Some Kashmir separatists see a sinister intention to undermine the identity of Jammu and Kashmir in every official move, be it a census, the return of the pandits to their rightful homes, proper facilities for Amarnath pilgrims as decreed by the Supreme Court or asylum for refugees from Pakistan. And yet, if truth be told, the amorphous identity of the former princely state was without precise territorial or cultural definition. Having been achieved through the accidents of conquest and colonialism, the realm of Gulab Singh and his heirs was as contrived as that of the Holy Roman Empire with which Sir Owen Dixon, the Australian jurist, compared it.
That is not to argue against pluralistic states: it is to emphasize that the artificial creation and preservation of ethnic ghettos, which is all that interests the Hurriyat leaders, is a travesty of the process that the Peace of Westphalia set in motion.We live in an age of contrasts. On the one hand, the advance of information technology and emergence of what are called netizens have created a supranational State that denies orthodox administrations the absolute authority over their subjects that was customary in the past.
Julian Assange’s ability to cock a snook at the United States of America, at least for the time being, illustrates the point. The economics of globalization and the pressures exerted by transnational human rights organizations have further eroded the powers of the State. At the same time, the disintegration of nation states like the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Ethiopia indicate a narrowing of loyalties to create more and more entities that reflect particular and exclusive religious, linguistic and ethnic identities. Apart from the four instances cited above, the independence of Bangladesh, East Timor and South Sudan were milestones on what would once have been called the balkanization road.
India cannot be insulated from either trend. Nor can it ignore other developments that are reordering the map of the world that seemed set in stone at the end of World War II when the sanctity of national borders was regarded as supreme. The earlier international consensus that the concept of self-determination applied only to colonies like Namibia (and other Asian or African regions under European rule) and not to any territory that was part of a sovereign State, and certainly not an Afro-Asian state, has collapsed. While the consensus lasted, Western powers may have sympathized with secessionist adventures like those of Katanga from the Congo and of Biafra from Nigeria, but did not formally assist them. Nor, despite much muttering in New Delhi about missionaries, did the Naga rebels receive any Western governmental assistance.
Perhaps the only intervention to enjoy universal approval was the Tanzanian ouster of Uganda’s Idi Amin. But the West was moved to fury when Vietnam got rid of Cambodia’s equally murderous Pol Pot regime because it had Cold War implications. With Singapore the spearhead of their diplomatic assault, the Western powers accused Vietnam of acting as Moscow’s cat’s paw, and India of abetting the aggressor to repay its debt to the Soviets. India’s own earlier intervention in what was then East Pakistan was condemned no less shrilly, though it could invoke the diplomatic fig leaf of Chapter VII of the United Nations charter that condones intervention when there is a breach of the peace, threat to the peace or act of aggression. The Cambodian and Bangladesh situations reflected great power rivalry during the Cold War, but it could have been argued that the violation of human rights did not, in either case, threaten the peace and security of the intervening powers.
All that has changed. Now, the Western powers are trying to legitimize “the doctrine of intervention, including armed intervention, by the United Nations or outside powers, in the internal affairs of a nation state on so-called humanitarian grounds,” as Muchkund Dubey, the former foreign secretary, somewhat censoriously puts it in his new book, India’s Foreign Policy: Coping with the Changing World. It’s the intervening power that decides whether there has been any abridgement of human rights and it usually does so to further its own national interests. Kosovo and Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government bear out the new philosophy of ignoring a sovereign government’s rights and going to the rescue of a beleaguered minority under its jurisdiction. Syria’s two million Kurds might be the next object of American benevolence though 14 million fellow Kurds next door in Turkey cannot expect to be similarly favoured at the expense of a loyal member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Nor need Palestinians hope that the logic of Iraq and Syria will ever be applied to Israel despite the UN general assembly’s decision in 2005 to endorse intervention on humanitarian grounds as a feature of the international “responsibility to protect”.
India has no reason to feel threatened by this new development so long as relations with the US remain “one of the defining partnerships of the twenty-first century”, to quote Barack Obama. But nothing is permanent in politics. Buying security through hostages to fortune is one thing, building up an invincible position is another. China is far less vulnerable in this respect. No matter how many times an American president may “bump into” the Dalai Lama in the White House, the days of arming Khampa rebels are long over. As for the Uighurs, religion and consequent suspicions of Taliban, if not al Qaeda, involvement make them untouchables.
In contrast, India bristles with potential targets of intervention. Some may welcome outside attention (as Naga and Mizo rebels did in the past) and some may not. Either way, the challenge for India is to so manage its minority groups that the scope does not arise even if apprehensions are realized and there is a change of government in Bangladesh in early 2014. The record shows that good management does not lie in creating and perpetuating huge versions of the American Indian reservations. A benign variant of apartheid (a term whose forgotten exact meaning is “separate development”) transforms people into exotic fauna to be protected, pampered and preserved in another kind of human zoo. It restricts healthy interaction with other Indians, encourages isolation and alienation, and enlarges scope for abuse. Gorkhaland, which Jaswant Singh (who represents its core region in the Lok Sabha) calls “a state within a state” with control of most of the subjects in the Constitution’s states’ list and borders with four sovereign countries, may not be the last such experiment. Even if it is not a stage in the march to full statehood, Gorkhaland’s achievement can inspire other regions. Telengana has long been waiting in the wings; there are others with demands that predate the Gorkha National Liberation Front agitation.
Conceding their demands within the Indian Union need not be regarded as a dire calamity. Nor is it wise for New Delhi to resist in each case until the pressure becomes irresistible. East Pakistan found it useful for development to upgrade the old British Indian subdivisions to district rank. China achieved its spectacular breakthrough at least partly by conceding economic autonomy to the provinces while retaining central political control. China’s demographic policies are also tailored to national needs.
These examples have to be borne in mind when responding imaginatively but firmly to complaints from Kashmir or from those who feel they are entitled to a role in the Bodoland Territorial Council. Exclusiveness does not serve the long-term national interest in either case. Let each group that wants a home of its own have it but let these states or autonomous units not be fenced in against others. If the Westphalian nation state is in decline, there can be no justification for mini-nation states within their borders.