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Since 1st March, 1999
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- Why is Han Chinese chauvinism kosher to the CPI(M)?

The controversy over Tibet is a controversy about pluralism. The main allegations against China — that it has tried to alter the demographic balance of Tibet by settling Han Chinese there, that it wishes to assimilate the religious and cultural distinctiveness of Tibetan identity into a larger Chinese identity — seek to highlight the Chinese State’s intolerance of difference.

It has been argued that given the Indian State’s record in Kashmir, in Punjab during the heyday of secessionism and in the Northeast, Indian critics of China should be self-conscious about preaching the virtues of tolerance and pluralism. The main difference between the Indian attitude towards its borderlands and the Chinese State’s attitude towards Tibet is that India has made no attempt to change the demographic composition of its troubled peripheries through forced settlement. The reverse, in fact, is true: successive Indian governments have moved to limit the right of Indians to buy land in places like Kashmir, Nagaland, even in relatively peaceable Himachal Pradesh.

The argument, long made by sections of the Hindu Right, that the Kashmir problem ought to be solved by changing the demographic facts on the ground, is not a monstrous argument in purely democratic terms. There’s a reasonable justification for it: in a democratic republic, every citizen ought to have the right to buy land and settle in any part of that state. To limit that right on account of local sensibilities or grievances is, it can be argued, to pander to parochial prejudice. It weakens the ideal of uniform citizen’s rights, on which healthy republican politics ought to be built.

The reason the Indian State is willing to weight its laws to accommodate particular sensibilities is because Indian democracy, from its inception, has been leavened by pluralism. This is not to argue that the republican State isn’t capable of great violence. Independent India has reacted to secessionist challenges with massive violence. It is merely to point out that, ideologically, the Indian republic is premised on the idea that a single nation can accommodate the diversity of a subcontinent.

In fact, the history of independent India can be read as the adaptation of Westminster democracy to pluralist ends. The creation of linguistic states, the division of the Northeast into little statelets, the institutionalization of affirmative action through reservations, the carving out of a Muslim majority district in Kerala, taken together, represent the process through which the republic recognized social, religious and linguistic difference, and attended to those differences in institutional ways.

It can be, and has been, argued that by formally recognizing differences in this way, the Indian State has diluted canonical democratic values such as equality under law, the ideal of merit and uniform citizenship. Thus governments and parties are accused of pandering to vote banks, to minorities and base populist feelings. Without entering into an argument here about the success or failure of pluralism, it can be reasonably said that it has been a foundational principle in the evolution of the Indian republic, its laws and its institutions.

The history of colonial India contributed largely to this pluralism. The roots of this pluralism lie in the Indian National Congress’s attempt to keep all of India’s human species on board during the anti-colonial struggle. Despite Partition, the constituent assembly managed to write Indian nationalism’s commitment to diversity into the Constitution, thus committing the republic to an almost reflexive pluralism.

The history of China, both recent and remote, has created a nation-state that is instinctively assimilationist and viscerally hostile to the idea of institutionalizing difference. A Han Chinese cultural identity, first established two thousand years ago, and the prolonged periods of political unification have consolidated a dominant Chinese mainstream that is impatient with the idea that minority identities need to be protected or preserved. The efforts of Western and Japanese imperialists to weaken the Chinese central government and to divide the country into spheres of interest, China’s dreadful suffering during World War II, and the subsequent civil war and the de facto secession of Taiwan under the aegis of America, have taught the Chinese State the virtues of strong unitary rule and the assimilation of minority identities.

Consequently, the Chinese State and, from all accounts, the Chinese people, feel no embarrassment at the re-population of Tibet. They see this process of assimilation as a necessary part of Tibet’s development and modernization. They point to Chinese investment in Tibet, to the great increase in Tibetan life expectancy as the benefits that flow from this integration into the Chinese ‘mainstream’. Whether it is the Muslim communities of northern China or Tibetan Buddhists, assimilation into a national identity, defined by a Han Chinese majority, is considered a good and necessary thing.

It isn’t surprising that the Chinese way with minorities and minority regions appeals to parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party in particular, and the sangh parivar in general. A political culture that deals robustly and summarily with recalcitrant minorities is likely to appeal to majoritarian parties, which see in the apparent linguistic and social uniformity of China an ideal to be emulated.

The reasons for the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s endorsement of the Chinese line on Tibet, though, are less apparent. As a force in Indian politics, the CPI(M)’s chief claim upon our attention is its standing as a secular party that has, over many decades, consistently defended the lives and the rights of India’s religious minorities. The CPI(M) has been, for many years, a social democratic party seeking to ameliorate the rigours of capitalist modernization. Of late, its commitment to the second part of that programme has been in some doubt, but its USP as a champion of secular equity has stood it in good stead.

Which is why, the CPI(M)’s willingness to support the suppression of a religious and cultural minority in Tibet and its endorsement of Chinese policies that seek to assimilate Tibetans into a majoritarian cultural mainstream are genuinely puzzling. The CPI(M) would resist these policies vigorously if they were implemented by some future BJP government in, say, Kashmir. So why does it support these policies in China now? It can’t simply be because the Chinese State is formally atheistic. There are scores of marxisant Indian historians who could show the CPI(M) that the BJP’s majoritarianism has nothing to do with religious belief. M.S. Golwalkar and V.D. Savarkar were atheists and the political formations they established sponsored majoritarian chauvinism, not religious belief. So why is Han Chinese chauvinism kosher when its Hindutva variant is not?

It’s a question that the CPI(M) might usefully spend some time examining. Its credentials as an all-India party rest not on its formal commitment to communism but on its very real commitment to a pluralist secularism. If its support of pluralism came to be seen as a strategic choice rather than a principled commitment, its raison d’être in Indian politics would disappear.

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