Right of self-determination in India

Paper submitted for the International Conference for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines

Quezon City, Philippines
20 July 2013

PANEL 5. Struggle for national and social liberation

By GAUTAM NAVLAKHA
People’s Union for Democratic Rights, India

Please accept my apology for my absence. My note was meant to highlight some features of the issue of “self-determination”, with which I am familiar and also to explain, if there had been an occasion, by answering questions as well as clarifying issues.

In India there has been a divergence in the stance taken by the left and democratic movement on the issue of self-determination of nationalities. While leftists in general are opposed to assimilation, in which minorities or small cultural groups more or less lose their cultural identity, there are differences within left on the issue of what stance to take. One can say that the divide is between those who argue for ‘integration with equality’ versus those who subscribe to ‘separateness with equality’, and the course to be adopted to achieve that. Many of us argue that there are oppressed nationalities, this includes, the tribals, whose desire for equality through separateness, must be respected in order for them to develop and preserve their culture. Thus we argue that while we support the right of nationalities to self-determination, every occasion where separateness is evoked does not necessarily mean secession. Tribals unlike Kashmiris or Nagas or Meitis are not demanding secession, but may want to exercise the right of self-determination to carve out a separate state. On the other hand there are several nationalities based struggles demanding respect for right of self-determination such as in Kashmir or Manipur etc because they oppose forced union within India.

This means that relevance of right of self-determination cannot be disputed whether people want to secede from India or want autonomy within the Union of India. However, I believe right of self-determination is much more than that.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 in its third preamble says that if these rights are ignored, governance becomes tyrannical and the response would be rebellion. The UN Civil and Political Rights uses the phrase “self-determination of people”. I like to read the two proposition together By so doing it widened the concept of self-determination not just for those reeling under colonial rule, or those who became part of a post-colonial State because of quirks of colonial expansion , but also those who were made part of post-colonial States and then having experienced discrimination and suppression were driven to struggle for opting out of Union with India. Furthermore, I believe, it also lends legitimacy for movements demanding even overthrow of present day Indian State. Because its “people” who enjoy the right of self-determination if their inalienable right to life of dignity is jeopardized or the system subjects people to structural violence which can take genocidal or character of mass murder.

In India, for instance, we are confronted with unprecedented scale of malnourishment among children in age group 0 to 6. It is known that two years of malnutrition can cause irreparable damage to cognitive abilities of a child. This means that nearly fifty per cent of India’s children are condemned to a cruel existence. We also know that 43% of Indian women are anaemic.

A person with a body mass index of less than 18.5 is malnourished. According to India’s National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, 33 per cent of adult Indians have a BMI of less than 18.5. If you disaggregate this, over 50 per cent Scheduled Tribes, 60 per cent of the Schedule Castes (Dalits i.e. the untouchables of India’s caste system) and equally high percentage of Muslims have a BMI of 18.5 or are undernourished. The WHO says that any community of which over 40 per cent population has a BMI of 18.5 per cent is in a state of famine. By that standard, many communities in India are living in a state of famine.

Most people think that genocide has to do with large scale direct killing, but the declaration of the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crimes of Genocide, which was issued on 9th December 1948, one day before Universal Declaration of Human Rights, tells us clearly that in addition to killing, the creation of ‘physical and mentally hazardous conditions’ which could put the survival of particular communities at risk ‘would also come within the ambit of genocide’. Its Article 2 defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

If one reads the statistics on malnutrition with the one on income disparities, according to which six decades after ‘Transfer of Power’ in 1947, nearly 77% of our working people survive on less than Rs 20 per day, it becomes clear that children of the working class face a cruel and a rather short lifespan. Using the definition above we can indeed say that it is genocidal policy that has been followed. In contrast, after six decades, 100 Indian families own wealth which is equivalent to 25% of the National Income! Yet this painful and a short life span inflicted on our people does not evoke anger and rage simply because it is not a spectacular an event, media is indifferent unless it is an attack on a security force camp or abduction of a gazette officer of the State of India. If someone were to conclude from this that life of a working class Indian is not worth much, how wrong would they be? And if others argue that such a State which condemns overwhelming majority of its people to sub-human existence can not be a State which belongs to people.

So my contention is that right of self-determination is not only a democratic and peaceful way of resolving intractable problems that have defied solution but also the best way in which to ascertain the wishes of the people. It is therefore, Right of self-determination is considered an inalienable right. It is linked to the primary right all of us enjoy or born with namely the “right to life, without which all rights become infructous. Although it is an inalienable right even under liberal jurisprudence, we know that this right is practiced more in breach. By right to life is not meant simply the right to physical survival but also right to a life of dignity which only liberty and equality can provide. Right to self-determination of people, where ‘people’ is historically understood as those who face oppression or exploitation, then becomes a far more comprehensive and vital concept for those who fight for emancipation of their people from forms of class tyranny.

This is not offered to dilute the significance of self-determination but to point out how in India there are a variety of movements which could be placed in this conceptual category, each one deserving to be analysed specifically. Thus in India we have, using this understanding, a variety of self-determination movements. Some such as in Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam etc are struggling for their national self-determination. Some others wanting to become autonomous regions within the Union of India. And the third is the revolutionary movement, which is fighting an oppressive and exploitative State.

Take Kashmir for instance. While officially India managed to wrest two third of Kashmir for itself leaving one third for Pakistan. Now sixty six years are long time for learning lessons and to cease being indulgent towards the fallacies, faults and faux pas of the Indian state in obfuscating the issue of people’s aspirations. It is undisputed that gross injustices have been inflicted on the Kashmiri people and they have to live monitored by hostile armed soldiers everywhere around and amidst them.

I doubt any other country can boast of deploying more than 600,000 military (comprising Indian army, para military formations and armed police etc) against a people whose number is 12 million. The ratio of armed soldier to civilian is 1:20.

By all standards Kashmir is an occupied territory. For instance a report [Dead But not Forgotten: Survey of Death Toll in District Baramulla (J&K) 1990-2006] undertaken by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (www.jkccs.org) pitches a strong argument that: “Article 42 of the Hague Regulations (also called law of warfare) describes occupation as a ‘territory placed under the authority of the hostile army’. In the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949 this is attenuated. Article 2 provides that the convention shall apply even to an occupation that ‘meets with no armed resistance’. The rationale for this was that there is an inherent hostility between the occupant and the occupied. Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that ‘the benefits under the Convention shall not be affected by any change introduced, as a result of occupation of territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authority of the occupied territory and the occupying power, nor by annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory’. We are convinced that the conditions in J&K match and conform to everything that is juridically invested in the legal term ‘occupation’.”

Moreover, much as ‘secular’ India cringes at the sight of green flag and Islamic slogans it is worth remembering that display of green flags by the oppressed by itself can not take away from them their desire to be free of oppression. Indeed it can be argued that proliferation of green flag or abuse hurled at security personnel is in response to the Hindu majoritarian proclivities of the Indian state. Hindus of J&K did not live for 66 years under hostile military rule. It is true that they have been victims of attacks launched by communal fascist such as Lashkar i Tayaba and Jaish i Mohammed. But these groups thrived thanks to the bigotry displayed by Indian military, who followed a ‘catch and kill’ policy vis a vis Muslims perceived as real or imaginary enemies. Few Hindus have suffered at the hands of government forces in J&K. Nor do they, barring honourable exceptions, show any revulsion at their own Muslim compatriots beings brutally suppressed for decades. Instead there is a tendency among Hindus to identify with the oppressor and not the oppressed. Therefore, it is pointless pretending that this divide is of recent vintage.

Indians look upon J&K, and jealously guard it, as a trophy of war, a conquered Muslim majority territory won by India in a war with Pakistan in 1947-48. We need to ask ourselves why and how India’s constitutional democracy has been abridged and devalued, thanks to a war against a people who were treated as a subject population. Therefore, instead of cowering before the demand of right of self-determination it is time we embrace it, because this offers us the only chance of a peaceful and democratic closure to a 66 year old dispute. It enables every state subject across the Line of Control divided Jammu and Kashmir (between India and Pakistan) as well as religion polarized Jammu and Kashmir an opportunity to make their wishes known.

For decades, ‘good’ people of India claimed that if only the movement for self-determination as in Kashmir or Manipur etc gave up armed resistance Indian state would be willing to hold dialogue with them. When in Kashmir for three years (2008, 2009 and 2010) non violent mass demonstrations began and armed militants declared their decision to silence their guns in civilian areas, Indian state proceeded to crack down on the people and the ‘good’ people acquiesced in that by remaining mute. Long and short of it is that strong arm measure continues to rule the roost. That the Indian state could carry this out, despite the formal presence of a ‘free’ media, a ‘vibrant’ middle class, and an ‘independent’ judiciary goes to show that Indian state exercises tight grip over dissemination of news and information and even autonomous institution of state fall in line once ‘national security’ is invoked.

Finally, it is also necessary for us to accept the difference say between post-colonial States that emerged after second world war in Asia from the 18th-19th century European nation-states. Among several reasons that went into making of the nation-state in Europe was also the fact that the European working class through their class organizations could reach historic compromise with Big Capital. Social democrats believed that universal suffrage and their class organizations will soon propel them to power. This made European working class a stakeholder in the existing State.

In contrast, for us in India the British colonialists transferred power to the native Indian Hindu upper class-caste which retained virtually the same State structure and institutions that had served the colonial rule. State remained alienated from people and became an arena of conflict. As a result European experience of State formation in the past two hundred years is vastly different from our experience in south Asia. It is this that accounts for multiple challenges and conflicts that confront the Indian State. It is as though we are going through a bloody and brutal way of forcing Indian nationhood on everyone unmindful of its cost or consequence.

This makes self-determination of people, which allows for nationalities/oppressed communities and working people to decide their own destiny, all fighting their own struggle for right of self-determination. Indeed where armed conflicts have gone on for a long period (decades) and where negotiations have been used by the State to win time/tire out opponents, or talks are deadlocked or can not ensure compliance with whatever solution is reached, then making a reference to the people is the most democratic and peaceful way forward. It is all this which makes right of self-determination so central to us in India.

International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines. The ICHRP is a global network of organizations based outside of the Philippines, committed to campaigning for human rights and Filipino people's rights.