To understand how the Indian government can change its uncompromising and heavy-handed treatment of minority concerns, recall the scene last month at Nagaland House, the New Delhi base of Nagaland’s elected government.
Flanked by Naga warriors in traditional battle dress and spears, the body of Isak Swu, the rebel leader who for half a century remained at war with the Indian government, lay in state. The coffin was draped with the flag of the imagined Naga nation, Nagalim — sky blue with a rainbow of red, yellow and green arching across it, below a six-pointed star. This is the “Nagaland for Christ National Flag”, as described on the website of the “Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland”, which functions out of armed camps in Nagaland, free of India’s writ.
Among the Indian bureaucrats ignoring these symbols of secession and paying tributes to Swu was Ajit Doval, the powerful national security advisor, instrumental in clearing India’s peace accord with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (I-M). Nearly a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the accord on (India’s) independence day, 2015, the details remain secret, but it is likely that Modi has made concessions no Indian government previously agreed to. Without these, Swu — who began his annual Nagalim “independence day” speeches with the invocation “Praise the lord! Praise the lord! Praise the lord” — would not have agreed to sign.
Indeed, the man who must now see the accord through, Thuingaleng Muivah, the ‘M’ in NSCN (I-M) — Isak was the ‘I’ — reiterated earlier this month that a separate passport and flag was not a demand but a right. “The Nagas were never part of the Indian union by consent of the Naga people,” Muivah told The Hindu earlier this month. “We were ruled by ourselves…This has been recognised by the Indian side.”
The Naga accord has clearly been an exemplar of accommodation. This is pragmatic politics — and the opposite of what India has done in Kashmir, whittling away since 1947 at the federal principles and concessions that guided the accession. Last week, we heard home minister Rajnath Singh say that plebiscite is an “outdated idea”, that Pakistan is responsible for the anti-India fury and that Kashmir is our mukut (crown). This tired, uncompromising stand echoes the Congress government’s decades-long stonewalling of a political solution to a dispute that has festered as long as the Naga question. No wonder they scoffed in Kashmir at Singh’s desire for an “emotional bond” with the Kashmiri people.
The Kashmiris may not have had to live — and die — through the latest round of blood-letting, if they were treated with dignity, their demands addressed with some seriousness and at least some promises kept. The Congress had many opportunities to create a new compact during the relative peace of the last decade, when Kashmiri Muslims slowly filtered across India for education and jobs. Instead, the heavy-handed approach continued, peaceful protest was banned and Kashmir continued to be — in the words of most Kashmiri Muslims — “under occupation”.
The antipathy now appears so intense that even those who could have lived within India with relatively mild concessions — for instance, lifting the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, in force in the Valley for 26 years, lightening border controls to Pakistani Kashmir, prosecuting security personnel for excesses, removing bunkers — now only demand an end to the occupation. In 2010, when the radicalisation of a generation began with the death of more than 100 young men in street protests, a young Srinagar lawyer — in response to my question if he seriously believed India would let go of Kashmir — said: “We will wait, we will wait a thousand years if we must.”
I put the same question to a friend, a writer, before the current crisis, and he said: “Things change so fast, look at Syria, look at the West. How long will you hold on to us?” Much as it makes me despair, I have become “you” to many Kashmiri Muslim friends, who believe — perhaps rightly — that whether right-winger or liberal, Indians are united in the assertion that Kashmir cannot leave the Union.
At a time of unprecedented alienation, can there be a meeting ground? Indians must now question if they want to forever be on the wrong side of morality and democracy. If the Nagas — in many ways more unyielding about nationhood — can be brought to the negotiating table and made to believe that an era of peace, hope and optimism is nigh (whether belief is enough is quite another matter), surely the same can be done with Kashmir?
This isn’t only a question of Kashmir and Nagaland. In state after state, there is a yearning for varying types of self-determination. The word “azaadi” has entered India’s lexicon, first chanted against the Congress during the anti-rape protests of 2013, ringing out most recently last week when Dalit crowds massed in downtown Mumbai, provoked by the demolition of a revered building. Inflamed by social media, these flashpoints quickly become national issues, with the target almost always the party that rules India.
The breathless, ceaseless rise of aspirations — whether for freedom in Kashmir or dignity in Gujarat — and the search for livelihoods cannot be addressed by an aloof, distant government in Delhi. Right-wing ideologues have quietly begun, amongst themselves, a conversation to change India’s constitution. They would do well to include provisions to make India truly federal, its states more independent of Delhi and more responsible and responsive than they are.
Already, finances are being devolved to the states. Political power must follow. A new compact must especially include space to make concessions to those uncomfortable with the idea of being Indian. A start was made with the Nagalim accord. What unfolds after August 14, when Naga rebels will celebrate their 69th “independence day”, will tell us if India is willing to embrace new possibilities — or stay trapped in old certainties.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit . The views expressed are personal.