INDEPENDENCE DAY SPECIAL: A Million Mutinies Now

"If legitimate and valid demands are met in time, then there is no need for protests or violent protests for that matter" - Jaswant Singh

A Million Mutinies Now – Indian political leadership not in tune with its citizenry, winds of change to further evolve for better or worse ?!!

From Times of India
By Subodh Varma

This Independence Day, there is a cloud on the horizon. It threatens to cast a shadow on whatever euphoria the country’s citizenry might be feeling. The fear is so real that just a week before the customary address from the Red Fort, the prime minister went on air and delivered a sombre message to the country, and specifically to one part of the country — Kashmir. Over 55 Kashmiris – including children and teenagers — have died from police action in a span of 64 days of violent clashes between security forces and people across the Valley. The rest of the country has suddenly realized that the alienation felt by Kashmiris is an agonizing reality.

Kashmir is an extreme example, but the country is wounded by a thousand cuts from ongoing social strife. In the official mode of thinking, adopted by most political parties too, these are described as threats to India’s unity and integrity. From this, it is but a short step to thinking of national integration as territorial integrity — as long as secession from the country is not demanded, it is not a crisis. But this is a very short-sighted view. The real issue is unity of the people. As long as there is a sense of fraternity and harmony between Indians, India exists. Take away this bond and the country will collapse into chaos.

Today, there are a million mutinies roiling the country, inflicting a colossal cost in both blood and resources. Here is a brief recap

Separatism

Attempts to secede from the country are exhibited in the most severe form in Kashmir where an insurgency has been raging for the past two decades. Over 30,000 lives have been lost in this period. While there is no denying that it is fuelled by help from across the border, the Kashmir problem has been fostered on a fertile ground of economic and political neglect of the state over the years, coupled with narrow political brinkmanship. Unfortunately, religion too is mixed up in this cauldron, and in fact, it has been exploited to the hilt by Islamic fundamentalists.

Separatism of this variety has been endemic in the north-eastern region of India, a melting pot of 475 ethnic groups. There are over 35 avowed separatist groups in the region’s seven states, active to varying degrees. Difficult terrain and poor infrastructure help them continue their activities although none of them have the kind of mass support that appears in Kashmir. In some of the states, like Mizoram, separatists have become almost extinct after the spearhead (the Mizo National Front led by Laldenga) reached an accord with the Central government in 1986. In other states, especially Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, separatist attacks continue to cause death and devastation. The North-East is economically under-developed and this remains the single biggest factor behind continued separatism.

Separate stateism

Since the reorganization of states on linguistic basis in 1956, there have been continued demands, often expressed through big movements, for formation of smaller states or redistribution of areas based on ethnic, linguistic or socio-cultural reasons. Some of the major movements have been successful in achieving their demands, as in Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh which were carved out as separate states in 2001. Others continue to simmer, bursting forth periodically. Among the more well-known are movements demanding separate states of Gorkhaland (in the north Bengal hills), Cooch-Behar (in north Bengal), Coorg (in Karnataka), Poorvanchal (in eastern Uttar Pradesh), Harit Pradesh (in western UP) and Gondwanaland (in central India). Some of these are violent movements, like the Gorkhaland agitation, while others have indifferent support, as in Harit Pradesh. All assert the identity of a community defined on the basis of ethnicity, language, and territorial contiguity. Conceding a certain degree of autonomy serves to assuage militant feelings, as happened in Tripura areas where autonomous district councils were set up. But continued neglect of the real problems faced by the people – jobs, education, development – often renders these measures futile and the movement reappears, as in the Bodo Autonomous Council.

Casteism

Among the most pervasive and entrenched of all Indian social institutions, the practice of social hierarchies based on birth in a pre-defined, largely endogamous community has become one of the leading sources of division in Indian society. This division does not lead to territorial integrity coming into question — there is no demand for separation or even a separate state. But it divides the people deeply, with anger and resentment growing among those who are deprived and discriminated against. It acts as a bulwark for preserving and sustaining an unjust system of privileges for the so called upper castes, while denying access to the so called lower castes. The consequences of this division are manifold.

There are hundreds of recorded incidents of caste-based atrocities — murder, rape, arson, beatings — every year. Often horrendous incidents like the 2006 murder of four male members and the stripping and parading of the two women members of a dalit family in Khairlanji, a village in Bhandara district of Maharashtra, sear the collective conscience of the country. But more commonly, there is discrimination based on caste that is practiced in workplaces and society in general ranging from separate cups for dalits in tea shops in Tamil Nadu to the recent spate of ‘honour’ killings in north India where ‘khap panchayats’ ordered killing of dozens of young couples for violating supposed rules prohibiting intra-gotra marriage.

In recent years caste has become a powerful source of political mobilization, with parties using caste for building vote banks. This may have the silver lining of breaking down existing social barriers towards empowerment of marginalized sections but since there is no further agenda of real empowerment, it only serves the purpose of creating a handful of elites, relegating the rest to business as usual. Spurred by this political support, diverse caste groups like the Jats and the Gujjars have launched huge protest agitations demanding reservation, the only demand that emerges from this kind of identity based thinking.

Retrograde Practices

Internecine strife and violence based on religious beliefs was never uncommon in Indian history, and the British rulers strengthened such divisions incalculably. But, Independent India has witnessed a growing trend of communal tensions, largely derived from majority communalism but receiving heightened response from minority fundamentalism.

Starting from the last years of the 1980’s and through the 1990’s, communal tensions ratcheted up, driven by the Ram Janma Bhoomi agitation by the RSS-BJP. This cycle of violence, especially after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and the involvement of international terrorism has led to a series of spine-chilling incidents like the Gujarat pogrom against the minority community, the Kandhamal killings of Christians and the Mumbai massacre carried out by vengeful Pak-based terrorists in 2008.

In the case of religious intolerance too there is an attempt to assert an identity — a religious one — in contrast to another, justified in terms of perceived injustice and threat. As the Sachar committee’s report showed, this perceived sense may be completely erroneous as the minority community in India is actually discriminated against and occupies the lower rungs of the socio-economic hierarchy. But feeding on economic discontent and diverting it into the blind alley of communalism serves to blunt the striving for real prosperity and justice.

Communalism

Often feeding into all of the above, but existing independently is a whole corpus of retrograde ideas and practices that permeate Indian society. These may look quite different from identity-based political movements, but there is a common thread. All represent a backward and retrograde thinking opposed to modern values of individual freedom, equality and social equity. Such values exist as a reservoir beneath the surface, and find expression in social evils such as dowry and bride burning (there were 7,456 dowry deaths last year), female feticide (an estimated 5-7 lakh female fetuses are aborted every year despite stringent laws), untouchability and caste discrimination. As can be seen, they are often expressed in relation to women who are sought to be treated as second-rate citizens, and prevented from joining the country’s mainstream.

Why are these obsolete emotions and ideas still so prevalent in a country claiming to be on the verge of superpowerdom? Several factors seem to be working to bring about a deadly convergence, according to Rajni Palriwala, professor of sociology in Delhi University. “Take the case of ‘honour killings’. Education, economic progress and increased interaction have led to more couples choosing each other rather than their parents making the choice for them. In north India, where all these cases are occurring, there is already a shortage of eligible women because of the highly skewed sex ratio. So, elders see their control over the marriage of their offspring slipping away. They fear that others may follow this trend. Khap panchayats, which were otherwise bereft of any function except acting as vote banks, seized this trend to assert their power and identity, going to the extent of challenging the law of the land itself. Politicians sit on the fence or even extend support, while religious organizations support the khap in the name of tradition. Thus a medieval mentality is reborn in the 21st century”, she explains.

If it were merely the thinking of individuals, perhaps it would not have acquired a social presence. But it is backed by powerful economic and political interests which have sustained and often fostered these divisive tendencies for narrow gains and for building vote banks.

Historian Indu Agnihotri of the Center for Women’s Development Studies says that to understand why these retrograde ideas and practices survived in India, one has to look back at history. “The British colonialists broke up the existing economic system to make it suitable for their own profit. But in order to impose their political control over the people they maintained the political and social structures, aligning with feudal lords, rigidifying caste hierarchies, dividing people on religious lines, and so on. Although the freedom struggle sought to do away with these divisions its main objective remained political not social. After Independence, the political leadership inherited this power balance and continued with it,” she says.

“Although the Nehruvian paradigm included a social vision of equality and justice for all, in practice this part lagged behind. With the advent of liberalization, drastic changes have taken place in the economy, while in the social arena, retrograde forces have emerged with a vengeance, becoming tools in the hands of commerce,” Agnihotri adds.

According to Palriwala, identity politics of the kind that relies on caste and gender based oppression draws upon and further strengthens insecurities arising out of the uncertainties of modern life, the desire for collective support in an increasingly atomized social fabric and the need of power elite to maintain crumbing hierarchies.

Ultra-Left Extremism

Economic and social backwardness has a bizarre expression in the form of ultra-left extremism. Ostensibly, the Naxals are out to end backwardness through a revolution. But in four decades of their exploits they have been unable to get rid of the backward notion that killing a few landlords or blowing up security personnel with land mines is never going to bring a change in the system. Still, the Maoists have caused significant damage: more than 5,000 deaths and over 10,000 incidents of violence in the past 7 years. As many as 83 districts in nine states have been declared Naxal-affected, and the is government has acknowledged that they represent the greatest threat to India’s internal security.

Earlier, the Maoists had splintered into almost 40 factions, carried out bloody feuds amongst themselves that turned into a caste war, and allied opportunistically with gangsters and hoodlums to push their agenda. In Chhattisgarh, the government-sponsored Salwa Judem was setup to counter them, but it became one terror countering another, with hapless villagers caught in the crossfire.

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