For decades now, Kashmir has hosted a bloody stalemate, in which a powerful nation-state repeatedly tries, and fails, to impose its will on a small unyielding population. The Indian state uses political means (elections, special privileges) and financial inducements as well as military force to convince Kashmiris that they should not dream of self-determination. Still, Kashmiri defiance and harsh Indian retaliation exact a terrible human toll: tens of thousands killed, innumerable many disabled, tortured, orphaned and widowed. There is hardly a family in the Valley left untouched by the biggest military occupation in the world.
People in mass democracies are usually slow to recognise the nature of the undeclared wars conducted by their representatives. But by the late 1960s there was hardly a public figure in the United States—from J.K. Galbraith to Philip Roth—who did not feel compelled to build up a chorus of denunciation against their country’s deeply dishonourable involvement in Indochina. In comparison, the deaths, in less than two decades, of nearly 80,000 people in Kashmir have barely registered in the Indian liberal conscience.
"I cannot imagine," Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote last month, "what it is to live like under half a million troops." Until very recently, such honest confessions of a moral impasse were rare not only in an increasingly corporatised media, which is as defiantly ignorant as it is nationalistic, but also among the people most likely to initiate national introspection on Kashmir—the impressively numerous writers and intellectuals who by training and temperament are secular and liberal.
A few Indian commentators did deplore, consistently and eloquently, India’s record of rigged elections and atrocity in the Valley, even if they spoke mainly in terms of defusing rather than heeding Kashmiri aspirations. But many more tended to become nervous at the mention of disaffection in the Kashmir Valley. "I am not taking up that thorny question here," Amartya Sen writes in a footnote devoted to Kashmir in The Argumentative Indian. In the more resonant context of a book titled Identity and Violence, Sen yet again relegates the subject to a footnote.
It is not easy for me to point to these acts of omission. Most Indian liberals have fought with admirable courage the good and necessary war to prevent Hindutva from damaging India’s multicultural ethos, and their commitment to justice for the poor and defenceless in Indian society cannot be faulted. They are right to suspect Pakistan of malicious intent in the Valley, and to fear that the four million Kashmiri Muslims demanding azadi expose 150 million Indian Muslims even further to the BJP-VHP’s bigotry.
But it makes progressively less sense why many Indian liberals should not make nuanced distinctions between Kashmiri and Indian Muslims; why they should help the fanatics of Hindutva hold Indian Muslims hostage by refusing to publicly uphold Kashmiri rights to a life of dignity.
A commonplace secular-nationalist argument is that Kashmiri Muslims, if given the slightest concessions by India, would go radically Islamist or embrace Pakistan, emboldening separatists in the Northeast. But it has never been clear that radical Islam has a sustainable appeal in Kashmir. The Kashmiri feeling for Pakistan, too, is highly capricious, almost entirely fuelled by hatred of the Indian military occupation.
For years the overtly Islamic and violent aspect of the insurgency in the Valley kept many secular Indian liberals from visibly sympathising with the plight of Kashmiri Muslims: if only the Kashmiris, I often heard, had organised a Gandhian-style political campaign. In recent weeks the Kashmiris have repeatedly staged massive non-violent protests, provoking such establishment figures as Vir Sanghvi and Swaminathan A. Aiyar into an exasperated reckoning of Kashmir’s cost to India. But Arundhati Roy’s frank analysis of the collapse of Indian legitimacy in the Valley is still rare enough to profoundly unsettle many liberal assumptions.
The commonest secularist response consists of fierce denial and bluster. Kanti Bajpai avers that since the Indian state has not committed genocide in Kashmir, the Kashmiri demand for freedom is groundless—surely by this legalistic logic Gandhi and Nehru had no right to ask the British to quit India? G. Parthasarathy at least has the hawkish virtue of clarity when he implores India to follow Russia’s example in Chechnya and strike Kashmir with an ‘iron fist’.
What’s much more disturbing, however, is when Harish Khare of The Hindu accuses separatists and the isi of stirring up trouble in the Valley and urges the government to use force to underscore "New Delhi’s will and capacity to stay put in Kashmir". Ritually denouncing the BJP, Khare also exhorts us to a "renewed fundamentalist faith in the idea of secular India".
Indeed, more than one liberal commentator reacting to the mass upsurge in Kashmir piously invoked the ‘idea of India’. This solemn liturgy makes it seem that the ‘idea of India’, like the ‘American dream’, is divinely ordained to bring happiness to anyone who subscribes to it, as though electoral democracy in a poor, multicultural country isn’t an ongoing experiment, one of the most utopian and arduous in modern history, and as such subject to rigorous scrutiny and pragmatic revision—an experiment that is, harsh though this may sound, prone to periodic malfunction, even failure.
The Indian liberal’s perennial defensiveness on the question of Indian Muslims has trapped him into a rigid fealty to the ‘idea of India’—or what is really an exaggerated faith in the Indian state’s ability to maintain India’s secular identity in Kashmir. It is true that the original conception of the Indian state contained many redemptive notions of cultural plurality, and social and economic justice. But whatever prelapsarian integrity the Indian state under Nehru may have had (Kashmiris have their own views on this), it now appears to have been deeply compromised; and if our secularist narcissism managed to survive two state-supported pogroms in 1984 and 2002, one of them by an avowedly secular political party, it is likely to be shattered by the enthronement of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister.
During two decades of vicious anti-Muslim campaigns and terrorist retaliation, the Sangh parivar has not only given Indian nationalism a hard majoritarian cast; it has also infected India’s state and civil society with its illiberalism. Certainly, Kashmiri Muslims, who feel assaulted with an iron fist by both Hindutva-wadis and secularists, cannot be blamed for failing to spot the fine distinctions between the idea of India and the idea of Akhand Bharat.
The Kashmiris are hardly alone in failing to detect wisdom and generosity in a state that detains and tortures Muslims on the flimsiest of charges, ignores the killing of Christians, organises mercenary armies against tribals and Maoists, and helps big businessmen to fleece small farmers and uproot the landless.
Secular fundamentalists may continue to venerate the state, hoping, against all available evidence, that it would preserve the idea of secular India in Kashmir (and the Northeast, another region where faith in the idea of India needs to be propped up by the Indian state’s brutality). But in their revulsion from the inevitably ‘communal’ politics of Kashmiri Muslims they will find themselves standing with the most virulent Islamophobes among Hindu fundamentalists.
This proximity can’t be written off as an unfortunate accident of history. Fundamentalism in the cause of secular ideals has proved even more noxious than its religious counterpart, as the 20th century’s extraordinary ideological violence reminds us. The secular fundamentalists, who are determined to nail their cherished ‘idea of India’ into Kashmiri hearts and minds, seem to forget the many political leaders and intellectuals who rationalised totalitarian brutality and imperialist wars by pointing to the garishly virtuous nature of their secular ideologies (nation-building, economic prosperity, freedom, democracy). The spectacle of American liberal intellectuals cheerleading the war for ‘human rights’ in Iraq has more recently underscored the grotesque irony of what Albert Camus called ‘massacres justified by philanthropy’.
Camus knew that a secular ideology of progress, which tries to validate state violence by positing noble-sounding but purely abstract ends, had replaced traditional religion in the world-conquering nations of the West, one which, as he wrote, ‘can be used for anything, even for transforming murderers into judges’.
Having arrived late in the history of the nation-state, we are probably fated to replicate some of the West’s ideology-fuelled disasters. The fundamentalist cult of the ‘idea of India’ has already demonstrated its murderous potential in Kashmir. Is it too late to unshackle the ‘idea of India’ from a repressive Indian state and its callous elite? This is certainly necessary—for the sake of democracy and pluralism in India as well as in Kashmir. Such revisions in the political and moral imagining of nations are never easy. But until they are made, the ‘idea of India’ will increasingly risk becoming yet another one of recent history’s many beautiful abstractions stained with blood.
(Pankaj Mishra frequently writes essays on politics and literature for Outlook, Guardian and New York Times.)