The J&K State and Indian Muslims: An emerging convergence?

Historically, the relationship between the J&K State and Indian Muslims has been ambivalent, argumentative, even antagonistic. This may be changing. The steady “othering” of the Indian Muslim has begun to awaken a risky sentiment in them: an elemental dissent that questions the very apparatus of rule rather than the non-delivery of electoral promises. The shift has begun with an appreciation of Kashmir’s struggle.

This thought occurred to me during a taxi ride in Delhi. U.P. had just elected its current Chief Minister and our driver was a Muslim from that state. When I asked him how the Muslims of the state were reacting to the elections, he said they are afraid, anxiously trapped inside their houses. “We don’t know what will happen, how it will happen and when it will happen” was his graphic response. On learning that we were from Kashmir, he said “You Kashmiris are different. You are not afraid. You fight back. We admire you.” A similar opinion was expressed by an upper class Indian Muslim friend. “I understand you now; I get why you fight back and even face bullets.”

At the elemental level, the contestations of the J&K state and the Indian Muslims are very different of course. The latter aspires to promised group and individual rights – political, social and economic. J&K is a dispute over sovereignty between states – J&K, India and Pakistan – as they existed at the time of the colonial withdrawal from South Asia.

Otherwise put, the Indian Muslims’ complaints are about political equality and socio-economic equity, the former being the acceptance of an idea in theory and the latter an expectation of material progress in practice. What is contested in the case of the J&K State is the interpretation of inherited historical idiosyncrasies – such as the implications for territoriality and sovereignty in the face of the “paramountcy” of the British Crown as applied to the princely states; and legal ambiguities – such as the concepts of conditional accession, patronage of a notional independence for one part of a state or the partial abdication of sovereignty by another part of a state, and other issues.

Is there an emerging convergence between the two dissents? To answer that question, we need to consider the challenges to the Indian state on a different plane.

Perry Anderson, in three seminal essays in his The Indian Ideology, tossed some inconvenient ideas into the pot by questioning “The hegemony of edulcorated versions of the national past” and modern India’s hyphenated assumptions of “continuity-antiquity, diversity-unity, massivity-democracy and multiconfessional- secularity.” He also criticizes the inadequacy of the India’s response to each of these ideas and asks: “What, finally, are the birth-marks and costs of the unity of the nation?” The idea of India, he argues, is a British one that took “bureaucratic hold” so that eventually “the nimbus of empire dissolve[d] into the charisma of nation.”

A strict Indian nationalist may disagree, but Anderson’s questions are more empathetic of modern India’s fundamental dilemma than analysis of selective problems or a partisan interpretation of history. The indisputable problematics of assumed continuity, unity and secularity of the Indian state imply a very radical inquiry: are the structures of rule for the conglomerate of nations in India just too big and too diverse a state to succeed?

This question was posed well before British India’s withdrawal from the subcontinent (to be sure not always for benign reasons) from the early twentieth century to the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. There were advocates of both centralized and decentralized structures of rule. An argument of the decentralists was that a state of India’s demographic size, variety in nations, religious multiplicity, class divisions and ethno-linguistic diversity, its unending clusters of “minorities”, suggested a uniquely different political system that would accommodate this diverse assemblage. 

In the event, the negotiations for a united India failed, creating two states in 1947 and, less than a quarter of a century later, a third. All of them are overwhelmingly confessional majority states, and two arguably confessional majoritarian states. Pakistan turned into one soon after its creation and, as Saeed Naqvi’s recent book, Being the Other: the Muslim in India, argues, India too did not demure from using religious identity as a nation-building project from the very start. India’s current overt and inexorable political direction puts it well on the path to declaring itself a religious state.

So, to return to the question: is there an emerging convergence between J&K and the “othered” Muslim in a Hindu majoritarian India? Briefly, the empathy travelling in the opposite direction from India’s early years would suggest there is. Descriptively, a more nuanced understanding is called for. 

The Indian Muslim has been demanding political equality and socio-economic equity. The validity of assuming such dispossession was confirmed by several commissions of inquiry, most famously the Sachar Committee Report. Its and others’ recommendations have been thwarted on two grounds: majoritarian accusations of minority appeasement and the calculations of electoral politics needing to woo a plurality of Hindus in regions with nested minorities. Thus, it is the mechanics of rule and power that do not allow the Indian polity to deliver. The Congress party’s recent desertion of its strategy of even opportunistic election-time courtship of the Muslim minority in Gujarat was open acknowledgement of the need, now, to appease the majority. The Indian Muslim needs a new strategy.

Meanwhile, without prejudice to the pendency of the J&K dispute, its voluntary, partial and temporary abdication of sovereignties was, on the one hand, an advantage of its status as a princely state and on the other an appeasement of India. Hence there was a time when many in Kashmir looked for support to the Indian Muslim, especially after a series of political compromises with Delhi between 1952 and 1975. It found none. And the last seventy years has vindicated its suspicions of Indian interest in hegemonic control. Today, Kashmir’s argument firmly harks back to the territorial and political sovereignty of the J&K State, in its entirety.

At base, today’s Indian Muslim’s admiration of the Kashmiri’s resilient opposition to India’s state building project reflects the complexity of the problem in 1947. The disintegration of British India, the question of the status of the Princely States and the fate of Himalayan South Asia at the time of the colonial withdrawal was a far more byzantine enterprise than ethnic, politico-cultural or confessional chauvinism. It was a dense negotiation that sought to redefine the ‘technologies of rule’ and an attitude to governance, a governmentality, to match an unwieldy and gargantuan polity. 

That job is not yet done, as India’s multiplicity is discovering. The thought should make Delhi (and Islamabad, for that matter, but that’s a different story) think deep and long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

four × five =