Consider the darkness and the great cold
In this vale which resounds with misery.
(Bertold Brecht, The Threepenny Opera)
In 1975, at the insistence of his publisher, VS Naipaul travelled to India in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declaring a state of emergency and suspending constitutional rights. In the book chronicling his travels through the country during that period, India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul wrote that ‘Gandhi swept through India, but he has left it without an ideology. He awakened the holy land; his mahatmahood returned it to archaism; he made his worshippers vain.’
Nearly forty years later, Perry Anderson, comparing India with the fortunes of another Holy Land, saw a deeply ideological nation riven by ‘theological passions’. The fortunes of the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now the ruling party, were on the rise at the time:
The success of the parties [like Likud and the BJP] was due not just to the faltering of the first wave of office-holders, but to their ability to articulate openly what had always been latent in the national movement, but neither candidly acknowledged, nor consistently repudiated.
In other words, the BJP’s vision of India as a Hindu rashtra (nation) resonated with a country that was tired of being governed – as it has for most of its post-independence existence – by a party that espoused secularism, the Indian National Congress. (The Congress, however, has never been above inciting communal tensions when doing so has served its political agenda. After all, it was India’s first prime minister and Indira Gandhi’s grandfather, the cosmopolitan Jawaharlal Nehru – celebrated by India’s English-speaking elite as a champion of liberal democracy – who introduced the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in 1958, which granted security forces in Kashmir wide-ranging powers and has condemned the Valley to de-facto military rule ever since.)
While the Muslim-majority Kashmir allowed the Congress to maintain that India was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy, the BJP have less interest in harbouring such illusions. Its project is a different one; it wants to make India a Hindu rashtra.
Last week, the BJP announced that it was revoking Article 370 of India’s constitution, which grants Indian-occupied Kashmir autonomy in all areas except defence, communication and foreign policy. Additionally, Article 35A gave only ‘permanent residents’ of Kashmir the right to own property. The BJP Home Minister Amit Shah also announced plans to break up the current state of Jammu and Kashmir into two ‘Union Territories’. Jammu and Kashmir, it has been proposed, would have their own legislature, while Ladakh – the sparsely-populated Buddhist majority region bordering China – would be ruled directly by the central government in Delhi.
In the days before the announcement, it was clear something was afoot: India sent an additional 10 000 troops into what is already the most militarised region in the world. phone and internet lines were cut. Local politicians, including the former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, were placed under house arrest. Curfews were imposed. And the Amarnath yatris (pilgrims), making the annual pilgrimage to one of Hinduism holiest shrines in Amarnath cave about 140kms from Srinagar, were evacuated.
The BJP has tried to window-dress its decision, claiming variously that it will improve the prospects of peace in the region and promote development, but exercising more direct control over the Valley has always been part of its Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) ideology. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation for which the BJP is the parliamentary arm, has a long, almost fetishistic obsession with demographics. It’s a fixation that led one of the RSS’s chief ideologues and its second Supreme Leader, M.S. Golwalkar, to heap praise on Nazis in his 1939 book, We, or Our Nationhood Defined:
To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.
There are no assimilationist instincts at the heart of the RSS’s project and the changes in property rights now potentially pave the way for BJP to radically alter the demographics of the Muslim-majority region in a manner reminiscent of the West Bank.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a lifelong RSS member, rising through its ranks and eventually becoming chief minister in Gujarat. He was in office in 2002, when inter-communal riots broke out in his home state. Modi and his senior aides were accused of complicity in the pogrom – a claim given significant weight by investigative journalist Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up – and barred from entering the United States.
In 2014, Modi won the prime-ministership after promising to implement a neoliberal development program that would benefit all Indians. But five years later, with every significant policy having failed – the demonetisation program and the implementation of the GST the chief among them – the BJP ran on a barely concealed majoritarian agenda and, in May, extended its majority in the Lok Sabha. Kashmir figured prominently in the campaign after a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of security personnel in Pulwama, killing around forty people. In February, Indian jets crossed the Line of Control into Pakistani airspace and claimed to have attacked a terrorist training camp. The bombs, in fact, landed in a field and didn’t kill anyone, but it allowed Modi to project himself as a strongman and chowkidar (watchman) of the nation – a more refined strategy than simply bragging about his 56 inch chest, as he had done previously.
The commentators who have been warning us that the abrogation of Article 370 could lead to an escalation in violence couldn’t be more wrong: it is an escalation in violence, in a region that has known only violence for the past seventy years. In the few, brief reports that have leaked out of the Valley, Srinagar is described as awash with concertina wire and soldiers. According to reports from the BBC, people took to streets following Friday prayers to protest Delhi’s recent decision. There have also been reports of protesters being injured – some blinded – by Indian forces who, despite warnings from the United Nations, continue to fire pellet guns at unarmed civilians.
In his memoir Curfewed Night, Basharat Peer captures something of what it’s like to live in a city subjected to an endless reign of state terror:
Srinagar is being in a coffee shop, in an office, outside a college, crossing a bridge, and feeling, touching, breathing history, politics, and war, in unmarked signs and landmarks. Srinagar is seeing a bridge, a clearing, a nondescript building and knowing that men fell here, that a boy was tortured there.
In recent years, the Kashmiri insurgency has been revitalized. In the short-term, it’s difficult to see how this won’t embolden the militancy. The feelings of hopelessness, anger and the daily humiliations of living under occupation that drive young men to take are arms will only be inflamed by India’s decision. And then there’s the existential danger of two nuclear-armed neighbours who’ve already fought two wars over Kashmir facing off against one another.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to take India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status to the United Nations security council, but it’s hard to see the BJP abiding by any decision passed down. Delhi has acted with impunity in Kashmir since Partition and it won’t stop now. Revoking Article 370 is not just a BJP policy. Recasting India as a Hindu rashtra is the essence of its project. It’s why it has always sought power.
In Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point, Gyan Prakash suggests that the Emergency offers some lessons for the present moment. He approvingly quotes BR Ambedkar, the Dalit leader and chief architect of India’s constitution, who famously warned that – despite having the trappings of democracy – India is a dangerously unequal and unjust society. ‘If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril’, Ambedkar said. ‘We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.’
The Emergency is widely seen these days as an aberration, a minor interlude in what has otherwise been a successful post-independence democratic story. But it’s also reminder that India’s democratic institutions can – and have been – used to deliver profoundly undemocratic outcomes.
Kashmir has always existed outside the self-congratulatory discourse about Indian democracy, but in the last week Modi and the BJP – riding high on their recent election victory and claiming a mandate to remake India – have barely bothered to pretend that they plan to extend basic democratic rights to the people of the Valley. The idea, popular among many Indian liberals, that democratic and judicial processes can mollify the Hindu supremacists now in government is a myth. Kashmiris will be again left to resist a government that sees them as expendable. The ‘vale which resounds with misery’ will resist, but one fears it will be bloody.
(This was originally published in Overland on 12th August, 2019.)