The beauty of India lies in its contradictory voices ranging from the jingoist or sectarian to the principled and sensible giving ordinary men and women an insight into the intricacies of the burning issues of the day. And these insights help the man on the street judge the mettle of the country’s democratically elected rulers trying to douse the flames.
A prime example is the current unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, which has left scores dead since July 8 when a key separatist, Burhan Wani, was killed in a gunfight with soldiers. After his elimination, the entire state erupted with stone-pelting protesters demanding independence from India, rather than just demonstrating against excesses by security forces. The open revolt, which is intensifying instead of petering out, has triggered two responses, which are as different from one another as black is from white. And between the two extremes are various shades of grey.
The Indian state has predictably responded by dispatching additional troops to Jammu and Kashmir; its determination to treat the unrest as a Pakistan-sponsored law and order issue is evident to one and all, including the international community. Backing the state is a section of the media, which has no qualms about projecting Kashmiris as anti-India Muslims and traitors, besides demanding the arrest and prosecution of independent journalists advocating talks with separatists and urging security forces not to shoot stone-throwing teenagers as if they are trained and armed militants.
The press-versus-press debate is an important subtext of the crisis on hand. But the real barometer of introspection is the remarks of some of India’s wisest living men. Their profound observations — obviously after intense research and analysis — reflect the maturity of the world’s biggest democracy, particularly the freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution for building public opinion by fearlessly questioning the establishment.
Sample the conclusion Dipankar Gupta, iconic public intellectual and sociologist who has taught in universities in USA, UK, Europe and India, has reached after careful analysis with all the tools at his command: “Kashmir has often been called the “Switzerland of India.” But Kashmir would be better served today if it is also known as the Ireland, or the Basque country, of India.”
According to Gupta, India must seriously study the peace process in Ireland, Spain and Canada if it wants to end militancy in J & K. He writes: “The first move, in all these instances, came from the most powerful side. It did not diminish its glory but instead added to it. In India, we need to think imaginatively too, but if Britain had the Republic of Ireland as a willing partner, we too need a cooperative Pakistan. Of course, we cannot imitate either Ireland, or Spain or Canada, but we can be inspired by their histories to open our minds.”
Historian Partha Chatterjee, who teaches in Columbia University, finds today’s grieving Kashmiris no different from Bengali mourners at the funeral of Kanailal Datta in 1908, who shot and killed an approver in the courtroom, and was hanged by the British. Chatterjee quotes a Home Department report stating: “An extraordinary scene was witnessed at Kalighat at the time of the cremation of Kanai… Crowds thronged the road, people pushing past one another to touch the bier… Many women, to all appearances of a highly respectable class, followed the funeral procession wailing, while men and boys thronged around shouting ‘Jai Kanai’! After the cremation his ashes were being sold in Calcutta, as much as Rs5 an ounce being paid by some enthusiasts.”
According to Chatterjee, “Kashmiri nationalism stands at the same crossroads where Indian nationalism stood a 100 years ago….Given the bankruptcy of the politics that has tried so far to accommodate Kashmir’s national aspirations within the Indian federal system, there is a tendency now for the young to adopt an Islamist idiom to vent their demands. If this trend gets stronger, the best result might be a new popular movement, Islamist in temper but with deep roots in local communities…The worst outcome would be the burgeoning of jihadi groups that no one will be able to control.”
This diagnosis is obviously very different from India’s official position. Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and the country’s biggest intellectual, lost his cool when asked whether Kashmiri unrest would put off western investors. He retorted: “I don’t know and don’t really care. But I do think that the lives and freedom of Kashmiris is more important than whether Narendra Modi gets his investment or not.”