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  Opinion   Columnists  26 Oct 2021  Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | South Asia confederation: Is it still a workable idea?

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | South Asia confederation: Is it still a workable idea?

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Oct 27, 2021, 2:09 am IST
Updated : Oct 27, 2021, 2:09 am IST

That ideal inspired Syama Prasad Mookerjee to break the law and court arrest, leading to his death, in Kashmir in 1953


A Facebook post reading “If a Kashmiri can sell shawls in Calcutta without fear, a vendor from Darbhanga must be allowed to sell phuchkas in Srinagar without being gunned down” recalled a memorandum by Ray Knight of the Indian Civil Service whose father founded The Times of India and The Statesman of Calcutta and who himself edited the latter in 1923-24. Knight’s memorandum argued that “India can never be a nation so long as her peoples are strangers to one another”.

That ideal inspired Syama Prasad Mookerjee to break the law and court arrest, leading to his death, in Kashmir in 1953. His hunger strike was in protest against Indian citizens being required to show identity cards to enter Jammu and Kashmir and not being allowed to settle in the state.


Undeniably, his rallying cry “Ek desh mein do vidhan, do pradhan aur do nishan nahi challenge” (A single country cannot have two constitutions, two prime ministers and two national emblems) still resonates with a certain appeal. Nor is it without some logic. But let us be honest about the facts. If the currently fashionable political thinking holds that the Peace of Westphalia, which ended Europe’s Thirty Years’ War in 1648, is not relevant to India, neither is the concept of the nation state which is traced to the Westphalian system.

What the latest spate of violence in Jammu and Kashmir bears out is that the entire region — whether it be a state or Union territories — is under siege, uncomfortable in its identity and seeking a new security system. A 2010 survey claimed that 43 per cent of the population on the Indian side of the ceasefire line — the Line of Control — and 44 per cent in the Pakistan-occupied sector favour complete independence. A year later, an inquiry confirmed that thousands of bullet-ridden bodies were found buried in unmarked graves. The murder, persecution and eviction of Hindus amounts to ethnic cleansing. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is suspected of permitting abuse. The mischievous role of the Pakistani intelligence agencies is indisputable. So is the criminality of gangs like the Islamic Resistance Front (TRF), which emerged after Article 370 was abolished and is seen as an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.


The resultant crisis situation feeds suspicion and fuels accusations. The presence of some 600,000 Indian troops may add to tension. Some claim that 47,000 people have been murdered since 1989. Others cite much higher fatality figures. The TRF has reportedly vowed to kill all employees of the Indian State. That can easily mean poor people like the anonymous phuchka seller from Darbhanga of the Facebook posting or any other of the hapless 455 million Indians who must work outside their states or starve, according to the 2011 Census. As Knight’s memorandum added: “At the present moment, the Indian outside his own province is as much a stranger as any European, excepting in the narrow circles where a common education, language and political ambition, all of foreign provenance, have created a superficial unity.”


A Tamil and a Haryanvi both know that they are Indians but the bonds of locality, language, religion, customs, food and lifestyle are emotionally more meaningful.
Despite Syama Prasad’s conviction, India is not a country like England or even France. The single sovereignty of the Mughals never embraced the entirety of today’s Republic of India. The conquest of the Indo-Gangetic plain centralised the Maurya empire with its capital at Pataliputra but the empire’s geographical extent depended on the loyalty of political satraps and military commanders who controlled the outlying provinces.

Since some like to think today that the Mughals were not Indian, we can consider instead Ashoka’s empire (268-232 BCE), which briefly controlled the subcontinent’s major urban hubs and arteries before giving way to the Shunga dynasty in Magadha. Ashoka’s rule extended to Kandahar, where some of his rock edicts stood, but not even the most passionate traditionalist claims that Kandahar is Indian. Most Indians will however insist that Nagaland is a part of India, even though the Naga language, physiognomy, religion, food habits and lifestyle are far removed from the familiar norms of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Unlike Kandahar, however, Nagaland was a part of British India.


Much trouble might end if that basis of modern India’s identity were recognised, respected and accommodated in the political and administrative structure. Diehards who nurse the illusion that a new era of peace and plenty blossomed on August 5, 2019 need to understand the constitutional roots of the Indian State if for no other reason, to improve the future of its deprived millions.

The official propaganda hardly reflects the plight of the masses which underlies all unrest. High unemployment and lack of economic opportunities aggravate Kashmir’s already dire situation.

Widespread malnutrition is bringing down the average height of Indians as India slips seven spots to be ranked 101 among 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index. Even Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh fare better. With $83.1 billion in repatriated earnings, India leads the global list because we cannot provide a livelihood at home for 17.5 million workers. Similarly, 35,000 high net worth entrepreneurs have migrated since 2014. Every sixth urban Indian lives in a cramped and unsanitary slum. Victims of cyclones, locusts, floods, drought, rising sea levels, water stress, reduced crop yields, and longer and more intense heat waves, Indians also suffer mismanagement: over 100 million don’t get their entitled food rations. Yet, India boasts Asia’s richest tycoon and has 140 billionaires and nearly 700,000 “dollar” millionaires.


The only way of reconciling these irreconcilables is to honestly admit that disparate entities were brought together under colonial rule and that in 1947 some of them joined with conditions whose legal and moral force time cannot erode. As Arthur Moore, who followed the Knights as editor of The Statesman, had once warned, “Pakistan canal disputes, boundary disputes, displaced persons disputes -- all these may be solved; trade between the two countries may be developed; but there will never be satisfactory relations between India and Pakistan till the Kashmir issue is amicably settled.”

Moore recommended a confederation. Mahatma Gandhi approved. So did Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who knew that Kashmir and East Bengal were aspects of the same problem. His daughter solved East Bengal’s dilemma before the novel and imaginative confederal prescription could be attempted. But that should not prevent all South Asians of goodwill and courage from repeating with Nehru: “Confederation remains our ultimate goal”.


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