir by the raiders was a grave threat to the integrity of India. Ever since the time of Mahmud Ghazni, that is to say, for nearly eight centuries, with but a brief interval during the time of the Mughal epoch, India has been subjected to periodic invasions from the north-west. Mahmud Ghazni had led no less than seventeen of these incursions in person. And within less than ten weeks of the establishment of the new State of Pakistan, its very first act was to let loose a tribal invasion through the north-west. Srinagar today, Delhi tomorrow. A nation that forgets its history and its geography does so at its peril.’ [iii]

Another common theme is the repression of dissent against Indian policies, which produced, sooner or later, armed insurgency. The years 1953-54 mark the turning point in both Kashmir and the north-east; by this time the nation-state is confident enough to launch serious counterinsurgency operations in Nagaland and to overthrow the government of Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir. It is only as a footnote to the larger history that one records the imprisonment of Sheikh Abdullah from 1953 until the end of his life, almost eighteen years, with the exception of three brief periods of freedom. In Nagaland, the response to political opposition to the Indian takeover of administration was to jail and torture leaders of the Naga movement, who were thus forced underground and into armed rebellion. The years 1954-63 are remembered in Nagaland as the war years, with all of society under siege. They also formed the pattern for future counterinsurgency operations, following the classic pattern of dirty wars, where the civilian population is viewed as the enemy, and treated as such. The abuses of those years are forgotten, if they were ever known, in India, but form part of the historical memory of the Nagas. A book by Luignam Luthui and Nandita Haksar, Nagaland File, published in 1984, records some of these abuses ‘“torture, rape, burning of villages, desecration of churches, forcible resettlement into villages under military surveillance, destruction of crops; perhaps not surprisingly, it is out of print.

The ‘Disturbed Areas Act’, ‘Armed Forces Special Powers Act’ and other ‘national security’ laws, in many cases with language lifted directly from colonial laws, give the army wide ranging powers of search, arrest, seizure, destruction of houses, the right to shoot to kill to maintain public order; while providing immunity from prosecution for army personnel accused of abuses against the civilian population.

In Kashmir, from 1947 onwards the liberal wing of the Indian government represented by Nehru sought ways and means to erode the guarantees of autonomy contained in the ‘Instrument of Accession’, which conceded to the central government control only over three areas ‘“defence, foreign affairs and trade, and to extend its control over the state. It became increasingly clear that Nehru was backing away from the commitment to hold a plebiscite; at the same time, from 1952 onwards, there were increasingly strident protests by the Praja Parishad, backed by the Jan Sangh, with SP Mookerjee leading Jathas into Kashmir to claim it as an inalienable part of India. The highly successful land reforms carried out by Sheikh Abdullah, which actually gave land to the tiller, were labeled as ‘communal’ since the dispossessed landlords were Hindus. The ambiguous attitude of the central government to these protests, gave many Kashmiris cause to re-think the accession to India. The overthrow of the government of Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir in 1953 and his replacement by Ghulam Mohammed Bakshi – who served to keep Kashmir quiet for India until 1965 ‘“was not by any means a bloodless coup. Here again is a sharp disjuncture between official history and popular memory; the former at most records the arrest of many (thirty-three?) politicians associated with Skeikh Abdullah. Popular memories of the time recall family history, with relatives forced into exile across the Cease-Fire line, popular protests which were met with police violence and an unrecorded number of deaths, perhaps as many and 1500. Memories of this period are of blanket repression, of blatant rigging of elections, and of any protest branded as ‘anti-national’. Paradoxically, it was the armed insurgency beginning in 1989 that opened up space for political dissent as well. One story from the early 1970s illustrates the dynamics of repression. This was the time when the Al-Fatah pro-Independence student movement came into existence; Rafiq Kathwari, who is now a prominent Kashmiri-American businessman, was at that time a college student and signed a manifesto pledging him to work for Kashmiri independence. He was turned in to the police by the college principal, arrested, jailed for ten months and tortured. Soon after his release he left for the United States [iv]. (Kathwari does not disclose the identity of the college principal, but it can be assumed that like most prominent figures in educational and cultural life during this period, he was a Pandit.) This story has stayed with me because as a teacher, I have to wonder about the kinds of loyalty that enabled the college principal to turn in a student to what he almost certainly knew would be a jail sentence and torture.

A third common feature in both areas is the project of ‘nationalizing space’, to use Sanjib Baruah’s phrase. Cultural domination in Kashmir took the form of a series of grids ‘“tourism, films, PWD, Border Roads, the administrative apparatus – overlying Kashmiri understandings of space and culture. A uniform educational curriculum, the uninspired productions of state-run radio and TV and the ubiquitous Bureau of Hindi in Allahabad all represent failed efforts to replace the consciousness of a unique Kashmiri identity with a pan-Indian one. In the course of my interviews, questions about projects of cultural domination were met with a certain amount of head-scratching; Indian cultural productions were barely noticed and had no impact. A second and perhaps more realistic strand of nationalization is the ‘developmentalist’ imperative and the economic integration into the Indian economy. But underlying all of these is the tremendous military presence which even before 1989 gave Kashmir the look of an occupied territory.

And a final common theme is the complete failure of the efforts to domesticate both Nagas and Kashmiris, and to turn them into loyal citizens of the nation-state. Resistance takes many forms, cultural, religious ‘“in Nagaland some 95% of the population is Christian and more than half the conversions took place after 1947. In Kashmir, some of the more obvious forms of resistance were a tendency to watch Pakistani TV, cheer the Pakistani cricket team ‘“the staple bugbears of Indian media and nationalist propaganda.

Finally, what are the consequences of the ‘national-security mindset’ in dealing with border regions? The paradoxical co-existence of highly authoritarian regimes and military rule with the trappings of democracy ultimately undermines Indian democracy itself, and its institutions. When national security is evoked, the watchdog institutions ‘“media, courts, civil society ‘“default on their obligations to ensure representative and accountable government. Another consequence is the huge amount of unacknowledged power that accrues to the military, intelligence and national security establishments, and the lack of accountability, to the point where they operate independently of civilian control. And finally, the imperative of national integration, supported by a democratic consensus that cuts across political divisions, allows the development of a national conscience that can tolerate the worst abuses and violence in the name of national security.

The early decades of Indian independence have been seen as the ‘quiet years’, but the long view enables us to see these as the time when the seeds for the contemporary catastrophes were planted and nurtured.

[i]In Donald McCloskey, 1990 If You are So Smart: the Narrative of Economic Enterprise Chicago:University of Chicago Press p. 154)
[ii]in Sanjib Baruah, Durable Disorder. Understanding the Politics of Northeast IndiaDelhi: Oxford University Press p. 107
[iii]In S.P. Udaykumar (ed.) 2001 ‘Introduction’ in Handcuffed to History. Narratives, Pathologies, and Violence in South Asia Praeger Publishers. Westport, Conn.)
[iv] Rafiq Kathwari 2002 ‘Kashmir Dispute will make Ground Zero Seem Like a Bonfire’ Counterpunch January 8, 2002 online at http://www.counterpunch.org/kathwari.html

Shubh Mathur is an Indian anthropologist whose work concerns human rights, nations and borders, violence, immigration and gender. Her first book, The Everyday Life of Hindu Nationalism: An Ethnographic Account, has been published by the Three Essays Collective Press.

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