October 31, 2020
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The Azadi We Need

The azadi demanded by the Kashmiri movement, and used by Roy as a rallying cry, is not the answer. 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

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The Azadi We Need
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Towards the end of her impassioned piece calling for azadi for Kashmir, Arundhati Roy 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, Switzerland, 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; 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 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. 

In short, the point is 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 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. 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" 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, Muslim but not Bangladeshi enough; and she herself mentions the 1971 genocide of Bengalis by the Pakistani army, who were not Muslim enough. 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. 


Umair Ahmed Muhajir is based in New York City. When not blogging at qalandari.blogspot.com or contributing to naachgaana.com, he makes a living as a lawyer.


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