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Nation-Building in the Himalayas: The Cost of Kashmir

August 16th, 2019 | 5 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

Earlier this week, Andrew Willard Jones, Marc Barnes, and Jacob Imam published a piece in Postliberal Thought in response to the claims of the naturalness and finality of the nation-state presented in the recent National Conservatism Conference. Among other things, their piece described in sweeping – and accurate – terms the process of nation-state building in Europe.

The “nation,” as [the National Conservatives] seem to understand it, is a recent creation. The nation-states of modernity achieved the cultural and ideological homogeneity and unity that brought them into being and holds them in existence only through the destruction of local difference, language, custom, and law and through the simultaneous rebellion against the larger reality of human communion, the Church, and in the case of Europe, the Empire. The nation-state came into being through violence, the unjust use of force.

I’ll be responding to the piece more fully soon. I’ve got… some things to say. But it is really remarkable to see the process that they describe played out in real time in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

As Arundhati Roy writes in the New York Times, last week, Narendra Modi’s government

“unilaterally breached the fundamental conditions of the Instrument of Accession, by which the former Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India in 1947. In preparation for this, at midnight on Aug. 4, it turned all of Kashmir into a giant prison camp. Seven million Kashmiris were barricaded in their homes, internet connections were cut and their phones went dead…

“The act strips the State of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status — which includes its right to have its own constitution and its own flag. It als o strips it of statehood and partitions it into two Union territories.. administered directly by the central government in New Delhi…
“The passing of the act was welcomed in Parliament by the very British tradition of desk-thumping. There was a distinct whiff of colonialism in the air. The masters were pleased that a recalcitrant colony had finally, formally, been brought under the crown. For its own good. Of course.
“In India the project of… nation-building, has meant that there has not been a single year since 1947 when the Indian Army has not been deployed within India’s borders against its “own people.” The list is long — Kashmir, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Hyderabad, Assam.
“The dissolution of the legal entity of the state also means the dissolution of Article 35A, which granted residents rights and privileges that made them stewards of their own territory. So, “being open for business,” it must be clarified, can also include Israeli-style settlements and Tibet-style population transfers.

“Today Kashmir is one of the most or perhaps the most densely militarized zone in the world. More than a half-million soldiers have been deployed to counter what the army itself admits is now just a handful of “terrorists.” If there were any doubt earlier it should be abundantly clear by now that their real enemy is the Kashmiri people…  [Over the last 30 years,] an estimated 70,000 people, civilians, militants and security forces have been killed in the conflict. Thousands have been “disappeared,” and tens of thousands have passed through torture chambers that dot the valley like a network of small-scale Abu Ghraibs.”

Roy– inevitably– makes the comparison to British colonialism– the most damning thing of which to accuse Indian nationalists. I’m not sure that’s right. It was after all under the Empire that the princely states had their independent political status respected.

No, not all of them. But up until Independence, nearly 600 of them were separate polities– governed by a bewildering variety of Maharajas, Nizams, Nawabs, Baigs, Chhatrapatis and Khans, recognizing the suzerainety of the British Crown but able to administer particular law. And, in some ways, it worked. Well into the twentieth century. There were other aspects of the Empire of course that were revolting. But it was only after Partition, in 1948, that the process of nation-building proper required the complete erasure of the political authority of the princes.

I attended the National Conservatism Conference, and I’m very sympathetic to very many of its goals and approaches. But Kashmir is a reminder that the process of nation-state formation is not a natural playing out of historical forces– or at least not a peaceful one. If the nation-state is the telos of political form, if its coming into being is a kind of natural law, it is a remarkably bloody kind. Of course, the enacting of natural law can be – has been – bloody. It can be, it has been, due to the deliberate agency of rulers seeking to shape polities according to their vision. The coercion involved in nation-state building is no argument against it. Not all coercion is violence in the sense of violation.

Still, the enacting of this particular political form, in this particular way, is not part of what we have meant by natural law in the tradition: it is something else. What that something else is– will have to wait for another post.


Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.