My op-ed in Mint: A new compact with Jammu & Kashmir

More than self-determination for the disaffected, India as a whole needs a dispensation where individual rights and freedoms are truly respected

A version of the following was published in Mint today.

Public consciousness in India received a rude shock a few weeks ago when public demonstrations erupted first in the Kashmir valley, and then in Jammu. For a public fed with accounts of a peace process with Pakistan, talks with Kashmiri separatists and a decrease in terrorism in the state, this return to a “1989-like atmosphere” was sudden enough to be incomprehensible. Coupled with a very sophisticated psychological operation (psy-ops) from Kashmiri separatists—and one that was met with a paralytic silence from the UPA government—this resulted some commentators despondently suggesting that it is time to “let go” of Kashmir.

But surely, it was always unrealistic to expect that just over five years of the Mufti-Azad government would reverse the impact of two decades of a violent proxy war that sharpened the differences between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri on the one hand, and Muslim and non-Muslim on the other. Since 2002, the geopolitical environment compelled Pakistan and the separatists to lie low, for their old formulations found no purchase in the wake of 9/11. The moment this began to change, politics in Kashmir took a turn for the worse. Kashmir’s mainstream politicians, being bandwagoners, could always be counted on to join the side they thought was winning.

But how did they arrive at this conclusion? Well, because of a highly successful psy-ops that transformed concerns over a temporary transfer of uninhabitable land in remote snow-covered mountains into a narrative of a demographic invasion by ‘Hindu’ Indians. In a single masterstroke, this achieved something that two decades of militancy had failed to: generating ill-will for the Kashmiris among the Indian people. Kashmiris came out not so much to protest against the land transfer, but against a diabolic Hindu plan to reduce them to a minority in their own state. Non-Kashmiris saw this as a sign of Kashmiri religious intolerance. This led to, on the one hand, protests by the Hindu community in Jammu, and on the other, to suggestions that allowing Kashmir to secede would not be a bad idea at all. The UPA government in New Delhi was a feeble, non-entity in the entire affair. For instance, it took over 10 days to announce that Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz was not killed, as had been projected earlier, by Indian security forces at protest march. By the time M K Narayanan announced this, more damage had been done.

But let there be no mistake: there is a great affective divide between the Kashmiri people and the rest of India. The solution, however, is not secession. Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: A new compact with Jammu & Kashmir”

Why giving in to Kashmir-fatigue is not a good idea

There are no easy solutions to the problems in Kashmir. Not least self-determination.

Last week, two leading op-ed columnists argued that current crisis in Kashmir calls for India to yield to the demands of the separatists, hold a plebiscite and accept the verdict of the Kashmiri people, even if that means secession.

Swaminathan Aiyar comes from a liberal perspective: he dislikes “ruling people against their will” and that “India has sought integration with Kashmir, not colonial rule. But Kashmiris nevertheless demand azaadi. And ruling over those who resent it so strongly for so long is quasi-colonialism, regardless of our intentions.” Vir Sanghvi, on the other hand, takes a cost-benefit approach. He argues that the costs of holding on to Kashmir—in economic and political terms—outweigh the benefits.

Both are wrong. Mr Aiyar, who is perhaps India’s best newspaper columnist, misses the nuances of the undeniably complex political-legal history of Partition. But he makes a good point—for all the moralising that the Indian state indulged in, and the legal arguments it used to defend Jammu & Kashmir’s accession, the fact remains that the integration of Indian princely states was a feat of realpolitik. And it was the same on the part of Pakistan. Just as Goa, Junagadh and Hyderabad were made part of the Indian Union by force, so was Kalat (part of modern Balochistan) secured by Pakistan. And Jammu & Kashmir came to be divided along the lines of the balance-of-power then obtaining between the two states.

There’s no need for believers in democracy and liberalism to feel apologetic about the fact that force played a role in forging the Indian Union. On the contrary, democrats and liberals must ask themselves why—for sixty years—they tolerated the fundamental principle of equality of all citizens to be undermined by granting a special status to people of Jammu & Kashmir. The same goes—albeit to a much lesser extent—for the people of the North Eastern states. The constitutional provisions only aggravated the geographical seclusion and the different religious composition to continue, preventing the real integration of Jammu & Kashmir into the national mainstream. Little wonder then, that the Kashmiri people should feel estranged.

Be that as it may, isn’t there a case for giving the Kashmiri people the right to self-determination, through a plebiscite? Here, Mr Sanghvi’s argument suggest that he considers that the problem can be got rid off by allowing Kashmiris to secede. Advocates of a plebiscite and secession though have a duty to articulate what happens next—to Kashmir and to India. Will the Valley’s independence or integration with Pakistan miraculously solve the fundamental problem, or will it merely lead to its reconfiguration? And can any serious advocate of a plebiscite, leave alone secession, plausibly argue that such a move will be free of the immense human tragedy that characterised drawing of new international borders in the subcontinent in 1947 and 1971?

And what next? Kashmir coming under the sway of the Taliban-like forces that hold sway in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas; or under a puppet regime that becomes the agent of regional and foreign powers; or under authoritarian rulers like those in Central Asia; or all of the above [See Offstumped]. One thing it will not become is Switzerland. What this implies for India is that the costs will not go away—they will mount. Kashmir is, as Mr Sanghvi puts it, a 20th century problem. But a 20th century solution—for that’s what self-determination is—won’t prevent it from disrupting India’s 21st century future. As for Kashmiris, self-determination is no guarantee that they will not be ruled against their will.

This is not to argue that holding on to Kashmir and its alienated population won’t be costly. It always was, and those costs will inflate. But it is foolhardy to believe that plebiscite and secession will lead to savings. In any case, neither Mr Aiyar nor Mr Sanghvi have even attempted to show why all those affected will be better off if Kashmir were to secede. Mr Aiyar would probably counter by saying that self-determination is an end in itself, and the consequences are immaterial. But Mr Sanghvi can’t take that position.

The reality is this: To ensure the well-being of people in the region, including those of its neighbours, India as a whole, and not just Jammu & Kashmir, needs to place a premium on individual freedoms on the one hand, and on tolerance on the other. Kashmir-fatigue, predictable political opportunism among state and national politicians, Pakistan’s continuing policies of destabilisation, and the failure of the India-Pakistan ‘peace process’ must not distract attention from this. But to move in this direction, India has to climb out of the hole it has dug itself into. That requires a process of national reconciliation.

By Invitation: Why human rights activists must be unreasonable

Because it is not for them to provide solutions

By Salil Tripathi

[Background: This is Salil’s response to the criticism that “human rights folks, at least in India, are terribly context insensitive. In practice, you can’t even talk about enjoying human rights (as opposed to possessing them) unless the state is capable of maintaining rule of law. By relentlessly criticising the government, and not having much else by means of a positive solution (beyond platitudes), human righters are hampering what capability that already exists. That’s contradictory. That they have for company, intellectuals who condone and incite political violence in the name of whatever cause, makes them all the more suspicious.”]

Human rights folks will be unreasonable, everywhere, to restrain the state. This is not to defend them, but to explain where they come from. The moment they become “solution providers” they have to begin modifying the message and make it more context-specific. Once they do that, the moral sharpness of their message—that the victim is most important (and they sometimes exalt victims to a holy status)—is lost. This is not to judge victims or human rights groups.

Whether it is ACLU or the Center for Constitutional Rights defending the indefendable folks in Guantanamo Bay cases, or Liberty supporting some committed Jihadists in Belmarsh jail in London, they see their role as defending the indefensible, so that the rest of us won’t get caught out. If they were to begin appearing reasonable, they’d lose resonance. More important, nobody will be speaking out for the innocent who will otherwise go to jail. (Pastor Nimoller’s poem about not speaking out when they came for
gays, leftists, Jews, etc).

Guantanamo prison, like Abu Ghraib, has many bad people. But it also has some innocent people. The state should not be allowed to get away with that.

I remember reading about Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese dissident, who had to leave China – after several years in jails. In “Bad Elements” Ian Buruma paints a very gripping and vivid picture of him—of Wei driving through red lights in America, ignoring traffic discipline; smoking in places where smoking is banned. He is stubborn, because the only way he can deal with authority that he has known—China—is by being uncompromising. It does make him look “uncouth” in civilized company.

And yet, unpleasant though he might be, Wei matters. Just as Solzhenitsyn matters even though when he came out of the Gulag, and once he started talking about Mother Russia, he sounded like an embarrassment.

The point about human rights activists in India is that like Teesta Setalvad, Sandeep Pandey, Aruna Roy, Binayak Sen and others, should remain unreasonable. Let the think tankers and policy-makers become practical. Because otherwise, everyone will support the idea of safety-over-liberty, and we would all be losers.

Think Franklin.

This is, again, not to defend or condemn the human rights brigade, but to explain why they are the way they are. In some ways, they are like evangelists, which makes them suspect for some, saviors, for others.

However, there is some awareness growing among human rights folks, that they should not forget victims of terror. If you see Amnesty International, they issued a statement after Jaipur blasts in which they condemned those who committed the acts. They called 9/11 “a crime against humanity”. At a recent human rights seminar in London, two important things came out: one, that if human rights lawyers don’t need to explain why torture is bad (because it is, period), why can’t they also argue that terrorism is
bad, period? Why do rights advocates contextualize terrorism? Why do they call it “the weapon of the powerless” when those who perpetrate terror are extremely powerful, often woman-hating neanderthals (my words)? Why do victims of torture get elevated when they are themselves human rights abusers, to the status of human rights defenders and get honored? Yes, they are victims when they are tortured or detained without due process of law, and they should get legal access and not get tortured. But they need not be on a pedestal. Merely because you were in Gitmo does not make you qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I suppose it is that correlation/causality argument again, right? Joyce, his hand, kiss, writing, doing a lot of other things?

The OBC reservations verdict and the national interest

A step on the road towards equality, merit and a quest for excellence

Excerpts from Mukul Asher’s DNA op-ed piece on the Supreme Court verdict on OBC reservations*:

The society’s need for competence and employable graduates has been balanced with provision of educational access to the OBCs.

The judgement of the Supreme Court (should) be respected in both letter and spirit. Those who are now trying to subvert the letter and spirit of the verdict should receive severe social and political disapproval.

India’s national interests are best served by ordering our society around equality, merit and a quest for excellence. The Supreme Court’s judgment should not be viewed as an end in itself, but rather as an intermediate step towards this goal. Continue reading “The OBC reservations verdict and the national interest”

India can do better on Tibet

India muddled on the protests, but it must rethink its Tibet policy

When China’s prime minister said he “appreciated” the Indian government’s response to public protests by Tibetan refugees, many interpreted that he was sending over a note of thanks. But Wen Jiabao’s statement could actually have been a warning.

“The Tibetan issue is a very sensitive one in our relations with India,” Mr Wen was quoted as saying by AFP news agency. “We appreciate the position and the steps taken by the Indian government in handling Tibetan independence activities masterminded by the Dalai clique.” [‘BBC’]

It is the first sentence sets the context.

As The Acorn argued while criticising the decision to stop protesters from attempting to cross over into Tibet, there is room for India to take a position that is less deferential to China. Sumit Ganguly similarly condemns the Indian government for cracking down on peaceful protesters and notes that being seen as unwilling to offend China will make “India’s claims to great power status in Asia, let alone beyond, appear utterly hollow”.

In Brahma Chellaney’s opinion, “it is past time India reclaimed leverage by subtly changing its stance on Tibet.” He proposes three changes: first, that India must bring Tibet back into focus in bilateral negotiations, placing the onus on Beijing to make Tibet a political bridge between the two countries; second, that India should treat the Dalai Lama as an ally and plan for the time when he is no longer on the scene; and third, India should stop “gratuitously referring to Tibet as a part of China”.

Chennai rejects

Some opinions just can’t make it to the People’s Daily of Chennai

The Beijing correspondent of The Hindu can hardly be classified as a critic of the People’s Republic. But when Pallavi Aiyar wrote a piece that compared India and China that showed the latter in rather unfavourable light, she had to publish it in Asia Times Online, a Hong Kong (Special Administrative Region of China) based publication. It is understood that The Hindu, ‘India’s national newspaper’ declined to publish it. Oh! the irony.

In direct contradistinction to China, India’s polity has flourished precisely because of its ability to acknowledge difference. The very survival of India as a country, given the scope of its bewildering diversity, has been dependent on the possibility of dissent…

In China, regular lip service is also paid to the country’s own, considerable diversity. During the National People’s Congress’ annual session, for example, delegates representing China’s multiplicity of minorities swish around the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in their “ethnic” dresses. Beijing regularly talks of the religious freedoms enjoyed by the country’s Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.

But in fact, the fundamental tenet of China’s political philosophy is not diversity but uniformity. This homogeneity does not only extend itself to the tangible, such as architecture or the system of writing alone, but also to thought.

Even in the modern China of the 21st century where there are more Internet users than even in the United States, those who disagree with mainstream, officially sanctioned views outside of the parameters set by mainstream officially sanctioned debate, more often than not find themselves branded as dissidents – suspect, hunted, under threat.

The insistence on “harmony” as the only reality and inability to admit genuine differences in interest and opinions between the peoples of a country of the size and complexity of China is ultimately the country’s greatest weakness.

Talk of political reform in China continues to be bound by the “harmonious” parameters set by Hu Jintao, the president. The idea is that everyone’s interests and opinions are to be balanced and resolved without conflict…

For China’s authorities to simply deny the reality of the problem, blame all tension on an exiled leader and insist that the majority of Tibetans couldn’t be happier with the Communist Party’s harmonious policies, is self-defeating. [Asia Times]

Naxalites and human rights activists

Even well-intentioned people can become pawns in the Naxalites’ insidious propaganda war

Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite country is a very important book, for it offers an excellent account of the nature of the Naxalite threat. The Naxalite movement thrives on disillusionment and disaffection. It collects unaddressed grievances and unredressed complaints and channelises them into anger against the “Indian State”. It tells rape victims, dispossessed tribals and bullied villagers that the target of their ire is not the local landlord, policeman or politician but that abstraction called the “State”. Indeed, beyond seductive dogma and the logic of the inevitability of armed struggle to upturn the status quo, it offers no positive solutions. The fact both Communism and Socialism failed doesn’t matter to the Naxalite leadership, ideologues and sympathisers: people in remote, backward districts of India don’t know 20th century history.

Child soldiers
Photo: Alok Putul

If Naxalite leaders rally support for themselves through mobilising local disaffections into a movement against the State and its symbols, their ideologues and sympathisers play an important role in the broader strategic psychological warfare. By dissing India’s economic achievements, by spreading canards about the ‘failure of neoliberal reforms’, by an incessant, exclusive focus on the negative side (in the name of ‘dissent’), by playing up the myth of “the two Indias” and even championing violence, these opinion makers create a context that lulls the the average Indian citizen into thinking that there is something legitimate about the Naxalite movement. The left-leaning and left-wing commentariat has succeeded where the Islamists have failed. The average Indian believes that the Naxalites are not quite as serious a threat as the jihadis—although Naxalites hold sway over a broad swathe of territory. Little wonder then that Indian politicians feel no serious pressure to do anything about the Naxalite threat. [Related Post: The clash of convictions and the remaking of the world of war]

Even where there was significant public outcry, the UPA government decided that its perceived vote-banks were more important than national security: it is not half as serious about the jihadi threat as it should be. But where there was lesser public attention, it literally abdicated its responsibility. The presence of the incompetent Shivraj Patil at the home ministry didn’t help. So while the Naxalites consolidated into a nationwide movement years ago, the central government continues to claim that this is essentially a matter for the states, and it would only play a co-ordinating role.

In the absence of a coherent national anti-insurgency strategy states were left to their own devices. Y S R Reddy’s government in Andhra Pradesh, got into bed with the Naxalites in order to win the election. It was a mutually beneficial bargain: the Naxalites took a breather (after being pummelled by the previous government led by Chandrababu Naidu) and regrouped. It ended predictably, when the negotiations failed and the Naxalites went back to their armed struggle. Why predictably? Well, because “armed struggle” is an inseparable part of the Naxalite dogma: Prachanda, the leader of Nepal’s Maoists, is being criticised for relenting on this even after they formed the government.

If this was the situation in Andhra Pradesh, a state with relatively higher capacity, what of places like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, where state capacity is extremely weak? Faced with fighting a war with what they had, they engaged in some extremely flawed strategies. As The Acorn argued two years ago, setting up Salwa Judum, an extra-constitutional counter-insurgency force, was a big mistake. So was the draconian law which suspends the freedom of the press. The Chattisgarh authorities identified the problems correctly. But the tools they used to solve these problems were ill-considered, hamfisted and ultimately counterproductive. Chattisgarh’s government and political leaders cannot escape responsibility for these bad moves—but in the absence of cohesion, determination and resources from New Delhi, it is not surprising that they chose that course. Understandable, but still not acceptable. But it’s no use criticising the Chattisgarh authorities for their dubious strategies. The anti-insurgency war against Naxalites is a national one. The Union Home Ministry should be held to account for its sins of omission that directly caused Chattisgarh’s sins of commission. The next government has a job cut out—and parties would do well to put their anti-Naxalite war strategy in their manifestos.

If Left-leaning commentators and Naxalite sympathisers are batting for the Naxalites, what should one make of genuine liberal human rights activists? It is possible to construct a reasonable argument, like a fellow INI blogger did, that violations of human rights by the government must be criticised every time they occur. The danger with this, though, is that well-meaning individuals and groups can inadvertantly end up batting for the Naxalites. The Naxalites derive greater benefit when reputed individuals and organisations criticise the government. In the psychological war, NGOs and human rights groups end up strengthening the Naxalites to the extent they add fuel to the fire of disillusionment and disaffection. Rights activists and do-gooders would do well to heed the old injunction primum non nocere—first, do no harm.

There are bound to be some who evaluate this trade-off and argue that holding the government’s feet to the fire is important in the even larger context of democratic accountability and good governance. Well, to be taken as bona fide, such individuals and organisations must unequivocally condemn Maoism and violent armed struggle. They must also unambiguously accept that only the state has the normative legitimacy to use violence. In other words, there is no room for moral equivalence: it is fair to criticise the government and government officials for their failings. But it is necessary to make the distinction between the State’s legitimate right to the use of violence and the Naxalite’s armed struggle.

Now there has been a controversy brewing for several months over the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen (see Offstumped’s coverage). The Supreme Court has turned down his bail application, yet sections of the media have been projecting him as an innocent being victimised by the state. Innocent or guilty, only the courts can tell (and he has unfettered access to them). But the media campaign itself is playing into the hands of the Naxalites (and is an example of the Chattisgarh authorities’ unsophisticated response to the psychological war).

My op-ed in Mail Today: Free speech checks intolerance

Mr Thackeray’s actions are an opportunity to understand how competitive intolerance might be defeated

Excerpts from my op-ed piece in today’s Mail Today:

The state itself —and increasingly under the UPA government — has, in addition to caving in to intolerance, frequently indulged in unnecessary conscience-keeping that is at once laughable and abominable.

Raj Thackeray obviously knows this. His recent invective against “North Indians” living in Maharashtra is only the latest escalation in a grand arms race being played out across the length and breadth of the country. If the political system rewards those who mobilise people along parochial lines, the popular media obfuscates divide-and-rule politics by wrapping it in the language of vote-banks, secularism and social justice. So the juggernaut of competitive intolerance rolls on, unchecked.

So doesn’t this mean that we need curbs on freedom of speech? Couldn’t much of the violence been prevented if Raj Thackeray’s party magazine had simply been banned and television news channels censored?

Not quite. Newspaper reports and incessant coverage by television channels only brought the drama into our drawing rooms. But the banning of its house publication would not have deterred Mr Thackeray’s sena in its mission, for the action channel for political mobilisation and street violence works independently.

On the contrary, laws abridging freedom of speech have created incentives for the political use of intolerance.

Faced with a choice between taking “action” against an offending writer or facing down a mob of rioters, it is likely that a rational government official — from district magistrate to home minister — will choose the former. It works this way because the government official has the choice.

This choice offers those charged with maintaining law and order a convenient escape route. The Maharashtra state government, for instance, could pretend to be taking “action” by arresting Mr Thackeray and Abu Azmi for their incendiary speeches, after the damage had been done.

The only way to maintain law and order is to bring the violent to justice. But after the drama of Mr Thackeray’s arrest, the Maharashtra state government is unlikely to pursue the task of going after the thugs and their local leaders with any seriousness.

The upshot is that doing away with restraints to freedom of expression is not merely a matter of principle. Because those restraints often come at the cost of leaving criminals unpunished, getting rid of them is a practical necessity. [Mail Today JPG]

Update: Download the original essay in PDF form