Friday, December 08, 2006

Indian Pluralism & its Discontents

I have long argued that many of the most overt political problems facing India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh today are the result of the partition of 1947, a result, that is to say, of the metaphysical bases and assumptions underlying that partition. Paradoxically, however, most "peace-oriented" political discourse in the region tends to focus on forgetting the past, almost as if we were afraid that we know of no other mode of historical examination and re-examination other than recrimination.

Mukul Kesavan's recent piece in The Telegraph is a refreshing exception (even if I suspect I would fall into the category of the sorts of paranoid domino-theorists that Kesavan talks about). Kesavan does cite a prescriptive purpose, stating that one way to tackle the problem of the Indian state's failure to confront secessionist demands except within the framework of violent confrontation, is to be aware of and ponder the basis of Indian nationalism as set forth in that article, but it's unclear how that would end any violence. Who, for instance, would draw the lesson? That is, if one were a Kashmiri who is (like most Kashmiris I suspect) disaffected and none too thrilled about the state remaining part of India, is the realistic lesson to be drawn that India simply won't "let go" of Kashmir? That's certainly the lesson I submit one ought to draw, and that making the best of it in a pluralistic state isn't such a bad deal, but I doubt that's what Kesavan means.

The above notwithstanding, and as I've previously argued, the sort of analysis Kesavan undertakes remains an indispensable starting point for any understanding of the nature of Indian nationalism and of the state birthed by that nationalism. Of particular interest is Kesavan's insight that the Indian state's pluralism is (inextricably?) linked to the repressive means it has resorted to in the face of violent secessionist movements in Kashmir and in the North-East. In other words, given the partition of 1947 -- which irreducibly raises the specter of a "Hindu country" as a counterpoint to and mirror image of the "Muslim country" created by the partition -- India cannot be pluralist unless it is (to use Kesavan's term) "dogmatic" about its borders. In short, Kesavan to his credit squarely appreciates the logic of 1947, raising the discomfiting possibility that India's commitment to pluralism in a post-partition context might pre-dispose it to confronting secessionist demands with violence (and I'd add that the partition of 1947 might pre-dispose it to being presented with secessionist demands in the first place; if as Sunil Khilnani put it the "pornography of borders" characterizes post-colonial identity politics, the results of 1947 are surely the ultimate titillation):

The history of republican India is the history of a state which, when pushed, will recognize every sort of identity — linguistic, tribal even religious — for the sake of pluralist equilibrium and political peace. You can see this happen in the formation of linguistic states, in the creation of a Muslim majority district in Kerala, in the segmentation of the North-east into tiny states. But when it comes to its borders, India is dogmatically, even violently status quoist. It will deface every map that shows Kashmir with its ears missing, it will defend a glacier down to the last soldier, it will go to war with China (and endure humiliating defeat) in defence of a colonial border and it will inflict sickening violence upon insurgent nationalists in the north-eastern states. Every secessionist movement and every disputed border is, for this insecure heir to the Raj, a domino. Committed to the principle that the diversity of the subcontinent can be housed within a democratic state, it will let no one leave home.

Not to mention that the intellectual failure of Indian politics -- even (especially?) "progressive" politics -- to invoke the spirit of pluralism, heck to consciously think the thought that is pluralism, so wedded are its practitioners to the chimera of "secularism", is dismaying (and it raises the question whether the problem might not be that Indian pluralism is merely reflexive and not the content of a deliberate political ideology for any except a handful, remaining primarily a cultural instinct as opposed to an idea):

A subcontinental nation with inherited borders that refused to invoke a homogenizing essence to justify its nationhood was always going to feel insecure about threats to its territorial integrity. This would have been true even if the Congress had achieved an unpartitioned India. The Raj had made its nationalism cohere by giving it a target: its departure in any circumstance would have left a vacuum behind. But in an India that had suffered the violence of Partition, and in a Congress whose reason for being had been challenged by the creation of Pakistan, a normal statist concern about secure borders flared into an existential anxiety about unity.

All in all, one is not sure what lesson the "Nehruvian nationalist" may draw from Kesavan's insight. It might be true that "[e]very secessionist movement and every disputed border is, for this insecure heir to the Raj, a domino," but -- unlike for instance the Cold War American domino theory necessitating the defense of Vietnam, or the theory that made such a fetish of the supposed Arab regard for naked force that it posited regime after regime falling in the wake of the American-led invasion of Iraq -- the theory has hardly been disproved in the case of India, and there is no reason to believe that it would not come true. Put another way, an India less committed to pluralism might find it easier to "give up" on Kashmir, but conversely, given its current political ideology (increasingly under strain by virtue of the rise of Hindutva over the last two decades, but not exhausted by any means), any India that found it "easy" to give up on Kashmir or parts of the North-East could not long maintain even the semblance of pluralism.

It isn't too hard to imagine an alternative history where the border mattered less: if partition had not happened, would India be so willing to spend blood and treasure to keep this or that North-Eastern sliver of territory within the Union? Maybe, but maybe not; certainly the departure of sliver x or y would not raise existensial concerns, would not have such fraught implications for the nature of the Indian polity. Paradoxically, the 1947 break-up of the country and subsequent Nehruvian "settlement" in favor of, what is often passed off as "secularism" but is really anything but, and is really in many ways one of the twentieth century's great experiments in, pluralism, seems to have put subsequent negotiations that go to the borders of the post-1947 state "off limits" (which in turn negatively impacts Indian pluralism). I don't see how it could be otherwise, but I firmly believe that any analysis that does not ponder the implications of India's 1947 settlement for its future course as a polity, cannot be called realistic.


Unknown said...

I enjoyed your comment and liked the fact that you found my explanation of India's reaction to border troubles interesting without being certain of my politics. Thinking the column over after it was published I thought it didn't make the central point as explicitly as it could have, so I wrote a paragraph and stuck it in somewhere in the middle. Here it is:

Pakistan claims Kashmir because as a Muslim state carved out of British India it thinks it has a right to Kashmir as a Muslim majority province. Israel, as a Jewish state, wants to annex large settler blocs of Jews on the West Bank to Israel and in return would be happy to give away bits of Israel that have concentrations of Arabs. Other nations dispute or defend territory on the ground of language. Indian nationalism refused the temptation of a single collective identity; as a result, the republic it created had no way of discriminating between borders that were negotiable and those that were written in stone. Not only were its borders were colonial and therefore arbitrary, being an ideologically pluralist state it couldn't claim or trade away disputed borderlands going by the nature of the populations settled there. So it decided that every inch of its border was sacred and what it had, it held.

Does that make things clearer? I actually think Kashmir should stay a part of India. One of the reasons it's in the mess is because the Indian state never devolved the powers that Kashmir was entitled to have, to the Kashmiris. Something I wanted to say but ran out of room and so left out (and this addresses Nitin's sensible point), was that this early fear of falling apart, led our constitution makers into creating a unitary system, where the centre essentially owns the states. I think it would be a good idea for not just Kashmir but all the other states to work in a federal way. Though as banal solutions to insoluble problems go, federalism as an Indian panacea must be a prize winner!

Qalandar said...

Thanks for the comments guys!

I guess I really didn't find the article unclear so much as that I felt it highlighted that the way forward was uncertain, even as it could be read as promising a prescription. But Mr. Kesavan's additional paragraph does make the piece better in my view, in particular I think these lines get to the heart of the matter: "Indian nationalism refused the temptation of a single collective identity; as a result, the republic it created had no way of discriminating between borders that were negotiable and those that were written in stone." Very well articulated indeed.

Re: federalism: one might add that there could be a (semi-)third way as well. For instance, one could have a UNITARY state that nevertheless had an upper house or "sister" house of parliament structured like the United States Senate (in that in that body each constituent unit of the natiom-state has equal representation). The mere existence of such a body would not have been inconsistent with the demands of a "unitary" state (I am neither arguing in favor of nor against a unitary state, merely that even a choice in favor of the latter need not have ended the matter); of course the mere existence of such a body can hardly in itself be the solution to the sorts of problems you touch upon, but I do believe it would send a powerful symbolic message, that (at least in one institution at the core of the polity) every state MATTERED in some fundamental sense.

Ha! I didn't mean to mire the discussion in yet more "banality", and I do realize that the piece (and that's one of the things I appreciated most about it) is pointing to a metaphysical issue, a foundational one with the very "ground" of the Indian nation state. This "ground" must be pondered and any "solution" -- in the sense of a way forward -- must come to terms with it (i.e. for better and for worse, simply changing course as if there were no history and no metaphysical foundation here is not an option). This piece has permanent value not least because it insists on the centrality of this foundational issue...

Qalandar said...

Satyam: astute points here for sure. I do note that perhaps what you are saying isn't really INconsistent with what Kesavan is saying, in that the examples of the states you cite are ones that Kesavan would also agree with. That is, states like Spain or France are the classic "one people, one identity" sort of states (their recent immigrant troubles are symptoms of this foundational metaphysics I would argue), so the reaction to assertions of (for instance) Catalan or Basque identity isn't very surprising, and I doubt it would be surprising to Kesavan either. But the question is, why should a state that does NOT privilege one essence/identity face similar problems?

There are various possible responses to that question, and perhaps some overlap:
(1) The polity IN FACT privileges one identity ("HIndu") even if it does not purport to. The problem with this exaplanation is that it simply pushes the question one step further back; i.e. why do some polities choose to even PURPORT to do this given that others (e.g. Pakistan) don't?

(2) I suspect your point is that vigilance about "borders", those anxious regions where one nation-state shades into another, is endemic to nation-states, no matter what sort of polities they are. This is a powerful critique/observation, and I don't disagree, though a variation on (1) occurs to me: granting that all nation-states might be susceptible to "border anxiety", the MANNER in which this anxiety manifests itself might well depend on a number of other factors. Leading us back to the question of how/why India acts/reacts the way in which it does/has done. Presumably you are also making a second-order point here, namely that in your view India does not in fact react atypically. Guess I'd have to think about that some more.

(3) is a variant on (1): because of the two-nation theory and its ultimate (though sadly not final) symptom, the 1947 partition, an element of permanent anxiety and instability is introduced into the foundational ideology of the Indian state. i.e. If India were simply a "Hindu Pakistan" it would have no "issue" (it would be a less worthy polity by my lights, but likely a more "stable" one); likewise in a world where there never had been any two nation theory the present foundation of the Indian polity would pose no problem. But the conjunction of the two-nation theory and "non-essentialist" Indianness is conducive to permanent anxiety: dreams of a "Hindu nation" are belied by the presence and prominence of "minorities", while dreams of "unsullied" secularism/neutrality must confront the specter of partition, of two nation theory (both in its Hindutva and -- more drastically -- in its Muslim League avatars).

I am reminded of a line in Sunil Khilnani's "The Idea of India", wherein he referred tp partition as the "unspoken sadness at the heart of the idea of India." I can never think of that line without being moved, and would add that it is not only the "unspoken sadness" but the constitutive condition of contemporary Indianness, anxieties, phobias, hopes, et al.

Unknown said...

Qalandar writes that a Hindu India would be less worthy as a political project but a more stable state. I don't think so. The republic as a Hindu state would be nightmarishly violent, like Sri Lanka scaled up.

Our pluralist nationalism wasn't a theorized identity: it was formally imagined and improvised on the run in equal parts. Satyam seems to suggest that a 'Hindu' identity would have been the ideal nation-state fiction. Given the record of the nation-states that border India, every one of them based on the idea that states are owned by proprietary communities, why would a hegemonic Hindu state do better? It's not the colonial definition of India that restrains Hindu nationalism: it's the Indian National Congress' originality in showing that pluralism is central to democratic legitimacy.

Qalandar said...

"nightmarishly violent" is not, in my conception, necessarily exclusive of "relatively stable." i.e. perhaps I was unclear, but I was referring (with some hyperbole) to the peace of the graveyard... :-)

Pakistan is a good example: in many ways a more stable state than India (certainly once the "problematic" Bengalis "on the border" between "Hinduness" and "Muslimness" were gotten rid of)-- but there is the small matter of a genocide...

and to be fair to Satyam, I read him as saying that the fiction of a "Hindu India" would be more in keeping with the conventional fictions that nation states seem to live by ("Frenchness", etc.), not that it would do better in some ethical sense.

Re: "Our pluralist nationalism wasn't a theorized identity: it was formally imagined and improvised on the run in equal parts."

I completely agree with this. To a certain extent that is a strength (it's not some overarching project) but might it not also be a weakness in that pluralism sometimes appears to have fewer defenders when confronted with the acolytes of theory, the fundos with a theory for everything? I am torn on this one (I kinda like my -isms "little" and improvised, but I worry they are rendered more fragile as a result)...

Unknown said...

I agree about the rhetorical difficulty that a pluralist nationalism faces once the colonizing villain departs. Nationalism in its historical derivation is firmly joined to the idea of self-determination so it helps to have a snappy name for the self in question. Hindu rashtra hits its target in a way that pluralist republic doesn't.

I think pluralists have to fill this hole by fetishizing the constitution in the way Americans do. Long-winded and contradictory though it is, we're lucky to have it. A Pakistani liberal given mean-spirited sectarianism of his state, has to be disloyal to it, if not to the territory it defines. An Indian liberal can be patriotic without embarrassment because his constitution an exemplary document. We are, all of us, people of this book.

Talking about books, the Sachar report (Social Economic and Educational Status of Muslims in India) is out and downloadable. For all our talk about pluralism it's worth reading to find out without India walks its talk. A quick look through it suggests that it's massively informative, whether we agree with its prescriptions or not. The report's a good example of Indian pluralism's strength: its intellectual sensitivity to minority concerns. Its findings, equally, illustrate this pluralism's difficulty: its vulnerability to the charge that it's window-dressing that obscures everyday discrimination.

Anonymous said...


I thought I should point to an earlier post of mine. Here's a pertinent excerpt:

But a more sinister expression of regional ‘nationalism’ is in the form of insurgencies - be it in Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, Punjab, Manipur, Nagaland or Andhra Pradesh. With scarce avenues to express their grievances, the disaffected populations turn their anger against an abstract monolith called India. If Manipur’s Rajya Sabha members had as much power as those of Uttar Pradesh, they could well have had the political weight to address the concerns of the people of Manipur long before things came to such a sorry pass. Despite the considerable media attention given to the problems in Manipur, one has hardly heard of (let alone heard from) Manipur’s Rajya Sabha members.

Qalandar said...

Thanks Nitin, that's certainly pertinent to what had been discussed earlier on this thread...

In that spirit, two earlier posts that might bear on the discussion:

Anonymous said...

what are these pluralist traits of the Indian constitution?