Independence DayIndia celebrates 63 years of freedom on August 15.

A million mutinies now
Subodh Varma, TNN, Aug 14, 2010, 05.20am IST

 The Kashmir insurgency has claimed over 30,000 lives in the past two
decades. Over 55 Kashmiris – including children — have died in violent
clashes in the last 64 days.
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

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.

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

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.

HistorianIndu 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

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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