Nationhood Undefined


Someone I know serves as a high ranking officer of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) that India maintains under the aegis of the Ministry of Home Affairs(MHA) to “ manage: its own people. The British had just two such force to control and subjugate its colonial subjects but free India has found it necessary to maintain seven of them at last count to ensure that the citizens of a free country do not go awry. And my friend who frequently posts pictures of himself in combat fatigues on social media is one of those paid to subjugate and if necessary kill his own fellow country men, if they do not toe the line.

I have often wondered about what it feels to kill at all, much less kill your own people but the indelicacy of the question has stopped me from asking that question. But of course the Indian state doesn’t squirm at all and hasn’t balked for a long time. 55 years ago, in 1966, the newly installed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a precursor to her subsequent Durga image ordered the Indian Air Force to bomb Aizawl , then still a small town in undivided Assam to curb what was till then a non violent protest movement. There has been no looking back since then.

India has a long history of both encounter killings and custodial deaths among other killings but encounter killings actually became acceptable when KPS Gill was heading the Punjab Police during the height of the terrorism in Punjab. He presented a reasonable logic. The Punjab police gathered evidence against suspected terrorists with a lot of effort and then arrested them, again risking their lives. Once the arrests were made, it would take forever for a trial to begin and once begun, for it to conclude. Along the way, many of the witnesses would be bought off or be killed and eventually the accused would be acquitted due to lack of evidence.

But killing our own is not only about killing criminals and suspected terrorists. 5 personnel from the Assam police were recently killed and about 50 injured in a border clash between Assam and Mizoram in a border dispute going back 50 years. The fact that uniformed servicemen from neighbouring states can kill each other over a intra nation border dispute only indicates that a sense of nationhood does not really exist in the country beyond flag hoisting and singing anthems. Animosity is not just between states ; it could be even intra states. Simmering caste and clan animosities are never too far below the surface and that makes it all the more easier to kill when an ostensible raison d’etre presents itself.

But this piece is not about police encounter killings or custodial deaths. It is more of a a lament at the notion of ordinary people killing other ordinary people because they are “ different” and South Asia is full of such examples because the concept of being a nation has not matured anywhere in South Asia.The war of 1971 which led to the creation of independent Bangladesh was preceded by months when Punjabi Pakistanis killed Bengali Pakistanis ( and of course too) because they were different. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala Buddhists killed Tamil Hindus ( and vice versa), in Myanmar again, Buddhist Myanmarese killed Rohingiya Muslims because they were different and of course in India the majority community is trying to do just the same. All over South Asia either as a consequence of colonialism or otherwise there is no sense of nationhood that is fully formed.

Lots of conversations have happened in the last decade about the “ Idea of India”. The thread in most of these dialogues has been that the ideal of a socialist and secular India is under threat – possibly over the last decade or so. This is of course correct and deserves the attention that it has got and needs to continue to get. But the idea that the Indian nationality is still a work in progress has not received enough attention. And historically so. After all, shortly after independence, the seminal achievement of Sardar Patel and his able bureaucrat aide V P Menon was the integration of the princely states, many of whom at the time did not consider themselves “ India” inspite of the many cultural ties that bound them quite intimately. Although the intent of Patel was primarily political integration, seven decades later, although most of the states have organically integrated, many fault lines remain in North East, Kashmir and other places. Even places which are peaceful today have seen secessionist movements like Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

It is by now well documented that nationhood can not be forged through the might of the uniform but another, nuanced approach might. Though a small state, the Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew forged a nation out of a bunch of different ethnicities and religions and turned the country into an economic powerhouse. Singapore is definitely an authoritarian state ; a democracy governed more by Confucian ethics which Lee Kuan Yew liked to call “ Asian values”. But a benevolent autocracy which impartially enforces the Rule of Law may be a lot more preferable than the proverbial midnight knock on the door. There may be some lessons there.

Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.


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