Evolution of Naga and Kashmiri freedom struggles suggest time is up for real nationalism

The Naga struggle for independence from India began, according to Naga separatists, from before 15 August, 1947 when India became independent.

Samrat October 29, 2019 11:11:13 IST
Evolution of Naga and Kashmiri freedom struggles suggest time is up for real nationalism
  • The Naga struggle for independence from India began, according to Naga separatists, from before 15 August, 1947 when India became independent

  • In today’s world, such revolutionary movements would probably be difficult to create and sustain

  • The forces that once built modern countries, including India, out of vastly diverse territories and peoples, now push in the opposite direction

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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31 October, which is only hours away now, is the scheduled conclusion of the historic and long-drawn Naga peace talks. The process began in 1997; now 22 years and many governments later, it is ending in hectic parleys whose final outcome is still unknown at the time of writing this, as meetings are still on. The core of the dispute, all these years later, remains what it was: the idea that the Naga tribes of Northeast India and Myanmar constitute a nation and are therefore entitled to exist as a sovereign one, with its own flag and constitution.

The Naga struggle for independence from India began, according to Naga separatists, from before 15 August, 1947 when India became independent. The earliest official memorandum of note that outlines the Naga demand for independence from India is the Naga Club’s memorandum to the Simon Commission in January 1929, in which the Nagas outlined their reasons for objecting to inclusion within India.

Evolution of Naga and Kashmiri freedom struggles suggest time is up for real nationalism

Representational image. AFP

“Before the British Government conquered our territory in 1879-80, we were living in a state of intermittent warfare with the Assamese of the Assam valley to the North and West of our country, and the Manipuris to the south. They never conquered us, nor were we ever subjected to their rule”, the Naga Club’s members – the only educated persons in the Naga community then – wrote. "We have no social affinities with the Hindus or Mussalmans. We are looked down upon by the one for beef and the other for pork, and by both for our want of education."

The Nagas requested the British to safeguard to leave them alone so they could determine their futures as they had since ancient times. This request eventually took the form of a declaration of independence by the Naga National Council on 14 August, 1947, and a referendum held by the same organisation in 1951 in which the NNC claimed that 99.9 percent of the voters voted for a sovereign Naga nation.

It is more than 90 years since the Naga Club’s memorandum to the Simon Commission, and a lot has changed in the intervening years. Modern India, which emerged out of the British Indian empire, despite its incredible diversity, has – after the dismemberment of Partition — managed to hold together and grow stronger over time. It has successfully negotiated separatist movements in Punjab and Assam, and the Naxal rebellion in West Bengal. It is now in a crucial phase of its handling of the separatist movements in Nagaland and Kashmir.

The idea that drives both these separatist movements is the idea of the nation. It is an idea that may appear to have become stronger over time, if the nationalisms of various kinds on display in many parts of the world at present are anything to go by. Yet, the evolution of the Naga and to a lesser extent, the Kashmiri freedom struggle, possibly illustrate something quite different. They suggest that the potency of nationalism as an idea has been overtaken by one even more powerful, which is the idea of neoliberal capitalism.

Nationalisms from the earliest days were driven by revolutionary forces. The 1789 French Revolution, for instance, led to the creation of France as a country with a strong cultural and linguistic identity. This continued down to the 1990s when the map of Eastern Europe changed with the fall of the Soviet Union, through processes such as the Velvet Revolution that led to the creation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as modern, independent nation states. The national independence movements in formerly colonised countries, whether peaceful or violent, were revolutionary in character. This was true even of the Indian freedom struggle, which had both peaceful and violent aspects, ranging from Bhagat Singh to Gandhi to Subhas Bose. The unsuccessful separatist national movements of smaller aspiring nations such as the ones in Punjab, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Kashmir also began with revolutionary fervour.

In today’s world, such revolutionary movements would probably be difficult to create and sustain. Their time is over. The appetite of ordinary individuals to sacrifice life and limb for a cause is not what it used to be. Belief in higher causes has been eroded. Belief in the comfort and convenience that money can buy has grown in leaps and bounds. Faced with a choice between comfortable and financially rewarding compromise, and potentially fatal idealism, it is only a negligible and minuscule minority that would choose the latter. Revolution in today’s world largely ends at forwarding WhatsApp messages and posting angry comments on Twitter. It is facile and symbolic, and transparently insincere in most cases.

The cornucopia of neoliberal capitalism seduces individuals with promises of freedom and plenty. It operates through the mercantile logic of purchase rather than the imperial logic of subjugation. The problem for the potential revolutionary is that everyone around him might sell out, leaving him to die a lonely death. In the past, selling out in such fashion might have been considered betrayal; in today’s world, it would be considered merely pragmatic. This ascent of pragmatic materialism is the death knell of revolution. Without a critical mass of committed revolutionaries, no revolution can succeed. That critical mass would be hard to attain any more.

Religious fervour has provided the sole exception to this so far, mainly in the Islamic world. However, belief in this world now far outstrips belief in the next. Therefore, religion may provide a banner and an identity but ultimately it has to compromise with neoliberal capitalism, or, even better, become a business. The contemporary success stories of religion across faiths are of brand gurus and televangelists, not of spiritual renunciates. Their potential to resist is ultimately very limited, unless geopolitical and local political interests align otherwise.

Eventually, the bigger powers will decide in their own interests, and those interests will be calculated based on purely material considerations. The determinant is not faith, as in medieval times, nor ideology, as in the Cold War period, but trade and investment. The forces that once built modern countries, including India, out of vastly diverse territories and peoples, now push in the opposite direction. This represents the final victory of mercantile imperialism of the kind that started with the Dutch and British East India Companies. It also represents, probably, the final defeat of the idea of the nation state on which the dreams of aspiring nations, including free Nagaland and Kashmir, are built.

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