Federalism, Nationhood and Democracy
|For many liberal Indians, as for many liberal Jewish Americans, liberalism can come with zones of acute discomfort where its basic ideological premises necessarily have to be suspended. For the American Jews that I have in mind, that zone is Israel-Palestine. For liberal Indians and Indian-Americans, the corresponding zone is Kashmir; indeed, as I was reminded recently by a friend, Indian-Americans who are sympathetic to the plight of displaced and occupied Palestinians often bristle at comparisons between Kashmir and Palestine, or even attempts to discuss Kashmir and Palestine within the same political framework as Pankaj Mishra did recently in the Guardian. They will point out, reasonably enough, that there are major differences between the two situations: the Indian state does not, for instance, seek to exclude Kashmiris from Indian citizenship or subject them to systematic discrimination, nor does it attempt to dilute the 'Kashmiri-ness' of Kashmir by policies of calculated ethnic settlement. (Indeed, it has done quite the opposite, by restricting the ability of outsiders to settle in Kashmir.) It is also entirely legitimate and necessary to note that the structures of the Israeli and Indian polities are very different: whereas Israeli nationalism is resolutely unitary, fixated on protecting a monopolistic connection between a state, a territory and a single ethnicity, India is a federal union with considerable flexibility when it comes to the accommodation of sub-nationalities. Why cannot Kashmiris accommodate themselves within the ideological and organizational space provided by federation, instead of inviting counterinsurgency and unseemly comparisons with the Palestinians?
Why, for that matter, has counterinsurgency been a feature of the Indian state from the outset? Immediately upon independence came the ‘police action’ in Hyderabad, which overlapped with the crushing of the communists in Telengana. In the 1950s, there were the Nagas and Mizos in the northeast (who became the only Indians to be bombed deliberately by the IAF), and that business is not quite over yet. It was Naxalites in the 1960s and ‘70s. In the 1980s there was Punjab, then Kashmir; and now there are ‘Maoists.’ These various occasions for the deployment of troops and special powers are obviously not identical: some are ethnic/separatist and others are ideological/revolutionary, and Hyderabad was partly a matter of breaking an administrative deadlock with an intransigent local king. Nevertheless, in each case, the Union has been faced with a regional authority or a population that has expressed a reluctance to belong to the larger territorial-political system, and has proceeded as if regional political desires are illegitimate if they conflict with the ‘integrity’ of the nation-state. I use the word 'population' purposefully, to make a distinction derived from Foucault and Partha Chatterjee: in the context of the modern state, a 'population' is unlike a democratic community of citizens. It is engaged by the state not as it own ideological and political root, but as an effectively alienated object of policy (which can take the form of enumeration, surveillance, counterinsurgency, poverty-relief, etc.). What does the frequency of population-making in the name of citizen-making say about Indian federalism, and the place of federalism in Indian nationalist ideology?
The questions take me back to an eighth-grade civics lesson, and then to some thoughts on the nature of nationalism and the possibilities of federal state anywhere in the world. India, we were taught, is federal in form but unitary in spirit. That is, in fact, part of the official narrative of the Indian Constitution. The formula is most commonly noted in the administrative and political arenas, i.e., in the theater of practical exchanges between the central government and the governments of the states that make up the federal union. For the purposes of this essay, however, I am more interested in the ideological implications. What does it mean for a nation – in the sense of the imagined self-hood of the citizen-subject - to be 'federal in form but unitary in spirit'? It represents a very basic problem within nationalism, and not just in India: the predicament of a liberal-national self that is at odds with itself, and that is bound to violate compulsively its own liberalism, not to mention the lives, rights and bodies of the very people it might claim as its compatriots.
The federal-but-unitary formula is, of course, a stroke of genius: a clever bit of wordplay in a Constituent Assembly dominated by lawyers, and an even cleverer constitutional innovation that allowed the liberals in the Assembly to reconcile political realities that would otherwise have been difficult to reconcile, especially their desire for a strong, centralized, activist state and the need to reassure various regional and factional political interests (including the Kashmiri nationalists). But it was not simply a lawyerly sleight of hand, or even a sign of the brilliance of that foundational elite. It was also a recognition by Nehru and his colleagues of the nature of Indian nationalism as it already existed in 1946-49. Middle-class Indians were in fact simultaneously unitary and federated in their nationalism: Bengali and Tamil and Maharashtrian as seriously as they were Indian, with neither identity taking an obvious precedence. The constitutional formula was, among other things, an acknowledgment of that not-so-simple fact. Such a complex nationalism required an apparently innovative and contrived-sounding articulation, not least because it was, and remains, quite rare.
To pick out another example of such an overtly 'nested' nationalism, I find myself thinking of the United States before 1865. Today, there is really no such thing as state-level nationalism in America, in spite of belligerent regional mottos like "Don't Mess With Texas" and "Live Free Or Die," the latter being New Hampshire's unhelpful suggestion to newcomers. But in the early 1860s, being a citizen of your particular state meant something in these United States. Robert E. Lee turned down Lincoln's offer to lead the US Army in the Civil War because he also identified himself as a citizen of his home state of Virginia, and not out of any indifference to his sense of himself as an American army officer. The Civil War was fought partly (and I want to emphasize the 'partly') because the two levels of citizenship - the unitary and the federal - came into conflict, and they came into conflict because both existed and were taken seriously. The internal conflict that Lee experienced may have been a minor side-note to the carnage of the war, but it was a conflict that would have resonated with modern Indians, in, say, Tamil Nadu exactly a century later, when clumsy attempts to make Hindi the national language forced middle-class Tamils to ask themselves what part of their political identity mattered most. It would have resonated with Sikhs in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, when even Khushwant Singh felt compelled to return his Padma Bhushan to the Indian government. Khushwant's act, it should be noted, was very different from Rabindranath returning his knighthood after the Jallianwallabagh massacre. Rabindranath's attachment to the empire had none of the visceral quality of national identity. Khushwant's truer predecessor was General Lee, minus the unembarrassed racism.
No doubt other examples can be found of this sort of conflicted nationalism, but I find myself a little hard pressed to find very many in the present day. Soviet and Yugoslav nationalisms, for instance, failed quite spectacularly, ethnic identities sweeping away the veneer of the federal self. It is not that the latter was false; rather it proved to be a fragile contrivance in a way that Indian nationalism emphatically is not. Australian and German federalisms, like the present-day American variety, are not really federations of nationalities: the ideological significance of the internal ‘nations’ has lapsed, and with it, any potential for serious conflict. And other overtly multi-ethnic nationalisms, such as the Canadian and the Belgian, have more or less reconciled themselves to the possibility of dissolution. If Quebec or Flanders decides to secede, that decision will be communicated in a very civilized referendum - in other word, the 'plebiscite' that is unthinkable in Kashmir - and there will some nostalgic singing of Auld Lang Syne, some grumbling about debts and a few muttered 'good riddances,' but no war, torture or mass graves.
I do not make that point to suggest that Canada and Belgium have reached a level of civilization that America had not reached in 1861 and India has not reached to date. I make it to suggest, instead, that liberal nation-states have typically emphasized one or the other: the unitary or the federal, and that nationalism of the reason-to-fight variety has typically attached to the former. ‘Serious’ nationalism remains unitary. The ideology of the Indian nation-state, then, is either exceptional or 'unserious' at some level. I want to suggest that it is both, and that this opens up not only an array of severe problems (like Kashmir), but some possibilities for imaginative problem-solving.
First, the exceptional. Regional nationalisms in India do not trump the larger nationalism, as they did in Yugoslavia or the USSR, because they developed simultaneously and in mutual complicity with the larger nationalism. Fully-formed Bengali, Tamil and Punjabi identities did not come together to form an Indian federation; people came to imagine themselves as 'Bengali' through the same discursive, educational and social processes by which they came to imagine themselves as 'Indian.' Indianness was not imposed from above upon people who had been happily going about their business as Malayalis or Gujaratis. (This is why I find Jhumpa Lahiri's tendency to identify herself as 'Bengali-American' highly irritating. What the hell is a Bengali-American, unless one is refering to Bangladeshi roots? I understand that concessions must be made to the peculiarities of ABCD identity, but the lady appears to have missed a turn somewhere along the way.) Kashmir and the northeast are, to some extent, exceptions: discursive-ideological misfits in the historical trajectory of the Indian state. Otherwise, the simultaneity of regional and supra-regional national identities in India is a rare and fortuitous thing, as close as one can get to an organic federalism in the make-up of the modern citizen. It makes the Indian Union possible and viable, inheriting but also revising the relaxed genius of a prenational civilizion, Hindustan, in a form that is suitable to the nation-state.
Second, the 'unserious.' This applies most directly to exceptional situations like Kashmir and the northeast, but it potentially applies elsewhere also, as it has in the past with Tamils and Sikhs. When I say that the working out of simultaneous regional and national identification is ‘unserious,’ I do not mean that one identity is cynical. I mean, rather, that federal and regional nationalisms have not been satisfactorily reconciled at the level of the ideology of government. Up to a point, this has to do with specific problems of the Indian nationalist narrative: it is impossible to 'include' Kashmir within the Indian quilt as long as 'Indian history' remains an Orientalist screed of Hindu insiders and Muslim outsiders. One has to choose, in other words, between the story of Shivaji-versus-Aurangzeb and the vision of the Tryst With Destiny. But it also has to do with the nature of nationalism itself, which is ultimately hostile to divided selves and loyalties even if the divisions are limited to specific contexts, and seeks compulsively to abort or eliminate those contexts. It is worth remembering that Nehru resisted the principle of linguistic states until regional nationalists like Annadurai and Potti Sriramalu forced his hand. That unease has marked the politics of state-center relations in India as a matter of course, and occasionally triggered major crises: not only the use of Article 357 of the Constitution to suspend regional administrations and manipulate elections, but also the bypassing of the Constitution in counterinsurgency operations. Ironically, it is by violating the rights of citizenship that the Union government can, in the last resort, communicate to (regional) populations that they are citizens (of a larger state).
Confronted thus with the internal tensions of Indian nationalism, which is a moral narrative, Indian federalism - a constitutional arrangement - can break down with very violent consequences. Kashmir is only the perfect storm of the various things that can go wrong. Kashmiri nationalism developed initially without a strong connection to an Indian national narrative, and subsequently with a largely oppositional connection. But Kashmir itself has a prominent place in the Indian national narrative. Thus, while India is not especially necessary to being Kashmiri, Kashmir is quite important to being Indian. This brings us back to the problem of being 'federal in structure but unitary in spirit.' If one prioritizes the 'unitary,' then all Indians, including Bengalis and Tamils, have a common claim on Kashmir. If the 'federal' is prioritized, then Bengalis and Tamils have to accept that ethnic Kashmiris have a special claim on Kashmir that takes precedence over the claims of people from other states. In the latter case, membership in the Indian Union is voluntary and contractual rather than organic, subject to the will(ingness) of the Kashmiri people. That means an implicit right to dissolve the contract when the willingness no longer exists, and will, by definition, needs no justification or explanations. Desire, suitably articulated, is enough. That inevitably violates the right of other Indians to a sizeable chunk of their imagined national homeland, and generates the specter of the 'headless map' or the 'vivisected' national self. Unitary Indian identity is thus qualified by a tacit element of contingency: even in ideal circumstances, there is a contract between regional sub-nationalities (which are, in fact, fully-fledged nationalities in nearly every sense), the federal center and the rest of the country. Separatists ignore this contract, typically, when they believe it has already been violated by the center.
It might be argued that the unitary claim in a federated state is always potentially colonial. The possession of Algeria was once a prominent part of French national identity, and - on paper, at any rate - Algeria had been substantially integrated into the French state by 1958. The ungrateful Algerians did not reciprocate the love, so the jilted French fought – and raped and tortured, as Marnia Lazreg’s account of Algerian decolonization vividly documents – to keep them anyway: keeping them ‘French’ by highlighting their distance from Frenchness. The Indian center-state contract, when it works, is far removed from such horror. When it breaks down, either due to the stupidity of the central government or because of the paranoia inherent in a unitary nationalism that is conscious of its simultaneously contractual nature, it converges with those overtly colonial situations. At that point, it quickly becomes pointless to ask who is at fault and whether separatism is justified. Once the government has killed and humiliated ten thousand, or fifty thousand, or a few million, people, common citizenship is effectively nullified. Ultimately, citizenship and membership in a federal union have to be voluntary, and when it ceases to be willing it really does not matter who is right or whose fault it is.
This is a problem that needs to be addressed institutionally, through a constitutional mechanism that would allow individual states to leave the Union peacefully if certain conditions are met: for instance, a two-thirds majority vote in the state legislature could set into motion a process of arbitration, followed, if necessary, by a plebiscite. (I would, in fact, like to see this principle applied from the other side also, so that individual states can be suspended or expelled from the Union by a procedure beginning with a two-thirds majority vote in the Rajya Sabha. Gujarat comes to mind as the first candidate. Membership in a liberal-democratic federation must be represented as a privilege, and not merely as a fact.) This itself requires first, an ideological adjustment that is very difficult. It requires that the Bengali or Tamil dilute his claim on Kashmir and Punjab, but without falling into an ordinary regionally-focused nationalism centered on Bengal and Tamil Nadu: i.e., without relinquishing the extraordinary cosmopolitan possibilities of Indianness that drove a Bengali to give up his knighthood over a massacre of Punjabis, and allow an Oriya to feel at home in Karnataka or Rajasthan, not like a Frenchman or Pied-Noir in colonial Algeria or a Jewish settler in the West Bank, but like a Welshman in Scotland, who feels at home not only in the land but also among the natives, with whom he can identify himself. Second, it requires an institutional receptacle that would allow for secession to be incomplete but nevertheless meaningful. In other words, it should be possible for states to secede into a confederation that allows them maximum political autonomy but retains them within a looser Indian framework.
One question that arises straight away is whether that would mean the end of the Republic of India as a nation-state. The answer, I think, is not necessarily. The Republic that emerged on 26 January 1950 was, after all, only one of several proposed Indias, all of which took into account the dual nature of Indian nationalism. The Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, for instance, came close to averting the Partitition. There is no going back to that, but other models are available, albeit only with considerable reimaginative effort.
There is, most obviously, the European Union. Regarding the post-national nature of the EU, Partha Chatterjee has suggested that Europeans can afford to be laid-back about national sovereignty only because American hegemony makes sovereignty irrelevant. The point is, I think, somewhat uncharitable, downplaying the extent to which the EU reflects a rethinking of nationalism that took place within Europe after the Second World War, and the degree to which this reformulation has been in opposition to American agendas and ideologies. Once again, I do not mean to imply that the EU represents an 'advanced' stage of federal statehood towards which India might strive. In many ways, the Indian Union is the more highly evolved federal system, with more thoroughly worked-out arrangements between its component parts. (The ongoing tensions over bailing out the Greek economy, for instance, would have no Indian counterpart.) Nevertheless, the EU offers a model of federalism in which 'federal' is not merely the 'form,' and 'unitary' not the only 'spirit.' It holds out, I think, a federalism of spirit that is vitally important to the resolution of conflicting nationalisms. That spirit - which is ultimately a willingness to recognize and value the contractual aspect of federation - makes possible the creation of more or less impartial institutions of arbitration, negotiation and judgment that can, in the final analysis, set and regulate the terms of membership and sovereignty.
Another 'spiritual' model comes from closer to home. I have in mind the old idea of Hindustan, before Savarkar and Jinnah distorted it beyond recognition. There has been in recent years an academic sentimentality about Hindustan as a lost country, a 'might have been' alternative to the India that exists today. The idea remains valuable even if we eschew nostalgia and accept that a modern, liberal nation-state grounded in popular sovereignty is not altogether a bad thing, even in a society in which large numbers of people do not fit the liberal mold. Such a state requires, however, extraordinary and inventive instruments of political negotiation. Hindustan is a non-unitary concept of political and cultural identity that nevertheless designates a shared community of Indian peoples. It is cognizant of plurality and of the contextual, contingent nature of unity in a way that the Republic of India is not, and might provide a way of rethinking Indianness within a structural framework that borrows some elements from Europe and retains others from the current Republic.
The Indian Union, for instance, has evolved a rather unpredictable 'process' of accommodating newly clamorous sub-national groups by creating new states out of old ones. When the 'old' state that might be broken up is largely an administrative arrangement like Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh, adjustments can be made without great difficulty. When, however, the state in question is an ethnic-national entity like Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, there is inevitably a three-way conflict of nationalisms - not to mention a great display of political opportunisms and ineptitudes - between the local, the regional and the federal. Such conflicts can only precariously be managed within the existing federal framework; the long slide from the political demand for a state called Punjabi Suba to the militant campaign for a country called Khalistan shows us that ad hoc, clumsy or violent 'management' can actually push the problem out of the 'Indian' frame until it looks alarmingly like Kashmir. Kashmir is, in that sense, not an exceptional conflict. The outbreaks of militancy and counterinsurgency in India indicate a common need for permanent and predictable guidelines and mechanisms that might regulate not only the the rights of India's various subnationalities, but subnationalities and dissident groups within the states of the Union.
Unitary nationhood is charged with the inevitability of violence, because sooner or later it will unearth or produce its Palestinians or Kashmiris. What links Palestine and Kashmir (and also differentiates them) is that whereas the former is a catastrophe brought on by a straightforwardly unitary vision of peoplehood and its conflict with an equally unitary vision of territory (which seems to rule out, for instance, a federated one-state solution), the latter is the failure of an ingenious nationalism to make full use of its genius - its available inventory of historical and ideological resources - to work out a relationship between people, territory and governance that is assertively elastic. Federalism - however it is structured - is a necessary aspect of the spirit of liberal democracy, and it must be taken seriously as spirit, i.e., as ideology and not just as structure. But at the same time, it is vital to remember that unitary nationhood is itself a valuable political and ideological asset: an imagination of selfhood that makes it possible to retain rather than to endlessly fragment, and an incentive to negotiate and compromise, i.e., to find spaces and structures of accommodation.