India will celebrate Republic Day on the 26th of January, to commemorate the ascension of the first modern pan-Indian constitution. India has decided to mark the day in the presence of all the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) heads of state and government, in an attempt to project Indian soft-power throughout Asia, in a clear jab at China.
But while the Indian government of Narendra Modi continues to “act east”, it is simultaneously sowing domestic discord which makes one question the wisdom of thinking globally when one cannot even adequately act locally.
–The colonial background
The contemporary map South Asia largely corresponds to the internal and external demarcations of the British Empire in the region. With the exception of Pakistan and Bangladesh which were created during the Partition of British India, most national boundaries including those between former British colonies and China, date from the 19th or very early 20th century.
As is the case with many states whose modern borders are the products of colonial subjugation, India’s internal borders are also shaped by the fact that Britain slammed together various erstwhile sovereign entities whose experience in unity was only ever previously achieved during the Islamic Mughal Empire which began in the 16th century and prior to that, during the ancient Maurya Empire whose territorial expansion was at its zenith during the reign of Ashoka The Great.
In this sense, contemporary India is the largest non-colonial unit to govern its presently held territory in the long history of the civilisations of South Asia. By no means is the political existence of a large landmass and highly populated area a necessary prohibition on healthy governance. China is larger in both population and landmass and is the most dynamic economy in the world, soon to be the largest and most powerful. Furthermore China is a non-sectarian society where technical, educational and social progress is the rule of the day. Russia and before that the Soviet Union had a far larger landmass than India, but Russian society remains considerably stable, while Russia’s political system remains largely predictable and free of insurgent movements.
–Nehru and hope
The India of Jawaharlal Nehru implemented a socialist socio-economic programme designed to create a modern united nation that would elevated the living standards of all Indians through an increased focus on education and social modernisation. Essentially, this included the elimination of the caste system and a provision of equality among all peoples. Experience shows that only through hard-line political measures designed to create equality among the peoples of a large nation, can such a nation begin to experience peace and prosperity. To be sure this was an era of strife and imperfection, but for many it was also an era of optimism–one that has been replaced by a Modi era based on cynicism, competition and extremism.
Today’s BJP government has uniformly rejected Nehru’s model and has instead focused on a Hindutva political programme which seeks to put the alleged needs and wishes of the country’s Hindu population above that of other minorities. However, like so many political “revolutions”, the Modi phenomenon could soon eat its own.
The very idea of a Hindutva political programme is often defined more by what it is not than what it is. This is due to the historic fact that Hinduism is a decentralised faith where local customs, rites and beliefs vary a great deal from location to location. While local traditions certainly do exist in Islam and Christianity, these faiths are far more uniform in their modern practice via-a-vis Hinduism. Ironically, the very notion that Hinduism should be intellectually conceived as a monolithic system is a legacy of the colonial period that many Hindutva extremists have adopted.
Thus, in defining one’s political programme as Hindu-centric, one is immediately disenfranchising India’s non-Hindu population. But moreover, by practising sectarian politics, the Modi government is setting the stage for further sectarian divisions, both on an ethnic, regional and religious basis.
There is a great deal of argument over just how many separatist movements there are in contemporary India. The following video produced in Pakistan claims there are over 67 different separatist movements in India.
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But while Indians claim that this video intentionally makes insignificant separatist movements appear bigger than they are, as the recent Catalan crisis in Europe proves, even a single separatist movement and one that eschews violence at that, can cause a great deal of trouble for both sides of the divide.
The following are the most prominent separatist movements in India:
The Khalistan movement is a separatist movement centred around the Sikh faith. The group seeks to create an independent state comprised from at least 6 of the current states of the Republic of India.
–Jammu and Kashmir
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most prominent struggle for freedom among many varied separatist movements is in Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir. This is due to the inherent injustice in the disputed territorial boundaries in question. During the British authored Partition of India, Hindu regional ruler Maharaja Hari Singh and the then British Governor General of India, the 1st Earl Mountbatten, struck a deal whereby Indian troops would be deployed to “secure” the region from Muslim demonstrators and militias.
The result has been a decades long struggle on the part of the Muslim majority against rule from New Delhi–one that continues to this day.
Some of the most fraught but least internationally discussed Indian separatist movements are based in India’s northeastern states which are separated from the vast majority of the country by the Siliguri Corridor, often referred to as The Chicken’s Neck.
The Assamese people have for decades been fighting rule from New Delhi, under the pretext that the central government neglects the needs of the local population and that furthermore, the Assamese people claim that the migration of Bengalis and other groups are supplanting the indigenous culture.
Also in the north east, the Tripura people have long agitated for independence due to allegations of neglect by the central government.
India’s dangerous political crossroads
These are just a few of the major secessionist movements in India, all of which have a unique character. The point of this article is not to express a specific view on the merits or drawbacks of each movement, but to highlight the fact that Indian unity can only be achieved through a central government that is both strong in character, economically competent and most importantly, non-sectarian. The best argument against any secessionist movement is the economic well being of an entire nation. Beyond this, guarantees of civil rights for minorities is essential in order to give minorities of any kind the confidence necessary so as to allow them to embrace a multi-ethnic/multi-linguistic, multi-cultural and multi-confessional nationhood.
India’s birth was not easy due to the prevalence of lingering British imperialist influence combined with localised extremism that is commonplace whenever a peoples strives for independence. However, the hope, no matter how incomplete, that was commonplace in the Nehru years has been effectively obliterated by the Modi government which seeks to lead the country down a sectarian road that could one day backfire greatly on the BJP and other Hindutva parties that coalesce with the BJP.
By placing sectarian considerations and the also mythical idea of a pan-Hindu identity above the everyday needs of ordinary Indians and by participating in a US authored zero-sum game which seeks to reap advantage from Indian hostility towards its biggest neighbours, Modi has tarnished the optimism that is supposed to be implicit in any country’s day of national celebration.
While many might assume otherwise, I do not write these words with anything but sorrow. India has seen better days, however difficult some of them may have been. But under the BJP, existing problems have become worse and new problems have been created–some of them, not by the heirs of Nehru, but by the heirs of the British Empire: the American Empire.