India is over. And Kashmir is just the latest sign of it.
Call me a late born child of 1947, of India’s independence from the British.
When I was a teenager in the 70s in Bombay (as Mumbai was then called), I came dangerously face to face with ethnic intolerance. I am a Tamil from the southern part of India, and Bombay in the west was then gripped by hatred aimed at people like me because of an influx of Tamil migrant labor (sound familiar?).
I remember one day when the commuter train I was traveling on was convulsed by dire whispers that young men were on board, questioning passengers on whether they were Tamil. They would ask you to speak in Marathi, the whispers said, and if you couldn’t they would throw you off the running train. Having come to Bombay only recently, I couldn’t speak Marathi, so I hurried off the train at the next station and waited for a succeeding one.
A few years later I was going to college in Tamil-majority Madras (as Chennai was then known) when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh and the country, especially the north, plunged into an anti-Sikh maelstrom of killing. Even Chennai, relatively calm, had its transportation disrupted by roving mobs. It took me half a day of walking and hitching rides to get home from my college—the journey should have taken no more than an hour.
Surely, I am not the only Indian of my age (or any age for that matter) with memories like these.
Add the Emergency, the Bombay riots, the Gujarat killings, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the lynching of Christian missionaries, the targeting of “Chinese-looking” students and workers from the northeastern states in “cosmopolitan” Bengaluru, innumerable caste killings.
Conclusion? India has always—yes, always—been a country prone to violence.
Why, then, do I still feel immense loss because of the news coming out of India these days?
Here’s another story, a well-known one.
The Dalit leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was no friend of Indian nationalism, rightly viewing the elite leadership of the nationalist movement as for the most part disinterested in the liberation of (“low-caste”) Dalits. Yet, today he is described as the Father of the Indian Constitution for the role he played in drafting a legal document that many have described as one of the most enlightened in the world (it bears saying that what is happening in Kashmir is in the opinion of most legal observers unconstitutional—and, yes, I am aware that Ambedkar’s views on Kashmir, Pakistan and Islam are not straightforward).
Critical as he was of Indian nationalism, Ambedkar made a judicious decision to participate in laying the foundations of the post-Independence nation. For him, “India” could still be the name of a possibility. It could be the banner under which to experiment with anti-caste and generally democratic policies.
Can India still be the experiment it once was? The slow erasure of India, not as it was, but as a promise of what it could be under the momentum of anti-colonial resistance and its aftermath—isn’t that what I mourn when I read the newspaper headlines today?
For all its violence, growing up in India I could still find in the idea of it something to claim. It could still be the name of a challenge, a vigorous call to experiment in the creation of a transformative and tolerant society.
India was never perfect, far from it. It was not created by a blemishless nationalist movement, despite all the myths about Gandhi. Like all nation-states, it deserved to eventually become obsolete (read your Marx, please). Still, because of the unpredictability and popular scale of the anti-colonial resistance launched under its name, “India” could be claimed for decades after Independence for a multitude of experiments in humanistic liberation, including Gandhian ones that tried to transcend the flaws of the man. A powerful idea, “India” could be hijacked for progressive ends as Ambedkar did.
Narendra Modi and the BJP are making sure of that with their brutal actions in Kashmir and elsewhere—though, frankly, in the long view blame can certainly be shared by all too many political parties, including the Indian National Congress.
Things feel unprecedented now. It feels as if India stands on a final threshold of forced forgetting, of the death of post-independence optimism.
Can India survive what’s going on?
Is India over?