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Democracy and Violence: in India and Beyond, Economic and Political Weekly

In about a year’s time, the citizens of India will vote in their sixteenth General Elections. The last such exercise, held in May 2009, showcased a bewildering variety of parties and politicians. Some 700 million adults were eligible to vote; about 400 million actually voted, to choose five hundred and forty-three members of the national Parliament. The Republic of India also has twenty-eight states, in which elections are likewise held on a five-year cycle. Altogether, many more Indians have freely chosen their political representatives than have citizens of Western democracies of far greater antiquity.

Demographically and otherwise, India dominates South Asia. Of the other nations in the region, Pakistan, born at the same time as India (in August 1947), and Bangladesh (which seceded from Pakistan in 1971), have both seen periods of civilian government alternate with military rule. In Nepal, an autocratic regime with a King at its head gave way to a constitutional monarchy in 1990; this, in turn, being replaced by a republic in 2008, when, quite remarkably, a party previously committed to armed revolution on the Maoist model emerged as the largest single force in Parliament. There has been an equally striking change in neighbouring Bhutan, where a King younger than Prince Charles, and (by all accounts) more popular among his people, voluntarily abdicated in favour of his son after overseeing the first multi-party elections in the nation’s history.

Apart from India, however, it is Sri Lanka that has had the longest experience of electoral democracy in the region. The country, then known as Ceylon, was granted independence from the British in 1948. It has since regularly held provincial and national elections. As in India, in Sri Lanka too all adults were immediately granted the vote, regardless of their class or gender. This was in contrast to the experience of the West, where the franchise was granted in stages: first to men of property, then to educated men, somewhat later to all men, and later still to women as well.

Outside of the North Atlantic world, the most extensive experiments with the idea of democracy have taken place in South Asia. Here, as in the West, the forging of democratic institutions has been intimately connected with the making of nations. Thus, the people of a certain, clearly demarcated, territory come together under a single flag and single currency, while ridding themselves of rule by foreigners or rule by kings; at the same time, or soon afterwards, they conceive of electing their leaders through an exercise of free will. Notably, in South Asia democracy and national independence arrived at more-or-less the same time. Thus adult franchise was promoted in India and Sri Lanka even as the majority of voters were poor and illiterate. In the 1950s, when blacks were largely excluded from the franchise in the American South, erstwhile Untouchables were Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers in India. In the 1960s, a woman was the Prime Minister of Ceylon while some Swiss women did not even have the right to vote.

Electoral democracy based on adult franchise was established much quicker in these two nations. However, the idea of a common national creed, to which all citizens could have allegiance, has proved to be more problematic. The imposition of a single language on all citizens was difficult enough in England and France; but even more difficult in India and Sri Lanka. Catholics were somewhat suspect in England, and Protestants (and Jews) never considered quite French enough in France. The disabilities of Hindus in Sri Lanka and of Muslims in India have arguably been even greater.

India and Sri Lanka are the two Asian nations with a long, continuous history of regular, multi-party, elections. Interestingly, both countries have witnessed a long-standing insurgency, that of the Kashmiris in India and of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. In both countries, peace and stability in most of the nation have co-existed uneasily with struggle and strife along the borderlands. This paradox is at the heart of my essay, which uses the juxtaposition of democracy and violence in South Asia to complicate our understanding of political ideas which had their origins in (and are still frequently identified with) the West.


Let me begin by distinguishing between the hardware and software of democracy. By ‘hardware’ I mean the political features by which we may recognize whether a society is democratic or not. These include: (i) the existence of multiple political parties; (ii) free, fair, and regular elections whereby adult citizens vote to choose between candidates of these parties; (iii) the freedom of the press, including the electronic media; (iv) an independent judiciary; (v) the freedom to live, work, and own property anywhere in the country of which one is a citizen, and to associate with other citizens in the manner of one’s choosing.

The discipline of political science focuses on these five defining features of democracy. The allied discipline of public administration studies the institutions that enable the smooth functioning of a modern, democratic, nation-state. The impersonal, rule-bound institutions analysed by scholars include the civil service, the army, the central bank, the police, and—in states committed to ‘welfarism’—publicly funded and managed schools and hospitals.

Writings on democracy, whether scholarly or popular, focus on the processes and institutions by which citizens are free to move and to speak their mind, by which they choose and replace their leaders, and by which they are governed (or misgoverned) in-between elections. However, little attention has been paid to democracy’s ‘software’, by which I mean its cultural and emotional aspects. Crucial here are: (i) the pluralism of faith, that is to say, the freedom to worship any god of your choice (or no god at all); (ii) the pluralism of language, that is, the freedom to speak, write, think, learn, and (if necessary) govern in the language of your choice; (iii) the pluralism of culture more generally, that is, the freedom to dress, eat, sing, cohabitate, etc. according to the dictates of group tradition or individual conscience.

The great German writer Friedrich Schiller once remarked that ‘the first law of decency is to preserve the liberty of others’. In the West, the liberties that democracy is mandated to preserve are chiefly individual. However, in diverse, many-layered, multi-religious and multi-lingual societies—as for instance the nations of South Asia—the liberties that often ask to be preserved are articulated by groups, not individuals. It is thus that the software of democracy, its emotional and symbolic aspects, can become as important or as relevant as its hardware.

Fifteen years after India became independent, the distinctiveness of its national—and democratic—experiment was foregrounded by the biologist J. B. S. Haldane. Born and educated in the United Kingdom, on whose behalf he had taken part in two World Wars, in 1957 Haldane left London to take up a job in Calcutta. Shortly afterwards he became an Indian citizen. When an American science writer referred to him in print as a ‘world citizen’, Haldane issued this clarification:

No doubt I am in some sense a citizen of the world. But I believe with Thomas Jefferson that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. As there is no world state, I cannot do this… On the other hand I can be, and am, a nuisance to the government of India, which has the merit of permitting a good deal of criticism, though it reacts to it rather slowly. I also happen to be proud of being a citizen of India, which is a lot more diverse than Europe, let alone the U. S. A., U. S. S. R., or China, and thus a better model for a possible world organisation. It may of course break up, but it is a wonderful experiment. So I want to be labelled as a citizen of India.

These words were written in 1962. At the time, one section of the Indian population would have vigorously dissented with Haldane’s portrait, seeing it as too rosy by far. These were the residents of the Kashmir valley, who had been treated in less than honourable ways by the state which claimed them as citizens. In the winter of 1947-8 India and Pakistan went to battle over Kashmir. A cease-fire was declared under the auspices of the United Nations. India promised to hold a plebiscite to find out which of the two nations the people of Kashmir wished to join. The plebiscite was never held. Worse, in August 1953 the Government of India arrested the hugely popular Chief Minister of the state, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, and put him in prison. Worse still, they replaced the Sheikh with Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, an authoritarian and corrupt politician, whose administration was known as the ‘BBC’, or the Bakshi Brothers Corporation. When state elections were held in 1957, the voting and the results were both doctored by the Indian Government, so as to allow the Bakshi another term in office.

Such was the situation in May 1962, at the time of J. B. S. Haldane’s pronouncement. In subsequent decades matters were not to materially improve. Sheikh Abdullah was released in April 1964, then jailed once more the next year. By the early 1970s, he had been subjected to so much humiliation that he agreed to a deal with the Congress party, which was in power in New Delhi. This permitted Abdullah to become Chief Minister of Kashmir so long as he abided by the policies (and whims) of the Central Government. However, neither he, nor his son Farooq, who succeeded him as Chief Minister, were ever fully trusted by the politicians in New Delhi. In 1977, India’s first non-Congress regime held the first fair elections in Kashmir. In 1983, with the Congress back in power, Farooq was dismissed by New Delhi for daring to speak with non-Congress politicians. Four years later, there was a fraudulent state election in which the voters of Kashmir were prevented from freely exercising their franchise.

In the spring of 1989 the youth of the Kashmir Valley rose in rebellion against these cumulative injustices. They attacked government offices and police stations. Their actions were endorsed by many ordinary Kashmiris, who participated in street protests that called for ‘azadi’, or freedom, from Indian rule. As the protests intensified, New Delhi sent in army contingents to enforce the writ of the Central Government. As it happened, the presence of armed men in uniform served only to intensify the violence. For two decades now, this utterly beautiful valley has been home to an almost continuous conflict, pitting Kashmiri radicals on one side against Indian troops on the other. In these twenty-three years of strife close to 100,000 people have lost their lives.

Turn now from India to Sri Lanka, and to the major fault line in that nation’s democratic history. This is the predicament of the Tamil-speaking people who are concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the island. Under British rule, the Tamils took early to the English language and hence to modern education. Their share of jobs in the colonial administration was quite out of proportion to their numbers. They also dominated the professions.

At independence, many of Ceylon’s top civil servants were Tamils. So were many of its most successful doctors, lawyers, and university professors. However, the onset of electoral democracy had placed the majority population of Sinhala-speakers at an advantage. Some Sinhalas now sought to use their new-found political power to neutralize the influence of Tamil-speakers in government, and in public life more generally. Acting at their behest, in 1956 the Prime Minister, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, pushed through an act of Parliament making Sinhala the sole official language of the nation. From now on, examinations for entry into the civil service, as well as some university examinations, were to be conducted only in that language.

The act privileging the Sinhala language was followed, two years later, by the directed killings of Tamils in the capital city, Colombo. Engineered by Sinhala chauvinists, the riot was clearly aimed at making Tamils insecure in the south of the island, outside of their own areas of concentration. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Tamil politicians lobbied hard to have their language placed on parity with Sinhala. They also asked for guarantees that their culture would be respected, and that there would be no further riots aimed at them.

In 1972, the name of the nation was officially changed to ‘Sri Lanka’. In the same year, a new Constitution made it clear that Buddhism would be the ‘official’ religion of the island, thus further consolidating the status of the Sinhalas (most Tamils were Hindus). By the late 1970s, middle-class, educated, Tamils had begun leaving the island for more stable and secure lives in the West. This option was not, of course, available to the working class Tamils living in the north. The young began to lose faith in the constitutional process, and to seek a more direct redressal of their grievances. Calls began being heard for an independent homeland for the Tamils of the island, to be called ‘Eelam’.

The growing radicalization of the Tamils was answered by the Government sending in detachments of the police and army. On the last day of May, 1981, these men in uniform, mandated to maintain law and order, watched over (and in some accounts deliberately aided) the burning to the ground of a great library of books and manuscripts in the premier Tamil city, Jaffna. Two years later, this act of vandalism was followed by another, namely, a pogrom against Tamils in Colombo. The violence was much more savage than in 1958, with several thousand Tamils being killed by Sinhala mobs, and many more Tamil homes set on fire.

These events definitively turned the Tamil youth away from the path of compromise towards armed struggle. They flocked in large numbers to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an organization set up in 1976, that had as its aim the establishment of a Tamil nation in the north. Generally credited with the invention of suicide bombing, the LTTE sent their human incendiaries into markets and schools in Sinhala areas. Over time, they also acquired enough military capability to engage the Sri Lankan army in battle, and to establish ‘liberated zones’ where they ran a parallel administration, with its own tax machinery and police stations.

Through the 1990s and beyond, the civil war in Sri Lanka persisted. Various areas passed in and out of the LTTE’s hands; now and then the Sri Lankan Government claimed that a military victory is imminent: now and then other nations (mostly India, but also Norway) sought to work out a resolution. But the blood continued to be spilt. The civil war eventually ended in May 2009, with the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan Army.

There is no precise estimate of the number of lives lost in the Sri Lankan conflict. As in Kashmir, the figure is certainly in excess of 50,000, probably in excess of 100,000. As in Kashmir, many rebels and government soldiers were killed, but many more civilians. As in Kashmir, the loss of lives has been accompanied by an even greater loss of property, and the destruction of very many families and communities.


At first sight, it looks as if the Kashmir problem is a consequence of the failure of democracy’s hardware. Among the several betrayals of its Kashmiri citizens by the Indian state, two stand out: the arrest of an elected Chief Minister in 1953 (who was then incarcerated for years without being brought to trial); and the rigging of the 1987 state elections, to keep out of office independent-minded Kashmiri politicians whom the Central Government thought would not do their bidding.

The formal, political, institutions of democracy have been maintained erratically in Kashmir. But apart from not being able to freely choose their own representatives, Kashmiris have also feared that the Valley’s cultural autonomy would be at risk under Indian domination. Right-wing Hindu groups have persistently called for the repeal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits outsiders from buying land in the Valley. Kashmiris are worried that any repeal of this Article would facilitate a mass migration of Hindu settlers into the Valley, following the example of the Chinese in Tibet, and of the Israelis in the Occupied Territories.

At first sight, it appears that the Tamil problem is a product of the failure of democracy’s software. Among the many wounds suffered by the Tamils of Sri Lanka, two are deeper and harder to forget than the others: the recognition of Sinhala as the island’s main language; and the burning of the great Jaffna library, which contained the collective memories and embodied achievements of generations of Tamil people.

It is certainly true that the undermining of Tamil language and culture has been a consistent feature of Sri Lankan Government policy. At the same time, Sinhala politicians have also tried to manipulate the institutions of democratic representation. They have engineered splits and defections in the moderate Tamil parties that contest elections; and tampered with electoral rolls in Tamil areas.

In the six decades since these nations came into being, Kashmiris in India and Tamils in Sri Lanka have both been treated as less than full citizens by their purportedly ‘democratic’ governments. How have they responded? In three principal ways, which I shall term moderate, assertive, and militant respectively. The first (and mildest) kind of Kashmiri and Tamil politician has joined national parties, such as the Indian National Congress and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in the belief that by working within the dominant political system they could make it more sensitive to regional aspirations. The second kind has formed political parties which fought state and national elections as separate entities. Such are the National Conference in Kashmir, and the Tamil United Liberation Front in Sri Lanka. The aim here was to have local governments run by regional parties, and to have Kashmiris and Tamils represented in the national Parliament as, specifically, Kashmiris and Tamils. Finally, we have the militants, who have abandoned constitutional politics altogether in favour of the path of violent protest. This type of Kashmiri (or Tamil) has lost all faith in Indian (or Sri Lankan) democracy and Indian (or Sri Lankan) nationalism. He (and, increasingly, she) believes that the promise of free and equal citizenship could be achieved only in an independent nation to be fought for and won by the force of arms.

The history of both Kashmiri and Tamil activism is of a progressive radicalization, of a move from moderation through assertion on to militancy. Was this inevitable or necessary? One must always hope that the claims of disadvantaged groups can be redressed by democratic means. But this may not always be possible. Ho Chi Minh is said to have remarked that had Mahatma Gandhi been fighting against the French, he would have given up non-violence within a week. By the same token, Indian arrogance towards Kashmiris, and Sinhala intolerance towards Tamils, has at times been so brutal and extreme as to make reasoned and non-violent protest ineffective, and perhaps even impossible.

There is also a romantic caché to armed struggle that is denied to more incremental methods of protest. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the success of the Chinese Communists, and the victory in Cuba of the Fidelistas, a belief grew that violence was—as it were—the midwife of history, the necessary and inevitable means by which oppressed peoples would finally throw off the shackles that contained them. On their part, the Kashmiris and the Tamils abandoned non-violence in part because it seemed to be ineffective; and in part because of the glamour attached to the cult of the gun.


In both Kashmir and northern Sri Lanka, the failure of constitutional or non-violent forms of protest led to the adoption of armed struggle to secure political (and cultural) rights. However, that omnibus category, ‘armed struggle’, conceals many different forms of violent action, some more just and legitimate than the others.

Conceptually speaking, one may distinguish between five generic forms of violence promoted by militant groups in modern history. These are:

(i) attacks on the property of the state one is seeking to overthrow or secede from;
(ii) attacks on officials or soldiers of that state;
(iii) attacks on civilians who are of a different class or ethnicity from oneself;
(iv) attacks on members of one’s own class or ethnic group who happen to worship a different god;
(v) attacks on members of one’s class or ethnic group who come to practice a different kind of politics.

These forms of violence have been resorted to by armed guerrillas working in the Maoist tradition, who seek to replace a ‘bourgeois’ regime with a ‘revolutionary’ one, as well as by armed secessionists who seek independence from the nation of which they had once been part.

Now, one can plausibly argue that the first two forms of violence are in some situations necessary and perhaps even legitimate. When a state bears down too hard on some of its citizens, and uses violence or force against them, surely they can retaliate in kind, by blowing up public offices, for example, or by killing officials particularly reviled for their brutality, or indeed by engaging in guerrilla warfare against state armies sent to suppress them? (The word ‘guerrilla’ itself is the Spanish diminutive of ‘guerra’, meaning war, and it was first used to refer to the small groups of citizens and soldiers who battled the vastly more powerful Napoleonic army in Spain in 1808.)

These methods also draw legitimacy from the great revolutions of the 18th century in France and the United States, where armed opponents were fought and killed in the pursuit of democracy and national unity. A further justification is provided by peasants in premodern times, who—in Europe and Asia alike—were known to express their disenchantment with the state by, for example, burning land records or beheading tax collectors and other oppressive officials.

On the other hand, it is hard to mount an argument in defence of the last three kinds of violence. To kill civilians of the ‘other side’ who have not themselves participated in state oppression or violence; to turn on members of one’s own ethnic group who merely happen to owe allegiance to a religion other than one’s own; to murder former comrades because they have now decided to follow an alternate political path or to opt out of politics altogether—these are all methods of protest that are probably unnecessary, often counterproductive, and certainly immoral.

In Kashmir as well as northern Sri Lanka, those seeking independence for their people have resorted to all five forms of violence. Apart from attacking army camps and assassinating Sri Lankan Presidents, LTTE suicide bombers willingly and deliberately murdered thousands of Sinhala civilians. Kashmiri militants, who for many years had principally targeted Indian officials and government installations within the Kashmir Valley itself, have more recently had a hand in acts of terror in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. The LTTE revealed its ‘Hindu’ colours by harrassing and in some cases killing Tamils of the Christian and Muslim faith; the freedom-fighters of Kashmir displayed their ‘Islamic’ essence by expelling some 200,000 Kashmiri-speaking Hindus from the Valley. Finally, both Tamil and Kashmiri separatists have assassinated politicians of their own ethnicity who refuse to toe, in every detail, the line laid down by them. A particular ire has been reserved for reformist politicians deemed ‘Quislings’ or ‘collaborators’ for their unwillingness to abandon the path of dialogue in favour of the path of armed struggle.

In terms of our five-fold category of violence, as rebel or insurgent groups move down the list, from items (i) and (ii)—attacks on state property and officials—past item (iii)—attacks on civilians of the other side—and finally on to items (iv) and (v)—the killings of dissenters and heretics on one’s own side—they become progressively more extreme, and more intolerant. In their own move from more focused to more indiscriminate forms of violence, the resistance fighters of the Kashmir Valley and northern Sri Lanka have thus chosen to deny, to their own people, the democracy and pluralism that the Indian and Sri Lankan states have long denied to them.


Even as there are half-a-million Army men in Kashmir, in the rest of India the hardware of democracy is largely intact. Elections outside the Valley, whether to the national Parliament or to the other state assemblies, have generally been fair; the press is independent; and the courts autonomous of political interference. Citizens can travel freely in search of work or pleasure. Along with labour, capital and goods can also move about unhindered, thus allowing India to maintain high rates of economic growth.

Even as there was a civil war on in the Tamil areas, in the southern half of Sri Lanka citizens voted, and Western tourists flocked to the beaches. Schools, hospitals and other public institutions function far better than in India or, indeed, in the rest of South Asia; resulting in higher literacy rates and better health care.

This co-existence in a single nation of both stability and violence, of normality as well as crisis, sets Sri Lanka and India apart from three other kinds of political regimes: those marked in toto by civil war (such as the Congo and the Sudan); those under the rule of a single party or of the military (such as China, North Korea, and dozens of others); and those which are democratic and at peace with themselves through all (or almost all) of the territory which they claim as their own.

This last category is populated principally by the nations of the Atlantic world. Thus the United States is as large and as diverse as the Republic of India, but there is no part of it even as remotely as disaffected as the Kashmir Valley. Again, Canada, like Sri Lanka, has two principal ethno-linguistic groups, but these are by no means at each other’s throat.

Let us leave the dictatorships and autocracies to one side. Can we then see Sri Lanka and India as weak, partial or even ‘illiberal’ democracies, but the United States and Canada as strong, thoroughgoing, and ‘liberal’ democracies? Yes, but only if we freeze ourselves in the present. If we bring in the longue durée, the comparison becomes more complicated and less loaded. For the spatial and social conditions that allowed the United States (for example) to become a democratic nation-state can be summed up in three words—genocide, slavery, and colonialism¬—words embodying processes that unfolded over a period of several centuries, and which brought a great deal of violence and suffering in their wake.

These different manifestations of democracy have behind them very different historical trajectories. In India and Sri Lanka, the democratic and national revolutions have run in parallel—they have been collapsed in time. On the other hand, most European and North American countries became nation-states many decades before they became stable or full-fledged democracies. Here, these two fundamental political revolutions were staggered—that is to say, they occurred in sequence.

It is well to remind ourselves that many Western countries also had to pass through bloody civil wars before they could emerge as nations. The United States, Spain, Italy, France, the United Kingdom et. al. —all had to undergo decades, or even centuries, of civil strife and sectarian conflict before they could constitute themselves as nations with secure boundaries and a clearly demarcated territory, whose residents profess a willing allegiance to the state and its symbols. It took some more time for these countries to emerge as democracies, where individuals pledging loyalty to the flag were rewarded by the right to choose their leaders, the right to freely move about the nation in search of a livelihood, and the right to speak their mind.


Down the centuries, the dream of national independence has motivated thousands of young men and women to lay down their lives, fighting what they see (not wholly without reason) as an occupying colonial power. This dream has also been silently shared by many more men and women who cannot see any future for themselves in the larger nation-states of which they are now a part.

In the past half-century, however, only two new nations have been come into being as a result of a successful armed struggle. One is Bangladesh, which could not have achieved independence from Pakistan had it not been for the help of India and the Indian Army. The other is Eritrea, whose separation from Ethiopia was carried out without aid from a third power.

The struggle in Sri Lanka has been—at least temporarily resolved—through the emphatic victory of the Army over the rebels. What lessons does this have for the Indian state and for rebels in Kashmir?

Some Kashmiri radicals take hope from the many new nations that came to birth in East and Central Europe in the 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union. However, these countries were created on a voluntary basis, with the larger states of which they were part deciding that they would themselves be better off if they let go of linguistic or ethnic groups which were at odds with the majority. Somewhat different is the case of East Timor, a country created by the active intervention of the United Nations and the Western powers, who collectively prevailed against the Indonesians who wished to hold on to the territory. However, one can more-or-less rule out that kind of intervention in India. The Republic of India is far too big, and powerful, for the United States or the United Nations (singly or in combination) to contemplate armed action in support of independence for Kashmir.

The evidence of history, and the facts on the ground, both mean that it is virtually impossible, in the short or long term, for an independent Kashmir to come into being. The dream enacted by the rebels, and shared by their unarmed supporters, is in fact a fantasy. At the same time, the continuation of arbitary and authoritarian rule by the national government is politically unwise as well as morally unacceptable.

If independence is impossible or inconceivable, what then are the options? Can the Tamils and the Kashmiris ever come to live as secure and moderately contented citizens of the nation-states of which they are now part?

The latter is possible, and conceivable, if the state and rebels alike can modify or alter their ways and methods. The state must more consistently promote the values and institutions of democracy, its software as well as its hardware. It must hold regular and fair elections, respect the language and culture of minority groups, and encode this respect in appropriate laws and policies. It must resist, more firmly than it has thus far done, the pressures of the chauvinists who demand that the Kashmiris or the Tamils conform, in ways small and large, to the culture and habits of the majority.

To deepen democracy, is imperative that the Governments of India and Sri Lanka deepen provincial autonomy, allowing Kashmiris and Tamils to take charge of more aspects of their lives. The provincial government must work more sincerely to provide better schools, hospitals, and job opportunities for the Kashmiris. Meanwhile, now that the LTTE has been vanquished, the Sri Lankan Government must honour the pledges made in the past to protect Tamil rights and culture. (Here, they may take a clue from that other bilingual nation, Canada, where the struggle between the country’s Anglophone and Francophone communities has been contained by the advent of greater autonomy for the provinces.) Finally, cases of human rights abuse by the Indian and Sri Lankan armies must be probed by an impartial judicial commission, and the culprits, as and where identified, properly punished for their crimes.

Such are the burdens placed by democracy on the shoulders of the state. What then of the rebels? Can they recognize the objective reality, which tells them that an independent state cannot and will not be won? Can they atone for their own excesses and errors, the killings of civilians and of those on their side who chose to follow a different political path? Finally, can they lay down their arms, and participate in and even win elections?

History provides some good news here. Consider South Africa, where a group firmly committed to armed revolution put aside their guns and won the first and second elections ever conducted under adult franchise. Notably, in its days as an insurgent group the African National Congress never targeted civilians on the other side—it sought only to attack state installations and state officials. This discipline and restraint, whereby the ANC refused to indulge in indiscriminate and illegitimate forms of violence, ultimately made it easier for the organization to lay down arms altogether and enter the democratic process.

The example of the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela can thus serve as model and inspiration for Tamil and Kashmiri radicals. But there are examples closer at hand, too. The Tamils of Sri Lanka may thus pay attention to the recent history of the Tamils of India. Between 1949 and 1963, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) struggled, albeit non-violently, for an independent Dravida Nadu, to be constituted out of the southern Indian state of Madras. In the latter year they abandoned the plank of independence and chose to stay within the Republic of India. In the next state elections, held in 1967, the DMK easily defeated the ruling Congress party. In the four decades since, the DMK and its splinter party, the AIADMK, have kept the reins of government between themselves, thus using democratic processes to provide a regional alternative to the major ‘national’ parties.

For their part, the Kashmiri rebels should study the trajectory of the Mizo National Front (MNF). In 1966, this body launched an armed insurrection in pursuit of an independent state of ‘Mizoram’, to be carved out of India’s eastern borderlands. Like the Kashmiris, the Mizos are mountain people of a fierce pride and independence; like them, their culture, language and (not least) religion is somewhat dissimilar to that of the Indian heartland; like them again, their struggle for independence had the support of India’s rival, Pakistan (whose eastern wing, then not yet Bangladesh, abutted the Mizo areas).

For almost twenty years the Mizo National Front fought a guerrilla war against the Indian Army. There were casualties on both sides, and, inevitably, even more casualties of civilians. Then the two sides began to negotiate. In 1986 an agreement was signed whereby the fighters of the MNF laid down their arms and were granted amnesty in return. The MNF chose to abide by the Indian Constitution, their reward being the election of their former commander-in-chief, Laldenga, as Chief Minister of the state, rather than nation, of Mizoram. Through much of the next two decades the MNF ran the State Government. In December 2008 it lost to the Congress party in the most recent state elections. The MNF now sits in opposition in a democratically elected house in which it previously held a governing majority.

The trajectories of the DMK and the MNF suggest that between the extremes of wholesale assimilation—which would be deeply damaging to the minority—and complete separation—which, as things stand, is an impossibility—lies a third alternative, that of a dignified autonomy. To bring this about, the political system must restore democracy’s hardware—so as to allow villages, districts and states to fairly and freely elect their own representatives—and deepen democracy’s software—so as not to impose a single language, faith, or allegedly ‘national’ tradition on a disparate and diverse citizenry.

The precise form this autonomy can and must take can be outlined only by scholars with skills that I do not possess. The historian can merely document and diagnose; prescription and policy formation he must leave to other disciplines, in this case the disciplines of constitutional law, public administration, anthropology, and development economics. But surely it is past time that we seek solutions that are feasible as well as just. The path of dignified autonomy may be scorned both by paranoid national politicians and by ideologically driven rebels, yet it remains the most reasonable, the most viable, and the most humane solution to the terrible and tragic conflicts in Kashmir and northern Sri Lanka.

Democracy and Violence: in India and Beyond#
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 6th April 2013)

By |2013-04-06T23:09:17+05:30April 6th, 2013|Categories: Politics and Current Affairs, Longer Essays|