India still facing increasing separatist tendencies

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Qazi Umar

Rajab 16, 1425 2004-09-01


by Qazi Umar (World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 7, Rajab, 1425)

Dr B. R. Ambedkar, architect of the Indian constitution, defined Indian independence as the "transfer of British imperialism to Brahminic hegemony". August 15 marked the 57th anniversary of this event. Accommodating one billion people of various religious, linguistic and cultural identities, ‘independent' India's greatest task has been "national integration". Since Britain handed power to the Brahmin rulers, national integration has been thwarted by "subnational" insurgencies within and across the ‘national borders'.

On August 15, strong anti-India protests and calls to boycott Indian goods spread across Manipur, one of the northeastern states of India. This was followed by another self-immolation. Pebam Chitaranjan, 28, advisor to the Manipur Students Federation, set himself alight in protest against the non-withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur: in effect AFSPA gives unlimited powers to the Indian army to kill, rape and torture Manipuris.

There have been month-long protests in Manipur at the alleged abduction, torture, rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, 32, on July 11 while in the custody of the Assam Rifles. The most dramatic incident was a women's demonstration in front of the Assam Rifles' headquarters in Manipur's capital, Imphal, on July 15. They stripped themselves and held up two banners: "Indian Army, rape us; Indian Army, take our flesh." The Manipuris are convinced that Assam Rifles personnel kidnapped and raped Manorama, and then claimed that she was an activist who tried to escape and was shot dead: a familiar account of hundreds of "encounter killings" in India. This story is belied by torture-marks and as many as 16 bullets in Manorama's body. It has further infuriated the Manipuri public, which has long opposed AFSPA, one of the worst laws ever onIndia's statute book. Such is the abuse (or rather, normal use) of this law that 450 allegations have been booked officially against its use in the northeast since 1990. One protest against the killing of 10 civilians four years ago has been led by Irom Sharmila Devi: she has refused to eat since November 2000; she is being force-fed through her nose.

During a meeting between personnel of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) held in Dhaka in April, the BSF handed over a fresh list of 210 "militant camps" inBangladesh, urging the BDR to initiate operations against them. L. K. Advani, the former home minister, even talked about a "cross-border infiltration" from Bangladesh into the northeast states.

On February 20, governors and chief ministers of the northeastern states adopted a resolution, at the 49th meeting of the North Eastern Council (NEC), urging the central government to exert pressure on Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) to allow a "Bhutan-like operation" to dismantle the "militant camps" on their soil. The resolution was adopted after a presentation on the security scenario by Lieutenant-General H. S. Kanwar, then director-general of the Assam Rifles, during which he disclosed what he claimed were facts about militant groups "liberating" areas in Chandel district, and about northeastern militants carrying out hit-and-run operations from their camps in both neighbouring countries.

Continuing secessionist actions and demonstrations in the last five decades have turned India's northeast into an extrememly volatile region. Common borders with Myanmar and China have caused immense worries to India and made this area a theatre of several secessionist movements.

Geographically and culturally, the region now called northeastern India is situated between Indic Asia and Mongoloid Asia. This geographical-cultural condition of "in-betweenness" is an important factor in the area's crisis of identity. The leaders of the present-day "underground outfits" continue to struggle for independence, as the political integration of the northeast to India was brought about without the approval of its people. The people of northeast India, who are culturally Mongoloid, refuse to accept the caste-ridden social system of ‘Indian' (i.e. Hindu) culture.

The Tripuri people, for instance, who constituted more than 85 percent of the population in 1947, are now less than 30 percent. Tripura was never part of India. Even during British rule Tripura was never annexed to British India. Bir Bikram, the last independent king, died on 17 May 1947. Three months later, when the British left India, the situation was fluid enough for India to annex the kingdom. Indian agents spread the rumour that Muslim refugees from neighbouring East Pakistan were hatching a conspiracy to merge Tripura with Pakistan (a similar rumour was also spread in Kashmir). As a condition for India's ‘help', the Queen of Tripura was made to sign the Tripura Merger Agreement, whereby Tripura was annexed on 15 October 1949. Tripura has been under Indian rule since; the struggle for independence began then. Similar struggles are also going on in other northeastern states, such as Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland. These peoples have been branded "outcastes" in the Hindu caste-system. The people's experience of being despised as "untouchables", and their fear of losing their identity, are the main factors leading to the "ethno-political" insurgencies in ‘north-eastern India'.

The notions of "one nation" and "one Hinduism" are myths promulgated by the Brahmins of India. India has never been a Hindu-majority country. The caste-system is the soul of Hinduism, and 85 percent of the population, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Tribals and the Dalits (untouchables), fall outside this four-tier pyramid. The conventional identification of "India" with "Hinduism" is utterly wrong. According to its official statistics India is a Hindu-majority state, but this does not mean that ‘India' was ever populated mostly by a people whose identity was formed by their collective allegiance to a religion called Hinduism.

Racism in India is sanctified. The supposed superiority of the Brahmins (who comprise less than 5 percent of the population) and their alleged right to be rulers and priests are sanctioned by ‘religious' scriptures. Dalits, the black ‘untouchables' of India, are the victims of a centuries-old experiment in forced political integration under conditions of cultural assimilation. They are allowed neither to enter ‘Hindu' temples nor to touch the ‘Hindu' scriptures, yet they are called ‘Hindus' to give substance to the myth of India's being a "Hindu-majority nation".

India's post-independence policies have been characterised by a relentless accumulation of power by the central government. This power has been used to control the demands of an increasingly pluralist nation. Centralization has led to the growing use of force to crush local dissent. External threats were discovered to justify the increasing expenditure on defense.

After 1947 various strategies were adopted to tackle separatist movements. Leaders were told to assimilate or cooperate with central rule. If that failed, these leaders were isolated and attempts were made to create alternative leaderships. If that failed, the rest of ‘India' was mobilized against the separatists. The last option in the state armoury, if all else failed, is to deploy military force to localise the conflict and contain it within a manageable area, while continuing to govern the rest of India as usual.

Today India is pretending that only the "Kashmir dispute" threatens its ‘integrity'. Yet separatist movements have sprung up in the Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and all the north-eastern states. In the Punjab, separatist movements were temporarily halted in 1984, when the Indian army killed 3,500 men, women and children by attacking the Sikh temple at Amritsar. In other states the government is apparently holding its own at the moment. In Kashmir India's hope of maintaining its ‘integrity' is being shaken every day. Elsewhere the situation is volatile.

There is barely a state in India that shares a cultural, linguistic or religious bond with any other. The vast majority of ‘Indians' do not read, write or speak Hindi, yet Hindi is the "national language." A Bengali Hindu is culturally closer to a Bangladeshi Muslim, yet they are supposed to be "foreigners" to each other. The same Bengali Hindu is alien to a Hindu of Delhi, yet they are both "Indians." So also with Kashmiris, Punjabis, Tamils and so on. And apart from the internal threats, India's integrity has also been threatened from across its borders since independence.

Two characteristics of South Asia have influenced India's relations with its neighbours. In size and population India is the largest of the South Asian states. Also, most of the countries of South Asiaborder on India but do not share boundaries with each other. These two conditions have produced fear of Indian hegemony and deep-seated resentment of India's geopolitical dominance in the region. An anti-India alliance of India's South Asian neighbours is inevitable eventually.

India has signed a series of ‘friendship treaties' with its neighbours. The Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship was signed with Bhutan in 1949, followed by the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Nepal in 1950. Nehru even issued a veiled warning to China: "Any aggression on Nepal andBhutan would be considered by us as aggression on India." A Friendship Treaty was also signed with Bangladesh's Awami League government in 1972. The blockade declared by Nepal's Maoist rebels since August 18 this year might force it to intervene in Nepal to curb the ‘rebels' and protect the "only Hindu kingdom in the world".

India's search for hegemony has been characterised by its increasing insistence upon bilateralism in its relations with its neighbours; willingness to use its armed forces outside its borders; a sharp rise in defense expenditure; creation of a navy; and development of nuclear weapons and short- and intermediate-range missiles.

India has adopted three phases of integration since independence. The first phase was characterised by programmes aimed at modernization and central consolidation of power and resources. The second phase could be called the hegemonistic expansionist phase: military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987 and the Maldives in 1988, for instance. During this phase, Indiaintervened in Pakistan's internal politics to create Bangladesh (1971). The justification was to assist a separatist movement led by the Awami League, in search of independence from West Pakistan. However, similar logic was not applied when LTTE, wanting a separate homeland fromSri Lanka, sought India's help. In this case India feared the disintegration of its own Tamil state, Tamil Nadu, as a result.

Four themes have dominated the Tamil nationalist discourse: anti-Brahminism, anti-Sanskrit and anti-Hindi feeling, and a demand fo political autonomy. E. V. Ramaswami ‘Periyar', a strong advocate for Tamil nationalism, who challenged Hinduism and Delhi's rule over southern India and broke away from Congress and Gandhi, claimed that three conditions were necessary for the country to gain its freedom: destruction of Congress, of the so-called Hindu religion, and of Brahmin domination. The Delhi-based, Brahmin-ruled centre was thus always opposed by "subnational" identities.

The expression of a more militant Tamil nationalism in northern Sri Lanka has added impetus to the cause in Tamil Nadu. The Tamils' belief that they are a "unique nation", the Sikhs' belief that they are non-Hindus and the Kashmiri Muslims' belief that they have the right to self-determination: all these beliefs have challenged India's dominance.

The final phase of the Indian government's efforts to secure itself was initiated by the BJP and Sangh Parivar with their blatant Ram Temple politics, aimed at uniting the country on a "one Hinduism" principle. This strategy was tested by the demolition of the 464-year-old Babri mosque in Ayodhya and by the anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat. In both these incidents, lower-caste masses were mobilized under the "we are Hindus" banner.

Three ethno-nationalistic struggles in Punjab (anti-Hindu), Kashmir (pro-Muslim) and Tamil Nadu (anti-Brahmin) which escalated throughout the 1980s influenced India's relations with Pakistan andSri Lanka. There have been terrible incidents of repression by the Indian army in Kashmir. Its status as an ‘integral state' of India has always been questionable. After independence two other princely states, Junaghad and Hyderabad, were "Kashmir in reverse": Muslim rulers with a Hindu-majority population decided to accede to Pakistan but were prevented by military intervention byIndia from doing so, on the grounds that the majority of the people were Hindu. Yet similar logic apparently did not apply to Kashmir when the accession of a Muslim-majority state was decided by a Hindu ruler.

Growing global interdependence, and the revolution in technology and communications since the 1980s, have all tilted the balance in favour of separatists. They have gained access to international media, to platforms such as the UN, to support from human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Asia Watch, and, crucially, access to arms-bazaars. These connections have reinforced their strength to resist the state.

The eruption of ethnic violence across Europe, from the former Yugoslavia to the former Soviet Union, has called into question the viability of the territorial nation-state. In the 1980s the collapse of the Soviet Union was unimaginable. India's disintegration, although almost as unimaginable now, may well eventually be as dramatic, and satisfy the aspirations of its non-Brahmin populations, at least for a time. It is also probably as inevitable as hindsight shows the disintegration of the Soviet empire to have been.

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