Thursday, February 21, 2008

Competitive intolerance can fragment the Indian Union

November 18, 1962 may not mean much to someone like Raj Thackeray who was, in any case, born six years after that date. Since he is not a student of history he can’t be expected to understand its significance. But it is one of the blackest dates in modern Indian history.
A famous and well-entrenched division of the Indian army was overwhelmed in battle against Chinese invaders leading to the death of hundreds of officers and jawans, and a greater number wounded or taken prisoner of war. The dead are too many to list, but here is just a random selection of the names of the long forgotten heroes: Captain J.A. Dalby, Second Lieutenant Gurcharan Singh Kochar, Lance Naik Mushtaq Khan, all of the 5 Field Regiment, Havildar Raman Pillai, Lance Naik Armugam of the 6th Field regiment, Havildar Jai Singh Yadav, Naik Vishnu Gawade, Gunner Sambhaji Jadhav of the 36 Mountain Regiment, Jemadar Namdeo Kadam, Jemadar Pritam Singh, and Sapper Abdul Hakim of the 18 Field Company of the Bombay Engineer Group, Guardsmen Ram Sarup and Chandgi Ram of the Brigade of Guards, Sepoy Kuttian Kannan and Madhavan Thampi of the Madras Regiment, Sepoys Pal Singh and Gian Chand of the Dogra Regiment, Naik Kirpal Singh Negi of the Garhwal Rifles, Lt Col D.A. Taylor and Captain B.B. Ghosh of the 2/8 Gorkha Rifles, Lakshman Tanksale and Domnic Topno of the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

As is clear to anyone familiar with names in India, these people hailed from every part of the country and died defending a part of India that was hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres away from their homeland. They were not defending the Marathi manoos, or the UP bhayya or the Tamil thambi, nor for that matter were they fighting for the tribesmen of that far-off land where their remains lie today. They were defending the idea of India.
In the past weeks, as the idea came under assault in Mumbai there appeared to be few defenders of that India. Not the Prime Minister, nor the leaders of the Congress party whose ministry is supposed to govern the state. The leader of the Opposition took a somewhat roundabout route of saying Thackeray’s stand went against the Constitution of India, but not the idea of India. I suppose we should be grateful that he did invoke the Constitution in a generally positive way, because the shouts of politicians demanding that the compact be amended to reflect their sectional interest has been increasing in both decibel and frequency. Thackeray wants changes to prevent “outsiders” from coming into Mumbai, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi wants it to enshrine the reservation of government jobs beyond 50 per cent, Mayawati wants the changes to extend this reservation to the private sector, and the Congress wants to do it for the most tawdry reason — ensure that its hand-picked Election Commissioner is not thrown out of office.

This idea of India may be as old as Alexander the Great, but it is also new. It was created in the space of three months in the summer of 1947. In those months, eleven provinces and nearly 600 princely states were left largely to their own devices to shape themselves as nations. India succeeded, and in the short space of a decade established itself as a republic and a functioning democracy that worked on the basis of an elaborate Constitution. Pakistan remained, and in some senses remains, a work in progress. It shed its eastern wing to give birth to Bangladesh later and is today in the throes of a profound struggle to work out its own identity.
Yet, political India is not quite as solid as one would like to believe. From the outset it has been dogged by separatist demands in the North-East, then Tamil Nadu, followed by Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir. The DMK’s Eelam fixation was resolved by the creation of a linguistic Tamil Nadu, but it remains just below the political skin of the Dravidian movement. The militancy in Punjab was crushed by brute force. J&K continues to fester despite tens of thousands of deaths, as does the North-East. Successors to Nehru and Patel have squandered their legacy not just by their ruthless desire to gain, or retain, political control, but by their sheer solipsistic incompetence. The secular, rule-based system that was in place till the end of the 1960s has now given way to one where secularism means something quite different from what it means in the English language, and as for rules, they are strictly for others.
The sudden upturn in India’s economic fortunes has created another set of faultlines. Even as older ones widen, newer ones seem to be created. Till 2007, Rajasthan was seen as a state with a generally peaceable reputation. Then came the crisis relating to the Gujjar demand for Scheduled Tribe status. As for the Dera Sacha Sauda, it seems to have emerged from the special Pandora’s box in a state where sectarian strife goes back to the 19th century.
Growth has been regional, and this in turn has triggered migratory movements that seem to be generating tensions, as such movements do anywhere in the world. But where countries can, and do, erect barriers to keep out nationals of other countries, can a democratic country do so against people of its own country? Nehru’s India managed the issue with pragmatism. To prevent unconscionable pressures it banned the transfer of land to non-state residents in J&K, Himachal, and several north-eastern states. Protecting minorities was a key to holding this diverse republic together. But where do you draw the line ? As sociologist Dipankar Gupta argued in these columns last week, majorities are now discovering that they can suddenly become minorities.
Competitive intolerance and a certain kind of tribalism now appears to be taking hold of the country. In these circumstances, crises and calamities can emerge out of nowhere. So instead of wondering whether we can match China’s GDP in 2050, it is worth asking whether India will be able to survive as a national unit. For those who think this to be a ridiculous question, one needs only to look at two recent events.

Black Swan
Belgium was created in the 19th century by a merger of the Dutch speaking region of Flanders and the French areas of Wallonia. Today, the country, though flourishing and, indeed, the capital of the European Union bureaucracy, is in the throes of a political crisis that could lead to its partition. Another slow-motion birth took place last week when Kosovo was born. The country still has to find a seat in the United Nations, but it is almost certain that it will as the 193rd state in the comity of nations. It is not likely to be the last new state either. Today if people like Thackeray have their way, Maharashtra, too, may become independent. After all, at 307,713 sq km it would be larger than Italy, and nearly as big as Malaysia. The secular, rule-based and democratic India that emerged in the 1950s was based on a compact that promised to protect diversity and the rights of religious minorities. But the political players of today demand changes that would undermine the basic structure of the Constitution and our polity. Some would give primacy to Hindus, others to people of a caste. Most would deny any right to people they deem different from themselves.
Nassim Nicholas Talib’s brilliant Black Swan would suggest that the break-up of India should not occasion surprise. Talib’s theory takes off from the western belief that all swans were white till black swans were found in Australia. A Black Swan event — the collapse of the Soviet Union or recently and most infamously Nine-Eleven — is one which occurs defying common belief that it cannot. In our times, the improbable is often confused with the impossible.
This article appeared in Mail Today February 20, 2008

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