Mirpur was a small town in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) — it’s now a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Soon after the invasion of Kashmir by Pakistani irregulars, approximately 25,000 Hindu men, women and children — amongst them, my close relatives — were force-marched to a refugee camp in Ali Beg. There were massacres and kidnappings en route, and only 5,000 made it to the camp. A year later, when the International Red Cross reached Ali Beg camp, it found a mere 1,600 Mirpuri survivors awaiting repatriation to India.
Many of my relatives either perished or were abducted during this tragic episode, but my immediate family was luckier. We lived close to Srinagar and the arrival of Indian troops, on October 27, 1947, enabled my mother and siblings to flee in the Dakotas which had flown them in. We returned to the Valley, six months later, to find our home burnt to cinders.
My reasons for gratuitously offering these personal details to the reader are two-fold. Firstly, notwithstanding the bloodbath of 1947, no member of my extended family — whether of the pre-Partition or post-Partition generation — bears hatred towards the “other” or carries a sense of “victimhood”. Like lakhs of other refugees we realise that, in the madness of Partition, such tragedies occurred on both sides. I also wish to establish my bonafides and exercise my right of expression as a non-partisan, septuagenarian-citizen, and a military veteran without being assigned absurd ideological labels — a current practice to discredit every contrarian viewpoint.
This is being written as the nation’s sociopolitical fabric comes under tremendous strain in the aftermath of the passage of the Citizens’ Amendment Bill, as well as the impending creation of a National Register of Citizens. Without entering into a debate on the merits of these incendiary issues, I wish to draw attention to other factors which have assumed critical importance for the nation.
No matter what its root causes are, India’s economy is in parlous straits. With continuing agrarian distress — varying only in degree from state to state — and a slowdown in manufacturing, jobs have been scarce for a long time. As schools and colleges continue to churn out young and hopeful job-seekers, frustration levels amongst the youth are rising. The “demographic dividend” that India had once dreamt would help it overtake an “ageing China” is turning into a nightmare. The current unrest and protests in college campuses, as well as increasing blue-collar crime and gender-violence, could be the early manifestations of approaching tumult.
Placed 102 out of 117 countries in the 2019 Global Hunger Index, India remains home to a third of the world’s poor. Our filthy cities, teeming with slums, have seen India placed at 129 out of 189 in the 2019 UN Human Development Index. So mesmerised are we by the GDP numbers and so inured have we become to our country’s vast and endemic poverty that “poverty alleviation” did not find mention in the 2019 election manifestos of the major political parties.
With the common man still in the quest for roti, kapda, makan, one had expected that utmost priority would be accorded by our elected representatives to addressing unemployment, hunger, healthcare and education. It is bitterly disappointing to see our resources, attention and energies being frittered away on far-less urgent but inflammatory issues related to religion, places of worship and even bovine welfare. These may garner votes but we cannot evade the reality that unless India’s national leadership focuses on economic, industrial, scientific and technological progress, the country will remain backward and firmly anchored in the Third World.
India is unique in its religious, ethnic, linguistic and caste diversity; models of governance, applicable to homogenous societies, simply do not work here. Pakistan, next-door, provides an example of how simplistic approaches can have disastrous consequences. Created as the first theocratic state of modern times, Pakistan started unravelling as soon as it adopted Islamic fundamentalism as state policy and mobilised sharia laws to victimise religious minorities and non-conformist Muslim sects. By 1971, it had become clear that religion could not provide the glue to hold together two distinct ethnic entities, and East Pakistan freed itself to become Bangladesh.
Historically, the prime causes for India succumbing to foreign invaders have been lack of visionary leadership and absence of internal cohesion. If history has a lesson for us, it is that divisive bigotry and religious hysteria can destroy nations while social cohesion and nationalism hold them together. Those who believe that converting India into a theocratic state — a virtual Pakistani clone — will make it strong and united are living in a delusionary world. Worse still, such an objective will set the country on a path of fratricidal conflict and eventual disintegration.
To put things in the simplest perspective, let me cite our military leadership, which has frequently called for readiness to fight a “two and a half front war”. The “two fronts”, obviously, refer to our neighbourhood adversaries, China and Pakistan who, individually and collectively, pose a formidable threat. While the “external threat” is quantifiable and can be countered militarily, it is the “internal threat”, arising from India’s socio-economic disparities as well as religious, sectarian and caste-based tensions, that poses a far greater peril. If internal discord is going to be superimposed on the existing Naxal insurgency and ongoing separatist movements in Kashmir and the Northeast, they could cumulatively pose an existential threat to India.
At this critical juncture in our history, it is for India’s decision-makers to pause and consider whether India’s security, well-being and international image will be enhanced or undermined by pursuing majoritarianism of any kind by engendering insecurity in any segment of our heterogeneous society and alienating a major section of our citizens through intimidatory or discriminatory legislation? On the other hand, will the nation not be immeasurably strengthened if we retain sharp focus on enhancing internal cohesion through assimilation, inclusivity and maintenance of domestic harmony — and above all, on economic development?
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 21, 2019 under the title “Uneasy nation, lines within”. The writer is a retired chief of naval staff.
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