As millions of Indians struggle to breathe under his watch, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is building himself a palatial new residence, part of a two-billion-dollar BJP government project to redevelop the “Central Vista” of the British-built capital New Delhi. This is an assertion of the power of the Central government in line with efforts to undercut states’ access to vaccines and oxygen, and is in clear defiance of questioning by the Supreme Court. But it comes at a time when the country has never strained more at the edges, with assertions of local power and autonomy across border states.
Kerala, on the southwestern coast, remains a stronghold of Left-leaning parties and has eluded BJP’s control. The BJP also has little appeal in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In elections in Bengal where the party held massive, virus-spreading rallies, the party was handily defeated by the All-India Trinamool Congress.
For months now, Punjab’s farmers have led the world’s biggest protest, challenging laws that threaten their livelihoods. Meanwhile, the Punjab state government is asking for an “oxygen corridor” to neighbouring Pakistani Punjab. The Centre has been trying hard to assert its dominance of an intransigent Kashmir since 2019, resorting to brutal methods of suppression. It is no coincidence that these are all states with complex religious demographics in which the BJP’s Hindutva ideology struggles for traction.
The centrifugal energy at India’s margins terrifies the Centre more even than its failure to protect its people, driving it now to monumental lengths to assert an unquestioned dominance that it does not possess. It also, however, speaks to the potential for alternative South Asian futures. Many despair at the lack of a strong, viable alternative to the BJP on the national stage, lamenting, in particular, the failures of the Congress party, which let dynastic priorities tarnish the legitimacy it acquired as the nation’s founding party.
But the strength of diverse local forms of resistance is a reminder of the importance of local autonomy in a vast country with rich local political and cultural traditions. They offer an opportunity to recover, even in the midst of rage, death, and hopelessness, the anticolonial visions of earlier generations whose resistance to British rule was also resistance to the imperious Central government in a region long accustomed to more layered notions of sovereignty.
Those thinkers dreamt of a range of federal alternatives, many of which were seriously on the table all the way up to 1946 – a year before India’s formal independence. The Congress leader and first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru famously dreamt of a single unified India, rejecting federal structures with a weak Centre as susceptible to neocolonialism. But his was just one of many dreams of a free India; its passing does not mean the end of the Indian idea, but of just one version of that idea – an idea deeply contested even in its own time.
Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, pressed for an India made up of independent yet interdependent village republics, seeing strength in connected coexistence and partnership. When Nehru’s vision prevailed, those who found their grander ambitions for a broader transformation of Indian society eclipsed even then told us that “Vo intizar tha jis ka ye vo sahar to nahin,” in the words of the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was also an activist with Punjab’s farmers. ‘This is not the dawn we were waiting for’.
Evolution of Indian union
From the early 20th century, Pan-Asian, Pan-Islamic, global communist, and other visions animated many Indian freedom fighters, who saw in the world wars proof of the dangers of nationalism as much as imperialism. The Russian Revolution, followed by the emergence of a new kind of polity – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – in which nationhood was (theoretically) subordinated, fed this imaginative effort, not least because colonial India was a patchwork of areas administered directly by the British and hundreds of “princely states” with varying degrees of autonomy that needed to be incorporated into a new decolonised formation.
The president of the Indian National Congress in 1923, Mohamed Ali Jauhar, dreamt of “a federation, grander, nobler and infinitely more spiritual than the United States of America,…(a) dream of ‘United Faiths of India’.” Young revolutionaries of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association tried to create a federated republic of the United States of India through organised armed revolution.
Many of these visions arose out of an effort to accommodate the growing demand for political autonomy for India’s Muslims once the British created separate electorates based on religion. The very idea of “partition” emerged from this swirl of federal visions. The British favoured the idea of partition for the continued mediating role it would give them, but Indian thinkers were trying to imagine a new postcolonial world order, one with stronger ethical foundations than the irreligious nation-state order that continually produced destructive wars.
The radical journalist, poet, and politician Hasrat Mohani talked of “separate Muslim states in India, united with Hindu states under a National Federal government”. In 1930, the poet and philosopher Mohamed Iqbal alighted on the idea of a “Muslim India within India,” while searching for a way to make India “a country without a nation,” in the words of the historian Faisal Devji. Gandhi too conceived of the “Indian” as an “international” category. In 1946, Rajendra Prasad, future president of independent India, pressed for an “unnational” India.
Even when partition turned into a plan for separate nation-states in 1947, prompting the biggest human migration in history and the loss of millions of lives, many continued to believe it did not mean separation but partnership.
Gandhi declared, “I do not consider Pakistan and India as two different countries.” The situation was hardly “settled” at that point: Pakistan’s currency was printed in India. Indian accountants served the Pakistani government. The Reserve Bank of India was the state bank for both countries till July 1948. The border remained relatively open, and people moved back and forth with relative ease (until the 1960s).
Kashmir’s fate remained a question; in the very heart of India, the massive princely state of Hyderabad held out against joining the union until 1948 and an independent village republic of Paritala lasted over a year; a communist revolution followed in neighbouring China in 1949. Pakistan’s initial shape as a country made up of two wings divided by a thousand miles of Indian territory itself seemed to testify to the possibility of creatively exceeding the limits of the nation-state paradigm.
Taking on the imperious Centre
But the 1940s had incubated other visions, too. The paramilitary groups that drove partition’s violence, including the RSS, shared an imprint of the fascist movements of that time. Federal hopes yielded eventually to a fortress-like, centralised nation-state sustained by continual demonisation of enemies within and without. But no futures are foreclosed. At that very moment, Europe, the ruined birthplace of fascism itself, began to take steps towards forming a political and economic community – the European Union of today.
India is a subcontinent, like Europe. Since 1947, it has coped with repeated threats of secession, from the north, northwest, the northeast, the south – well before the era of Modi. Modi’s intense and violent bid to homogenise and govern autocratically this vast and stubbornly diverse subcontinent – like Napoleon’s and Hitler’s attempts in Europe – cannot but fail. The Centre cannot hold.
Perhaps it is time to dream again outside the box of the nation-state: a political and economic union that preserves local autonomy, akin to Europe’s. Rather than wait in vain for an opposition on the national stage to save India from the BJP, Indians must use the power already there on local stages to push back against both the BJP and autocratic Central government, drawing strength from earlier struggles for a federated, truly postcolonial India – one that may enable unity in the more urgently important environmental sense by allowing not only oxygen but rivers to flow undammed once again.
Border state struggles are struggles against an imperious Centre in the hands of brown sahibs wielding laws of repression created by their colonial predecessors. They are a reminder that the Indian freedom struggle was anticolonial before it was nationalist.
As a virus reveals the rottenness still at the Centre, it is time to revive that original dream. Sahir Ludhianvi, another poet and activist of that time, reminded us of the importance of weaving fresh dreams in the darkest times:
“Aao ki koi khwab bunen kal ke vaste,
varna ye raat aaj ke sangeen daur ki
das legi jaan o dil ko kucch aaise ki jaan o dil
ta-umr phir na koi haseen khwab bun saken.”
(‘Come, let’s weave a dream for tomorrow, else this night of today’s grave times will sting the soul in such a way that the soul may not again all its life be able to weave a beautiful dream.”)
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University and author of two award-winning books: Spies in Arabia (OUP, 2008) and Empire of Guns (Penguin, 2018). Her new book is Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire (Allen Lane, 2020).