Monday, August 25, 2008

Comment: Amarnath- Part II

What's in an And?
As an ardent admirer of Jared Diamond’s ongoing treatise (expounded in a series of best-selling books beginning with ‘Guns, Germs, Steel’), I have come to believe that Geography, more than any other factor, is indeed the fundamental vector in shaping the course of Human History: when we speak of the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), the epicenter of the Amarnath Controversy, the operative words are neither ‘J’ nor ‘K’; it is, infact, the quintessential ‘&’. This ‘&’ seeks to drive an irreconcilable wedge between the two; and Minority Appeasement, that cunning little creature about which we discussed in the last post, is, as it turns out, the double-edged sword that has brought this about.

For as long as one can remember, these two regions, connected only by an umbilical cord of the Jammu-Srinagar national highway painstakingly tunneled through mountains, have functioned as disparate geopolitical entities: a Hindu-dominated J on the plains, and a Muslim-dominated K in the Valley. Ergo, when the J&K government handed over 100 acres of forest land to the Shrine Board, the Muslim-majority in Kashmir saw it as appeasement of the Hindu-majority in Jammu, possibly with an eye towards an impending Assembly election; when they took it back, the rest of the country saw it as an effort to once again appease the already over-appeased Kashmiri Muslims. Despite this somewhat hasty governmental-afterthought- to take back the allotted land thereby removing the immediate cause of Kashmiri discontent- the Valley continues to boil: in the words of a separatist pro-Pakistan Hurriyat leader, Syed Gilani, the land itself has become a ‘non-issue’. If so, what then is the issue? Clearly, this somewhat simplistic communal distinction isn’t adequate to explain what’s happening in- and to- J&K.

For the first time, the (Indian) state seems to be at a total & utter loss: sure, it was a mistake to give land to the Shrine Board in the first place, now we can all see that; but wasn’t that decision revoked, and the mistake rectified? Why, then, aren’t things settling down? Why, for instance, are millions of Kashmiris suddenly marching all over Srinagar hurling green-colored Pakistani flags, wishing each other ‘belated Happy Independence day’ on 15th August? Why have they all set their watches thirty minutes behind? Don’t they- can’t they- see that that these Pakis have done nothing for Kashmiris except to smuggle them guns & bombs to blow each other to smithereens? Surely, they ought to understand that we, the Indians, are their true friends, their only well-wishers.

And that is the exact point of this whole Controversy: the Kashmiris do not see us, the Indians, as their friends; on the contrary, we’re perceived as the Enemy; even more worryingly, Pakistan is viewed as the Good Guy. Suddenly, this business of Minority Appeasement isn’t confined to India alone; it has quite simply gone transnational.

Sheesh Mahal
To understand why- despite the state government’s best efforts to assuage the Kashmiri sentiment in the Amarnath land-allocation controversy; despite the imposition of Article 370 that guarantees Kashmir’s special status; despite the tens of billions of rupees spend by the GOI to develop the Valley- we Indians have become villains in the eyes of countless ordinary Kashmiris, and not just extremist-jihadis, it is important to look at what followed the government’s decision to take back the land: a nationwide Bandh was called by the BJP to gain political capital from that decision, citing it as yet another example of Congress’ efforts at Minority Appeasement; thousands of saffron flag-hurling Hindu hardliners, led by the VHP-RSS combine under the banner of a swiftly-assembled ‘Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti’, took to the streets in Jammu; and most dangerously, the Jammu-Srinagar highway- that most delicate umbilical cord- was blockaded, effectively cutting-off the Valley from rest of the country. In the midst of all this anti-Kashmiri sentiment across the nation, 500,000 Hindus quietly completed their annual Amarnath pilgrimage, unmolested & unharmed.

Now, under these circumstances, what would you think if you were a Kashmiri living in the Valley? Wouldn’t you feel that an entire nation was suddenly gunning for you; trying to starve you to death by cutting-off the sole supply-line to the Valley; and, in short, threatening your very existence? The presence of half a million armed-to-the-teeth battle-ready troops in Indian Army uniforms with not the best sort of human-rights record to speak of, living in your midst for the past two decades would only aggravate your sense of alienation, even hostility, to Mother India. Add to this the fact that what used to be trickle of barely 20,000 pilgrims every year from the mainland less than fifteen years ago has become a flood of 500,000; not only that, suddenly, these pilgrims- or those managing their annual pilgrimage anyway- are claiming your land, land that is clearly not theirs, and what’s more, your government is only too keen to hand it to them; today, it is land for the Yatra; tomorrow, it will be land for other things, and very soon, you- and by you, I mean people who’ve lived in the Valley since forever- will have become exiles in your own homeland.

In contrast, you would see a mute Pakistan- which has of late been much too involved in its own political mess to give little more than ‘moral support’ to the ‘struggle’ in Kashmir- to be the very incarnation of the Mahdi, the Promised Deliverer; or atleast, as a fellow Muslim in the struggle to establish the Dar-ul-Islam. And this is precisely how ordinary Kashmiris- students, wives, houseboat wallahs, apple pluckers, children- are beginning to see their world.

For the first time, the struggle in Kashmir has gone non-violent; and not because of any particular fascination for the Mahatma either. It’s simply because it’s simply not possible for millions of ordinary civilians to procure AK-47s & turn up armed at rallies: a mass movement, if it is really that, has, therefore, definitely got to be non-violent because of logistical considerations. There is, ironically enough, peace in numbers. Also, for the first time since 1989, the militant-jihadis- the Lashkar-e-Toibas and the Jaish-e-Mohammeds of this godforsaken world- have taken a backseat, quite content to let unarmed civilians take to the frontlines. And for the first time, the GOI- and its half a million troops stationed in the Valley- don’t know what to do. What, for instance, should be the ideal strategic response to an unarmed pregnant woman climbing up a pole to take down the tricolor and hoist a green Pakistani crescent in its place? Arrest her? Shoot her? Perhaps. But what if, for instance, she is not alone; what if there are 300,000 other unarmed women, children and men cheering her from below? What is the ideal strategic response, then? Do we shoot all of them too?

In the inevitable blame-game of History, who will ultimately be held responsible for putting us- India- squarely in the accused-box: the half-baked thinking of the state government that led it first to give land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, only to take it back a couple of days later; the RSS troika (RSS-VHP-BJP combine), which made such a nationwide ruckus out of that decision, and ultimately, instigated the Blockade of the Valley; the Ministry of Home Affairs- and the GOI- which thought that the Blockade wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and that it may, in the end, actually help quiet things down, take the steam out of the struggle, so to speak? The answers, I’m afraid, are not going to be easy.

If and when History does indeed decide to pronounce judgment on us- Indians, Kashmiris, Hindus, Muslims, secularists, communalists, civilians, military- it would most probably don the dress of the Prince in the last scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and say: “A curse on all your houses!”

(To be concluded)
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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Comment: Amarnath- Part I

At the face of it, the decision to handover land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, a religious trust entrusted with the organization of a hugely popular annual Hindu pilgrimage involving millions of participants from all over India, only to take it back a few days later, isn’t exactly good politics; to be absolutely honest, it reminds me of another decision, taken in the mid-1980s, to reopen the gates of the Babri Masjid complex at Ayodhya. And we all know, where that landed us. The point, which many politicians tend to forget, is to let sleeping dogs lie.

Going Down Secularism’s Rabbit Hole
It’s all very well to say that India is “secular” but strictly speaking, that isn’t- can’t be- true. We’re secular, but in our own peculiar sort of way: to us, being secular doesn’t mean being irreligious (as it does in Turkey and in much of the West); here, it simply means ‘sarvadharma sambhav’ or equal goodwill to all religions- not only by the state in the formulation & execution of its policies but also by citizens in their attitude towards fellow-citizens. Implicit in this interpretation is the acceptance that religions are indeed inseparable from- and intrinsic to- public life. Put differently, they- i.e., the state and religion- cannot be put into two neat, totally unrelated, compartments. The recognition of this fact should then be the starting point of all debate on religious issues; otherwise we mistakenly risk being labeled ‘communal’ or worse, ‘pseudo-secular’.

But that’s not quite it. The movement from being secular to secularism entails two further Duties both on the state and on citizens that go beyond simple, passive-goodwill; in effect, these Duties actualize- and make manifest- the dictum of sarvadharma sambhav, and in so doing, explicitly obligate the state to participate in matters otherwise purely pertaining to religious faith.

To understand the basis of the first such Duty, it is important to appreciate that not all religions are equally represented; indeed, Hindus constitute an overwhelming majority in India. In order to ensure that the majority-will doesn’t encroach upon the distinctive identities of religious-minorities, the Constitution provides for certain safeguards: if the religious-identity of a minority-community comes under threat, then it becomes the duty of the state to necessarily & actively participate in what is technically speaking, a purely religious matter. A Delhi High Court judgment last week permitting St. Stephen’s College, a ‘minority educational establishment’ I went to, to appoint its own Principal & set its own rules with respect to its admission policy without interference from the Delhi University, is a case in point.

The second Duty that Indian-secularism enjoins upon the state is to create conditions wherein persons of all religious-faiths, including those belonging to religious minorities, can freely practice, preach and propagate their religion. In this respect, while the state isn’t expected to directly participate in a religious matter, it must do so to the extent that citizens are allowed to practice, preach & propagate their respective faiths freely: if, for instance, a person is being physically prevented from going to his place of worship, it becomes the duty of the state to remove all such barriers; likewise, if a person is converted by force of threat, then the state has to ensure that such force is removed.

The adaptation- as opposed to adoption- of the secular principle to the recently partitioned & newly independent nation-state served, therefore, as a necessary guarantee that majority-communalism- i.e., the unilateral rule of the religious-majority over those in minority- would not be justified on the basis of a democratic number game, as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, had (let us hope, mistakenly) prophesized: in this sense, it became the single most important foundation-stone in ‘the idea of India’, and the sole reason why those minorities- in particular, the Muslims- who willfully stayed behind rather than leave for Pakistan did what they chose to do.

Having said that, the nation-state’s obligation to discharge both these Duties- which admittedly implies its active participation in religious affairs- has led to two further controversies over India’s unique brand of secularism: the first Duty (of safeguarding minority-identity) creates the controversy commonly called Minority Appeasement; while the second Duty (of creating conditions for persons to freely practice etc. their respective faiths) has opened the Pandora’s Box of Religious Conversions. As we will see, both these controversies are related basically to degrees of state-participation in the religious realm; and not to the principle of it.

The controversy over Religious Conversions arises out of the accusation that the state is doing very little to prevent them. The controversy over Minority Appeasement, on the other hand, is the opposite of this: it arises out of the accusation that the state is doing too much in discharging its first Duty, i.e., safeguarding minority-interests; that the state is infact doing so at the expense of legitimate interests- and demands- of the majority community, which are being squarely overlooked.

This, as it turns out, is the précis of the ongoing Amarnath Shrine Board debate and also, curiously enough, the reason why the gates of the Babri Masjid were opened.

(To be continued)
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