*History, the Nation-State, and Self-Liberation:  A Gandhian Reading of Kashmir

New Delhi, August 15, “Independence Day”

The “integration” of Kashmir into India, or what some (if a distinct minority) would call its annexation by the Indian nation-state, has been discussed largely from the legal, national security, policy, and geopolitical standpoints.  But what might a Gandhian reading of Kashmir look like?  The BJP claims that it is now freeing Kashmir from the stranglehold of a colonial-era politics and the Nehruvian dispensation which had no stomach for a truly manly politics.  The BJP is thus in the process of creating a narrative around the abrogation of Article 370, the removal of J & K’s “special status”, and the “opening up”—an expression that, in such contexts, has meant nothing more than asking for the abject surrender of a people to the regimes of neo-liberalization and rapacious “development”—of the state as the beginning of the “liberation” of Kashmir.

All of history is the constant struggle of people for liberation from forces of oppression.  We need a narrative of liberation different from that which has peddled by the BJP, which I shall frame in three fragments, to unfold the history of Kashmir and the possibilities of redemption for its people. Swami Vivekananda, in a long visit to the Valley in 1897, is said to have been anguished at seeing the desecration of images of Hindu gods and goddesses.  Bowing down before an image of Kali, Vivekananda asked in a distressed voice, “How could you let this happen, Mother?  Why did you permit this desecration?”  It is said that the Divine Mother said in response, “What is to you, Vivekananda, if the invader defiles my images?  Do you protect me?  Or do I protect you?”


Vivekananda in Kashmir, 1897:  he is seated, 2nd to the left.

Secondly, it is an indubitable if deplorable fact that a considerable number of people, especially in north India, began to view Gandhi towards the end of his life as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Nathuram Godse was not alone in adopting this viewpoint: some others, too, saw him as the author of Pakistan and therefore willed Gandhi dead.  The BJP MP, Anil Saumitra, who recently put up a Facebook post declaring Gandhi the Father of Pakistan, is scarcely alone among his party colleagues in holding to these views.  “Since Pakistan was carved out of the silent blessings of Mahatma Gandhi, so he could be the rashtripita of Pakistan.”

But the designation of the “The Father of the Nation”, I would argue, is somewhat misleading for a wholly different reason.  No nationalist was such a staunch critic of the idea of the nation-state; and no one endeavored with such assiduousness as Gandhi to bring women into the orbit of public life and feminize politics. Long before society started expecting men to be nurturing, Gandhi was articulating a space for the view that men should remain men even as they should seek to bring out the feminine within them just as women should remain womanly but seek to bring out the best of the masculine within them.  The Mother in the “Father of the Nation” was doubtless more interesting than the Father in the “Father of the Nation” but in Modi’s India there is only contempt for such a view.

Thirdly, Gandhi’s little text of 1909, Hind Swaraj, must be recognized as the unofficial constitution of India.  Gopalkrishna Gokhale, held up by Gandhi as one of his gurus, was acutely embarrassed by this tract and was certain that it was destined for oblivion.  He advised Gandhi to dump it, but its author, as obdurate as ever, is famously on record as saying towards the end of his life that, barring a single word, he stood by everything he had written nearly 40 years ago.  Its subtitle, Indian Home Rule, has led most readers to read it as a tract for political emancipation from British rule.  But deeper reflection has led other readers to the awareness that Hind Swaraj argues for a more profound conception of liberation, a liberation that frees one from the baser instincts, gives one raj (rule) over one’s own self, and allows one to own up to notions of the self that we may otherwise be inclined to discard.


Just how, then, do these fragments inform our understanding and move us closer to a long-term and not merely forced resolution of the conflict over Kashmir?  It is the Home Minister’s contention that now, post-Article 370, terrorism will cease and Kashmir will be set on the path to “development”.  But this is wholly delusory:  my three fragments on offer point, respectively, to the necessity of liberation from history, liberation from the idea of the nation-state, and liberation from a strangulating conception of the ‘self’.

The champions of Hindutva have imagined themselves as the liberators of Hinduism itself, but their understanding of Vivekananda, whom they hold up as an icon of muscular India, is as shallow as their understanding of everything else.  Hinduism can do very well without Golwalkar and Amit Shah:  Do I protect you, or do you protect me, the Divine Mother asks.  History is no guide here:  many imagine that we only have to sift ‘myth’ from ‘history’, then install a “true history”, but history shackles as much as it emancipates.  As Gandhi might have said, history takes care of itself.  India is no ordinary nation-state, even if the greatest and most pathetic desire of the present political administration is to turn it into one:  thus the obsessive fixation on Akhand Bharat, on the national flag, and on the national anthem.

There is no Hindu or even Indian “self” without the Muslim partaking in it.  Munshi Ganesh Lal, who visited Kashmir in 1846 and recorded his observations in ‘Tuhfa-i-Kashmir (“Wonders of Kashmir”), found little to distinguish even the Kashmiri Pandits from Muslims.  The world of Indian Islam is very different from the putatively authentic Islam of Arabia and west Asia. This is well understood in Pakistan, where, since at least the time of Zia-ul Haq, a rigorous attempt has been made to disown the indubitable fact that Islam in Pakistan belongs to the Indic world more so than it does to the world of West Asian Islam.  The purists in Pakistan have met their match in the ideologues of Hindutva in and outside the Indian state who would like a pure nation-state even if they understand how mouthing pieties about Indian pluralism and the glories of diversity is political correctness.  What is singular about Kashmir, then, is precisely this:  here we can see with clarity the impossibility of redemption until we have unshackled ourselves, as did Gandhi, from debilitating notions of history, an impoverished conception of the self, and the decrepit notion of the nation-state as the culmination of history.

First published at ABP Live as “History, the Nation-State, and Self-Liberation:  A Gandhian View of Kashmir” on 14 August 2019




15 thoughts on “*History, the Nation-State, and Self-Liberation:  A Gandhian Reading of Kashmir

  1. The path to fascism is paved by arguments asking us to forget history or liberate ourselves from the same. These arguments are, of course, the bread and butter of those adjacent to such ethically hollow modes of inquiry as “postcolonial theory”, that most favored field of diasporic Indian intellectuals. The idea that history is a uniquely modern or Western way of viewing the world is, of course, implied in your argument but all it reveals is a deep seated ignorance about pre-colonial India and the historians, yes historians, who existed in pre-colonial India, whether Kalhana or Abul. Romila Thapar has written extensively debunking the false, Orientalist assumption that there was no tradition of historical thinking in precolonial India, but of course postcolonial theorists, enchanted, as they are, by the romantic incarnation of Orientalism, are impervious to this. To them, life starts and ends with the British Raj, making them, ironically, the most colonized of our intellectuals. In my humble opinion, it would be best for Indians to dismiss these arguments concerning history, and recognize that it is only an understanding of history that will liberate us all.


      • Isn’t it so funny, then, that these postcolonial intellectuals obsessed with “decolonization” are the ones who write almost entirely in English, making it clear to us that their intended audience is not the masses in India, while Indian communists generally take the time to write original work or make speeches in Indian languages for an Indian audience in order to spur real social change. But I suppose we all know who is interested in actually communicating to the masses and who is only interested in making witty remarks in the seminar hall with other “deracinated postcolonial intellectuals”.


  2. While I agree with the bulk of what you say, I also believe extreme caution is required when attempting to employ the Indian past and Indian conceptions of pluralism, for we must also acknowledge the great injustices that existed and continue to exist in Indian civilization, as Gandhi himself acknowledged. Indeed, for Gandhi it was the encounter with Islam that brought the spirit of equality to Hinduism, plagued as it was by varna-jati injustices. Ultimately, I believe the problems in South Asia, including the Kashmir conflict, will be solved through a new method, one that certainly borrows from Indian civilization but is also critical of the vast and grave injustices extant there as well.


    • I have no desire to “romanticize” the Indian past and am not inclined to think in that way at all. There were grave injustices in the past and they persist today; we have also added new forms of injustice to the existing ones. The real challenge, and it is a very difficult one, is to see whether one can also think through Indian categories, whatever those may be, to arrive at a different understanding of “pluralism”, “cosmopolitanism”, and the possibilities of different and better futures. My 2019 edited book, “India and Civilizational Futures” (Oxford UP), is a small step in that direction.


  3. How often do you visit temples? If u r truly a Brahmin how come u likely cannot recite even one vedic sloka let alone perform a yagnam or a maha rudram? do u even have a place in ur home wherein u can set up a fire to perform a homam? have u ever even partook in one? do u wear the janeu even?


  4. Excellent piece. As the blockade over Kashmir continues and sees no sign of stopping any time soon, I have no doubt that the Mahatma, were he alive, would be leading a mass satyagraha campaign against the Modi government for the end of the blockade, not to mention their now blatant stoking of Hindutva and communalism that is ripping the country’s polity apart at the seams. The question is, is there anyone in India today who has the courage to do the same.


  5. This is a great piece and holds an important lesson for those whose liberation from colonial rule has been interwoven with the nation state, as is true for both India and those Kashmiri radicals who call themselves Kashmiri nationalists. Conceptualizing Gandhi as a reluctant nationalist, or a nationalist who was critical of the nation state but perhaps saw it as a necessary evil in the case of India, is quite important for Kashmiris to also grapple with. Ultimately, though imperialism and colonialism must always be resisted, and this sometimes means supporting putatively nationalist movements, whether the perpetrators of imperialism be be British or Indian, anti-colonialists must acknowledge the fact that the nation state can never be a truly liberatory entity.


    • Your summary of what is at stake is accurate and admirable. We have to develop a hermeneutics of suspicion towards the idea of the nation-state and try to understand how we can forge new forms of inter-communality, drawing upon the past where necessary and desirable. But the past itself cannot be understood through just what is called “history”: that is part of the problem. The ideas of history and the nation-state are very closely tethered to each other.


  6. Professor Lal,

    What do you believe the Gandhian view of a political solution to the issue would be? We know that while Gandhi had views of the future that he likely knew would not come to fruition given the fact that even his closest follower, Nehru, rejected much of his philosophy, and yet Gandhi never rejected the domain of the possible and remained active in politics. What would he propose with respect to action on Kashmir?

    Additionally, I have noticed that while your World History series is up on YouTube, the videos are still private. Could you please allow us to access them? It would be greatly appreciated, sir.


  7. The fact that nationalism and the culture of nationalism is wedded to masculinity is very true and important to keep in mind. One example is how the phrase “Jai Shri Ram” has been slowly replacing the phrase “Jai Siya Ram”. Jai Shri Ram has of course become a Hindutva rallying cry, but why do the Hindutva nationalists feel like they have to remove Sita or Siya from the phrase to mobilize it for nationalist purposes?


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