At the last of the Trimurti values, dissent comes close to vanishing altogether. Democracy may be imperfect, secularity ambiguous, but unity – of the nation and the land belonging to it – has become virtually untouchable. Here the heritage of the past has had its own weight. Hindu culture, exceptionally rich in epics and metaphysics, was exceptionally poor in history, a branch of knowledge radically devalued by the doctrines of karma, for which any given temporal existence on earth was no more than a fleeting episode in the moral cycle of the soul. No major chronicles appear till the 12th century, over a millennium later than Herodotus or Sima Qian, and no histoire raisonnée as a cumulative body of writing ever emerged. Gandhi’s dictum dismissing the worth of any memory of the past – ‘history is an interruption of nature’ – is a famous modern expression of this outlook. In such a historiographic vacuum, when the nationalist movement arose, legend encountered no barrier. ‘In an overwhelmingly religious society,’ one subcontinental scholar has written, ‘even the most clear-sighted leaders have found it impossible to distinguish romanticism from history and the latter from mythology.’ It follows that ‘if the idea of India is suffused with religious and mythical meanings, so is the territory it covers,’ Nehru explaining to Zhou Enlai that the Mahabharata entitled him to the McMahon Line. Today the cult of Indian unity has typically worked itself free from such mystical origins, territory as such becoming the bond unifying the nation, regardless of any religious – let alone ethnic or cultural – trappings. Meghnad Desai’s The Rediscovery of India is recent example, in many ways an unusually free-spirited work that dismantles not a few nationalist myths, only to end with the purest hypostasisation of another, for which the ‘one element central to the narrative of nationhood’ becomes simply ‘territorial integrity’, under whose idyllic shelter ‘all Indians, as individuals, are willing to co-exist under the same legal and constitutional system,’ ‘all regions have agreed to be part of the union,’ and ‘all take part in the vibrant democratic process.’
The reality is otherwise. In these pages, there should be little need for any reminder of the fate of Kashmir, under the longest military occupation in the world. At its height, in the sixty years since it was taken by India, some 400,000 troops have been deployed to hold down a Valley population of five million – a far higher ratio of repression than in Palestine or Tibet. Demonstrations, strikes, riots, guerrillas, risings urban and rural, have all been beaten down with armed force. In this ‘valley of scorpions’, declared Jagmohan – proconsul for Nehru’s daughter in Kashmir – ‘the bullet is the only solution.’ The death toll, at a low reckoning, would be equivalent to the killing of four million people, were it India – more than double that, if higher estimates are accurate. Held fast by Nehru to prove that India was a secular state, Kashmir has demonstrated the exact opposite: a confessional expansionism. Today, the bureaucracy that rules it under military command contains scarcely a Muslim, and jobs in it can be openly advertised for Hindus only. In what was supposed to be the showcase of India’s tolerant multiculturalism, ethnic cleansing has reduced Muslims, once a majority, to a third of the population of Jammu, and Hindu Pandits to a mere handful in the Valley.
How is this landscape received by the Indian intelligentsia? In late 2010, readers of the Indian press could find a headline ‘Nobel Laureate takes India to task for tolerating tyranny.’ Where would that be? Below, Amartya Sen uttered a plangent cry. ‘As a loyal Indian citizen,’ he exclaimed, ‘it breaks my heart to see the prime minister of my democratic country – and one of the most humane and sympathetic political leaders in the world – engaged in welcoming the butchers of Myanmar and photographed in a state of cordial proximity.’ Moral indignation is too precious an export to be wasted at home. That the democracy of his country and the humanity of his leader preside over an indurated tyranny, replete with torture and murder, within what they claim as their national borders, need not ruffle a loyal Indian citizen. If we turn to Sen’s book The Argumentative Indian, we find, in a footnote: ‘The Kashmir issue certainly demands political attention on its own (I am not taking up that thorny question here).’ Nor, we might infer from that delicate parenthesis, anywhere else either. Nobel prizes are rarely badges of political courage – some of infamy – so there is little reason for surprise at a silence that, in one form or another, is so common among Indian intellectuals.
Brazen celebration of India’s goodwill in Kashmir, its peace troubled only by terrorists infiltrated from Pakistan, is a staple of the media more than the academy. There, discreet allusion to ‘human rights abuses’ that have marred the centre’s performance are quite acceptable, excesses that any decent person must deplore. But any talk of self-determination is another matter, garlic to the vampire. More than ordinary intellectual conformism is at work here. To break ranks on India’s claim to Kashmir is to risk not only popular hysteria but legal repression, as Arundhati Roy – brave enough to speak of freedom for Kashmir – bears witness: to question the territorial integrity of the union is a crime punishable at law. The same degree of pressure does not obtain outside the country, but Indian intellectuals abroad have not made notably better use of their greater freedom of expression. There the leading production comes from Sumantra Bose. Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace does not embellish the record of Indian rule, and covers in some detail the insurgencies which broke out against it in the 1990s, the extent of the assistance they received from Pakistan, and the way they were put down.
Descriptively, there is little it avoids. Prescriptively, however, it simply underwrites the status quo, on the grounds that the confessional and ethnic pattern in the region is now too complicated for self-determination to be applicable, and anyway India is not going to permit any such thing, so why not settle for the existing Line of Control, naturally assorted with appropriate placebos and human rights? Thus, on the one hand, ‘the myth of freely and voluntarily given consent to Indian sovereignty is exploded by the appalling record of New Delhi-instigated subversion of democratic procedures and institutions and abuse of democratic rights in IJK over fifty years.’ But, on the other hand – immediately following, on the same page – ‘that India’s dismissal of the plebiscite [promised to the UN in 1947] is fundamentally opportunistic does not detract from the reality that after more than fifty years of conflict [note the way the description of the fifty years has changed in the space of two sentences], the plebiscite is indeed an obsolete idea.’ Why so? ‘Self-determination is untenable given realpolitik, the entrenched interests of states, and the internal social and political diversity of IJK and of J&K as a whole.’ Even an independent Kashmir, let alone one that opted for Pakistan, ‘would be seen as an intolerable loss of territorial integrity and sovereignty by Indian state elites and the vast majority of the Indian public’. Upshot? ‘Erasing or redrawing the Line of Control in Kashmir is neither feasible nor desirable.‘ We hold what we have: ‘The de facto Indian and Pakistani sovereignties over their respective areas of Kashmir cannot, should not and need not be changed.’
No Indian general could put it better. Bose, who worked as an understrapper for Strobe Talbott (second in command at the US State Department in the era when Clinton was congratulating Russia on the ‘liberation’ of Grozny, and ‘intimately involved in diplomacy on the South Asian subcontinent’), situates his solution for Kashmir in a constructive wider vision, in which ‘India’s maturity and confidence as the world’s largest and most diverse democracy’ and ‘well-founded aspiration to be an economic and political player of global stature’ should be able to find the right partner across the border in a future ‘relatively moderate Pakistan which happens to be strongly influenced by its relationship with the United States’. If only there were a Sadat or Mubarak in Islamabad, Kashmir could enjoy the blessings of another Oslo, and Delhi the good conscience of Tel Aviv.