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Kashmir unrest: how RSS ideology blinds Modi govt to the reality

Ashutosh | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 6:42 IST

"This is our rage, our protest... we want to arouse our authorities and our people... to make them rise up and say we cannot live like this anymore!" thundered the Uzbek filmmaker Shukhrat Makhmudov in October 1989. It was the time when Uzbekistan was yearning for freedom form the USSR.

Mikhail Gorbachev was candid in admitting his folly and that of the Soviet system in dealing with such sentiments: "As a matter of self criticism one has to admit that we underestimated the forces of nationalism and separatism that were hidden deep within our system... creating a socially explosive mixture."

As a student of Soviet history and politics, I look at Kashmir today and feel that India is probably caught between similar feelings, and which represent the dark reality of our modern republic.

History is witness that the deep desire for identity cannot be suppressed by a brutal "dehumanising" force, however, robust and powerful a state apparatus it is unleashed by. In the USSR, even communism's ideological onslaught of "assimilation" could also not blur the lines of ethnic nationalism. By the time the Communist Party realised this in the late 1980s it was too late.

The USSR was torn apart into over a dozen independent countries after people of various ethnic identities declared themselves free. The grand dream of communism to merge disparate identities into one Soviet identity failed.

India is also a maze of different identities sharing a common history which is longer than of any civilisation on the planet. The Indian state, with one stroke of the constitutional pen, sought to merge all this land's myriad identities into a composite identity called "Indianness".

Several populations - Tamil, Sikh, Kashmiri - advocated separate identities for themselves but the Indian state wouldn't allow them the luxury. A few Northeastern identities too expressed their defiance, leading to a law and order problem over time.

Punjab and Kashmir exploded into a full-blown crisis.

Punjab is calm now but Kashmir is boiling, and its clamour for a separate identity or freedom cannot be wished away as just an expression of a few disgruntled elements sponsored by Pakistan.

People in Soviet republics felt Communists were out to suppress their identity, Kashmiris fear the same

Unfortunately, the Narendra Modi regime and its ideological mentors in the RSS do not seem to learn from history. Two narratives are being carefully constructed since this government took power.

One, Kashmir is a law and order problem seeded by Pakistan's evil designs. Two, the ongoing agitation is an anti-national act that should be accordingly dealt with, and any support or sympathy for it amounts to treason.

Just the advice to look at the problem sympathetically is not acceptable and can invite sedition charges.

Sangh's dangerous agenda

This is happening because of ideological reasons. The RSS was formed in 1925 on an anti-Muslim platform. Its founder, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, was a Congressman.

He was unhappy with Gandhi supporting the Khilafat movement in 1919, and the riots in Maharashtra in 1920 only strengthened his resolve to create a parallel "movement" to the struggle for independence led by Gandhi.

Hedgewar was convinced that the Congress under Gandhi was appeasing Muslims to the detriment of the majority Hindu community.

Historians can vouch for the fact that the RSS played no role in the freedom struggle. Its leaders, who did not go to jail as other revolutionaries did, never forgave Gandhi or the Muslims for the partition and the creation of Pakistan in the name of Islam.

After Independence, they based their politics mainly on three issues - Babri Masjid, uniform civil code and Article 370, all of which have an inherent anti-Muslim bias.

In internal discussions, the RSS insists that Kashmir is volatile because its majority population is Muslim. It has been demanding abrogation of Article 370, not realising that this provision forms the basis of Kashmir's accession to India. Removing Article 370 means removing the very condition which integrates Kashmir with India.

This demand has over time made Kashmiris fearful that the RSS and the BJP are out to suppress their identity, just as people in Uzbekistan and other Soviet republics felt when the Communist Party launched the process of "Russification".

I am not debating whether this consciousness is real or false, what is important is that it does exist in the collective consciousness and has the potential to distort reality.

It was for this reason that I criticised Modi and the BJP when they formed a government with the PDP after the assembly election in 2014. Since 1987, when the assembly election was rigged at the instance of the Rajiv Gandhi government, the Kashmiri identity lives in the constant fear that the Indian state would not treat them as equal; that they won't get justice in the Indian system.

Fearing loss of identity

I went to Kashmir when it was peaceful in the early 80s and again in 90-91 when terrorism was at its peak. I also covered Kashmir during the assembly election in 1996.

And every time, there was a constant feeling that the Indian system did not treat Kashmiris with fairness and equality. In such a context, if the BJP, seen as being hostile to the very existence of Kashmir as an idea, joins the government, why would the alienation of Kashmiris not reach an abyss and not create, in Gorbachev's words, a socially explosive mixture?

Let's not forget that the Muslim minority in India and the Muslim majority in Kashmir have not forgotten the 2002 carnage in Gujarat. Despite donning the robes of prime ministership, Modi is still seen as the one who presided over that massacre. He is neither forgotten nor forgiven. Still, if it is assumed that Kashmir will sing a different tune then we are fooling ourselves.

Kashmir is a test of Indian democracy. It is a test of Indian traditions whose essence is debate and discussion. But don't confuse it with the debate which takes place on TV channels in the name of freedom of expression every day, and which paints Kashmiris as villains of our nationalism; which questions the patriotism of every right-thinking individual who doesn't subscribe to the narrative of the RSS and the Modi regime.

Kashmir is a test of Indian democracy, a test of traditions whose essence is debate & discussion: Ashutosh

This convoluted debate about nationalism is a farce and one of the biggest obstacles in restoring the trust and confidence of the common Kashmiri in the Indian state.

It's high time the Modi government came out of its ideological prison, and not treat Kashmiris as anti-national. The realisation that might of ideology is no substitute to free spirit and reconciliation should dawn in South block and in Nagpur.

We should learn from Russian history and from the experience of The New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith.

He believed that "five long centuries of absolutism - from Ivan the Terrible to the Soviet seventies - had left the Russian masses submissive", only to realise he had been wrong.

As he admitted, "Never had I imagined that the Soviet Union would undergo the kind of seismic transformation that became apparent a couple of years after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power".

Will Modi admit his thinking is wrong? Will the RSS introspect? These are the important questions today.

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First published: 24 August 2016, 3:24 IST