On Indian Exceptionalism and Kashmir: Dia Da Costa

This is a guest post by Dia Da Costa

‘If Trump is elected, I will move to Canada,’ many Americans noted in passing, in jest, and then in all seriousness once the results were out.

If it has taken this election result to make people recognize the pervasive racism in the US, that is because of the success of US exceptionalism and its ability to deflect attention from its ongoing colonization of indigenous land, relentless imperialism, Islamophobia, and ongoing brutalities against black people in the aftermath of abolition and the civil rights movement. If it has taken this election result to make people really want to move to Canada, that too is because of the success of Canadian multicultural exceptionalism. Apparently, Canadian exceptionalism is still able to pass as not-as-racist by deflecting attention from its ongoing colonization of indigenous land, relentless participation in imperialism cloaked all too often as humanitarian development, growing Islamophobia, and its self-congratulatory representation of itself as having no history of slavery even as its anti-Black violence pervades cities and small towns alike.

For those of us who can recognize these forms of exceptionalism, I want to ask if we acknowledge Indian exceptionalism, and its specific relation to Kashmir? ‘If Trump is elected, I will move back to India’, I saw many Indians say on social media. If it has taken this US election result to make Indians really want to move back to India, that is not just because of the apparent success of US exceptionalism among Indians, who could see racism but could ultimately deal with, and even love life in the US. It is also because of Indian exceptionalism. To be sure, Indian exceptionalism is nurtured by the caste and class privilege that allows some Indians to declare that they will simply up and leave when the going gets tough (whether it is in India or in the US), or joke about the same.

But there is more to it. Indian exceptionalism is a state projected discourse turned commonsense perception of India as a complicated and diverse nation that is ultimately unified against all odds by the absolute commitment of its people to democracy. Whether we believe it at face value or we critique the many excesses of the Indian state, ultimately something draws us to this idea of India as the world’s largest democracy.

Why can’t I just be proud of Indian pride in its democracy—in its faulty, messy, but surely still slowly progressing form? Besides, what does Indian pride in their democracy have to do with Indian exceptionalism? Because so long as we are a democracy and see ourselves continually undergoing a seventy year-long birthing process, we willfully refuse to see ourselves as colonizers. Becoming postcolonial is difficult, but it also gives us the blindspot to believe that we are not ourselves colonizers. So, we tell ourselves that we don’t have to acknowledge our own imperial desires for seeing the land of others, as our own. We have told ourselves that ‘we are the world’s largest democracy’ story so many times, it has become the cornerstone of our common sense. We grew up with it, we repeat it to our children, we cite it in debates, it trumps any comparison with neighbor states. We absolutely cling to this idea as comfort in the face of difficult electoral results in India—the people will eventually vote them out, we have full faith in the world’s largest democracy. The people, our saviour in a democracy.

But not Kashmiri people. No matter how nuanced our understanding of the nationalist self-construction that ‘we are the world’s largest democracy’, our affirmation of this epithet ultimately ensures that we simply do not and cannot entertain the possibility that India is an occupying force. There are half a million armed personnel stationed in Kashmir. Since July 2016 when a young militant leader was killed by the Indian army which in turn prompted an uprising of Kashmiris, 94 Kashmiris have been killed, 1100 have pellet wounds in their eyes and have lost vision, nearly 5000 arrested, and 17,000 injured. This is state violence, but it has public support in India. We claim Kashmir as our own, we claim to love Kashmir, but to hell with democracy in the face of Kashmiris claiming azadi from India. When he was charged with sedition, Kanhaiya Kumar cried out his intense clarification, ‘Bharat se nahi mere bhaiyon, Bharat mein azaadi maang rahe hain (Not freedom from India my brothers, we are asking for freedom in India)’—a far-too-familiar secular-nationalist assertion. Indian exceptionalism thus turns a call to freedom into chains for Kashmiris. We can see ourselves as poor, yes. Corrupt, yes. Communal, yes. But not colonizers. The rare Indians who show solidarity with Kashmiri calls for azadi can expect to be vilified as anti-nationals, criminals, and seditious. Fed by our commonsense faith in being the largest democracy, we justify arming our police and armed forces to the teeth and blinding a whole generation of Kashmiri youth. The democracy that we pride ourselves in gives us the exceptional right to blind, kill and maim the Kashmiris that we claim to love so much.

‘Never picture India without her mundu (head)’, a relative once told me, referring to Kashmir at the top of India.

I do not want nationalist imaginaries to protect me from the fact of my privilege—I have the option to imagine India with or without a head because Kashmiris have to literally give their heads for naming and claiming their right to self-determination.

I do not want academic theory to be used to mask privilege, either. Recently, I listened to postcolonial scholars say that we must be wary of the nativism of affirming land and nation in our political and theoretical arguments on decolonization. To what extent has this caution become a decontextualized punchline? We privileged, brown, Hindu upper caste scholars debate whether nation and land are dangerous slippery-slope type words that lead inevitably towards nativism, despite the fact that we have the ability to own land in numerous cities and villages in India, and maybe also in the UK, US, or Canada. My discursive deconstruction of land is enabled by caste and class privilege to own it. I can insist on relentlessly deconstructing nation and land everywhere regardless of context and meanings because I never have to really listen to or accept how the Kashmiri is defining nation or land. My meaning of land and nation literally and metaphorically occupies the terms of the debate. Maybe not regardless of context. Maybe I can accept Palestinian right to land, maybe I can talk about settler states like the US and Canada being on indigenous land, maybe I can even rhetorically grant that there should be land reform to benefit Dalits. But Kashmir? For most Indians, Kashmir remains the blindspot of Indian exceptionalism.

The idea of India as democracy is so precious to us that we have literally accepted fascism to protect it. This is one way to think about why Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India in 2014. Modi restored faith in democracy in the face of the Congress and its Nehru-Gandhi dynastic grasp over Indian politics. Modi was also rewarded with Prime Ministership for normalizing Islamophobia and affirming an upper-caste Hindu idea of India as regional mode of governance when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. While many people around the world, but especially in North America, may mourn the election of Trump as the worst thing ever, we must look to India and remember that Trump is not quite there yet.

Indian exceptionalism claims to be non-lethal because it has democracy at its heart. How did we come to accept the cruel logic that Indian armed forces using ‘non-lethal’ pellet guns to blind Kashmiri youth amounts to saving their lives? And besides, bullets continue to kill Kashmiris. Kashmiris have made their desires known for far too long—at least since the 1980s, if not the 1930s—with the clarity of their call for azadi, with stones and slogans, and with profoundly soulful art and creative refusals. The ongoing killings and blinding are only the latest attempt to kill the democratic voice of Kashmiris who refuse India’s claim over Kashmiri land—that is, Kashmiri azadi. So let us not fool ourselves about being the world’s largest democracy. Let us stop avoiding the fact that if a state has to normalize the right to kill or maim people under its control in order to get them to submit to its control, that state is a colonizer.

[Dia Da Costa thinks and writes about the politics and pedagogies of activism and solidarity.]

2 thoughts on “On Indian Exceptionalism and Kashmir: Dia Da Costa”

  1. The article makes me rethink about the idea of Nationalism. Thank you very much for opening up such a viewing angle. I would request the writer to inform the readers with a possible solution through which the state no more colonizes and the fundamental rights of the Kashmiris are safeguarded.


  2. The savarkar brand of hindutva chaps wanted an pure hindu state from the 30’s then we should have a referendum on it, that tagodia chap and his senas have also ‘fought’ in plenty of riots and even died for their cause, so we should just let them have it . In this romanticism of a post-national liberalism , even smart people are forgetting that this kind of politics can bring some very ugly outcomes . You are trying to light a match that will affect lives of a billion people and you will be the first to run away when the fire starts engulfing everyone here.


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