Time for a Confederate States of India? – Ikram Sehgal


India, South Asia’s largest country, stretches from the top of the Himalayan North right to down to Kanyakumari on the southern tip. Globally, it is the second-most populous country after China and, by landmass, the seventh-largest. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh are distinct from their neighbour, despite sharing a common history, culture and languages. To a larger extend, so do Nepal and Sri Lanka. Less so Bhutan and the Maldives. Yet real differences are borne of the prevailing political tensions that are the result of India’s pursuit of regional dominance. For superpower tendencies have resulted in subcontinental divisions, even within India itself, where commonalities are underestimated or even denied.

Anti-government movements are a cause of friction for the Indian state. And if it can’t prevent news of this from leaking beyond national borders, it first tries to downplay things. And if that doesn’t work, the blame is put on others, most notably Pakistan. The most brutal and glaring example of this is Indian-held Kashmir, where New Delhi has been unable to appease local sentiment and integrate the territory. Indeed, several Kashmiri freedom movements have been crushed with an iron fist in the recent past.

The Khalistan separatist movement has its roots in the Akali Dal, a religio-political party founded by the Sikhs in 1920, making it the second oldest party after Congress. The demand for Khalistan — a separate and sovereign homeland for the Sikhs in the Punjab, including what now lies in Pakistan — played a role in determining the political future of the subcontinent in 1946/47. The pursuit of greater autonomy in the Punjab never waned. But the Indian government rejected such demands outright, including the Akali Dal‘s 1973 Anandpur Sahib Resolution. By the early 1980s, the Khalistan separatist movement had taken up arms. At the helm was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had taken over the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar and was accumulating weapons. The Indira Gandhi government gave the order to storm the complex. Thus, “Operation Blue Star” was launched to brutally suppress and eliminate the militants. The immediate backlash came in the form of revolt by numerous Sikh units of the Indian Army across the country and resulted in the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards.

The Seven Sisters and Assam are home to a diverse peoples with distinct identities that they wish to preserve. Thus one option would be to group them with Bangladesh to form an Association of Eastern States of South Asia (AESSA)

The subsequent anti-Sikh riots left 3,000 dead in New Delhi, with 20,000 fleeing the city. Elsewhere, it was estimated that 8,000-17,000 Sikhs were killed across the country. Nevertheless, Sikh militants caused extensive civilian casualties by derailing trains, detonating bombs in markets, restaurants, and other civilian areas between Delhi and Punjab. Militants assassinated many of the moderate Sikh leaders who opposed them. Hindus left Punjab by the thousands. In a certain way, the problem re-surfaced during the recent farmers’ protests in Indian Punjab, where Sikhs are a majority. The US-based Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), headed Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, and its many supporters favour independence through ballots rather than bullets. Yet the Indian government is doing everything in its power to suppress even these peaceful calls.

The longest-standing anti-government movement in India is the Naxalite-Maoist movement. ‘Naxal’ comes from Naxalbari village in West Bengal, home to the first armed peasant uprising in 1967. Until just over a decade ago, the Naxal-Maoist insurgency was actively present in nearly 200 districts across 20 states; falling to 106 districts across 10 states. The states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar are considered severely affected. Maoists are also present in the states of West Bengal, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. As recently as April 5 2021, 22 security personnel were killed in an ambush by around 600 Naxals in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur, with 41suffering serious injuries. According to a Times of India report, 58 percent off people in Andhra Pradesh regarded the guerrillas positively, as compared to 19 percent who did not.

In northeast India, unrest continues. The Seven Sister sates — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim — remain culturally distinct from the rest of the country. These eastern-most union states are culturally closer to China and South East Asia and consist mainly of tribes with their own indigenous languages and social structures. During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Mizo leader Laldenga came to Pakistan’s aid when India sent in soldiers to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, while begging Dhaka not to surrender. Some 50 years later, tensions still exist among insurgents and the central government continues to try and ‘Indianise’ the indigenous locals and migrants from other parts of the country as well as illegal immigrants, mainly of Bengali origin. Yet the the Seven Sisters fear that aliens from outside their tribal and cultural orbits will erode their distinct identity.

Despite being separated for centuries from the rest of Asia by the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges, South Asia has, nevertheless, not remained immune from outside influence. Europe is much larger than this region, being home to some 44 sovereign states, 27 of which enjoy EU membership. As such, it provides a living blueprint of sorts for South Asia. Indeed, several proposals were made back in 1947 to form separate states, among them an independent Kashmir, Bengal and Khalistan. However, these were rejected out of hand by the Indian National Congress (INC), which wanted to inherit an intact and undivided India (Akhand Bharat) from the British Empire. Nehru and his colleagues wanted to exert unchecked power over the entire subcontinent, making them the real successors to the British and their glory. The INC resented the idea of Pakistan and thus prevented the establishment of all the new potential states that would have ultimately eased tension and pre-emptied secessionist movements. What do Narendra Modi and his BJP want today?

Today, we live in a highly interconnected world where nuclear weapons and other martial technology are more commonplace than not. Breaking up states is hardly an option anymore. It would cause war. We must accommodate demands for cultural and political autonomy through negotiation. Anti-government movements lasting for decades gobble up resources that could be better utilised elsewhere. At this time, socio-economic development in India is confined to some states, and within those states, largely to urban centres. As the farmers’ protest has shown, the present caste-based minority ruling elite has replaced the British to exploit the ‘natives’. Shashi Tharoor’s book, “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” gives both ample reason and evidence, economic and political, details how the people of South Asia — now comprising present day India — were once prosperous and independent economic entities and explains what went wrong.

The northeastern states and Assam, with a history of active militancy dating back six decades, are home to a diverse peoples with distinct identities that they wish to preserve. Thus one option would be to group the Seven Sisters and Assam with Bangladesh to form an Association of Eastern States of South Asia (AESSA). Incidentally, the AESSA model as part of a greater Bengal was the very mandate that the Quaid handed to AK Fazlul Huq and HS Suhrawardy back in 1946. But the Congress, supported by the British, scuttled this on a technicality. Khalistan is a natural independent entity yet it, along with AESSA , represent the unfinished business of 1947. The Hindu belt of UP, Bihar, Haryana Maharashtra, Rajputana comprises another major confederal entity. South India, which historically resents northern political dominance and its connected cultural pre-eminence, is now economically resurgent. It can therefore form another independent entity.

The idea of a Confederate States of India (CSI) should be pursued, albeit in a peaceful manner for the time being. After all, this would dilute the hegemony of the Brahmin-led small elite that rules in a brutal fashion over the vast majority in modern India.