Thursday, December 14, 2006

Absolute Borders: Partition, Pluralism, and Indian Nationalism

Via Desipundit, I caught a link to a post by Qalandar on a recent article in the Calcutta Telegraph by Mukul Kesavan.

For those who don't know, Mukul Kesavan is a pretty accomplished writer -- the author of Looking Through Glass, and an interesting little monograph that came out a few years ago, called Secular Common-Sense.

His latest column is about the lingering consequences of the experience of Partition on the thinking of the Indian government regarding its borders. Kesavan is pointing to a kind of paradox in the constitution of the Indian state -- it was founded on a principle of pluralism across religious, linguistic, ethnic, and caste differences. But once it was defined as such and those borders were consecrated, if you will, in blood during the Partition, the possibility of allowing one or another territory to secede on the basis of ethnic or religious difference became an impossibility. If you do that, the whole justification for holding the rest of the country together could potentially collapse.

Qalandar raises some questions about the rhetorical stance taken by Kesavan in his piece, and Mukul Kesavan himself actually shows up in the comments to clarify some things. In fact, it's in the comments to the post that he gives what might be the clearest account of his position:

Pakistan claims Kashmir because as a Muslim state carved out of British India it thinks it has a right to Kashmir as a Muslim majority province. Israel, as a Jewish state, wants to annex large settler blocs of Jews on the West Bank to Israel and in return would be happy to give away bits of Israel that have concentrations of Arabs. Other nations dispute or defend territory on the ground of language. Indian nationalism refused the temptation of a single collective identity; as a result, the republic it created had no way of discriminating between borders that were negotiable and those that were written in stone. Not only were its borders were colonial and therefore arbitrary, being an ideologically pluralist state it couldn't claim or trade away disputed borderlands going by the nature of the populations settled there. So it decided that every inch of its border was sacred and what it had, it held. (link)

It's an interesting thesis -- one could argue that it might not hold in the case of India's claims to the Kashmir valley (too much strategic and symbolic value to ever think of letting go). But the northeastern provinces seem much more marginal. And just to reiterate in case anyone misses it: Kesavan isn't saying that India should just let go of any territory (indeed, he comes out pretty clearly as saying it shouldn't). Rather, Kesavan is trying to explain why India has held on -- and will continue to hold on -- so tenaciously.

There's more to it, but I think I'll leave it to readers to explore some of the other interesting points made in this discussion, by Qalandar, Mukul Kesavan, and Nitin Pai.


Chandra said...

"But the northeastern provinces seem much more marginal." Why? Should we give it to the Chinese then? If Kashmir valley is so symbolically important, why not the northeastern part of the country? I am not sure what makes people offer such casual remarks (it's not just you) - as though there is no historic cultural/religious bond between people in northeast with the rest of the country. But they are perfectly willing to buy into Middle Kingdom's claim on lands were never linked to it.

12:42 AM  
vkrishna said...

Isn't this a rather obvious statement? Pakistan knows that by claiming Kashmir, it is extending the two-nation theory to its logical conclusion, and at the same time further legitimising its existence,
while India, by refusing to countenance any compromise (or "partition" along religious lines) on Kashmir, is denying the validity of this theory and preserving the foundations of the Indian state?
If one reads some of the more fundamentalist generals in Pakistan, or the more loony politicians, this is pretty clear. To them Kashmir is the neccesary wedge, and the beginning of the further division of India. For this reason, any peace deal with Pakistan that involves compromises on this
issue is damaging to Indian pluralism, and conversely compromises by Pakistan may not bode well for
Pakistan's existence in its present form.

1:42 AM  
vkrishna said...

BTW, I agree with Chandra's post above. The Northeast is not marginal, and does have pretty strong cultural links with the other parts of India.

3:43 AM  
Kerim Friedman said...

Because India's constitution did not anchor that multiculturalism upon the concept of universal rights so much as upon collective rights there is a further paradox: one of the rights collectives might ask for is that of their own territory. And, indeed, India has seen significant re-drawing of its internal borders along these lines even if separatism is not tolerated.

7:10 AM  

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