LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, Vol. 34 No. 15 · 2 August 2012
To hallow the solemn occasion, Nehru and his colleagues sat cross-legged around a sacred fire in Delhi while Hindu priests – arrived posthaste from Tanjore for the ritual – chanted hymns and sprinkled holy water over them, and women imprinted their foreheads with vermilion. Three hours later, on the stroke of midnight, 14 August 1947, a date and time stipulated by Hindu astrologers, Nehru – in defiance of any earthly notion of time, announcing that the rest of the world was asleep: London and New York were wide awake – assured his broadcast listeners that their ‘tryst with destiny’ was consummated, and had given birth to the Indian Republic.
After the ceremonies came practical arrangements. Within a fortnight, a Constituent Assembly had appointed a committee to draft a constitution, chaired by the leader of the Untouchables, Ambedkar. After the committee had laboured for more than two years, a charter of 395 articles was adopted, the longest of its kind in the world, which came into force on 26 January 1950. The document drew on British, American and White Dominion precedents for an original synthesis, combining a strong central executive with a symbolic presidency, a bicameral legislature with reserved seats for minorities, a Supreme Court with robust provincial governments, in a semi-federal structure denominated a union. Widely admired at the time and since, and not only at home, the constitution has become a touchstone of what for many are the signature values of India: a multitudinous democracy, a kaleidoscopic unity, an ecumenical secularity.
There is always some gap between the ideals of a nation and the practices that seek or claim to embody them. Its width, of course, varies. In the case of India, the central claim is sound. Since independence, the country has famously been a democracy. Its governments are freely elected by its citizens at regular intervals, in polls that are not twisted by fraud. Although often thought to be, this is not in itself a unique achievement in what was once called the Third World. Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Jamaica and Mauritius can match regular elections as independent states. What sets Indian democracy apart from these is its demographic and social setting. In sheer scale, it is unlike any other democracy in the world. From the beginning, its electorate was more than twice the size of the next largest, in the United States. Today, at some 700 million, it is more than five times larger. At the far top of the range in numbers, India is close to the bottom in literacy and poverty. At independence, only 12 per cent of the population could read or write. Comparable figures for Jamaica were 72 per cent, Sri Lanka 63 per cent, Malaya 40 per cent. As for poverty, per capita income in India today is still only about a sixth of that of Malaysia, a third of that of Jamaica, and not much more than half that of Sri Lanka. It is these magnitudes that make Indian democracy so remarkable a phenomenon, and the pride of its citizens in it legitimate.
To be impressive, however, is not to be miraculous, as Indians and others still regularly describe the political system that crystallised after independence. There was never anything supernatural about it: terrestrial explanations suffice. The stability of Indian democracy came in the first instance from the conditions of the country’s independence. There was no overthrow of the Raj, but a transfer of power by it to Congress as its successor. The colonial bureaucracy and army were left intact, minus the colonisers. In the mid-1930s Nehru, denouncing the Indian civil service as ‘neither Indian nor civil nor a service’, declared it ‘essential that the ICS and similar services disappear completely’. By 1947 pledges like these had faded away as completely as his promises that India would never become a dominion. The steel frame of the ICS remained in place, untouched. In the last years of the Raj, its upper ranks had been Indianised, and there was no other corps of native administrators available. But if this was true of the bureaucracy, it was not of the army. Indigenous officers and soldiers had fought bravely, arms in hand, against the Raj in the ranks of the Indian National Army. What was to be done with them, once the British left? Their record a potential reproach to Congress, they were refused integration in the armed forces of the former colonial power, composed of veterans of domestic repression and overseas aggression fresh from imperial service in Saigon and Surabaya who now became the military apparatus of the new order. Nor was there any purge of the police that had beaten, jailed and shot so many in the struggle for independence: they too were kept intact. For the Congress high command, the priority was stability. These were the sinews of a strong state.
The legacy of the Raj was not confined to its bureaucracy, army and police. Alongside its machinery of administration and coercion, Congress inherited its traditions of representation. The Constituent Assembly that gave India its constitution was a British-created body dating from 1946, for which only one out of seven of the subjects of the Raj had been allowed to vote. Once independence was granted, Congress could have called for new elections, with universal adult suffrage. Fearing the outcome might be less convenient than the conclave to hand, in which since partition it controlled 95 per cent of the seats, it took care not to do so. No election on an expanded franchise was held till 1951. The body that created Indian democracy was thus itself not an expression of it, but of the colonial restrictions that preceded it. The constitution to which it gave birth, moreover, owed the majority of its provisions to Westminster: some 250 out of its 395 articles were taken word for word from the Government of India Act passed by the Baldwin cabinet in 1935. But the most important segment of the umbilical cord attaching the Congress regime of the post-independence years to the arrangements of the Raj was the least conspicuous. A mere six articles out of nearly four hundred dealt with elections, but these laid down that the victors would be those first past the post in any constituency.
Though the Raj had imported this British system to the subcontinent, confronted with intractable local problems it had on occasion contemplated alternatives, the existence of which could not altogether be excluded from the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly. Over the protests of the handful of Muslim members left in it, any idea of proportional representation was given short shrift, and an undiluted Westminster model adopted for the Lok Sabha. The Anglophone provincialism of the Congress elite played its part in this. When the functionary responsible for detailed drafting of the constitution, the legal bureaucrat Benegal Rau, a recent locum for Delhi in Kashmir, was dispatched on a fact-finding tour abroad, he visited just four countries: Britain, Ireland, Canada and the United States, all reassuringly first past the post save Ireland. There, however, De Valera told him that ‘he would do away with proportional representation in any shape or form. He preferred the British system as it made for strong government’. Efforts by Fianna Fail to strengthen its grip on the island would mercifully be frustrated, but their logic was readily understood by Congress. The last thing it wished was to weaken its monopoly of power in India. First past the post had delivered what it wanted in the past. Why forego it in the future?
The consequences were central to the nature of the Indian democracy that emerged once elections were held. For twenty years, across five polls between 1951 and 1971, Congress never once won a majority of votes. In this period, at the peak of its popularity as an organisation, its average share of the electorate was 45 per cent. This yielded it crushing majorities in the Lok Sabha, amounting to just under 70 per cent of the seats in Parliament. In effect, the distortions of the electoral system meant that at national level it faced no political opposition. At state or district level, this did not hold. But there, the centre had powers that could deal swiftly with any local trouble. These too were heirlooms of the Raj, eagerly appropriated by Congress. Preventive detention dated back to a Bengal State Prisoners Regulation of 1818, and had been a standard weapon of colonial rule. At Rau’s instigation, approved by Nehru and Patel, the constitution retained it, eliminating due process. Intervention by the viceroy to over-ride or overturn elected governments in the provinces had been authorised by the hated Section 93 of the Government of India Act of 1935. At the last minute, the same powers now reappeared in Article 356 of the constitution, transferred to the president of the republic, in practice a placeholder for the prime minister. Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel had wasted no time in showing the uses of the first, sweeping communist leaders and militants into jail across the country within a few months of independence. Resort to the second came within months of the adoption of the constitution, when Nehru demanded and obtained the head of the chief minister in Punjab, a Congressman he regarded as insubordinate, over the opposition of the newly installed president himself. In Kerala, where communist governments were intermittently elected, president’s rule was imposed five times, from 1959 onwards. By 1987 there had been no fewer than 75 of these takeovers by the centre, affecting virtually every state in India. The representative institutions of Indian democracy were thus from the start anchored in a system of electoral distortion, and armour-plated with an ample repertoire of legal repression.
Still, limits to liberty such as these have never been peculiar to India. In one degree or another, they are familiar elsewhere. All liberal democracies are significantly less liberal, and considerably less democratic, than they fancy themselves to be. That does not cancel them as a category. There is no reason to judge India by a higher standard than is complacently accepted in older and richer versions. The explanation of democratic stability in a society that is so much poorer and more populous is only to a secondary extent to be found in institutional restrictions common enough in the species. It lies in a far larger enabling condition. To see what this might be, a truly distinguishing feature of Indian democracy – one that sets it apart from any other society in the world – needs be considered. In India alone, the poor form not just the overwhelming majority of the electorate, but vote in larger numbers than the better-off. Everywhere else, without exception, the ratio of electoral participation is the reverse – nowhere more so, of course, than in the Land of the Free. Even in Brazil, the other large tropical democracy, where – unlike in India – voting is technically compulsory, the index of ballots cast falls as income and literacy decline.
Why then has the sheer pressure of the famished masses, who apparently hold an electoral whip-hand, not exploded in demands for social reparation incompatible with the capitalist framework of this – as of every other – liberal democracy? Certainly not because Congress ever made much effort to meet even quite modest requirements of social equality or justice. The record of Nehru’s regime, whose priorities were industrial development and military spending, was barren of any such impulse. No land reform worthy of mention was attempted. No income tax was introduced until 1961. Primary education was grossly neglected. As a party, Congress was controlled by a coalition of rich farmers, traders and urban professionals, in which the weight of the agrarian bosses was greatest, and its policies reflected the interests of these groups, unconcerned with the fate of the poor. But they suffered no electoral retribution for this. Why not?
The answer lies, and has always lain, in what also sets India apart from any other country in the world, the historic peculiarities of its system of social stratification. Structurally, by reason of their smaller numbers and greater resources, virtually all ruling classes enjoy an advantage over the ruled in their capacity for collective action. Their internal lines of communication are more compact; their wealth offers an all-purpose medium of power, convertible into any number of forms of domination; their intelligence systems scan the political landscape from a greater height. More numerous and more dispersed, less equipped materially, less armed culturally, subordinate classes always tend, in the sociologist Michael Mann’s phrase, to be ‘organisationally outflanked’ by those above them. Nowhere has this condition been more extreme than in India. There the country is divided into some thirty major linguistic groups, under the cornice of the colonial language – the only one in which rulings on the constitution are accessible – of which, at most, a tenth of the population has any command. These would be obstacles in themselves daunting enough to any national co-ordination of the poor.
But the truly deep impediments to collective action, even within language communities, let alone across them, lay in the impassable trenches of the caste system. Hereditary, hierarchical, occupational, striated through and through with phobias and taboos, Hindu social organisation fissured the population into some five thousand jatis, few with any uniform status or definition across the country. No other system of inequality, dividing not simply, as in most cases, noble from commoner, rich from poor, trader from farmer, learned from unlettered, but the clean from the unclean, the seeable from the unseeable, the wretched from the abject, the abject from the subhuman, has ever been so extreme, and so hard-wired with religious force into human expectation. The role of caste in the political system would change, from the years after independence to the present. What would not change was its structural significance as the ultimate secret of Indian democracy. Gandhi declared that caste alone had preserved Hinduism from disintegration. His judgment can be given a more contemporary application. Caste is what preserved Hindu democracy from disintegration. Fixing in hierarchical position and dividing from one another every disadvantaged group, legitimating every misery in this life as a penalty for moral transgression in a previous incarnation, as it became the habitual framework of the nation it struck away any possibility of broad collective action to redress earthly injustice that might otherwise have threatened the stability of the parliamentary order over which Congress serenely presided for two decades after independence. Winding up the debate in the Constituent Assembly that approved the constitution, of which he was a leading architect, Ambedkar remarked: ‘We are going to enter a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life, we will have inequality … We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this assembly has so laboriously constructed.’ He underestimated the system of inequality against which he had fought for so long. It was not a contradiction of the democracy to come. It was the condition of it. India would have a caste-iron democracy.
What of the second great claim for which the constitution could legitimately be held to lay the basis, the resilient unity achieved in a country of such immense diversity? Its drafters studiously avoided the word ‘federal’. The Upper House in Delhi would be not even the weak shadow of a senate. The new state would be an Indian Union, with powers conferred on the centre to manipulate or overthrow elected authorities in its constituent units unthinkable in the United States, Canada, Australia or other models consulted for its construction. But though less than federal in intention, in outcome the union became something like a creatively flexible federation, in which state governments came to enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy, so long as they did not offer opportunities for intervention by internal disputes or cross too boldly the political will of the centre. The test of this undeclared federalism came with the emergence of movements for the linguistic redivision of territorial units inherited from the Raj. The Congress high command was instinctively hostile to these, Nehru particularly dismissive. But popular pressures in the Telugu zone of the Madras Presidency eventually forced Delhi to accept the creation of Andhra in 1953. Top-down reorganisation brought Karnataka, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh into being three years later, and after considerable violence the Bombay Presidency had to be split into Maharashtra and Gujarat in 1960.
Thereafter the principle that new states could emerge on a linguistic or other basis, if there was strong regional demand for them, was effectively conceded. At independence there were 14 states in the union; today they number 28, and still counting, with proposals to split Uttar Pradesh into four states now on the agenda. In no case have voters as such ever been consulted in these redivisions: the centre has broken up states, reactively or pre-emptively, according to its own judgment of what exigencies required. Yet the institutional evolution that has permitted this multiplicity of regional governments to take shape must be accounted the most distinctive achievement of the Indian constitution. That so many linguistic divisions could co-exist in a single huge polity without generating insuperable disputes or deadlocks has certainly also been due to the luck of the cultural draw. Had one language group constituted a clear majority of the nation, or none enjoyed any particular preponderance over any other, the potential for conflict or scission would have been much greater. Hindi, whose native-speakers comprise some 40 per cent of the population, had just the right weight to act as a ballast in the political system, without risk of too provocatively lording over it. Still, that the contours of a mobile federalism could develop so constructively is owed to the good sense of those who redrew the map of India, originally against the wishes of Congress.
This real achievement has, in what by now could be termed the Indian Ideology, been surcharged with claims to a largely imaginary status: the notion that the preservation by the Indian state of the unity of the country is a feat so exceptional as to be little short of a miracle, in the standard phrase. There is no basis for this particular vanity. A glance at the map of the post-colonial world is enough to show that, no matter how heterogeneous or artificial the boundaries of any given European colony may have been, they continue to exist today. Of the 52 countries in Africa, the vast majority arbitrary fabrications of rival imperialist powers, just one – Sudan – has failed to persist within the same frontiers as an independent state. In Asia, the same pattern has held, the separation of Singapore from Malaysia after two years of cohabitation not even a break with the colonial past, of Bangladesh from Pakistan enabled by external invasion. Such few sports of history aside, the motto of independence has invariably been: what empire has joined, let no man put asunder. In this general landscape, India represents not an exception, but the rule.
That rule has, in one state after another, been enforced with violence. In Africa, wars in Nigeria, Mali, the Western Sahara, Ethiopia, Congo, Angola; in South-East Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Sri Lanka. Typically, military force deployed to preserve postcolonial unity has meant military government in one guise or another in society at large: state of emergency in the periphery, dictatorship at the centre. India has escaped the latter. But it has exhibited the former, with a vengeance. It is now 65 years since Congress seized the larger part of Kashmir, without title from the colonial power, though with vice-regal connivance, in the name of a forged document of accession from its feudal ruler, the assent of its leading politician and the pledge of a plebiscite to confirm the will of its people. Having secured the region, Nehru – the prime mover – made short work of all three. The maharajah was soon deposed, the promise of a referendum ditched. What of the politician, on whom now rested what claims of legitimacy for Indian possession remained?
Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir as he enjoyed being styled, was a Muslim leader who, like Badshah Khan in the North-West Frontier Province, had been an ally of Congress in the years of struggle against the Raj, and become the most prominent opponent of the maharajah in the Valley of Kashmir. There his party, the National Conference, had adopted a secular platform in which local communists played some role, seeking independence for Kashmir as the ‘Switzerland of Asia’. But when partition came, Abdullah made no case of this demand. For some years he had bonded emotionally with Nehru, and when fighting broke out in Kashmir in the autumn of 1947, he was flown out from Srinagar to Delhi by military aircraft and lodged in Nehru’s house, where he took part in planning the Indian takeover, to which he was essential. Two days later, the maharajah – now safely repaired to Jammu – announced in a backdated letter to Mountbatten, drafted by his Indian minders, that he would install Abdullah as his prime minister.
For the next five years, Abdullah ruled the Valley of Kashmir and Jammu under the shield of the Indian army, with no authority other than his reluctant appointment by a feudatory he despised and Delhi soon discarded. At the outset, Nehru believed his friend’s popularity capable of carrying all before it. When subsequent intelligence indicated otherwise, talk of a plebiscite to ratify it ceased. Abdullah enjoyed genuine support in his domain, but how wide it was, or how deep, was not something Congress was prepared to bank on. Nor, it soon became clear, was Abdullah himself willing to put it to the test. No doubt acutely aware that Badshah Khan, with a much stronger popular base, had lost just such a referendum in the North-West Frontier Province, he rejected any idea of one. No elections were held until 1951, when voters were finally summoned to the polls for a Constituent Assembly. Less than 5 per cent of the nominal electorate cast a ballot, but otherwise the results could not have been improved in Paraguay or Bulgaria. The National Conference and its clients won all 75 seats – 73 of them without a contest. A year later Abdullah announced the end of the Dogra dynasty and an agreement with Nehru that reserved special rights for Kashmir and Jammu, limiting the powers of the centre, within the Indian Union. But no constitution emerged, and not even the maharajah’s son, regent since 1949, was removed, instead simply becoming head of state.
By now, however, Delhi was becoming uneasy about the regime it had set up in Srinagar. In power, Abdullah’s main achievement had been an agrarian reform putting to shame Congress’s record of inaction on the land. But its political condition of possibility was confessional: the expropriated landlords were Hindu, the peasants who benefited Muslim. The National Conference could proclaim itself secular, but its policies on the land and in government employment catered to the interests of its base, which had always been in Muslim-majority areas, above all the Valley of Kashmir. Jammu, which after ethnic cleansing by Dogra forces in 1947 now had a Hindu majority, was on the receiving end of Abdullah’s system, subjected to an unfamiliar repression. Enraged by this reversal, the newly founded Jana Sangh in India joined forces with the local Hindu party, the Praja Parishad, in a violent campaign against Abdullah, who was charged with heading not only a communal Muslim but a communist regime in Srinagar. In the summer of 1953, the Indian leader of this agitation, S.P. Mookerjee, was arrested crossing the border into Jammu, and promptly expired in a Kashmiri jail.
This was too much for Delhi. Mookerjee had, after all, been Nehru’s confederate in not dissimilar Hindu agitation to lock down the partition of Bengal, and was rewarded with a cabinet post. Although since then he had been an opponent of the Congress regime, he was still a member in reasonably good standing of the Indian political establishment. Abdullah, moreover, was now suspected of recidivist hankering for an independent Kashmir. The Intelligence Bureau had little difficulty convincing Nehru that he had become a liability, and overnight he was dismissed by the stripling heir to the Dogra throne he had so complacently made head of state, and thrown into an Indian jail on charges of sedition. His one-time friend behind bars, Nehru installed the next notable down in the National Conference, Bakshi Gulam Mohammed, in his place. Brutal and corrupt, Bakshi’s regime – widely known as BBC: the Bakshi Brothers Corporation – depended entirely on the Indian security apparatus. After ten years, in which his main achievement was to do away with any pretence that Kashmir was other than ‘an integral part of the Union of India’, Bakshi’s reputation had become a liability to Delhi, and he was summarily ousted in turn, to be replaced after a short interval by another National Conference puppet, this time a renegade communist, G.M. Sadiq, whose no less repressive regime proceeded to wind up the party altogether, dissolving it into Congress.
Abdullah, meanwhile, sat in an Indian prison for 12 years, eventually on charges of treason, with two brief intermissions in 1958 and 1964. During the second of these, he held talks with Nehru in Delhi and Ayub Khan in Rawalpindi, just before Nehru died, but was then rearrested for having had the temerity to meet Zhou Enlai in Algiers. A troubled Nehru had supposedly been willing to contemplate some loosening of the Indian grip on the Valley; much sentimentality has been expended on this lost opportunity for a better settlement in Kashmir, tragically frustrated by Nehru’s death. But the reality is that Nehru, having seized Kashmir by force in 1947, had rapidly discovered that Abdullah and his party were neither as popular nor as secular as he had imagined, and that he could hold his prey only by an indefinite military occupation with a façade of collaborators, each less satisfactory than the last. The ease with which the National Conference was manipulated to Indian ends, as Abdullah was discarded for Bakshi, and Bakshi for Sadiq, made it clear how relatively shallow an organisation it had, despite appearances, always been. By the end of his life, Nehru would have liked a more presentable fig-leaf for Indian rule, but that he had any intention of allowing free expression of the popular will in Kashmir can be excluded: he could never afford to do so. He had shown no compunction in incarcerating on trumped-up charges the ostensible embodiment of the ultimate legitimacy of Indian conquest of the region, and no hesitation in presiding over subcontracted tyrannies of whose nature he was well aware. When an anguished admirer from Jammu pleaded with him not to do so, he replied that the national interest was more important than democracy: ‘We have gambled on the international stage on Kashmir, and we cannot afford to lose. At the moment we are there at the point of a bayonet. Till things improve, democracy and morality can wait.’ Sixty years later the bayonets are still there, democracy nowhere in sight.
On the symmetrical wing of the union to the east, matters were no better. There the British had conquered an area larger than UP, most of it composed of the far end of what James Scott has described as the Appalachia of South-East Asia: densely forested mountainous uplands inhabited by tribal peoples of Tibeto-Mongoloid origin untouched by Hinduism, with no historical connection to any subcontinental polity. In the valleys, three Hindu kingdoms had long existed, the oldest in Manipur, the largest in Assam. The region had lain outside the Maurya and Gupta Empires, and had resisted Mughal annexation. But by the early 19th century Assam had fallen to Burmese expansion, and when the British seized it from Burma they did not reinstate its dynasty, while leaving princely rule in the much smaller states of Manipur and Tripura in place. The spread of tea plantations and logging made Assam a valuable province of the Raj, but the colonial authorities took care to separate the tribal uplands from the valleys, demarcating large zones throughout the region with an ‘Inner Line’ and classifying them as ‘Excluded and Unadministered Areas’, which they made little effort to penetrate. So remote were these from anything to do with India, even as constituted by the Victorian Empire, that when Burma was detached from the Raj in 1935, officials came close to allocating them to Rangoon rather than Delhi.
The arrival of independence would, in its own way, make the links of the North-East to the rest of India even more tenuous. For after partition, only a thin corridor, at its narrowest some 12 miles wide, connected it to the body of the union. Just 2 per cent of its borders were now contiguous with India – 98 per cent with Burma, China, Nepal and Bhutan. Manipur had no direct road connection to India at all. Confronted with difficulties like these, the Congress leaders did not stand on ceremony. The ruler of Manipur had not been rounded up along with his fellow princes by V.P. Menon in 1947, and by 1949 was resisting full integration. Briefed on the problem, Patel had just one short question: ‘Isn’t there a brigadier in Shillong?’ Within days, the maharajah was kidnapped in Shillong, cut off from the outside world and made at gunpoint to sign his kingdom into oblivion. With it went the elected assembly of the state, which for the next decade was ruled – like Tripura, brigaded into the union at the same time – with no pretence at popular consultation by a commissioner from Delhi.
Dispersed tribes in the uplands did not permit of this kind of coup de main, and there trouble started even before the departure of the British. In Assam, about half the Naga population of 1.5 million – some 15 major tribes, speaking thirty languages – had been converted to Christianity by Baptist missionaries, and acquired an educated leadership in the shape of a Naga National Council, which made clear it did not want to be impressed into any future Indian state. A month before independence, a delegation called on Gandhi in Delhi. ‘You can be independent,’ he told them, characteristically adding: ‘You are safe as far as India is concerned. India has shed her blood for freedom. Is she going to deprive others of their freedom? Personally, I believe you all belong to me, to India. But if you say you don’t, no one can force you.’ Congress was less emollient. Nehru dismissed the emergent Naga leader, Phizo, as a crank, and the idea of Naga independence as absurd.
Undeterred, the Naga leaders declared independence a day before Britain transferred power to India. Congress paid no attention. Phizo continued to tramp villages, increasing support among the tribes. In March 1952, he met Nehru in Delhi. Beside himself at Phizo’s positions, Nehru – ‘hammering the table with clenched fists’ – exclaimed: ‘Whether heavens fall or India goes into pieces and blood runs red in the country, whether I am here or anyone else, Nagas will not be allowed to be independent.’ A year later, accompanied by his daughter, he arrived on an official visit as prime minister at Kohima, in the centre of Naga country, in the company of the Burmese Premier U Nu. Petitioners were brushed aside. Whereupon, when he strode into the local stadium to address a public meeting, the audience got up and walked out, smacking their bottoms at him in a gesture of Naga contempt. This was an indignity worse even than he had suffered among the Pathans. The Naga National Council was de-recognised, police raids multiplied. An underground Naga army assembled in the hills.
By late 1955 a Naga Federal Government had been proclaimed, and a full-scale war for independence had broken out. Under its commander-in-chief, two divisions of the Indian Army and 35 battalions of the paramilitary Assam Rifles, a largely Gurkha force notorious for its cruelties, were dispatched to crush the uprising. As in Malaya and Vietnam, villagers were forcibly relocated to strategic hamlets to cut off support for ‘hostiles’ – Indian officialese banning even use of the term ‘rebels’. In 1958, Nehru’s regime enacted perhaps the most sanguinary single piece of repressive legislation in the annals of liberal democracy, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which authorised the killing out of hand of anyone observed in a group of five persons or more, if such were forbidden, and forbade any legal action at all against ‘any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers of this regulation’, unless the central government so consented. With this licence to murder, Indian troops and paramilitaries were guaranteed impunity for atrocities, and made ample use of it. The brutality of Delhi’s occupation of Nagaland far exceeded that in Kashmir. But as in Srinagar, so in Kohima pacification required the suborning of local notables to construct a compliant façade of voluntary integration, work that in Naga territory was entrusted to the Intelligence Bureau. Once assured of this, Nagaland was promoted to statehood within the union in 1963. Half a century later, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is still required to hold the region down.
In the mid-1930s Nehru had published a book, The Unity of India. As a ruler, his career began and ended with bids to enforce his conception of it. Kashmir, whose seizure was the first major act of his tenure after independence, came to occupy more Indian diplomatic time and energy than any other issue, under a prime minister who prized above all his role on the international stage. His undoing came with another territorial dispute, where he could not exercise his will so easily. ‘Not a yard of India is going to go out of India,’ he declared in Shillong in December 1957. By then, China had already completed a seven hundred mile road from Sinkiang to Tibet, passing through the uninhabited Aksai Chin plateau, claimed as part of India, without anyone in Delhi being aware of it. No part of the borderlands between India and China had ever been demarcated. In the east, India took lands as its own that the Raj had claimed by virtue of a convention never accepted by the fledgling Chinese Republic in 1913, but agreed at Simla in 1914 by the Tibetan authorities, over whom Britain acknowledged China to be suzerain, and with and from whom Britain had undertaken by earlier agreements neither to negotiate directly nor to annex territory.
Even by the standards of the Raj, the degree of chicanery involved in this transaction was unusual. In the words of the American jurist Alfred Rubin: ‘The documents reveal the responsible officials of British India to have acted to the injury of China in conscious violation of their instructions; deliberately misinforming their superiors in London of their actions; altering documents whose publication had been ordered by Parliament; lying at an international conference table; and deliberately breaking a treaty between the United Kingdom and Russia.’ The result, called after its architect, was the McMahon Line. But the line remained so notional, the territory it claimed so little penetrated, that it was not until 1935 that another British functionary in Delhi noticed that the agreement wrested from the Tibetans was not included in the British lexicon of international treaties, and official maps of India still showed the border as traditionally claimed by China; whereupon all copies of the lexicon were recalled for destruction, and a backdated one was produced by the Foreign Office with a forged year of publication. Such was the position on the eastern wing of the Raj: on its north-western salient, juridical visibility was still less. There, in 1897, the director of Military Intelligence in London had urged Britain to take the whole of Aksai Chin as a buffer against Russia. Deprecating this idea, two years later the viceroy proposed its division in a note to China ignored by the Qing court. In 1913, at Simla itself, the British maps marked all of it as belonging to China. By 1927, however, without any other supervening change, British maps showed it as part of India. Down to the end of the Raj, the British made no attempt to occupy the region.
In 1956, Zhou Enlai, pointing out to Nehru that borders between their two countries had never been agreed by any treaty in the past, and needed to be determined, told him that notwithstanding its imperialist origins, China was willing to take a ‘more or less realistic position’ on the McMahon Line. To this Nehru replied that the northern frontiers of the British Empire, as bequeathed to India, were unnegotiable. On discovering two years later that China had built a road through Aksai Chin, he demanded it withdraw. On getting a reply that Aksai Chin was part of China, Delhi initially conceded that the area was ‘a matter in dispute’, then hastily reversed itself. There could be no question of a dispute, and no question of negotiations: the Chinese must get out. The following year, revolt broke out in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama fled to India, where the CIA had for some time been helping Tibetan rebels with Indian connivance. The Dalai Lama’s arrival was of no comfort to India on the border dispute – complaining about Indian recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, he pointed out that ‘if you deny sovereign status to Tibet, you deny the validity of the Simla Convention and therefore the validity of the McMahon Line’ – but it increased tensions between Beijing and Delhi. Nevertheless, in 1960 Zhou Enlai arrived from Rangoon, fresh from a boundary agreement accepting the McMahon Line where it abutted on Burma, and proposed a similar agreement with India, in exchange for its assent that Aksai Chin belonged to China. Once again, he was told there could be no negotiations over Indian claims in their plenitude.
Legally, these rested simply on the expansionist chicaneries of the Raj in the east, and on still less – mere cartographic fancies – in the west. Politically, however, the reality was that on either side of the mountain chains separating the subcontinent from the plateaux to the north, both Qing and Victorian regimes were systems of imperial conquest over subject peoples. The Qing was an older presence in the region, and by what passed for the