Nationalism in South Asia and the “Problem of Kashmir”

Nationalism in South Asia and the “Problem of Kashmir”

Each time Pakistan and India make the news together, one can expect that the long-festering conflict between the two countries has taken a turn for the worse.  Nearly every American story on this conflict begins with (and often does little to proceed beyond) the observation that the two countries have fought three wars with each other since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, and have on several other occasions been on the verge of war. 

 In the most recent iteration of this conflict, revolving largely around the disputed status of Kashmir, India responded to a deadly terrorist attack on a convoy of its soldiers last month with an aerial assault.  The goal of this assault was to liquidate a terrorist training facility beyond the “Line of Control”, the de facto border that separates the two countries.  The details remain murky, but fears that the situation would escalate into an outright war appear to have eased with Pakistan’s return of an Indian pilot, whose fighter jet was shot down by the Pakistanis, within days of his capture.

 The United States, China, and other powers have repeatedly urged both Pakistan and India to seek diplomatic solutions to “the problem of Kashmir.” India has for the last two decades insisted that Pakistan cease to allow its soil, or the territory under its control, to be used by terrorists to initiate attacks in India, and it has also called for Pakistan to take concrete action against known militants such as the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar.  Although the United Nations declared Jaish-e-Mohammed a terrorist organization in 2001, previous Indian attempts to have Azhar be branded a terrorist have been stymied by China.   

However, there is a serious question whether a diplomatic victory by India, should that materialize, would have any significant impact on militant activity. The Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), whose leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, masterminded the terrorist attacks of November 2008 across multiple sites in Bombay over four days, was placed under UN mandated sanctions in March 2009, yet moves around in Pakistan with near impunity.  The United States has placed a $10 million bounty on his head, and once in a while the Pakistani authorities put him behind bars only to release him a few days later.  The supposition, on India’s part, that militant activity can be brought under control through vigorous diplomatic efforts is as fallacious as it is wholly insensitive to the consideration that, even as Pakistan has encouraged terrorist activity with the hope of keeping the embers of revolt in Kashmir burning, some militant actions are beyond its control. 

Pakistan, for its part, has been quite adept at waging a diplomatic and media offensive against India.  If the Indian position has pivoted around the view that Kashmir is an internal affair, calling strictly for bilateral talks and agreements between the two countries, Pakistan has sought to internationalize the Kashmir conflict.  It not only rejects India’s argument that intervention by foreign powers constitutes the abrogation of Indian sovereignty – which, in any case, Pakistan does not recognize with respect to Kashmir – but has also invoked the matter of humanitarian relief for besieged Kashmiris. 

Pakistan has acted on the supposition that it can enlist the aid of Muslim-majority countries in the name of Islamic brotherhood, and that the liberation of Kashmir’s Muslims contributes to the liberation of Muslims globally.  But Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive, however adroitly it has been carried out, has no prospect of succeeding in the long run.  It is not only that prolific terrorist activity has given Pakistan a bad name, and in some respects even rendered Pakistan a semi-pariah state, or that India is bound by the logic of the nation-state to be inflexible in its hold over Kashmir.  There is also something of an international consensus, even if it is not always openly conceded, that the Simla Agreement, which the two countries signed in the wake of Pakistan’s defeat in the war of December 1971, legitimately allows India to press for a bilateral rather than international solution to the dispute over Kashmir.

Thus, within the present geopolitical framework, a “solution” to the Kashmir problem is all but inconceivable.  Still, unless one is to accept the notion that the two countries must be prepared to live in a state of perpetual low-intensity warfare, descending into open and increasingly lethal conflict every few years, it behooves us to reflect on whether the “problem” that persists in relations between Pakistan and India has been correctly identified.  In Pakistan, however grave the reluctance to identify the true source of the country’s ills, the fundamental problem, greatly aggravated by political developments over the last four decades, lies in the country’s steady drift towards the most extreme and intolerant versions of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia and the close links that the political and military elites of both countries have forged.  Muslim ideologues in Pakistan have for decades sought to persuade ordinary Pakistanis that the proximity of Hinduism to Islam contaminated South Asian Muslims, and that the deliverance of Pakistan’s Muslims now lies in an inextricable bond with Saudi Arabia, the purported home of the most authentic form of Islam. Pakistan, in other words, must unhinge itself from its roots in Indic civilization and repudiate its Indo-Islamic past.  The insidious influence of the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia can now be experienced in nearly every domain of life in Pakistan, from the growing intolerance for Sufi-inspired music to the infusion of enormous sums of money to introduce Saudi style mosques and “purify” Pakistani Muslims.  This remains by far the gravest problem in Pakistan.

 India, meanwhile, has veered towards militant forms of Hindu nationalism.  The last few years in particular furnish insurmountable evidence of the explosive growth of anti-Muslim violence.  The intolerance towards all those who cannot be accommodated under the rubric of “Hindu” has increased visibly.  Hindu militants brought down a 16th century mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, in the wake of which portions of the country were engulfed in communal violence.  Ten years later, a pogrom directed at the Muslims in Gujarat left well over 1,000 of them dead and displaced another 100,000.  Since the ascendancy of Narendra Modi – who was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 and under whose watch the perpetrators of the violence acted with utter impunity – to the office of the Prime Minister of India in 2014, civil liberties have eroded, dissenting intellectuals have become sitting ducks for assassins who murder at will, and Muslims have been lynched.  The fact that roving mobs have attacked many others, among them African students and Dalits or lower-caste Hindus, should offer clues that while Indian Muslims may be soft and convenient targets for Hindu militants, the real problem lies elsewhere. 

Some commentators have spoken about the collapse of the consensus around secularism during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Prime Minister from 1947 until his death in 1964; others, myself included, would also like to consider the evisceration of the Indian ethos of hospitality.  Nationalism may be a scourge worldwide, but among Hindus it is also animated by what is deemed an awakening after centuries of oppression and slumber. Just as Islamic preachers in Pakistan exhort Muslims to rid themselves of the creeping and often unrecognized effects of Hinduism in their practice and understanding of Islam, so Hindu nationalism rests on a platform of resurgent Hindu pride, the construction of a glorious past that is said to have been contaminated by the Muslim, and the notion of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) where everyone else, particularly Muslims, is dependent on the goodwill of Hindus.  What is transparent in all this is that, howsoever much India is tempted to blame Pakistan, it has plenty of work to do to confront its own inner demons.

No resolution to what is commonly described as “the problem of Kashmir” appears even remotely possible within the present socio-cultural and geopolitical framework.  If military action by either country carries the risk of blowing up into a full-scale war, and is nearly unthinkable owing to the fact that the two neighbors are nuclear-armed powers, diplomatic negotiations are also unlikely to alter the status quo.  Indeed, for the foreseeable future, low-intensity skirmishes along the Line of Control will almost certainly continue, punctuated only by very occasional and ceremonial declarations by one or both countries to introduce “confidence-building measures,” improve trade relations, and encourage limited border crossings.  I suspect, however, that the dispute over Kashmir can only be “resolved” if, in the first instance, both countries are attentive to the problems that are present within their own borders. 

Kashmir, it must also be said, is a region unlike any other in India: though the dispute has been cast in the popular imagination as instigated by animosity between Hindus and Muslims, one third of Kashmir is Buddhist. Even in the Kashmir Valley, which is predominantly Muslim, the long and complicated history of religious sensibilities renders obtuse a history that is shaped merely around a modern notion of “religion” and a demography based on the idea of religious communities as, in the language of the scholar Sudipta Kaviraj, “bounded” rather than “fuzzy”.   

I would go so far as to say that the day when South Asian Muslims – in Pakistan and Bangladesh as much as India – begin to recognize the Hindu element within them, and, likewise, Hindus acknowledge the Islamic element within them, both countries will be well on the way to resolving the problem of Kashmir and acknowledging that Kashmiris alone have the right to move towards the full autonomy that they deserve.

  

Vinay Lal is a writer, blogger, cultural critic, public commentator, and Professor of History and Asian American Studies at UCLA. His seventeen authored and edited books include The Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the New Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2002), The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford, 2005), Of Cricket, Guinness, and Gandhi: Essays on Indian History and Culture (Penguin, 2005), and India and the Unthinkable (Oxford, 2017). His intellectual interests include nonviolence, Gandhi, resistance movements, Indian history, global politics, historiography, cinema, and the politics of knowledge systems. He blogs at vinaylal.wordpress.com and his lecture courses are available at https://www.youtube.com/user/dillichalo.