Since India became independent in 1947 and a republic in 1950, the limits of federalism have been front and centre in its national organisation and evolution. Today, contested issues of territory, citizenship, and national belonging in Kashmir and Assam have made these limits starkly visible. Yet these issues are far from new; politicians and political thinkers have grappled with them since India’s creation, including Jayaprakash Narayan.

Narayan – “JP” to most all who knew him – is perhaps best-known today as the freedom fighter and left-wing political thinker who abandoned electoral politics in the early 1950s to focus on the Sarvodaya movement. Sarvodaya was a self-professed continuation of Gandhian ideology and practice, which held that self-rule alone did not solve political and economic inequality. It was within the framework of Sarvodaya and its focus on uplift that JP sought to address the thorny question of self-determination for minorities within India – insisting that demands for regional autonomy in the South, North East, and Northwest were at heart interlinked concerns.

Kashmir was often at the forefront of JP’s thinking, owing to his close friendship with Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah, imprisoned twice between 1953-1964 and 1965-1968. JP spoke out regularly in support of Abdullah’s release: when Jawaharlal Nehru faced criticism for letting Abdullah travel freely to Pakistan in 1964 to serve as an intermediary between Indian and Pakistani negotiations over Kashmir, JP vociferously defended the prime minister against his critics.

He compared their position that national security must trump reconciliation efforts with the hollow logic of British imperialists during the Indian independence movement: “It is remarkable how the freedom fighters of yesterday begin so easily to imitate the language of the imperialists.”

Comparison with Nagaland

Sheikh Abdullah, back in prison, raised the ire of Indian politicians some years after Nehru’s death when he compared Kashmir with Nagaland, another violently contested territory on India’s borders, where JP himself had helped negotiate a ceasefire between Naga nationalists and the Indian government in 1964. According to Foreign Secretary TN Kaul’s account of a 1967 meeting with Sheikh Abdullah, “Sheikh Saheb said it was very strange that while the Government of India had no hesitation in talking to the underground Nagas who had opened armed revolt against her, they should refuse to meet the real representatives of the people of Kashmir.”

Kaul himself maintained that the situations were fully distinct, since the Nagas “had not been emotionally integrated with the rest of India, but Kashmiris were so close and near to the rest of the people of India”.

Three years earlier, in 1964, Foreign Secretary YD Gundevia had tried to convince the Sheikh that the “Kashmir question was one essentially bound up with the question of the welfare of the minorities” in India and was not fundamentally a question of self-determination. Indian politicians preferred to categorise claims of self-determination as issues of minority rights, but it is telling that it was the foreign secretary, rather than the home minister, who had been tasked with negotiating with the Kashmiri leader.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

JP himself placed Kashmir self-determination within the broader context of global decolonisation. In an October 1968 speech in Srinagar, he argued that “the right to self-determination, viewed against” the changes in the world since 1947, “needs to be interpreted afresh in keeping with [the] needs of the people of Kashmir”. JP defined self-determination as “the inherent right of every people to determine their ways of life and the form and character of their institutions”.

Further, he pointed out that the question of self-determination was “an extremely complicated matter” within post-colonial states founded upon notions of national self-determination and anticolonial nationalism. Within “the context of the nation-state”, he continued, “it is extremely difficult to define and geographically demarcate a people”.

Kashmir as a model

Are the Kashmiris “a people”? If so, what about sub-groups within the region, “the Dogras and the Ladakhis”? Around the world, “existing nation-states, no matter how haphazardly created doggedly fight against any of their ‘peoples’ wanting to break away or to exercise their right to self-determination.”

In the 1960s, JP had argued that Kashmir’s majority minority status might offer a model to the rest of India. This notion was broadly condemned as dangerous, rather than desirable. Kashmir itself was held out as an ominous warning: a pro-Assamese political party in 1963 warned that Bengali migration into Assam – the site of today’s National Registry of Citizens – would create “another ‘Kashmir’ … by making Assam a Muslim majority state”. But animated by the spirit of Sarvodaya, JP sought to make majority/minority status a strength, rather than a flaw, in a possible model political unit, whose recognition within India would lead to India’s own re-constitution.

The contemporary fears of a diverse, not appropriately Indian, national community that underwrite today’s conflagrations in Kashmir, Assam, and elsewhere were no less salient 50 years ago. And just as empires had found it convenient to rule through difference, leaders of nation-states did not like to see the commonalities between internal challenges to their authority.

‘An anti-nationalist’

In May 1974, shortly before JP re-entered formal politics with the onset of the Emergency, one of his close Sarvodaya colleagues and protégées, M Aram, enjoyed a private audience with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. There, Aram compared the causes of conflict in Nagaland to those of Kashmir. Mrs. Gandhi shot him down: “There was a great difference between Sheikh Abdullah and Angami Zapu Phizo, the Naga nationalist leader in exile. Sheikh Abdullah took part in the Indian freedom struggle, went to prison with the other national leaders. He was a nationalist”, while Phizo was an anti-nationalist.

She evoked to the Indian independence movement and the legitimacy it conferred upon its participants, using that legitimacy to draw a line between those who belonged within the Indian polity and those who did not.

JP, by contrast, readily drew comparisons across claims of self-determination within India so as to include them strategically within the Indian polity. However, the implications of meaningfully incorporating them within India would change the Indian nation-building project in ways the Indian central government has long sought to avoid, for fear of eroding control over its most fractious parts.

While JP’s thinking provides no particular road map for the present, he charted a course over what is now all too familiar terrain. In comparing different regional claims, he both sought to reconcile them to the Indian state, and to reconfigure India so as to encompass them on more equal footing. JP’s critics, in his lifetime and after his death, called him “dangerously naïve” and even a “traitor”. Yet his fundamental point, that negotiating the shape of a Kashmir within India defines not only Kashmir, but also India itself, holds insight for the present.

Lydia Walkeris a Past & Present Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is writing a book that features the history of Naga nationalist claims-making in the context of 20th century global decolonisation. This piece is adopted from her article, “Jayaprakash Narayan and the Politics of Reconciliation” in the April issue of the Indian Economic and Social History Review. Historical quotations come from the papers of JP Narayan, TN Kaul, YD Gundevia, and Debeswar Sarmah, housed at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.