Azadi From Liberal India?

“However, within culture itself there’s a contestation in consciousness, and an enemy becomes common to all not merely because of skin colour, or language differences, but because his removal from the scene must mean enhanced and equalised power for all within culture…In other words, the commonality spoken of, in the context of modern nationalism does not refer merely to past or present cultural affinity, but also to a perception of power-sharing in the future as destiny.  This perception is existential, rational and very much interest based (…) In fact the nationalist movement [led by the Congress for India’s independence from the British empire] was at least as preoccupied with how to exclude other groups from power, as how to appropriate it from the British.

G Aloysius, Nationalism without a Nation in India

Two Indias that were hitherto locked out of a common language are now on a collision course. Liberal India, the official heir of nationalist legacy, had held the reins of political power for long, and willy-nilly ignored the many illiberalisms of caste and communalism that held power in the subterranean social world. The repressed structure of subterranean illiberalism, however, has now broken free from the paperweight that the political class had kept it under and is bound to unleash all its pent up fury. Liberalism, having never been inclusive enough, failed to deliver beyond its narrow world and thus paved the way for the return of tradition under the leadership of a revanchist vanguard. The fight is still primarily between these two visions. Both need to be displaced from their vantage positions. The dangers that the rightwing poses are clear to those that have been genuinely mobilised by the CAA-NRC crisis. However much less is spoken of the limits of the conscience-keepers of the official-class, whose values and beliefs are sought to be restored as the commonsense of the nation, even if no longer through the old vessel of the Congress. It’s to the limitation of these values, and drawing on the works of G. Aloysius and Perry Anderson, that this present piece seeks to draw attention.

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One of the most prominent myths liberal India recounted for itself almost like a lullaby has come undone with a violence and ferocity not (yet) seen elsewhere. That the violence in the aftermath of NRC-CAA protests has been most vicious at the geographical heart of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, which incidentally coincides with the ‘cow-belt’, is the least bit surprising. More public outrage and swifter institutional redressal would have been likely, if a few cows were instead found dead by the road-side than has come with the killing of 20 odd Muslims, mostly from the impoverished working-class. Even what remains of liberal media has eschewed any perfunctory demands for accountability. No one has heard yet of the customary demand for heads to roll. There’s barely any noticeable civil-society demand that the state government resign for the brutal violence it has committed on its own people, no clamour in the press for the Chief Minister, Adityanath, to be held accountable before law. In his recent piece Ramchandra Guha (A Battle for India, The Telegraph) is sincerely critical of the violence visited upon Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University by the state-apparatus, but any demands for accountability, redressal, legal-justice are likewise ostensibly missing. Such demands are, in the collective imaginarium of today’s India, impractical and unimaginable. While speaking of Jamia Millia Islamia’s foundation Guha is yet again reminded (no prizes for guessing) of Gandhi. We will not contest his factual accuracy, but there is something else at play here too. Writing barely a day after her birthday, Guha is not reminded of the legacy, and arguably the more radical efforts at empowering the repressed people of this country that Savitribai Phule represented, particularly through attempts at educating the masses. This is quite the nub of the matter: liberal India’s locus in imaging this country never draws it to the likes of Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule, and Fatima Sheikh or Birsa-Munda. Instead it holds the bulwark of Nehru-Gandhian legacy as a permanent barricade against a heterodox imagination of the nation and egalitarian ways of power-culture sharing which Aloysius, among others, seeks as foundational of modern nationhood. Gandhi is rather untouchable here in his god-like isolation: father of the nation, maker of the world. This axiomatic incurable Gandhism in imagining India is still somehow the only way to imagine the nation. The sum of all such imaginings of India is to uphold its ingrained caste-confessional character against its margins. One imagination represses all others. Even in its difference this caste-confessional character of India is sameness, shared by its liberals and the rightwing. The former prefers this homogenous unity through erasure and suppression of alternate struggles and visions, the latter through direct affirmation of traditional hierarchy. One must read Guha, historian of Gandhi as he is oft identified, as a symptom here, and at one point he comes tantalisingly close to unveiling the nature of the crisis, only to pass it by without taking its full notice:

Clearly, despite the BJP’s political and electoral dominance, there were lots and lots of Hindus (and Christians and Sikhs and atheists) who refused to accept that Muslims should, either de jure or de facto, merely live on the grace or mercy of the majority community.

Yet it is as if Gandhi never happened, the Poona pact never happened. As if in this country the many outlier groups and repressed classes have not lived on the meagre grace of the majority, not despite the constitution but also aided by many of its limitations. Guha does not talk of redressing the balance of forces, there is no program to ‘Recovering the Republic’, as his piece is subtitled. One must perhaps only rely on grace and rapture. Only Gandhians can talk of recovering the nation. From where though? The eternal gestation of the idea itself? Like then like now, Ambedkar would perhaps still retort that he doesn’t have a country.

In the same article Guha writes:

Gandhi kept his promise. The funds to sustain Jamia were procured, and under the leadership of vice chancellors such as Zakir Husain and Mohammad Mujeeb, the university flourished, establishing itself as one of the best in the country. Then, in December 2019 — ninety-two years after Hakim Ajmal Khan’s death — the university faced a fresh crisis when a students’ protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act provoked the Delhi Police to enter the campus and go on a rampage, dragging girl students out of hostels and vandalizing the university library.

One wonders what Guha could have missed between Jamia’s foundation and December 2019 – a whole ninety-two years where it ‘flourished’ – when the current protests broke out and police repression followed. Not much perhaps. That for a University it has been successively ‘managed’ at the helm, by Vice-Chancellors drawn repeatedly from a pool of ex-military personnel, former bureaucrats, and, for the lack of a better term, ‘establishment personnel’. Unlike say JNU which mostly gets academicians for the top job, but like Aligarh Muslim University – whose record on this count is much worse, having had as many as eight V-Cs dawn directly from the bureaucracy-military pool since Independence. By comparison, of JNU’s twelve Vice-Chancellors since its foundation none had a military background, and only two, G. Parthasarathi and  Prof. K.R Narayanan who was later to become India’s president, were career diplomats; all but one were primarily academicians. That JMI has had no students’ union elections or barely any scope for expressing political dissent for decades now, again unlike JNU, but like Kashmir University. That the security staff at JMI are rather bizarrely dressed in camouflage military uniforms, unlike JNU or pretty much anywhere else. One wonders why? An AFSPA-zone outside of AFSPA perhaps? Guha’s broad-brush easing past these ‘missing decades’ would make one believe that the Congress never happened to Jamia or to Aligarh, not to speak of Kashmir University. The same way that it never happened to India’s Muslims at large, and its majority of repressed castes and classes. Perhaps it didn’t, for as Guha says, the massive protests led by Muslims and amply participated in by all others,  “showed that five-and-a-half years of Hindutva hegemony had not succeeded in cowing them down completely.” (Emphasis added) It does not occur to Guha that ‘cowing down’ (interesting phrase) of Muslims, lower castes, tribals is not a five year old project. That the cow was his icon Gandhi’s gift to the Indian constitution secured in a barter deal with the Ali brothers in exchange for Mahatma’s support for the restoration, conveniently in far-off Turkey, of Khilafat. The way to save the cow, Gandhi had said at that time, is to die in the cause of Khilafat without mentioning the cow. What one is prepared to die for, one is also ready to kill for. The dying has since turned into lynching, and India’s Muslims bereft of a Caliphate, stare at the prospect of being stateless as well. Some bargain this! The cow/ing project is not a five year old infant, many a wise men and the very nature of the state have enabled and enacted it. If India’s Muslims are protesting now, it’s not for the reason that past years had been prosperous or peacable but for the realisation that silence will not earn safety, leave alone dignity. Gandhi’s ‘unbreakable unity’ between Hindus and Muslims in India that Guha invokes in this piece does not proffer any words in favor of equality, in favor of sharing power and culture, in favor of different iconographies. In the absence of any such program this unity is only declarative, and merely decorative.

To come back to the violence in Jamia itself, much has been made out of the violence of protestors. Well meaning sympathisers from afar have asked the students-protestors to desist from vandalism, and rightly so. But such prescriptions have come tainted with the bad conscience of realisation that the protestors had indeed transgressed. Liberal media has also more or less forsaken its pet word in reporting on such acts of violence, authorising instead the official account. The violence committed by students-protestors is not ‘allegedly’ so, but theirs’ demonstrably. In the aftermath of the terrible police violence committed on the students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, most of the electronic media instead suffused our mind with images of burning buses set afire by students-protestors, betraying their own prejudices or fears, and in the process, remind of these remarks by Marx at the fall of the Paris Commune:

The government…cries, “Incendiarism!” and whispers this cue to all its agents, down to the remotest hamlet, to hunt up its enemies everywhere as suspect of professional incendiarism. The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar!

Liberal India has betrayed similar anxieties with respect to buses and buildings, whereas illiberal India owns up to its violence, as ‘rule of law’.

ILP agitation in Manipur via

So far liberal India went with the assumption that a formal-legal equality, the ‘rule of law’ which in practice was often anyway abysmal, would lead to social equality and thus to fraternal bonding, and a sense of fellow-feeling, pivotal to any national project. But the bitter reality is that the limited nature of constitutional safeguards was always insufficient. Ambedkar, chief-architect of the constitution, was the first to recognise it. Political equality can’t be achieved without socio-economic equality, he said. It’s here that liberal India, that is crying murder now, has to come to terms with its own crimes. The denial of political rights and representation – leave alone redistribution – most significantly through rejection of separate electorates to minorities of caste, genders and religions among other minorities, have perpetuated a system of feudal inequality that is now coming after the pretence of liberal India. Liberal India had dug her own grave and kept waiting for somebody to put her out of her misery. That somebody has come now as an emergent fascism. Liberal India wants to talk about equality but does not want to have to do it. For it presuppositions of equality matter more than actually achieving equality. If it actually wants an egalitarian society liberal India has to dethrone some of her own beloved founding-fathers, abjure the national myths of exceptionality and its tender beliefs in existing forms of constitutionality. To believe in equality is to have to fight to substantively achieve it. Mere declarations of democracy and secularism will not do. To achieve equality one has to treat unequals as unequals and proceed on a path of positive discrimination. It’s the notion of positive-discrimination that is anathema to liberalism, because it thinks of discrimination simply as an evil without looking into what purpose it serves. But precisely because liberal India will not fight for positive-discrimination, it keeps actual India locked in a perpetual system of negative-discrimination. If the compact of nationhood has to hold justly and non-coercively, India’s Muslims, it’s Dalits and Adivasis deserve as a right due political representation, legal-institutional safeguards for their ways of life and their lives, as well as economic redistribution. Historical redressal demands the practice of unequal treatment in favor of the disadvantaged. There is no getting around it, India has to go back to address the discontents bearing on the birth of the nation and reinvent the wheel. Without this, even if there is a nation, there is barely any nationhood. Inventing nationhood is a task liberalism is confronted with, but a task it is resolutely denying, hoping that old charades work like charms. The myth of liberalism, secularism and democracy ‘to be saved’ is too broken now and for all to see. Such values have to be reformulated, invented afresh – not gone back to, or ‘recovered’. If liberal India is to survive and to progress it has to recognise what it owes to its many minorities and fight to deliver it. In the pithy words of Marx yet again, it has to stop committing the “greatest injustice of all” which is “to treat two unequals as equals”. Formal equality is merely substantive inequality reproduced repetitively, even in still sharper forms. If it is too early at this moment for the NO-NRC, NO-CAA movement to talk of procedural and institutional changes for genuinely strengthening federalism, for democratisation, redistribution and proportional representation (not just in Parliament and state assemblies but in the whole of the state-structure: judiciary, media, education, police and forces etc.) let’s remember we are at this juncture for the lack of these, and no long term program for a better society can abandon or ignore these demands. The buck does not stop with NRC-CAA, they are only a culmination of history in themselves. Redressal and justice will have to go deeper to the roots.

AFSPA is Racism

If the liberalism of India’s heartland is based on the suppression of existing inequalities only to perpetuate them under the banner of equality, what of the outside, the ‘periphery’? Where of one always hears India’s liberals to painfully exclaim the bitter truth in the few and far moments of exceptional cruelty that are too stark to ignore: “India’s democratic credentials are at stake”. In Kashmir they have been at stake for three months, four months, six months – six decades. They were at stake in Telengana at the dawn of freedom, at stake in the occupations of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Kashmir. But here’s the great trick of liberalism. The stakes never break. India’s democratic credentials are forever indemnified from the corrosive effects of actions and events; they are perfectly ahistorical. Disappearances, murder, torture, AFSPA, Manorama, Mothers, Kunanposhpora, Bluestar, Salwa Judum – come one come all: democratic credentials at stake always survive. The tipping point is forever forestalled. And so the worlds’ biggest democracy with the most disciplined armed forces survives every scratch in the conspiracy of its liberal classes. From AFSPA to Babri to NRC to Article 370 (both implementation and abrogation), India’s democratic credentials always survive no matter the outcome of any and all events. These democratic credentials survive only in the shared mindscapes of ardent believers, who are not prone to acknowledging bald reality when it stands unshrouded in front of their eyes. Pretence triumphs over practice. Left-liberal India might energetically protest such treatment, which clubs it with the moral-political decadence of the right, against whom it fights the bitter sectarian battle today, by reminding us of many of its feeble pleas, for instance, its principled long-standing demand to ‘Repeal AFSPA!’. But really what is this bird called ‘Repeal AFSPA!’? AFSPA is not a legal device to be simply revoked – it is a history, a history of political violence that can’t be undone retrospectively. It’s death and destruction, it is the broken spine of many a liberation movements. AFSPA is militarisation, and without militarisation there is no ‘peace’, and among others, no Kashmir. AFSPA will be repealed, always post-facto, having achieved its purpose.

The only way to demilitarize ‘peripheries’ is to earnestly deal with the question of self-determination, and find a genuine solution. Without such an initiative, ‘Repeal AFSPA’ is an empty phrase, that even though consists of perfectly legible words still belongs in that vast basket of oracular sounds human beings are capable of making that mean nothing because they are not language. ‘Repeal AFSPA!’ does not exist. Nonetheless, it serves a vital function for left-liberals, which is one of self-satisfaction, self-congratulation, self-adulation: the “feel-good” thing that liberal-left India craves for breakfast every morning. It’s to sound progressive without having to be progressive, much like claiming equality without doing equality. AFSPA and like measures of ham-fisted militarism are not only a problem of the “periphery”. The tools the state develops elsewhere, from surveillance to communication break-down to mass-killings and torture, to months-long seiges, it will not desist from deploying at home in a crisis either. Precarity in AFSPA and non-AFSPA worlds is not comparable, but your sense of isolation from the world of AFSPA is an illusion. AFSPA comes to your door without a name and in different avatars. There’s an unbroken line of political violence that connects Ikhwan and Salwa Judum, that connects fake encounters to police violence. There’s an unbroken line connecting the willful blinding of children to the moral blindness of the republic. That line is that it was allowed, allowed by the law and allowed by the people. The lack of democratic regard in Chhattisgarh or Kashmir that’s used without excuse there will be used with excuse in India-proper, where most of its first-citizens live. Many of you will reconcile to those excuses because you have been taught such reconciliation through the far-off badlands of the nation.

Nonetheless, despite all, in the final calculus of the report card, democracy survives all assaults and degenerations for our liberals without a scare, for the sole reason that failure would be the failure most acutely of the liberal class itself. Unable to accept failure, myth becomes hymn, and is repeated ad nauseum: worlds’ biggest democracy, most disciplined army. Like a fetish object liberals bestow the states credentials for democracy and secularity with powers that they do not possess, but nonetheless comes to exercise through the common consensus of the community of believers. As with time, every crisis is stabilised and normalised, India’s liberals perform the final act of this fiction: India’s democratic credentials are restored to preconceived standards of glory and gold with the innocence and pink of a summertime rose. It’s a night of cold December winter, no matter! This is a liberalism of make-belief, trickery and delusion. Liberalism is magic-realism.

The final fiction of this liberalism is what unites India’s liberals most ardently with her domestic adversaries, as Perry Anderson correctly diagnosed. It is the bedtime story of territorial integrity that invokes the most sacred sentiments of Indian liberals as of those on the right. It’s for this reason that the question of national self-determination is not a question for the anti-fascist struggle, despite the fact that as soon as the CAB was passed it was the ‘North-East’, in particular Assam that revolted against it with a singular purpose. True to its blindness, liberalism quickly denounced these protests as xenophobic, ignoring the fact that the Assam Accord (1985), which stands to be violated if the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is implemented, was in the first place culmination of a compromise arrived at with the Indian state in lieu of suspending the question of national self-determination in Assam. The double betrayal here is not to be missed. Like in Kashmir, with the abrogation of article 370, liberalism having achieved the territorial integrity that it sought, re-enters from the back-door to impose values of ‘equality’ on a lesser people, running rough-shod over the agreements with which it secured, however fallaciously and anti-democratically, its much cherished territorial integrity in the first place. The peripheries are ethno-centric because liberalism is solipsistic. It seeks to cast everything in its own like-image. Liberalism sacrifices all difference at the altar of unity. This liberalism does not recognise heterogeneity and alterity. In other words it erases the history of the world by equalising all density to a single space-time: one place, one set of values is barely different from ‘Ek Nishan, Ek Vidhan, Ek Pradhan’. Earth without history, earth without difference, earth as a flat disk. Liberalism is flat-earthism.

Kashmir is not an exceptional case in post-partition India’s scramble for and then stranglehold of territory, irrespective of popular democratic will. But as the most recalcitrant of those nationality struggles, it is perhaps a special case. It’s for this reason that Kashmir is sought to be suppressed most, in Kashmir as well as in India. The gift of Azadi that India has bequeathed itself in its struggle against fascism is taken quite unquestionably from Kashmir, and precisely because of the latter’s impertinence and disobedience. This gift has come soiled in the blood of Kashmiris and is the labor of their everyday struggle, has passed through the hands of those who have committed or condoned murder, undeniably. Yet, the gift’s revolutionary potential, its potential for causing deeper faultlines lies precisely in this that the gift is no longer held and circumscribed in the hands of India’s liberals. It’s no longer an empty-signifier. Azadi in India today is the struggle for dignity for the youth of Batla House and Jamia Millia. It’s the battlecry for the women of Shaheen Bagh. It’s as much the cry for self-recognition and self-determination of gendered and non-binary minorities, as it is for Kashmir. It’s a marriage vow for newly-weds in Kerala. It is the last bastion of resistance of the soon to be stateless. It’s a prayer on the lips of all those who fear what is to come. Kashmiris who have, with merit, for long now characterised their unwelcome fate as ‘Brahmanical occupation’, to signify that the oppressors are the ruling classes and castes of India and not the masses, should not now withhold the social diffusion of the labor of their love from being shared by the non-citizens, the second-class citizens and the Bahujan, the ordinary people of India. If indeed these marginalised classes of the Indian subcontinent have firmly and thoroughly espoused the nationalist narrative on Kashmir, it is because intellectual and material hegemony has always been the preserve of a select few, who were and are running the show. It’s this hegemony that the repressed classes of this society have yet again begun to question and challenge.

These are strange but not uncommon exchanges of history. Kashmiris have demanded Azadi specifically as Azadi from India and yet the great mass of India has found inspiration from their struggle not yet to honour it but to re-deploy its flags in the further and actual democratisation of their own society. This social diffusion of the idea, of the slogan – Freedom! Liberty! – beyond the traditional power elites has a disruptive potential that far exceeds the potential for progress or change that any act or law can solicit. The actual democratisation of India necessarily demands a social-political struggle against her two great revanchist orders, that of liberalism and conservatism, one of whom will have to be radicalised and the other defeated. This is potentially a revolutionary moment. For Kashmiris their Azadi has acquired multiple dimensions in India that they do not recognise at once. It’s invocation and make-up seems alien to them, and understandably they disapprove at first. But a genuine and more honest appraisal of the moment should ennoble us to the classes and causes that are being fought for under the banner of this slogan. There are many Azadis to be fought for and the percolation of the idea of liberation into the subterranean recesses of the social can only be germinal of a more democratic society. A society that learns to be democratic to itself, is only more likely to be democratic in its conduct to others.

Mir Suhail, a political cartoonist based in Kashmir manifests how Indian security forces teach lessons of democracy to Kashmiris.

As of now there are no direct links, and the alliances between the Azadis, in India and in Kashmir. But remarkable and perplexing exchanges are not uncommon in history, and we should not close our eyes to such possibilities beforehand. Kashmiris have demonstrated the ability to patiently out-wait the state, not least of all in this present crisis of the post-370 abrogation. The rhizomatic subterranean diffusion and spread of Azadi into India’s social – slowly navigating across barriers and police pickets, surviving and seeking life – into all different directions, should also be patiently nurtured and allowed to grow for more mature solidarities and struggles to come later in the day. It’s not the responsibility of the oppressed to emancipate their oppressors but somehow Kashmiris might have just given India such a gift. How far India will go with this gift is an open question.



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