The View From Jantar Mantar | The Nation


The View From Jantar Mantar

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On August 13, 1993, two days before India's forty-sixth Independence Day, I was traveling by train from Kashmir to a high school near New Delhi. A few hours into the journey, as the maroon Shalimar Express entered the north Indian plains in Punjab, two Indian soldiers entered my compartment. Like me, the soldiers had made a twelve-hour journey through the high mountains of the Kashmir Valley to the railway station in the state's southern province of Jammu. Ahead of us was a fourteen-hour train ride to New Delhi. The soldiers smiled and dropped their bags in the aisle. "Will you please make room for us?" one of them asked a middle-aged man reading a newsmagazine. "We are going home after a year in Kashmir and don't have any reservations." The man was unmoved. The soldier repeated his request, and as I squirmed in my seat another passenger pointed at the dirty aisle floor and said, "You may sit there."

About the Author

Basharat Peer
Basharat Peer’s memoir of the Kashmir conflict, Curfewed Night, will be published by Scribner in the United States next...

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The history of Pakistan's border regions remains an unruly captive of the imperial "Great Game."

I was stunned. Unlike people in Kashmir, my north Indian co-passengers had no reason to be scared of the soldiers: they ordered them around and the soldiers obeyed. After a while the ticket examiner arrived. "What are you doing here?" he barked at the soldiers. "Sir, there is no room in other compartments. Sir! Please adjust us somewhere," they pleaded. He asked the soldiers to leave the coach and began to walk away. They followed him. A few minutes later they returned and installed themselves on the floor. "How much did he charge you?" someone asked. "Fifty rupees each." My co-passengers laughed and chatted about corruption. "This is India," declared the man with the newsmagazine.

The India I had seen in Kashmir was different. It was not a shining example of the world's largest democracy but instead the military arm of an occupying power whose rule we resented. Political discontent had been simmering in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir since the 1947 partition of British India and the birth of the nation-states of India and Pakistan, and more so in recent decades as India curtailed Kashmiri political rights and autonomy. A separatist rebellion against Indian rule broke out in 1989, and since then more than 70,000 people--mostly Kashmiri civilians and militants, but also Indian soldiers and Pakistani militants--have been killed. After 1990, gun battles, land mine blasts, identity checks, arrests, looting and torture became routine in Kashmir.

When, like thousands of other Kashmiri students escaping the war, I left Kashmir for my Indian school, I was well acquainted with power and fear. In the Shalimar Express, the look I saw on the soldiers' faces suggested they were as well. Outside Kashmir, without the authority enjoyed by soldiers in "disturbed zones" (granted by India's Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958) to shoot anyone they deem suspicious; without their armored vehicles and machine guns; surrounded by fellow Indians from the lower and middle classes; confronted by the ticket examiner, a small-time representative of the law--facing all this, the soldiers seemed helpless. And so they made their voyage home sitting on the dirty floor. In that crowded coach, India seemed a more benign place. I ended up spending nearly a decade and a half outside the coach. Living in different Indian cities and towns as a student and a journalist, I came to know Indian democracy as a crowded collage of disparate and often violently clashing realities.

Living in India means enduring endless and often heated discussions about India. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues that the richness of the tradition of argument is particularly relevant to the "development of democracy in India and the emergence of its secular priorities." The tradition was thriving in 1946, when the members of India's constituent assembly gathered in New Delhi to debate the drafts of the Constitution the new country was to adopt. The assembly, whose 300 members included socialists, Hindu nationalists, supporters of feudalism, upper-caste Brahmans, Muslims, women, untouchables and other lower castes, received public submissions ranging from demands to base the Constitution on "ancient Hindu works" to requests for "adequate representation" from members of the Central Jewish Board of Bombay. "These submissions testified to the baffling heterogeneity of India, but also to the precocious existence of a 'rights culture' among Indians," writes historian and biographer Ramachandra Guha in India After Gandhi, a lucid and engaging summary of independent India.

Guha, a well-known public intellectual in India, has also written on environmental history, the social history of cricket and many aspects of India's cultural and political history. The story told in India After Gandhi is not a revelation for South Asian readers, but it is certainly the first attempt by a historian to compress into a single book a story previously scattered in hundreds of books, newspapers, journals and other archival material. Guha was chosen by the remarkable former publisher of Picador UK turned literary agent, Peter Straus, to write this book. After reading an essay by Guha in the journal Past and Present, Straus tracked him down, visited his home in Bangalore and suggested that he write a history of independent India.

Freedom to argue about the constitutional character of an independent India came at a great price, as the bloody partition of the subcontinent killed and displaced millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs from both sides of the hastily drawn border between India and Pakistan. The border, known as the Radcliffe Line, was named after the British judge Cyril Radcliffe, who had finalized its jagged path. Radcliffe was a stranger to India. After arriving in New Delhi from London in early July 1947, he had just five weeks to complete his task. He knew his line would stir up strife. "There will be roughly 80 million people with a grievance looking for me. I do not want them to find me," he wrote to his nephew soon after his arrival. The Radcliffe Line divided the north Indian province of Punjab into Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab, and in the east it divided Bengal into West Bengal and Eastern Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971. It was these two divided provinces that saw the worst violence after the partition. In the late '90s, Intizar Hussain, the foremost short story writer of Pakistan, wrote in a collection of essays, Chiragoon Ka Dhoowan (The Flight of History), about traveling in a dark train coach from his hometown near Delhi to Lahore. He and his fellow Muslim passengers, paralyzed by the fear of an attack from a Sikh or Hindu mob outside, are quiet as the train rumbles toward the border. A flicker of light inside the coach startles them. It is only a young fellow traveler trying to light a cigarette. Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan have similar stories about the looming threat of fratricide.

One of the biggest administrative tasks confronting the new Indian government was to resettle millions of refugees. Guha evocatively describes the biggest refugee camp, erected in Kurukshetra, a town a few hours from Delhi, where around 300,000 Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan were housed in tents, provided rations and even shown screenings of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse cartoons. In stark contrast to today's mostly inefficient, corrupt and indifferent Indian bureaucracy, Guha explains, social workers and unnamed officials, led by London School of Economics graduate Tarlok Singh, had made 250,000 allotments of land by November 1949. The refugees set about "digging new wells, building new houses, planting new crops. By 1950 a depopulated countryside was alive once again."

The princely states that resisted joining the Indian Union, especially Hyderabad, Junagadh and, foremost, Kashmir, required a different kind of cultivation. Guha tells a gripping story of the taming of princes through a mixture of coercion and persuasion, orchestrated by the home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, a man who sought "practical proof" of loyalty from the millions of Indian Muslims who stayed in India instead of migrating to Pakistan. Patel, who believed that most of these Muslims had earlier supported the demand for an independent Pakistan, had his secretary direct the secretaries of all other departments to monitor Muslims working under them. Guha reproduces the chilling letter: "I would request you to prepare lists of Muslim employees in your Ministry and in the offices under your control, whose loyalty to the Dominion of India is suspected or who are likely to constitute a threat to security." Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru disapproved of such witch-hunt tactics, and according to Guha, "Whereas the home minister demanded that the Muslims prove their loyalty, the prime minister placed the onus on the Indian state, which had a constitutional obligation to make all its citizens, especially the Muslims, feel secure."

Patel's death in 1950 created an opportunity for Nehru to fashion the government and the nation according to his vision of a secular modern democracy. He overcame the Indian National Congress Party leaders sympathetic to the Hindu extremists and prepared for India's first general election in 1952. The Congress Party faced electoral opposition from the Socialists, the Hindu-right Jana Sangh, the Communists and even B.R. Ambedkar, the chief draftsman of the Indian Constitution and great leader of the untouchables, who felt that the Congress Party wasn't doing much to benefit his constituency. Yet Nehru led his party to victory by campaigning on the strength of personal charisma, the idea of national unity and the principle of secularism, which he established as the civil religion of India. Nehruvian secularism aspired to equal treatment of all religions by the state and insisted on the separation of political office and religious institutions. Nehru was very critical of Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India, when Prasad presided over a reconstruction ceremony of Gujarat's Somnath temple, which had been destroyed by a medieval Muslim chief, Mahmud of Ghazni, a native of Ghazni in what is now Afghanistan. For Guha, one measure of Nehru's secular vision is the fact that the 1952 election was a successful civil engineering project: "Some 224,000 polling booths were constructed and equipped with 2 million steel ballot boxes, requiring 8,200 tons of steel. About 380,000 reams of paper were used for printing the rolls."

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