Nationalisms of the mind

At the World Social Forum in Karachi some years ago, a visiting Pakistani expatriate, whispered in my ear during a power point presentation by an Indian on Kashmir dispute: ‘what kind of a map of Jammu and Kashmir is this?’ I looked at the perfectly familiar map and then looked at him quizzically. The man was unsettled by my absolute calm. "I have never seen a map of J&K like that before," he said. I smiled. We all have different maps for the place, competing ones with competing claims, I explained. All, because one’s sense of history gets in the way of another’s sense of geography. And, hence the dispute. The lines are drawn on the map, competing nationalistic fervours feeding into the way we design these lines – as an integral entity of the human shaped map of India like a befitting head (though, Gandhi consciously called it the crown) of that human form, or sliced into chunks, one part completely knit into the mainland Pakistan and labeled Northern Areas, a smaller strip declared ‘Azad’ only as far as the map and the nomenclature goes. The geographical cartographies, varied as they remain, equally feed into more rabidly fanatical nationalistic passions, also creating solid borders of the mind – almost impenetrable and irremovable. The lines are rigid, cannot be purged with an eraser or a simple whitewash. They inspire a national pride and consequently hatred and a vicious cycle of violence even as those effected and divided by these lines and the violence that ensues voicelessly cry:No more, please! It’s enough! Their fates decided by distant beings drunk on the goblet of their competitive national glorification. 

This opium of ultra-nationalism follows the rigid patterns of the cartographic boundaries. It does not respond to the needs of the humans, impacted by the bloody wars and infighting over its boundaries. It is ignorant of the lines that sliced a mountain into two, and pierced through the hearts of many, turning a mother into an estranged neighbour of her son across the bloody Line of Control, where men in jackboots trample the grass in the meadows, divided by an unseen line overlooked from fortified bunkers; and sneak into their lives, controlling manipulating them, by virtue of being guardians of those lines. Not lives of humans. They are simply treated like dumb cattle, driven by needs of strategic interests, wearied by wars and hostility, blown by landmines that tick beneath the bosom of the land they call home, shelter-less when displaced, shelter-less in the four walls of their houses. Their humanity gets in the way of the sense of nationalism of those who control their lives. Their own sense of nationalism is not something they have powers over. It comes by accident of geography and by the changing contours of history and needs the legitimacy of greater powers, the state represented by the valour of the jackboots, their only access to the state.

Ghulam Hassain, an octogenarian from Birhuti, a village bang on the Line of Control close to Poonch town, that separates him from his son and his friend, whose houses he can overlook daily on the other side on a neat hillock but cannot call out to them, recalls that during the 1965 war, their village had been occupied by the Pakistani army and it took a year for the Indian army to get it back. The territories were restored but the local administration woke up to their existence only a year after that re-transfer of powers from that side to this. The lines can be altered, temporarily or permanently, forcing displacements or the fate of living in the no-man’s land. Nothing illustrates this better than the strange case of the people of Turtuk, a border village at the feet of the mighty icy battle field of Siachen. Turtuk became a part of the Pakistan’s Northern Areas after the 1947-48 war and in 1971 war, it was ceded by the Indian forces along with its people, the latter having no right to decide their fate – neither their nationality nor their socio-economic development. Their sense of patriotism, much like communities elsewhere, is driven by a more local sense of loyalty, not by the great lofty ideals that move mighty states of the bigger nations, those that deem it fit in the passion of the bigger nationalism to trample over the smaller nationalisms. As goes the ancient maxim of Thucydides: ‘Large nations do what they wish, while small nations accept what they must.’

This ancient saying breathes life into and invigorates the pursuits of India and Pakistan in reclaiming Kashmir, exaggerating the complexity of a dispute that has the potential of turning into the world’s bloodiest one ever. It allows Pakistan to meddle, encourage and support armed guerrillas, who play with lives of people, triggering displacements and fear. And equally, it allows India to crush the people and their voices in the name of fighting these guerillas. The dirty war games are played in the homes of the people, over their bodies that are stomped, trampled and mutilated – physically, spiritually. And long after, the guerillas are reduced almost to a naught, owing to multiple reasons including a weakening Pakistan State, the mightier Indian State continues to appropriate that right of trampling the rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, in the name of national interest, in the name of security. Whose security? Certainly not of the people who belong here!

The cartographic lines dictate the minds of those who run the empire of the State, inspiring that sense of ultra-nationalism that can be so brutal in the name of peace. It allows them the right to rule with jackboots, retain the highly disproportionate size of armed forces and police, roughly working down to an estimated ratio of one officially patronised gunman for every 25 persons of the region. It allows them the right to turn a blind eye to massive human rights violations and merrily deem them as aberrations or figment of imagination of subversive minds who want to demoralise the forces. It allows them the right to rob the people even of their democratic rights, guaranteed by the constitution, whose bedrock remains human dignity and civil liberties – all these denied through several political wrongs and extra-judicial powers for the men in uniform. The latter become a symbol of nationalism, treated holier than thou, nationalism trapped in the persona of the uniformed personnel, like the fabled life of a fairy tale character was captured in a parrot. A national notion is wrongly constructed as if, like the severing of the parrot’s head, touching the uniformed personnel would amount to an end of the nation itself. He can, therefore, not be held accountable for the wrongs he perpetrated, the women he molested or raped, the men he brutally killed or tortured.

Will nobody heed other kind of voices? For instance, the voice of that ex-army personnel from R.S Pura, near Jammu city, whose son alongwith three others was picked up by some serving army personnel, lured by the bait of jobs as army porters, and done to death in a fake encounter. Half a decade after he lost his son, and shattered by a hopeless battle he fights for justice, wiping his watery eyes, he asks: ‘I worked in the army. Is this what it has come to be?’ Or, that of Sakina, whose 8 year old son was picked up more than 10 years ago outside his maternal grandmother’s house and taken to the notorious interrogation centre, Papa II (the one that became a synonym of torture and brutality), and was never seen again.

These voices will not be heard because the men in uniform must be protected. But there is no protection for the innocents picked up and killed, framed in false cases. Images flash across the mind of young 9 to 13 year olds, handcuffed and shuttled between police stations, jails and courts for endless trials, on charges of sedition, fighting the mighty nation – for all they did was pelted stones at men in uniform. No protection for the children who grow up, bearing the brunt of animosity and brutality propelled by a sense of nationalism, in turn inspiring a retaliatory sense of ultra-nationalism and hatred that would eventually breed more contempt, brutality and violence. And, even long after one tyranny would be gone, another would be resurrected.

The dirtying Dal Lake that lies in the heart of Srinagar city perhaps learnt that secret years ago when it began to reveal shades of red, now camouflaged by scientific tempering. But it doesn’t change the reality, even if the famed lake no more reflects the gory bloodiness of what it sees and what it could foretell. Sitting here on the banks of the Dal, which no more mirrors the pinnacle of brutality (on the face of it, it oozes with happiness of frolicking tourists, enjoying the great breeze, dressed in their best, cameras slung on their shoulders to capture images that represent another Kashmir), it seems like the end of the road, it seems greed, contempt and tyranny would consume this space like a black hole sucking in everything in and around here. Is there a saving grace? A last hope?

And then I think of the great Rabindranath Tagore, India’s messianic poet and Asia’s first Nobel Laureate, the man who saw the future of the world in humanism as the driving force behind progress and development. Spurning the concept of radical nationalism, which he perceived as "a cruel epidemic of evil,….. sweeping over the human world….and eating into its moral fibre….; a terrible absurdity that is seeking to engulf humanity in a suicidal conflagration," he sketched a vision of an alternate world, becoming a precursor to many thinkers, philosophers and intellectuals. (Ref: Imaginaing One world: Rabindranath Tagore’s critique of Nationalism by Mohammad A. Quayum (International islamic University Malaysia). One of them, Noam Chomsky writes that Tagore believed, "another world is possible’ seeking to create constructive alternatives of thought, actions and institutions," and by bringing "a measure of peace and justice and hope to the world". Tagore had before him the vision of a commonwealth of nations in which no nation, or race, would deprive another "of its rightful place in the world festival" and every nation would "keep alight its own lamp of mind as its part of the illumination of the world."

The man did not spell any utopia. He only used historical evidence to illustrate his vision of the future. As the protagonist in his novel ‘The Home and the World’ says: ‘It was Buddha who conquered the world, not Alexander…..’ 
Sitting on the banks of this polluting but world famous lake, Tagore’s idea of humanism, conquering over a fanatical notion of ultra-nationalism, seems like the final hope, the only one. The words from his famous poem ‘Where the mind is without fear’ echo in the mind, igniting my soul with its last line, bestowing a dream that is a cherished possession….. ‘Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.’

(This article was first published in Kindle Magazine, December 2011)
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