One of the more illogical arguments promoted by secessionist elements on the margins of the country is that India is a fascist nation. This is the sort of thing that sounds suitably liberal in seminar rooms and doubtless envelops the audience in the warm glow of self-satisfaction. There: how brave of us! We have given shelter to the oppressed!
The irony of course is that in a genuinely fascist state you would be locked up before you could utter the first initial of fascist. The key would be thrown away. That Kashmiri secessionists, sometimes very thinly disguised in parallel demands, are given a voice by academia and mainstream media is proof of the liberalism of Indian democracy and its multi-faceted institutions.
The most egregious instance of provocation was the flaunting display of Pakistani flags by some demonstrators in the Kashmir valley. I wonder if anyone in Pakistan would be permitted to display the Indian flag in pursuit of his political agenda.
There is a substantive difference in the concepts of freedom and independence. Every nation today can claim to be independent, but that does not necessarily mean that it is free. Freedom is not merely release from the cage of recent history, an end to foreign rule or occupation. Freedom is a principle that the nation shares with every citizen in a post-colonial polity. India is both independent and free.
A nation can also be colonised by its own elites. A purist political scientist might argue that this is not the technical meaning of a colony, or that an undemocratic regime might be as nationalist in its objectives as a democratic one. But the spirit that pervades life in a dictatorship or an oppressive oligarchy is not all that different from colonial rule.
The British Raj was not a continuous exercise in brutality. In many instances it was liberal and reformist. Many would certainly compare it favourably to the feudalism that prevailed in much of India. Of course not every feudal dynast was a despot, but many were. It was only when it came to defending the right of the British to rule an alien land did the splendidly adorned Viceroys and Oxbridge civil servants descended to ruthlessness. If the lathi did not silence India’s cry then the bayonet came out. If that did not serve, the machine guns appeared.
Paradoxically, it can be easier to defend a fascist state than a free and democratic nation. The former will not offer the generosity of habeas corpus (“Where is the body?”) through which courts can set limits to the power of the executive. In a land not too far away suspects are picked up in thousands and cherrypicked for transportation to a foreign prison where they can be punished for real or imagined crimes. Intelligence agencies run an alternative government in the name of security, designed to intimidate their own citizens and backed up by its own foreign policy.
But because a democratic nation has a soft, perhaps even pulpy, interior it would be a fallacy to believe that it will be weak in the defence of national integrity. India may have more parties than voters, and the struggle for power might be laced with passions that ignite personal vendettas, but when it comes to the defence of India, differences melt and every party closes ranks.
There is nothing sectarian in the approach of the Indian state. If some Kashmiris have a long list of complaints they should check with Punjab and the Northeast. The list there might be longer. The great healing power of Indian democracy lies in a simple fact: the door is never closed to anyone. Yesterday’s secessionists are Chief Ministers today in the Northeast. Anger is not the sole prerogative of the secessionist or terrorist. There is a perceptible rage brewing among Indians who believe in India, against those Kashmiris who agitate for separation in the valley but have no qualms about taking advantage of academic institutions and business opportunities in the rest of India. There is a mounting view that the liberal rights of the Indian Constitution should be reserved only for those who believe in the Constitution and not extended to those who want to subvert it. There is some logic in this view and yet it hurts the very Constitution we seek to protect. Moreover, compromise with principles can so easily degenerate into abandonment. The hour of crisis, such as the one we face today, demands that we rise above our anger to preserve the values of our founding generation. The worst of times calls out for the best in us.