Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Trouble With Azaadi (OUTLOOK)

My response to a recent piece by Arundhati Roy on Kashmir...

I paste the complete text of the piece (slightly revised from the version originally published at the website) below:

Towards the end of her impassioned piece calling for azaadi for Kashmir, Arundhati Roy (Azadi, September 1, 2008), pauses to reflect on what might follow azadi in Kashmir, wondering what an independent Kashmir might mean, including what the independence demanded by the state's Muslim majority might mean for the state's religious or other minorities. She does well not to linger, because the thought experiment illustrates precisely what is most problematic about "national movements", namely that they are unable to think the political except through the prism of nation-states. National movements, that is to say, see themselves as nation-states-in-waiting, and do not see any political horizon beyond that of the nation-state. So was it with the Indian national movement, and its inability to think the difference that might have been capacious enough to house the country's Muslim-majority regions; so it definitely was with the Muslim League and its two-nation theory, even more wedded to the siren song of European-style nationalism transplanted to a colonial setting; and so it is with the "copycat" nationalisms that have followed, be it Kashmir, or Punjab, or Nagaland. The failure to imagine a nation-state different from the traditional European model, the shoe-horning of Indian communitarian identities, into models conceived with the likes of Germany and England in mind, paved the way for the catastrophes of partition. The "belated" nationalisms of the post-partition sub-continent demonstrate the truth of Marx's depressing observation, namely that we learn from history that we do not learn from history.

The point is worth making given Roy's trenchant critiques of the Indian state (in the context of Kashmir, but not only of Kashmir; her essay on the Indian state and dams, The Greater Common Good, is astonishingly powerful). That is, much of Roy's critique -- of the Indian state's indifference, its callousness, its inhumanity, its cruelty -- is (or certainly ought to be) animated not by her target's Indianness, but by the fact that it is a nation-state, and as such, does what nation-states do: in the final analysis, sacrifice humanity in the service of a larger political project. The distinction is an important one, because nothing in the Kashmiri independence movement suggests that it will throw up anything different; indeed given that the movement aims at a traditional nation-state just like all the others, I submit that it cannot yield a different result. Minority rights? Justice for different communities, and between genders? The outcomes will be better than they are now, we are told by the movement, not because the aims are different from those of the existing Indian state, but because the movement will simply do a better job.

I am skeptical, and not because of the identity (religious or otherwise) of those who comprise the Kashmiri independence movement; I am skeptical because the aim of that movement is congenitally incapable of producing a result that is "better" in some cosmic sense -- at most the identities of those disadvantaged will shift, as new disfavoured minorities, new "outsiders", new "insiders", and new identity policemen are created. Roy is too sophisticated not to see this, but doesn't bother to delve into it, pretending that this is merely a question of the Kashmiri separatists not having spelled out their agenda in greater detail as yet.

It is not: over half a century ago, Hannah Arendt wrote (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) of the masses of refugees and victims that seemed to accompany the birth of every new nation-state, and nothing has changed, not in the age of South Ossetia, Kosovo, Rwanda, ad nauseum. Certainly, those of us from the sub-continent should be especially wary of political projects that promise us clean solutions to intractable political problems: we live with the legacies of the bloodbaths of the 1940s, not to mention innumerable later, "lesser" massacres. By all accounts, the leaders of the new nation-states of India and Pakistan were caught by surprise by the scale of the violence in 1947; they had evidently internalized the logic of colonialism, pursuant to which communitarian difference presents a political "problem" that may be solved by means of creative cartography and judicious population transfers. Conceptual neatness is one of the hallmarks of the colonial mindset (thinking of Cyril Radcliffe, who could doubt it?).

Unfortunately, reality is anything but, and the sub-continent's leaders -- and, even more importantly, its people -- should have learned long ago that partitions are not the solution to people's inability to live together; rather, the mindset that vests its faith in drawing easily-policed borders is a mindset that demands enemies. It is a mindset that, in the final analysis, demands that facts on the ground correspond to the political project of the nation-state (and not the other way around). A nation-state for Muslims thus becomes a state virtually free of non-Muslims; a sub-national state where Hindu pride is honoured above all else becomes a state where non-Hindus must know their place.

Why would one ever hope for anything different from a nation-state for Kashmiris, as far as those who don't fit the bill are concerned? Certainly the region is not short of candidates for stigmatisation (some of this is because India is fantastically diverse; some of it is because nation-states are rather gifted at manufacturing "problematic" identities): Buddhists; Shiites; Gujjars; perhaps even Sunni Muslims who will be deemed insufficiently supportive of the independence movement (the last is hardly far-fetched, as even a casual glance at the history of Algeria or the Khalistan movement, or Kashmir itself during the 1990s, makes clear). Indeed, several hundred thousand Kashmiri Pandits have already been driven off, and it is hard not to see in them a harbinger of more to come.

The above might seem like an odd place from which to maintain a defense of India vis-à-vis Kashmir. It is, on the contrary, a natural vantage point: the idea of an independent Kashmir for Kashmiris must be resisted precisely because, as the experience of the once-colonised has amply illustrated, nation-states are appallingly inhuman. Equally, however, they are not all inhuman in precisely the same way; nor are they all equally inhuman, by which I simply mean that they are not all equally incapable of accommodating human difference, whether communitarian or otherwise. The Germany of 2008 is manifestly not the Germany of 1938; but nor does the Germany of 2008 accommodate ethnic minorities as comfortably as the United States does.

None of this relieves any state of moral responsibility for the horrors it perpetrates; but in order to agitate against horrors, one must first understand what they are. And within the range of nation-states on offer -- all of them problematic, all of them complicit in cruelty -- it is apparent to me that those premised on explicit notions of religion, language, ethnicity, blood in some sense, are more problematic, more complicit, than those with far more modest litmus tests. The contemporary United States, Brazil, South Africa, and, yes, India, are among the latter group of nation-states; Germany, Italy, Pakistan, and, based on the logic of the movements, the would-be nation-states of Kashmir or Khalistan, are not. Theoretically, one does not need to be other than "wholly Bengali", "wholly Tamil", or "wholly Muslim" in order to be utterly Indian; one cannot say the same of Pakistan and its Hindus citizens, and the religious colour of the Kashmiri movement means it is almost inconceivable that this won't be true of an independent Kashmir as well (even leaving aside the obvious ethnic dimension).

Indeed, even if one were to take the likes of Yasin Malik at their word, they promise no more than Jawaharlal Nehru did, that is to say a secular state where all who live in Kashmir, of whatever ethnicity or religious persuasion, will be equal in the eyes of the state; but why and how could such a project -- essentially the same Nehruvian show on a smaller stage -- yield a better result? On the contrary, all the signs are that an independent Kashmir would be more like Pakistan than India: not because both are Muslim majority (that is irrelevant to the point I am making), but because both movements are explicitly predicated on a favoured community that is less than everyone who lives within the state's borders.

Why does any of this matter? Because nation-states where "second-class" citizenship is merely implicit -- think the United States prior to de-segregation; I assume Roy would include India; but really one could argue some are always more equal than others in all nation-states -- can be called out on their failures. Such nation-states are guilty of hypocrisy, but hypocrisy is not the worst sin; indeed hypocrisy, by opening up a gap between theory and practice, between promise and reality, makes it possible to hold a mirror up to the state, to try and compel it to honour its own promise to itself; and enables us to argue that the nation-state is only imperfectly itself until it takes a good long look in that mirror.
The same does not hold true of nation-states where “second-class” citizenship is explicit, where it is part of the very logic of the state. The distinction may be illustrated by the point that while the Jim Crow South is unforgiveable, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" moment are possible in a USA where actual practice had made a mockery of the nation-state's constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the laws; they would not be possible in the face of apartheid South Africa, which could not be reformed, simply destroyed. That is, it is far more difficult, perhaps insurmountably so, to call the nation-state to task where it has promised and can promise nothing different than what it offers (one can rebel and try and dismantle the state, but one can't make it see the problem): beyond a point, a "Pakistan for Pakistanis", that is to say for Pakistanis of all religious persuasions, would make no sense, and would undermine the national idea (substitute "ethnicities" for "religious communities" and the idea of Pakistan becomes more flexible; it should come as no surprise that the movement for ethnic justice, greater federalism, and rights for smaller provinces, has far more legs in Pakistan than any movement for the rights of religious minorities; ethnicity illustrates the potential flexibility, but also the limits, of the idea of Pakistan; and even with respect to ethnicity, the difference of even a Bengali Muslim identity that was deemed "too Hindu" by the Pakistani establishment could not be accommodated within the state).

A "Kashmir for Kashmiris" is far closer to the idea of Pakistan than to the Nehru's India, and perhaps closest of all to Bangladesh, seeking to compress both 1947 and 1971 in one secessionist moment. Roy would do well to remember the "Biharis" stranded in refugee camps in Bangladesh since 1971, in the final analysis Muslim but not Bangladeshi enough; not Bengali enough for their own purposes; and not the right kind of Muslim for Pakistan’s purposes. And Roy herself mentions the 1971 genocide of Bengalis by the Pakistani army. The promise of the Kashmiri movement combines both of these nightmares.

None of this is about the decency or lack thereof of Mirwaiz Farooq, or Yasin Malik, or anyone else. The question isn't whether these are or are not upstanding politicians who genuinely believe that Kashmir belongs to all Kashmiris, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or Sikh, or not; the more important question concerns the logic of what they let loose in the world (more accurately, the logic that they and would-be nationalists of all stripes have attempted to replicate for decades). The azadi demanded by the Kashmiri movement, and used by Roy as a rallying cry, is not the answer to that question; the freedom we need is azadi from the mindset that thinks of peoples and communities only in terms of nation-states; and equally, an azadi that demands that the Indian state honour its promise, to itself and to us.
The nation-state as political Alpha and Omega was problematic in its European birthplaces to begin with; to continue to cling to it as the last best hope of ethnic or religious minorities in milieus like India's (or Africa's, or the Balkans'; pick your poison), in the wake of the man-made disasters that have befallen us over the last century, is nothing short of bankrupt.


Koshurnafar said...

Hats off to you. Very well written. You should consider contributing to in response to Spengler and his essays

James said...

Very well written; I agree with you completely.

neosense said...

One of the best attacks on denominational nation building...hats off.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sir,

Iam vinod singh from bombay (

very impresses by your article in response to arundhati roys article.

would like to share some view woth you.

and more importantly get your views on many issues.

warm regards

Anonymous said...

Hi Sir,

sorry the e mail id is

warm regards

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your views posted in the article.

1.Can you please guess What percentage of the Kashmiris agree with you, who are rallying for AZADI?

2.Do you think Pakistan will ever allow Kashmiri to leave in peace?Will not they use Kashmiri, they way Pakistan is being used by USA?

3.Regarding exploitation in India:
Who has not been exploited?

I am from Bihar, from where comes a comprehensive list of political leaders(jokers)is renowned for worst governence in India for almost 50 years.

In late 80's when unrest in Punjab was at peak, even then more people were killed in Bihar in violence than in Punjab: No one took notice.

Poverty in Bihar is worse than in Kashmir: Are you aware?

In winter, lots of poor Kashmiris come to Patna to sell their carpets.Patnaites welcome them and treat them with due respect.Do you think Kashmiri will treat with same respect if any Bihari labour goes to Srinagar for daily job?

Isn't it SC and ST are also exploited in India over a period of time?

Inspite of this there has never been a call of AZADI from Bihar: why?

When there are so many things wrong in India, that needs correction and that is happening but at slow pace.This slow pace is due to the poor qualities of our political master and opacity of the system.There are some motivating factors and actors who prefer to carry with these opacity because they suit them.Its same in the case of Kashmir.
Currently leading the pack there is Papa and Daughter Party(PDP) of Kashmir.

PS: Keep writng!!

Srinivas said...

A brilliant, well articulated article that clears up many cobwebs in my head. I totally agree with you, Umair. I can appreciate Roy and I can see where she comes from and ive always supported and respected her views but i confess i had similar reservations with her passionate and compelling article on Kashmir.
In a perfect world ofcourse the Indian State's Army would butt out of Kashmir and begin the process of genuine healing. However ive lost all faith in Indian politicians and especially the communal parties that will definitely tear our country apart.

vijay rana said...

Indeed a great article. In fact the idea of the minority's right to self-determination contradicts the notion of a majoritarian democracy. It's based on the notion that a diverse state cannot properly treat its minorities.

In a sense it means that a multi-ethnic society is incapable of running a rule of majority, i.e. democracy.

In fact, the self-serving politicians, with a secessionist agenda, have often used this idea as a tactical ploy to demand either a just and equitable society or they threaten with the idea of the right of self-determination to be reclaimed by an "oppressed" ething or religions community.

Ground reality suggests there is no such thing as a just and a fair state. It has never existed in history. Neither the state is a unified identity that has reason and wisdom to find all-satisfying solution of complex problems like poverty and corruption. A nation State will always be found wanting on many fronts giving ammunition to interest groups to indulge in political resistance, violent or otherwise.

louiecypher said...

Excellent response to Roy. The kind of aspirations you describe would be supported by the bulk of Hindus.

Alok Shukla said...

Excellent piece, you stole the worlds from my mouth. I am not so articulate as you are, however I did respond in a similar manner at


Nitin said...


Brilliant piece. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. As much and I agree with Roy's other work, I couldn't agree with her azaadi piece, though I agree with elements of her diagnosis. Her solution is a failure of imagination.

chachaji said...

Extremely thoughtful and well written piece. Congratulations. I have linked it to my blogpost here:

Ikram said...

You got the stranded Bihari story wrong. They used to comprise those Biharis that opted for Pakistan in 1971 (about half). (Those that opted for Bangladesh were welcomed by that country.) But Pakistan accepted only about a quarter of them.

Bangladesh, in the end, proved more generous, as a court decision last year granted the stranded Biharis Bangladeshi citizenship.

It's not a huge point, but it's never a good sign when an author gets small details wrong. (Also in this case, it undermines your main argument.)

Qalandar said...

Fair point Ikram (the relevant bit in the piece should perhaps have said "Pakistani" instead of "Bangladeshi"), but it does not undermine my point, especially when one considers that to a significant extent "1971" was a civil war within East Pakistan as well as a genocide (I am thinking here of the Jamaat-e-Islami's enthusiastic collaboration with the West Pakistani forces); not to mention that the wider point, about one NOT being able to be "wholly Bangladeshi" by being "wholly Bihari" seems to me to hold true (i.e. Bengali identity necessarily has primacy; just as Muslim identity also necessarily has primacy -- but this interplay "between" the ideas of India and of Pakistan, as it were, make consideration of Banladeshi identity especially intriguing to me).

arohan said...

intersting article. but people at street and why at street even in ivory towers are easy to manipulate and theories which you are propounding have just academic value. Everyone has some problem in life and it is his herdsman who decides whom to blame for individual's problem and suggest a alternative and thus herd decides to build a nation, a religion or just a civil society. though ur arguments are perfect but they are essentially arguments of a libertarian and once we accept concept of "social contract" we have to live with its imperfections.

fleuve-souterrain said...

I really liked your point of view essentially because you question the redundant agenda of national movements of every hue. Arundhati, as much as I admire her activism, has taken an adventurist leap with her comment on Kashmir. But to get your point across to pepole in Kashmir and the rest of India, it'll take a lot of lateral debate. In the meanwhile the great Indian state machinery will continue trampling on those that it contends its detractors...

I'd like to cross-post your post to my blog at:
thanks, Nabina

Rajeeve Chelanat said...

Dear Umair,

The issue of Kashmir was that of nationality which is now turned into that of religion.

Though I am also skeptical as to the future of a separate nation state, that is Kashmir, I dont agree with many of your assumptions that a nation-state is and cannot be an answer for any one. Of course, a nation-state is in itself a inhuman condition, where people are forced to proclaim their loyalty to a territorial landscape, where power dominates. We are now slowly being taught that it is imperative to have a nation for oneself, which I dont think is a reasonable one. Culture is being defined to defend any moral or immoral nationhood, its hypocracies and its inhumanities. It forces people to find the 'others', to spot 'enemies' in these 'others'.

Of course, as you said, these new nation states itself would turn into tyrannical states and would have their own 'bihari's and 'bengali's, but forsaking it just due to that, is not a solution. Alternatives should always be kept


Monika said...

I share Rajiv's thoughts on this. While nation-state is a problematic form of community, I think it is possible to imagine it differently than it has. Certain, initially, the Indian did imagine it differently as multiple nations under one state (You can find this in Gyan Pandey's The Construction of Communalism in North India).

I would be interested to know your thoughts on the Palestinian demand for a nation-state--and whether you would still think that the same set of arguments apply.

Anonymous said...

Excellent and to the point. As a Kashmiri, I can relate with your comments. The truth is that most Kashmiri know that we will be annihilated if we become Independent by global powers including China, USA and Russia. We know what our situation will be if we chose to be part of Pakistan. Most Kashmiris are smart and intelligent and know the condition of Pakistan - so they would not like to be part of a failed system. Yes some sort of autonomy may be something that would resolve the issue.

omar ali said...

I just read this almost by accident and I think its really really good. I will be a regular visitor to this site now!

altkashmir said...

I would say cosmopolitanism from top (New York city!) is often just that--from top. More often it is status quoist than anything. It is quite an ahistoric account that you present. Also, you see Kashmir from the communal politics prism of India-Pakistan. Kashmiris are definitely tied to that, but for replication of forms to happen (Kashmir to become like Pakistan) you need much more than 'mindsets.' There are historic factors and experiences, and so many other variables, that replication seems unlikely. Not that I necessarily think India is any way a good model to follow. Modularity is as a conceptual category to think with is wrong.
You say post-colonial people's have understood well the failures of nation-state. True. But would it have been a better idea for people of southsia to continue to be part of some kind of British commonwealth with equal rights to all citizens. Would the realities of power ingrained within the relations between peoples of Britain and the peoples of southasia allowed such a system to emerge? Shouldn't India, Algeria, Brazil, and why not the US, all then rework their paths back into empires from which they emerged?

You give not one 'positive' reason why Kashmir should be part of India. India has failed itself and Kashmir for 63 years. What is the decent time period after which the decision must be taken on the Union? You only reason why Kashmir shouldn't be independent, and your reasons are speculative. Your explanation for your speculations is based on an idea of nation-state which you use selectively (even if justly) against Pakistan, but take the "idea of India"--as a nation-state-as given, for-granted.

I agree that nation-state form has failed on so many counts, yet what other alternative exists? A hollow, formal cosmopolitanism, that is imposed from the top by already existing nation-states? If Europe is what you have in mind, can one assume that just changing our "mindsets" (and gods know what that--mindset--means) will reproduce Europe in Southasia. Could EU, not in my view such a noble concept anyway, have emerged before the horrors of the two WWs. I'm not saying one has to go through nation-state "phase" to reach the post-national phase, or that such teleologies must exist, but could such an agreement have been ethically and democratically arrived at without the self-determined will of the different nationalities of Europe?

Your "idea of India" is an over-exalted conception of India generally popular among those ignorant of the actual crimes of that concept (think about the 430 million people still living below poverty line (not all of them are suffering only due to wrong economic policies (an extremely disproportionate number of those poor continue to be Dalits, tribals, Muslims). Think about the often silent but sometimes quite open repression of minorities, small nationalities etc, while the Indian caste-Hindu bourgeousie enjoys power over a limitless territory--a Chidambaram deciding the everyday life of the Naga people two thousand kms away. Why, who is Chidamabaram, a professed Brahmin, to rule over Nagas?

This may or may not happen in an independent Kashmir, but many more people will be empowered than are oppressed now, that is for sure...

Don't know if you will post this, but at least I know you would have read it.