In last week’s referendum, the campaign for Kashmir’s status took a surprising turn when citizens of the State voted overwhelmingly to stay with India. With a 90 per cent turnout in virtually all districts of Jammu and Kashmir, the vote made it abundantly clear that separatist forces, fuelled by neighbouring Pakistan, had been convincingly defeated. Yasin Malik, who had supported the idea of an independent homeland for the Kashmiris, immediately asked for a recount; the vote however clearly stated that the majority of the local population wished to remain with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had endorsed the referendum is expected to appear on national television to outline constitutional reforms, giving greater autonomy to Kashmir within the Indian union…
Sixty seven years after independence, the Indian state still struggles with such archaic ideas of nationalism; it is hard to imagine that the recent referendum for Scottish independence could ever see a similar call to some sort of partial self-rule in Kashmir.
But the comparison with Scotland is perhaps unfair, for Scotland has been part of a 300-year-old union, and its attempted withdrawal was triggered largely by issues of domestic governance. Kashmir on the other hand poses more complex issues of religious, ethnic and national identity. Without the participation of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees, obviously no referendum on Kashmir can be fair. Moreover, unlike Scotland, Kashmir’s status as disputed territory multiplies choices, not just for independence, but whether to align with a neighbour, and if so, which neighbour.
Separatist movements in other parts of the world have only marginally succeeded in creating autonomy, certainly not complete freedom. In the 1980 and 1995 referendum, Quebec rejected independence and chose to stay with Canada. The Flemish have campaigned long enough for a territory of their own in divided Belgium. Even separatists in Spain have been inspired by the Scottish vote; Royo-Marine, a Catalonian leader, insisting that “nothing can stop the will of people.” Doubtless Kashmiri separatists also watched the Scottish referendum closely.
At the heart of the problem lies the Indian practice of nationalism, often confused with private patriotism. The country’s status as an old civilisation and a young nation contributes to such collective insecurity and anxiety. It becomes essential to parade around all the symbol of togetherness at public functions — the national anthem, the tricolour, the Ashok Chakra, and an endless array of cultural diehard longings that make patriotic statements to others: Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations, the ‘India Day Parade’ in New York, Ram-Leela in London. The country’s touchy patriotism is also singed easily by petty cricketing loyalties. Even if long-settled Indians in England root for the Indian team, the occasional Kashmiri chant for Pakistan is a slur hard to bear. God forbid an Indian athlete accidentally holds the flag upside down, or drapes it like a lungi, or forgets to mouth the words of the anthem. To a nation unsure of its identity, these are grave, unpardonable insults.
For the most part, the rest of the world treats its national symbols with less reverence and with the banter of easy familiarity, not to be taken too seriously. The American national anthem is sometimes played as a pornographic medley on radio; ‘Stars and Stripes’ is available as underwear, socks, and bandannas. The Brazilian flag was recently converted to a football and kicked around.
Referendums on independence and flags as underwear are of course for self-assured nations that value human choice and dignity over a vague and — now in the 21st century — waning patriotism.
Liberties that matter
Who is Indian, what he eats, who he worships, what company he keeps, in which country he lives, all have little relevance in a world that no longer respects borders. Certainly at the time of independence, when the Kashmir problem was framed, nationalism was a natural sentiment, triggered as it was by anti-colonialism. At the time, it was the binding glue necessary for a country discovering its new identity. That time is long past. But as a people, perhaps, we have not progressed beyond the assertion of symbolic identity — not far enough to see that individual and private liberties may matter more. And that people in Kashmir, or the North East, or Tamil Nadu, might have real reasons to ask for certain freedoms — choices they should be allowed, in the very least, to state.
It is ironic that many thousands of Kashmiris who live in Scotland could vote in the Scottish referendum, but have little say in their own State. Obviously, a settled long-term political peace is a necessary condition for any referendum. Under the present cloud of acrimonious rhetoric, a Bilawal Bhutto screaming hoarse about Kashmiri possession, and a State reeling under a natural calamity, the Indian stance needs to be balanced by cautious wisdom. Sadly, whenever ideas of partial autonomy and greater self-rule are raised, the government puts up institutional smokescreens, and claims allegiance to archaic and oft-repeated measures and processes. A nervous nationalism quickly comes to the fore with the persistent refrain about India’s integrity, United Nations resolutions and at what level to talk with Pakistan. When the only solution sought is perpetual stalemate, the problem will never go away.
(Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer.)