Dilemmas of ‘Right of Nations to Self Determination’: Rohini Hensman
Guest post by ROHINI HENSMAN
The hectic discussion over the Kashmir meeting in Delhi in October entitled ‘Azadi – The Only Way’ has made it urgent to revisit the debate between Lenin and Luxemburg on the right of nations to self-determination. Lenin, starting from his experience in imperialist Russia, insisted on the right of nations like the Ukraine to self-determination (in the sense of their right to form separate states), contending that denial of this right would merely strengthen Great Russian nationalism. In a colonial situation, Lenin was surely right. When a country is under foreign occupation, all sections other than a very small number of collaborators want to be free of the occupiers, even if there are sharp differences between these sections. A striking example is RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) which, despite speaking for a section of the population which is sorely oppressed by the Taliban, and continuing to fight against it, nonetheless shares with the latter the goal of ending the occupation by US and NATO forces. In such situations, the right of an occupied nation to self-determination makes sense.
So why did Rosa Luxemburg reject the whole notion so passionately? Her question was: Who embodies or represents the ‘nation’, given that it consists of groups that are often at loggerheads with one another? ‘The “nation” should have the “right” to self-determination. But who is that “nation” and who has the authority and the “right” to speak for the “nation” and express its will? How can we find out what the “nation” actually wants?’ she asks (Luxemburg 1909). This is surely a valid question where the territory claimed by those who speak for the nation-to-be is shared by others (who may be a minority or even the majority) who do not want to be part of that vision. In such situations, more complex than the clearcut opposition between an imperial power and a colony, Luxemburg’s question needs to be taken seriously.
The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) offers a powerful justification of her reservations. No one apart from rabid Sinhala nationalists would claim that Tamils have not been grievously oppressed in Sri Lanka. But was the LTTE’s solution – armed struggle for national self-determination in the form of an ethno-nationalist Tamil Eelam – an acceptable one? Right from the beginning, it involved massacres and ethnic cleansing of Sinhalese civilians from the territory claimed by LTTE leaders, massacres and ethnic cleansing of Muslims, and the torture and murder of thousands of Tamils who opposed this barbaric vision. Some Sinhalese liberals nonetheless supported their right to fight for freedom from oppression in any way they deemed fit, while doctrinaire Leninists supported their struggle for the right to national self-determination. By doing this, perhaps they felt they absolved themselves of responsibility for the violence that Tamils continued to suffer. But did they? Tamil dissidents felt, on the contrary, that by their implicit endorsement of the LTTE’s claim to be the sole representative of all Tamils, they colluded in the crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by it. And by allowing it to snuff out Tamil political actors capable of negotiating a settlement that would have satisfied most Tamils at a juncture when the government and majority of war-weary Sinhalese were ready for it, they encouraged the LTTE’s militaristic strategy that ended in such disaster for Tamils.
The situation in Kashmir is, if anything, even more complicated. The Indian ultra-nationalists, most vociferously represented by the Sangh Parivar but present even among sections who claim to be more liberal, are undoubtedly a major part of the problem there. Their dogmatic assertion that Kashmir is an integral part of India – as though India’s national boundaries are god-given and any questioning of them is blasphemy – goes with a justification of the horrific atrocities committed against Kashmiris by the Indian security forces. Their allegation of sedition against Arundhati Roy for questioning this dogma, and hysterical outburst against the government-appointed interlocutors for suggesting that any solution to the problem requires the involvement of the government of Pakistan, make it clear that they themselves have no solution to offer short of war between two nuclear-armed countries.
Pretending that Kashmir is not disputed territory must appear to most observers as a typical instance of burying one’s head in the sand to avoid seeing what is obvious to everyone else; breathing fire and brimstone at anyone who acknowledges the reality is obviously a non-starter so far as resolving the problem is concerned. But more disturbingly, advocating coercion to stamp out protest in Kashmir and a clampdown on freedom of expression to prevent discussion of the issue constitutes an assault on democracy. To destroy India’s integrity as a democracy in order to preserve its territorial integrity is, hopefully, not a ‘solution’ that most people would find morally or politically acceptable.
Then is ‘Azadi (Freedom) the Only Way’, as a meeting in Delhi on 21 October 2010 organised by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners proclaimed (Minutes 2010)? That does not necessarily follow. Indeed, even the meaning of ‘azadi’ is far from clear. For one of the keynote speakers at the meeting, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, it means that Kashmir would be an Islamic state and would be part of Pakistan. For many others – probably the majority – it means that Kashmir would be independent of both India and Pakistan, and for some of these that it would be a secular state. The only point of agreement among all these sections seems to be that Kashmir would be free of Indian rule, and would encompass all the territory of Jammu and Kashmir on both sides of the border.
Since SAS Geelani was the voice of Azadi at the Delhi meeting, it is worth following through the logic of his position as articulated to a Kashmiri audience (as opposed to positions articulated for the consumption of an Indian human rights audience). He believes that Hindus and Muslims constitute two different nations which have nothing in common with each other, that the only identity a Muslim can possess is that of being a Muslim, and therefore stands for Kashmir’s accession to Islamic Pakistan: i.e., he is opposed to an independent Kashmir, and even more fervently opposed to secularism. But what about citizens of Jammu and Kashmir who disagree with his vision? ‘In Geelani’s writings anti-Indian Sunni Muslims come to be seen as standing in for all the people of the state, while the sizeable remaining population of Jammu and Kashmir (Hindus, dalits, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, many Shia Muslims and non-Kashmiri Pahari Muslims, as well as not a negligible number of Kashmiri Muslims) who are definitely pro-India are completely ignored and silenced as if they are not part of “the people of Jammu and Kashmir”. But it is not every Kashmiri Muslim leader who demands freedom from India who is seen as an “authentic representative” of the people of the entire state in Geelani’s scheme of things. Rather, to Geelani, the mantle of “authenticity” falls on people like himself, Islamists who advocate Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan’ (Sikand 2010). His answer to Luxemburg’s question – ‘who has the authority and the “right” to speak for the “nation” and express its will?’ – is loud and clear: ‘Only I and people who agree with me have the authority and the right to speak for the Kashmiri nation and express its will.’
Unfortunately, this ‘solution’ to the problem of Kashmir suffers from the very same moral weakness (i.e. the use of coercion to force unwilling individuals to be part of the nation) as the Indian state’s attitude to Kashmir. And it is, if anything, politically more reactionary, since India is at least constitutionally secular and democratic, whereas this vision of azadi is neither; indeed, it has a striking resemblance to the majoritarian Hindutva project for India. Geelani is smart enough to see this but doesn’t care, because he is an authoritarian old patriarch for whom democracy is not a value worth defending.
The Violence of the Oppressor and the Violence of the Oppressed
For dogmatic Leninists and Maoists too, the lack of democracy in the ‘solution’ is not a problem, and the moral dilemma is resolved very easily with the mantra that ‘the violence of the oppressor must never be equated with the violence of the oppressed’. It is worth examining this formula more carefully, since it has been used as a cover for many ghastly atrocities. Its unstated premise is that those who are oppressed in one relationship are always and in every relationship the victims of oppression, and can never be oppressors. This may be true in fairy tales, but real life is more complicated. For example, a male worker who is oppressed by his employer may come home and thrash his wife. According to this formula, the male worker is still ‘the oppressed’ in the relationship with his wife, and we must never, ever, equate his brutality to her with the oppression he faces as a worker, even if he kills her. But where does this reasoning lead us? The Zionist state of Israel has made extensive use of it to persuade the world that Jews, who were subjected to genocide in the Nazi holocaust, cannot possibly be guilty of violence against the people of Palestine; it denounces as ‘anti-Semitism’ any comparison of the ghettos into which the Jews were herded with the ghettos into which the Palestinians have been herded, because (of course!) one must never equate the violence of the oppressors (the Nazis) with the violence of the oppressed (the Zionists).
To break out of this dilemma, we need to be able to deal with more complex equations, and admit that the categories of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ are not only not mutually exclusive, but may work in opposite directions even in the same relationship (e.g. white woman, black man). Once we do this, it becomes crystal clear that what is often justified as ‘the violence of the oppressed’ is actually the violence of oppressors, albeit different oppressors from those who are seen as being ‘the enemy’. For example, the LTTE’s violence against Sinhalese and Muslim civilians, Tamil dissenters and Tamil children whom they recruited forcibly, was all the violence of the oppressor. The Taliban’s violence against women and ethnic and religious minorities is the violence of the oppressor. Only where the violence is directed strictly towards actors inflicting violence on a community can we talk of the violence of the oppressed: Vietnamese shooting down planes that were dropping bombs and napalm on their towns and villages, South Africans fighting against the Apartheid state, and so on. Yes, in such cases we should not equate the violence of an imperialist/colonial state with the armed resistance to such violence. But we can say this only when we have examined each case to see who the victims of the so-called ‘violence of the oppressed’ are.
Blanket support for those who are seen to be fighting for the oppressed is the surest way to turn them into oppressors even if they are not oppressors already. It also creates a hierarchy of rights between ‘us’, whose have human rights, and ‘them’, who have none. In this view, a Tamil child killed by the Sri Lankan army has human rights, while a Sinhalese child killed by the LTTE has none; therefore the former killing is a violation of human rights, the latter is not. University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) won the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2007 (Martin Ennals Award 2007) precisely because they risked their lives to challenge this discriminatory conception. By documenting – and condemning – human rights violations by all the warring parties, they not only provided a source of information far more reliable than the propaganda of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, but also provided a moral compass to guide Tamil democracy acivists through the quagmire of gruesome atrocities.
Unlike the Maoists, Arundhati Roy is not comfortable with the assumption that sharing a platform with Geelani amounts to an endorsement of his politics, although that conclusion would be the normal one. Asked this question in an interview, she replied, ‘Speaking for myself, I disagree with many of his views, and I’ve written about it… As for him being involved in the internecine battles within the Kashmiri leadership – yes that’s true. Terrible things happened in the nineties, fratricidal killings – and Geelani has been implicated in some of them. But internecine battles are a part of many resistance movements. They are NOT the same thing as State sponsored killings. In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) and Black Consciousness had vicious fights in which many hundreds were killed, including Steve Biko. Would you say then, that sitting on the same platform as Nelson Mandela is a crime?’ (Choudhary and Roy 2010).
There are three things wrong with this strange defence. One: Roy is surely the first person to accuse Nelson Mandela of having had a hand in the death of Steve Biko. Biko was killed by the Apartheid state in 1977, while Mandela was serving a twenty-seven-year prison sentence imposed by the same state: how could he possibly have had anything to do with it? It was not an ‘internecine battle’ but a state-sponsored killing, which, as Roy says, is NOT the same thing. (Incidentally, isn’t ‘internecine battles’ a euphemism for the murder of rivals, not so very different from the euphemism of referring to state assassinations as ‘encounters’? Both ‘internecine battles’ and ‘encounters’ suggest that the two sides are engaged in mutual combat, whereas the reality is that one side is gunning down the other in cold blood.) Two: Mandela was fighting against an Apartheid state in which discrimination against non-Whites was written into the constitution; by contrast, Geelani is fighting against the Indian state, whose constitution affirms non-discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, sex, etc. And three: Mandela was fighting for a democratic state whose constitution would guarantee non-discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, sex, etc, whereas Geelani is fighting for a theocratic state whose constitution will guarantee discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, sex, etc. So it is not a crime to sit on the same platform as Nelson Mandela, but sharing a platform with Geelani is not quite as blameless. To acknowledge the tragedy of the expulsion of the Kashmiri Pandits while sharing a platform with a man whose politics would make them (at best) second-class citizens without political rights certainly seems inconsistent. Fighting on two fronts – against the state on one side and a self-styled liberation group on the other – is difficult and dangerous, but sometimes there is no other option, as Tamil democracy activists found. Perhaps the same is true of the struggle for democracy in Kashmir.
Self-determination for everyone
Luxemburg’s point was that the ‘nation’ has no unified ‘self’ or ‘will’, because it consists of diverse classes and groups that are often at loggerheads with one another. By pretending that the ‘nation’ has a unified ‘will’, proponents of the doctrine of the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ privilege the leaders of the most powerful group in the prospective nation, ignoring or disempowering others, and in some cases even encouraging the most powerful group to annihilate or evict the others, as happened in Sri Lanka. Nor is this an unmixed blessing for the group whom the leaders claim to represent, because the policies of the leadership may result in unnecessary suffering for them too, as in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Similarly in Kashmir, it is not only the Pandits who have suffered as a result of the Islamist vision of azadi. ‘Between 1989 and 1991 tens of thousands of Kashmiri youths crossed over the Line of Control and went to a land of their dreams – Pakistan, which many of them thought was a place where there was justice, peace and tranquility; but most were terribly disillusioned by the experience, and ended up feeling bitter at the deception that had trapped them ‘between a rock and a hard place’ (Choudhry 2010).
A solution that protects the democratic rights of all the diverse peoples of Jammu and Kashmir cannot be summed up in the slogan of ‘Azadi’ or formula of ‘the right of nations to self-determination’; it requires a process of discussion and negotiation between all the diverse peoples in the state. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that such a solution cannot be found while a military occupation by Indian forces continues torturing, raping and killing civilians with impunity. The most disturbing part of this horrifying account of a little Kashmiri boy beaten to death for venturing into the street to retrieve his ball (Javaid 2010) is that – as in the case of the Wikileaks revelations – it is the perpetrator with a conscience who has to undergo disciplinary action, while those who are gung-ho about their act of sadism go scot free. This suggests that such atrocities are the rule rather than the exception, and that they have sanction from above. And how could it be otherwise, when the chiefs of the armed forces are adamant that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which provides impunity for such crimes, must stay? All their arguments fall to the ground the moment they are scrutinised. They say that repealing the act will provide ‘carte blanche’ to insurgents, but do not explain how their ceasing to rape, torture and kill unarmed civilians will aid armed insurgents. On the contrary, reports of the recent outbreak of stone-pelting make it clear that the gratuitous violence of the security forces encouraged by impunity is actually the main cause of the problem, not any kind of solution to it (Parthasarathy 2010). The most bizarre argument is that punishing perpetrators of such crimes will ‘demoralise’ the armed forces. Surely security forces that beat little boys to death for sport have already lost much of their legitimacy? Wouldn’t punishing the psychopaths who engage in such activities help to rebuild their morale?
The decision as to whether AFSPA and other laws providing impunity for crimes committed by state security forces should be repealed or not is a political – not military – decision. Such laws violate the constitution in multiple ways. By dividing citizens into two sections, one of which (state security forces) can commit crimes with impunity while the other (civilian victims) cannot appeal to the law for protection, they violate the right to equality under the law and equal protection of the law, and also deprive civilians of other fundamental rights, including the right to life. As a public statement by concerned citizens puts it, ‘Draconian legislations like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the Jammu and & Kashmir Public Safety Act and the Disturbed Areas Act continue to facilitate human rights abuses in the valley…We therefore demand that the government take full cognizance of the continuing violation of human rights in the valley, make the security forces fully accountable so that the guilty can be prosecuted and punished’ (Public Statement 2010).
The marathon ten-year fast of Irom Sharmila, winner of the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize and many other awards, is in pursuance of the same demand. Her towering moral stature, as she continues to demonstrate her willingness to sacrifice her life in order to save innocents from suffering, injury and death, contrasts starkly with the immorality of security forces willing to inflict suffering, injury and death on innocents in order to avoid risking their own lives, and of political leaders who refuse to repeal AFSPA despite the fact that ‘The judicial inquiry commission headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy, instituted by the Central government to examine the advisability or otherwise of repealing the AFSPA, submitted a 147-page report on June 6, 2005, recommending repeal of the law’ (Iboyaima Laithangbam 2010).
‘Azadi’ may seem like a more revolutionary demand than the repeal of AFSPA, but it is not. As we saw, ‘azadi’ is compatible with authoritarianism, ethnic cleansing and the murder of political rivals: hardly a radical departure from the present. By contrast, the repeal of AFSPA and other laws providing impunity for human rights violations by the army and other security forces would help to provide an atmosphere in which the people of Kashmir and the North-East could work out solutions that guarantee democracy and self-determination for all, and not just for a privileged or dominant section. In India, a campaign for ‘Azadi’ may not get widespread support, partly because the meaning of the slogan is unclear and partly because the goal may be a situation no better than the present one, whereas a campaign against draconian legislation and human rights violations could appeal to a far wider constituency, on the grounds that failure to take up these issues undermines both India’s moral legitimacy and its claim to be a democracy.
Choudhary, Shoma, 2010, Interview with Arundhati Roy, ‘An independent Kashmiri nation may be a flawed entity, but is independent India perfect?’ Tehelka, Vol. 7 Issue 44, 3 November, http://www.tehelka.com/story_main47.asp?filename=Ne061110CoverstoryII.asp
Choudhry, Shabir, 2010, ‘Plight of Kashmiri Militants in Azad Kashmir’, Countercurrents, 1 November, http://www.countercurrents.org/choudhry011110.htm
Iboyaima Laithangbam, 2010, ‘Battling On’, Frontline, Vol. 27 Issue 23, 6 November, http://www.frontline.in/stories/20101119272304100.htm
Javaid, Azaan, 2010, ‘AND I ASK TO MY SELF “WHO IS STRONG AND WHO IS WEAK”’, United Youth of Kashmir, 7 September, http://ko-kr.connect.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=124383014279324
Luxemburg, Rosa, 1909, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, The National Question, http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch01.htm
Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, 2007, ‘Press Release: Human Rights Defenders from Burundi and Sri Lanka honored with 2007 Martin Ennals Award,’ http://www.martinennalsaward.org/en/press/2007-09-01.html
Minutes of the seminar on Azadi: The Only Way, Kafila, 27 October 2010, http://kafila.org/2010/10/27/minutes-of-the-seminar-on-azadi-the-only-way/
Parthasarathy, Malini, 2010, ‘Understanding Kashmir’s stone-pelters,’ The Hindu, 4 August, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article550058.ece
Public Statement, 2010, ‘Demand to Uphold Free Speech and Expression,’ South Asia Citizen’s Web, 2 November, http://www.sacw.net/article1672.html
Sikand, Yoginder, 2010, ‘Jihad, Islam and Kashmir: Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Political project,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLV No. 40, 2 October, pp.125-134