The 13th of April is a date every student of Indian history has memorized, for it was on this day in 1919 that General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on a peaceful meeting in a park in Amritsar. A few months ago, David Cameron visited the Jallianwala Bagh, a park that stands testimony to the most notorious example of the brutality of British imperialism in India, something that is etched in Indian historical memory and will remain so for posterity. It proved to be a defining moment in our history, turning the tide away from a legal course of conflict resolution to mass struggle (though this debate had been taking place earlier as well, it finally took a definitive turn after this massacre). Cameron conceded that the massacre carried out by General Dyer was a disgraceful event in British history, but didn’t go beyond that, disappointing many Indians who, even in 2013, still await an apology from the government of Britain for a crime committed by one of its officers back in 1919, ten years before my late paternal grandfather was born.
Many Indians would justify this nationalist passion. After all, what’s wrong in the British apologizing even now? Wasn’t this a ghastly crime and doesn’t their refusal to apologize imply a sense of chauvinism on their part inasmuch that they refuse to concede their own mistakes and perhaps also that they still don’t value Indian lives all that much, and furthermore that they possibly still carry a soft corner for those who, while serving British imperialism, acted to protect its interests, even in the most gruesome, nay inhuman, fashion?
But then, this is a question we need to ask ourselves too. When we hear of human rights violations by our military in Kashmir and the northeast, doesn’t a part of us wish to write it off as false propaganda for us wanting to entertain our romantic notions of our great security forces, in spite of knowing that even they are not immune to corruption? Even when we learn about some of them being convicted for human rights violations, we just point out that all of them can’t be generalized for the acts of some, but do we feel as strongly about these brutalities committed by our own army men in contemporary times as we would like the Brits to feel about something perpetrated by someone in their army so many decades ago, and something which occurred much before most of today’s Brits and Indians were born?
We try to console ourselves into believing that our army men are at least serving our country, whatever the excesses, but so was General Dyer. We may argue that the then British regime in India was imperialist, but does that make any difference to our conception of human rights? In fact, though I don’t support the secession of Kashmir from India as I have outlined in various other articles, without going into the nittigrities of international law, I may just mention that when Kashmiris talk about Nehru’s promise for a plebiscite affirmed by UN resolutions, many of us simply make a mockery of their aspirations for self-determination telling them that they can’t sustain themselves on attaining independence or that they should be grateful for whatever the Indian government has done for them, this movement for freedom being borne out of a sense of ingratitude. Broadly speaking, this mindset on the part of many of us is imperialist. Even the British told us that we were not fit to govern ourselves and that we should be grateful to them for introducing modern education, modern technology, modern governance mechanisms and even unifying India! In fact, dispassionately speaking, very many Brits played an active role in impartially exploring and unearthing the achievements of our civilization and some of them openly condemned the wrongdoings that our people were subjected to under imperialist rule.
Coming back to contemporary India, I am not speaking for the rights of those who kill innocent civilians to achieve their political objectives and I am not sympathetic to those who killed innocent Kashmiri Hindus and pro-India Kashmiri Muslims, but I am speaking of Kashmiri Muslim women raped by our soldiers in the village of Kunan Poshpora (and I applaud the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, for financing a documentary titled Ocean of Tears on the same) . I am speaking of the mass graves discovered in the valley, which carry corpses of innocent civilians who were not militants. I am speaking of the protesters on Gawakadal Bridge in Srinagar who were shot at by CRPF personnel on 21st January 1990, which had the same effect on the Kashmiris’ struggle for self-determination as the Jallaianwala Bagh massacre had on our freedom struggle (and the similarity between both lies in the seemingly understated official figure of casualties, and how these were justified to bring under control a situation going out of hand). We should, without any mental reservations, acknowledge the wrongdoings of our own state machinery. If our police can carry out a fake encounter of Ranbir Singh in a village in Uttarakhand or rape women in Nandigram in West Bengal or engage in custodial rape of the woman Mathura, it is certainly not hard to comprehend that with the special powers they enjoy in the valley, our security personnel could have committed much more ghastly crimes with impunity.
Indians feel very strongly about the human rights violations committed by Chinese security personnel in Tibet, but how many of us are willing to take an equally strong stand against the illegal detentions of innocent Chinese nationals (whose forefathers migrated to India in British colonial times) in the wake of the 1962 war? (to know more about this, please see – icucik.blogspot.com) How many of us are willing to so much as understand the Chinese narrative of the 1962 war to make an impartial evaluation, rather than, in a baseless fashion, writing off whatever that is not to our liking as false propaganda?
I do not subscribe to the school of thought that contends the irrelevance of nationalism, for nationalism would and should continue to exist so long as there are national boundaries and a world without boundaries is merely a flight of imagination, which is far too utopian to be taken seriously. However, I do believe that humanism should take precedence over nationalism, and for those who do not subscribe to this idea but expect those of other nationalities to do so, they need to introspect to realize the hypocrisy in their position. Indeed, due credit must be given to Rabindranath Tagore for condemning chauvinistic nationalism at a time when India was in the stranglehold of British imperialism.
Loving one’s country should be about identifying with one’s nation, but not blindly defending the acts of one’s government in the context of international relations or in the context of its engagement with secessionist forces, regarding the morality of one’s state in such contexts as axiomatic, and only complaining about its naivete or passivity.
However, leaving scholars and intellectuals aside, it is the layperson’s simplistic worldview that defines narratives free from nationalist biases as being “anti-national” that comes in the way of fair and pragmatic conflict resolution across the globe, and this is particularly true of not just very many Indians (including many secessionist Kashmiri Muslims, who blatantly deny the patent fact that the exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus was owing to the threat to their lives) but of very many people in other countries in South Asia (many Pakistanis, for instance, would love to demonize Indian security personnel in Kashmir but refuse to acknowledge the scale of brutality unleashed by their own army in Balochistan and the erstwhile East Pakistan, as this video, for example, makes crystal clear – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNof1ZbOmlM&feature=share), China and the Middle East, and this is particularly problematic in a democracy like India or Pakistan where being seen as compromising on “national interests” is politically blasphemous, and hence, threatens the possibility of the return to power of such a government.
On the other hand, a narrative free from a bias in favour of your own nation should not amount to a narrative blatantly or subtly biased to the other side, which is an intellectually fashionable posturing many public intellectuals adopt to the earn the ‘liberal’ tag. A narrative of the Kashmir issue that doesn’t highlight the pain of the Kashmiri Hindus or brands Islamism (Islamism is an ideology of imposing supposedly Islamic values in the socio-political sphere and which doesn’t have a very tolerant attitude towards non-Muslims) in the valley as a bogey or which fails to acknowledge that the UN resolution actually demanded of Pakistan to withdraw its troops first is not a fair one either, and it is high time we learn to accept facts for their own sake.
The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. He has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World’. He is currently working on a TV serial on the life of the great freedom fighter Maulana Azad and co-authoring a book on Sino-Indian relations.