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Secessionism in Modern India: An Overview


The Indian Express, Jan. 18, 2003

A whole generation of Indians has now come up without having seen the names of Phizo and Laldenga in their headlines. How many would even remember that the anti-foreigner movement in Assam had successfully blockaded the flow of its oil to the rest of India? Many readers have also raised an interesting question about my argument that separatist movements follow a predictable curve in India. Rebellions rise to a peak but meanwhile the state power is found equal to the challenge. At some point on this curve, the rebels realise that no matter what the score on the ground in terms of bodies, what the collateral damage, the dream of separatism is not going to be achieved. It is at this point that they are willing to settle. This is where the flexibility of our politics, the accommodation of our liberal constitutionalism, comes so handy.

The answer, first of all, is that this theory has stood the test of time and diversity. It worked, for example, in Assam first. The movement peaked, not when the oil blockade and public protests were at their peak in 1980, but in 1983 when Indira Gandhi rammed through an election which the movement led by Prafulla Mahanta and Bhrigu Phukan opposed. People's boycott of the election in the Brahamaputra valley was total. In some constituencies not even 10 votes were cast despite an electoral bandobast [arrangement] the kind of which this country had never seen - neither in the past nor subsequently, except in the 2002 Kashmir elections. Seven thousand people were killed in a fortnight of massacres, as Hiteswar Saikia's Congress government was installed with voting percentages lower than any seen in the Kashmir Valley.

Yet it was here that the rebel leaders, instead of smelling victory, came to realise that there was no way New Delhi was going to concede anything under pressure. This was the critical point on the curve. Negotiations began and it was a matter of time before constitutional liberalism and political flexibility enabled Rajiv Gandhi to make perfectly acceptable concessions. Mahanta and Phukan won power in a 1985 election where the slogan was 'Congress murdabad, Rajiv zindabad' [death to Congress, long live Rajiv]. The Assamese were back in the mainstream.

The Northeast gives us two more clear cases of how well this theory works. Mere military might or state power can't solve the problem. But it convinces everybody of the need for give-and-take. The politics and the constitution step in. Subhash Ghising's Gorkha National Liberation Front (G.N.L.F.) movement was seen as a threat to the nation next only to the Khalistan movement. What happened to it? After two years of unrelenting violence and counter-operation by security forces, the issue was settled with a minor constitutional stratagem - offer of an autonomous district to the Gorkhas. All very clean and correct and without diminishing not merely India's but even West Bengal's territorial integrity.

The other example is even more telling. Our children's history books will never tell you how close Mizoram came to secession. But ask retired Lt. Gen. V.K. Nayar, who wrote a touching piece on Nagaland on this page this week. As a young major he led the first army column - paratroopers, who else? - to liberate Aizawl where the rebels had nearly over-run the Assam Rifles garrison in early 1966 and unfurled the Mizo National Front (M.N.F.) flag on the treasury. It took in waves of I.A.F. bombing sorties and the paras to retrieve the situation. But Lt. Gen. Nayar who escaped did as many tours of duty in the Northeast as today's infantry officers have done in post-1989 Kashmir, and he will tell you the insurgency's high point came more than a decade later. M.N.F. assassins were able to sneak into the I.G.P.'s office and the head of the Special Branch, besides ambushing the Lt. Governor's convoy. But this is where the state flexed its muscles even more, rather than buckle in.

This is when the first batches of the underground began to get second thoughts and return to normal life. There was a series of amnesties and surfacing M.N.F. guerrillas quickly merged into mainstream life, some as contractors, some as politicians and many joined the newly-raised Mizoram Armed Police battalions that proved more effective than any elite army regiment in subduing insurgency. They started out by killing all those involved in the police headquarters massacre. This process finally convinced Laldenga he had no choice but to settle. And when that happened New Delhi was ready. There was plenty of room in the constitution to answer the Mizo concerns on culture, identity and its resources. And politics was able to offer Laldenga and his boys perfectly legitimate power - through elections.

Then why did Punjab follow a different curve? And is Kashmir going to conform to this theory? Punjab was unique in that it refused to settle even after a peace accord because of some crucial differences. First of all, Rajiv settled not with the leaders of rebels but with a sidelined moderate, Sant Longowal. Second, Sikh anger at Operation Bluestar and the massacres following Mrs Gandhi's assassination was still very fresh. Third, the rebellion there was never rooted in total popular support, as in Mizoram or Nagaland. And fourth, the might of the state was still not able to convince the rebels they were not going to win. It is, however, primarily because of the lack of a larger popular base and the resilience of conventional politics that the so-called Khalistan campaign got criminalised and was so completely put down by K.P.S. Gill and his police. It is because of these unique features that Punjab followed a curve of its own.

If Punjab's case was sui generis, what is Kashmir? As far as popular support to the separatist cause is concerned, the Kashmir Valley conforms to the Nagaland-Mizoram scale. The rebellion has been intense, has inflicted heavy damage and the state has hit back with greater might than ever employed in an internal situation to this extent. Kashmir should, therefore, be of a piece with other rebellions that finally unravelled, following my theory to perfection. But the big difference is the foreign dimension. While Pakistan and China supported the Mizos and Nagas, they were never so openly involved. Nor did they share borders with this state. The 2002 election and the army mobilisation have given Kashmir an interesting twist. Combined with growing disenchantment with cruel and overbearing imported jehadis, this has made at least the people reach a state of mind on the same violence-to-peace curve where they want to settle. The fourth is, even the leaders of Hurriyat share that mindset.

The equation is poised tantalisingly at that decisive point on the curve where a push from political accommodation and liberal constitutional commitments can settle the issue. The Pakistani militarists know this as well and their desperation will show in the moves they make Apr. onwards. Yet, the circumstances have never been more favourable for the strategy of using international pressures to keep Pakistan in check. If we hold our nerve then, instead of politicising every move Mufti makes or reacting in anger to every jehadi provocation, you might find that the theory that worked in Mizoram, Nagaland and Darjeeling but failed in Punjab may be reaffirmed in Kashmir. It will not be so simple, but it has never been more possible.

I put forth this theory, in the same loose, anecdotal and journalistic way, at a seminar in New York a decade ago. Among the audience was the redoubtable Princeton professor, Atul Kohli. He asked me several times to expand this into a more cogent, academic argument. And when I was too lazy to do it, he did it instead and published a paper entitled, Can Democracies Accommodate Ethnic Nationalism? Rise and Decline of Self-Determination Movements in India. Of course, he was generous enough to say prominently where his theory had come from and that he was expanding on it because I had failed to do so despite his many urgings. So if you want to see it explained more intelligently, please read Atul's paper. Or, just watch the front pages as months go by in this make-or-break year.