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Of Nationalism and Love in Southasia

By Shivam Vij

21 June 2012

 Conflict resolution in Southasia is hostage to our inability to see that we are trapped in a nationalist hall of mirrors.


The predominant emotion with which jingoistic Indians and Pakistanis view each others’ misfortunes is schadenfreude. They count each other’s conflicts and rebellions to keep score. The Indian will talk about sectarian violence in Pakistan, and the Pakistani will ask about the treatment of Dalits in India. The Pakistani will complain against Indian atrocities in Kashmir and the Indian will point fingers at Balochistan.


When I see such Indo-Pakistani interactions online, I am reminded of these words:


Dushman mare te khushi na karey 

Sajna vi mar jaana 

(Rejoice not the death of the enemy

The beloved may also die)


Those stark words are from Mian Muhammad Bakhsh’s most famous book of poems, Saiful Maluk. Bakhsh (1830-1907) was a Sufi pir and poet from Mirpur in modern-day Azad Kashmir, though his ancestors hailed from the Gujrat district in Pakistani Punjab. Known in Pakistan as Rumi-e-Kashmir, I learnt about Bakhsh from a friend who hails from Poonch on the Indian side of the Line of Control. My friend grew up literally on the border which is not a border, watching Doordarshan and PTV alike, making him a bit of an Indian and a bit of a Pakistani. 


Culturally, my friend feels close to Kashmir but also to Punjab. Bakhsh’s poetry sounds very Punjabi, but my friend tells me there’s a dispute over Bakhsh’s language. He wrote in Potwari (or Pothohari), Pahari and Punjabi, using words from different dialects so that everyone in his land could understand him, as they still do.


The dispute over which language Bakhsh wrote in should perhaps not be resolved. It is proof that the defining feature of the culture of his land is the intermingling of cultures. That, indeed, is also my culture. That is Southasia – our tongues and stories and folklores speak to each other, allowing a second-generation Punjabi ‘refugee’ like me to feel at home in north India. 


I think about this, and then I think about the Indians and the Pakistanis, bearers of artificial identities barely 65 years old, who score points against each other on Twitter, and I wonder if the absurdity of their war ever strikes them? Do they wonder if the legacy of Mian Muhammad Bakhsh is Indian or Pakistani? When the Indian points to the plight of Pakistani Hindus does he realise, for even a moment, the pain of Indian Muslims? What do they think nationalism means for a Sikh whose holiest shrines are in Pakistan? Do they not see the absurdity in taking hawkish positions regarding their own country while embracing the left-liberals and rebels of the ‘enemy’ country?


Hall of mirrors

People have had enough of repression and political manipulation. They want freedom. They assert their right to self-determination. They say they were never a part of your map. They want to make their own map. They take up arms against the state. The state responds with brutal repression. Men in uniform march down, take over the streets, bazaars and dreams. They make people disappear. Catch and kill. Kill and dump. They even get rewarded for doing so.


That could well be the story of Indian-administered Kashmir, except it is the story of Pakistan’s Balochistan region. As an Indian, the events in Balochistan pain me, not least because they remind me of everything that my government has been doing in Kashmir in my name.


One would have thought the Pakistani state would have learnt lessons not only from East Pakistan but also from the many insurgencies in neighbouring India, some of which it has helped foment. Reading the news from Balochistan is surreal, because it seems to be a carbon copy of Kashmir in the 1990s: missing persons, impunity, rebel-held territories. Even the discourse around the violence is familiar. Just as Kashmiris insist Kashmir was never a part of India, the Baloch insist Balochistan was never a part of Pakistan. Both conflicts stem from the messy history of Partition and the princely states, with post-colonial India and Pakistan both treating their provinces even more heavy-handedly than the British Raj did. Just as Indians blame Pakistan for the Kashmir rebellion, Pakistanis blame India for Balochistan. Just as Indians blame a few ‘separatist’ leaders to suggest that the Kashmiri rebellion is not a popular one, Pakistanis insist the problem in Balochistan only has to do with three tribal sardars.


There are of course many differences between Balochistan and Kashmir – to begin with, the territory of Balochistan is claimed only by one state, while Kashmir is claimed by two. The root cause of Baloch grievances is economic, where in Kashmir it is political. Yet the politics and economics of either place cannot be separated from core questions of identity. The Kashmiris assert that they are different from ‘Indians’ and the Baloch assert that they are different from ‘Pakistanis’. Kashmiris assert that their Central Asia-influenced culture, of which their Islam is an element, sets them apart from north India. The Baloch insist on their secularism and do not subscribe to the notion that Islam binds them to the Pakistanis. But in the way the two peoples articulate their struggles, and how the Pakistani and Indian states have decided that their only option is to militarily crush the rebellions, the similarities between the two conflicts outweigh the differences.


My Kashmiri friends don’t like Kashmir being compared to Balochistan. They point out that the status of Balochistan has never been disputed at the United Nations. For Kashmiris, Pakistan’s actions in Balochistan present a moral problem that is best avoided: how can we be counting on support from Pakistan while it does in Balochistan what India is doing in Kashmir? Looking at Southasia from Kashmir, this is not the first occasion that such questions have arisen: take, for instance, East Pakistan’s blood-soaked transformation into Bangladesh. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the only credible and respected Kashmiri nationalist leader left, is said to have made it clear to Pakistan (albeit privately) on more than one occasion that it must put its own house in order in Balochistan. That, however, does not translate into supporting the Baloch people’s right to self-determination.


For a variety of reasons, people in Indian-administered Kashmir today overwhelmingly demand azadi – independence – rather than a merger with Pakistan. This change in aspiration has become so widespread that even S A S Geelani has replaced praise for Pakistan with demands for ‘azadi’ in his speeches. Yet there are still those in Kashmir who dream of joining Pakistan, and some of them say there is no problem in Balochistan, and that the crisis is all Indian propaganda. Within Pakistan, meanwhile, there are those on whom the parallels between Balochistan and Kashmir are not lost.


In February this year US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced a resolution in the US House of Representatives endorsing Balochistan’s right to self-determination, causing much consternation in Pakistan. In Kashmir, S A S Geelani said the US should not interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Baloch nationalists insist Balochistan is not Pakistan’s internal affair because Balochistan is not a part of Pakistan, and is illegally occupied. That refrain sounds very familiar to Indian ears, because India insists that whatever happens in Kashmir is India’s internal matter, while Kashmiri nationalists insist Kashmir was never a part of India. Thus, the great Southasian hall of mirrors keeps trying to fool us all.


When Rohrabacher explained his position in an article in the Washington Post, he wrote:


...every Pakistani ambassador to the United States for the past 20 years is well aware of my support for the Kashmiri people. Indeed, at the Feb 8 House subcommittee hearing on Baluchistan, I compared Baluchistan to Kashmir. In 1995, I introduced a resolution that stated in part: “a cycle of violence exists in Kashmir as a result of the Indian Government’s refusal to permit the people of Kashmir to exercise their right to self-determination.”


Rohrabacher’s clarification, however, did not receive much attention in the Subcontinent because it pleases neither Indians nor Pakistanis, not even Kashmiris. It only pleases the Baloch, who don’t have much of a voice in any media.


A Southasian tragedy

Kashmir and Balochistan are both part of the unresolved problem of nationalism in Southasia, but they are not alone. In contrast to the popular armed rebellion in Kashmir, the revolt of Indian Punjab in the 1980s was, by all accounts, never a popular one, though there was widespread disaffection with the Indian state amongst the Sikhs. Remnants of that disaffection came back to haunt India recently after the president decided not to forgive the death sentence of a Sikh citizen who assassinated Punjabi chief minister Beant Singh in 1995. Yet that was not the only high-profile assassination in India’s history. In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her own Sikh bodyguards. Her assassination was avenged through riots in Delhi and elsewhere, in which over 3000 Sikhs were killed. Leading members of Indira Gandhi’s own Congress party are accused of perpetrating those vengeful killings. So the Sikhs have a point: why will you not punish those killers of Sikhs, but hang Beant Singh’s killer? Such is nationalism: those who do not want a flag imposed on them seem to deserve no justice, only death.


In the Indian Northeast, the picture is even more complex. Some ethnicities and states have withdrawn their demands for secession from India, making some Indian analysts theorise that rebellions and insurgencies are like children who cry for attention, but are ultimately loving and loyal towards their parents. Other states and ethnicities still demand freedom from India, some insurgencies are coming to terms with the end of their struggle, and some still want greater autonomy within the Indian Union. Yet from Assam to Nagaland all rebellion, regardless of scale or kind, is crushed with the heavy hand of the Assam Rifles. The Northeast remains massively militarised. Many Indians know and understand what has happened in Kashmir, even if they don’t acknowledge it, but most don’t even know what has been happening in the Northeast. 


The nature of the conflicts in the Northeast was mirrored somewhat in the two decades of conflict between a newly independent Bangladesh and the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. A peace accord in 1997 ended that insurgency, but the conflict isn’t entirely over even today. That conflict is only one example that India and Pakistan are not the only Southasian states to behave like empires. 


Sri Lanka recently declared victory over the Tamil rebellion, yet the Sinhalese-dominated state sees no need for reconciliation. Victors don’t want reconciliation, only the arrogance of victory.  There was talk of emulating the Sri Lankan strategy to crush the Maoist uprising in central India, but that talk has thankfully been put to rest, at least for now. While human-rights violations by Indian state security forces are reported almost every day – especially the indiscriminate targeting of those seen as ideologically sympathetic to Maoist politics – New Delhi has refrained from deploying the army. The army refuses to do the dirty job of crushing a rebellion unless it is granted impunity under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), and there is some noise in New Delhi that we can’t do that to ‘our own people’. That is only further proof that people on India’s peripheries – in the ‘disturbed areas’ of Kashmir and the Northeast where the AFSPA permits unspeakable state-sanctioned brutality – are not regarded as ‘our own’. In other words, the nationalist mainstream unwittingly admits that the people of Kashmir and the Northeast are not part of the imagined Indian nation.


The ‘happy’ state of Bhutan also proved itself capable of nationalistic cruelty when, in the 1990s, it expelled at least a hundred thousand of its own citizens because they were of Nepalese origin. Many of those people languish in refugee camps in Nepal to this day.


Such conflicts are not peculiar to Southasia. China’s actions in Tibet are well known, but few in Southasia are aware of the conflict in a place the Chinese call Xinjiang, and which its inhabitants – the Uyghurs – call East Turkistan. Some years ago I met a Uyghur refugee in Delhi. He tried to explain me, amongst other things that his home and its conflict weren’t as far away from Southasia as I thought. “It’s right here, behind Kashmir!” he exclaimed in broken Hindustani. I wondered about this way of thinking about geography. East Turkistan is in China. East Turkistan is ‘behind’ Kashmir. The latter, a political scientist friend later explained, is a post-nationalist way of thinking about the world. In this way of seeing, good old geography rather than man-made borders define us.


 Indigenous imperialism

For those who cannot bring themselves to see through a post-nationalist prism and still insist on forging nationalism by the gun, here’s a question: Does militarily crushing a popular rebellion make it go away? By gunning down citizens who take up guns against the state, by incarcerating or killing citizens who dare to be ‘separatist’, do we solve the problem? Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse would perhaps answer that question in the affirmative, but all Sri Lankans should look seriously at the costs of what he has done. The authoritarian regime in Sri Lanka affects the Sinhalese and their democratic rights too.


Take the example of Kashmir. For a variety of reasons, the insurgency in Kashmir began to give way to what the Indian government called ‘normalcy’ by 2002. Indian analysts were still touting the arrival of ‘normalcy’ in 2006. In 2008, the Kashmiri people rebelled again, this time with stones and words and marches. The dispute was not over, the grievances remained, and the Kashmiris still wanted azadi. India allowed some expression of such opinions, but in 2010 decided enough was enough, killing over 120 protestors to put an end to mass demonstrations of people shouting, “Hum kya chahatay? Azadi!” (What do we want? Freedom!)


Every time Kashmir erupts, Indians go back to the old keywords – Pakistan, ISI, Islamism, paid separatists, etc – to deny any Kashmiri problem of India’s own making. Last summer in Kashmir I met a few young men who were born in or around the fateful year of 1990. They told me how they sometimes wake up in the middle of the night after having nightmares about the military ‘crackdowns’. I met a 14-year-old who spoke of avenging his father, who was left with debilitating mental illness after being tortured by Indian forces. His idea of revenge was to die pelting stones at the people wearing the same uniforms as those who took his father in.


I have great sympathy for Indian military and intelligence officers who have the unpleasant task of administering an occupation in Kashmir while pretending that there isn’t one. Sanjay Kak, whose film Jashn-e-Azadi is a vital document of the Kashmir conflict, pointed me to the film Battle of Algiers, where French liberals ask their army not to commit human-rights violations in Algeria. The army chief replies that the violations will cease, but only if France is ready to let go of Algeria. There is no such thing as a good occupation.


Indian analysts who talk of a ‘post-conflict’ situation in Kashmir today speak as if the occupation never existed. India is back to the old charade of peace talks, while the army refuses to allow the elected civilian government of Jammu & Kashmir to lift the AFSPA even from Srinagar, which sees no militant activity. The AFSPA effectively negates the fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution – yet more proof that Kashmir is treated as enemy territory.


As an Indian, I have learnt from Kashmir that the only thing sadder than crushing a rebellion is having to govern a crushed people. The Indian government has to administer an occupation while pretending that democracy is flourishing. As my Tamil friends in Sri Lanka tell me, reconciliation becomes well-nigh impossible after the human-rights violations required to break the will of a people. The people ask: after such knowledge, what forgiveness? It’s like the British trying to pretend the Raj was for India’s own good after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.


The analogy with British colonialism is neither rhetorical nor facetious. Mridu Rai, a historian of Kashmir, points me to a 1934 article by Jawaharlal Nehru in which he condemned the British Indian government’s repression of protests at Chittagong and Midnapur as part of the anti-tax campaigns of 1930. Nehru wrote:


It is a strange record, worthy of preservation for an incredulous posterity… large military forces are brought from distant places; they occupy territories in a way no alien army occupies the enemy’s land in wartime. They treat almost the whole population as suspect and force even young boys and girls to go about with cards of identity of various hues with photographs attached. They limit the movements of the inhabitants and even lay down the dress that must be worn. They turn out people from their houses at a few hours’ notice. They close schools and treat the children en bloc as enemy persons. Under various pains and penalties they force the people to welcome them publicly, and to salute the flag which has become the sign of humiliation to them. Those that disobey have to suffer heavily and to face reprisals.


A strange record worthy of preservation – indeed! How did we become what we once stood against? We have inherited from colonialism the evil of nationalism.


Poets as politicians

I am reminded of Bengali polymath Rabindranth Tagore’s lectures on nationalism. Tagore wrote songs for the Indian freedom movement, but he was critical of nationalism as he encountered it in his travels across the world before World War II. For Tagore, a nation was nothing more than a population coming together for an organised “mechanical purpose”, and yet he said this purpose became associated with selfishness, which can be a “grandly magnified form” of personal selfishness. It is ironic that one of Southasia’s greatest intellectuals was decrying the evils of nationalism just as so many Southasians were about to get a freedom that would only make us more nationalist.


Whether in Kashmir, Balochistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet or East Turkistan, not to mention the quarrel between India and Pakistan, the common thread among Southasian conflicts is ‘mainstream’ majority’s refusal to admit that their blinkered nationalism remains unquestioned and unresolved. Admitting to any fault in nationalism is seen as an admission of the nation’s failure, and to deny existing failures we make sure our respective states succeed in repressing those who don’t identify with our respective flags. What do we need to rise above this grand collective manifestation of personal selfishness?


Nationalism is so much a part of our personal identities that, for many people, exposing it for what it is seems a personal insult. The arguments against the right to self-determination predictably follow. Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider offers a typical example:


Balochistan is indeed Pakistan’s internal issue. Those who want Balochistan to secede from Pakistan will get the state’s full reply. That too, given how states behave, is a foregone conclusion. Hell, states don’t even let go of disputed territories and care even less about whether or not people in those territories want to live with them.


In response, political scientist Haider Nizamani gives three examples of nation states readily parting with territory: the separation of Slovakia from the former Czechoslovakia; the Canadian government’s non-violent handling of the Quebec sovereignty movement, allowing a referendum which the movement lost by a thin margin; and finally, the impending Scottish referendum in 2014 to part ways with the UK, in response to which London isn’t sending soldiers to eliminate the Scottish Nationalist Party.


In the three examples Nizamani cites, many people seem to appreciate that the nation state deserves to be nothing more than an organising, administrative principle. But how do we make Southasian people realise as much?


Aql ke madrase se uth, ishq ke maiqaday mein aa – Rise from the seminary of the mind, come into the tavern of love – wrote Sufi pir and poet Shah Niaz. The most powerful rendition I have heard of those words is by the Karachi-based qawwals Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammed. Arguably the best qawwals alive, they hail from Indian Hyderabad but have traditional roots in Delhi. When I met Fareed Ayaz in Delhi some months ago, he knew Old Delhi better than I did. Since he was 12 years old, he has visited India every year, often several times a year, except for years of war. Such is the power of Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammed’s music – it melts the barriers between India and Pakistan. “What is Sufism?” Fareed Ayaz asked me, before answering, “It is nothing but the love of humanity.”


Aql ke madrase se uth, ishq ke maiqaday mein aa – as I hear them sing these words and explain their import, their message strikes me as the best answer to our great problem. Our minds are conditioned to think of our nations as maps and flags rather than collections of actual people. If only we can love humanity rather than maps, we’d all be much happier. 


What would be the implications of acting out of love rather than the dictates of the nationalistic mind? Solutions that seem fantastical – open borders, shared sovereignty, trade-driven integration – will suddenly begin to seem possible and real if we can put our love of humanity above our love of cartography and nationalist myth-making.


Shivam Vij is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. This essay is dedicated to Ilmana Fasih, an

Indian Pakistani’.