In 1947, the Independence from British rule promised both political and religious freedom for India. However, through the last-minute implementation of partition, the British secured independence for India at the cost of a massive displacement and rise in discontent among the population. Branding India painfully, Partition has become central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent. During this time, Partition represented the shift of political borders cutting through India to create Pakistan resulting in riots, mass casualties, and a colossal wave of migration which still weighs heavily in the hearts of many today. This event saw the movement of around 16 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims to what later became known as modern India. Across the Indian subcontinent, communities began experiencing a massive outbreak of sectarian violence with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other. Why does it matter? To this day the redrawing of India’s borders continues to play a role as social division and separatist sentiments have given rise to insurgencies and separatist movements.
As a mosaic of ethnicities, languages, and religions, India faces the challenge of being a single homogenous state. Once ruled under different rajas, the India known to the world today is a product of British colonial legacies. Bearing in mind previous cases of the British dividing their former colonies, it comes as no surprise that most of their former colonies currently face secessionist movements. Likewise, since the independence of the country, the Indian separatists and insurgent movements have been a big issue for the country. Inheriting borders and divisions created by the colonial masters, post-colonial countries such as India continued similar policies of emphasizing existing ethnic, racial, and religious divides to manage dissent.
In addition to this factor, the Theory of deprivation states that insurgencies are preceded by a mismatch in social, economic, and political conditions along with the belief that governments are incapable of maintaining social order (339). Facing relative deprivation, India’s rise of insurgencies post-Partition, as further explored in this article, comes as no surprise. India’s social division and separatism link most insurgent groups with the desire to control a particular area. Considered to be the country’s most important internal security threat, the rise of the Maoist insurgency in India can be traced back to British colonial rule. Shivaji Mukherjee highlights that ethnic/land inequality and weak development/state capacity created by the British colonial administrators set up the political opportunity structures for insurgency and secession movements.
To rule India, the British depended on indirect rule through princely states and zamindars known as the landlord revenue system. Through the administration of princely states, native rulers were allowed to oversee administration, taxation, and law with the condition of obeying the British. Although this gave rulers substantial autonomy, past studies suggest that princely states tended to be on the lower ranks of development, bureaucratic quality, and institutions and produced prominent levels of social exclusion for the poor. Despite indirect rule institutions being banned in 1947, Mukherjee points out that their effects persisted from 1950 to 1970. Therefore, capitalizing on the inequalities left behind the British rule, rebels have been able to use weak state capacities with low development and grievances to heighten their influence to become a prominent threat.
Since its Independence, India has contended with ethnic movements in various states based on demands for complete secession from India—for example, the state of Punjab wishing to form a separate country called Khalistan. Other movements are those pushing for insurrections to earn autonomy within India—for example, the Maoist Insurgency. The Khalistan movement and Maoist Insurgency in India, used indirect rule institutions, sustained ethnic/land inequality and weak development/state capacity to their advantage to expand their ideological frames. By adding a new dynamic order which drastically changed the existing social and economic order, many princely states continued to struggle to redress the grievances of their population. The Indian government’s response to the movements has varied widely, ranging from violent repression or partial accommodations to demands.
Khalistan Movement: In the 1980s, Punjab experienced a nationalist group imposing violent extremism to demand a separate country, ‘Khalistan’, based on the Sikh religion. These claims to a new nation have been rooted as early as independence. In due course after India’s Independence, tensions between the Sikhs and the Hindus in Punjab surfaced, leading to grievances from the Sikhs against the Indian government. Disappointed by the outcome of the partition, Sikh leaders had wanted a state along Pakistani lines for the creation of a Sikh nation. Separated into the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh in 1966, many Sikhs saw their original state being further divided along linguistic lines and religious beliefs. As a result, between 1980 and 2000, the Khalistan movement gained traction for its attempts to create an independent state followed by a series of violent events including bombings, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, kidnappings, selective killings, and massacres of civilians. In 1984, the movement took to the international stage as Canada-based Khalistan separatists conducted an attack on an Air India flight en route from Toronto to New Delhi. As the movement continued and the violence escalated, tensions between the Hindu and Sikh communities furthered. On the one hand, anti-Hindu propaganda encouraged violence against the Hindus and on the other, the Indian Government with the local Punjab police responded with force, at times committing human rights abuses to end the militancy.
Naxalite-Maoist Insurgency: India’s Naxalite-Maoist started in the 1920s as an anti-colonial struggle when the country was still ruled by Britain. The first radical Marxist movement arose shortly after independence in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. The first armed uprising was launched in 1967 when a landlord killed a landless worker in Naxalbari village for ploughing a patch of land (253). Encountering the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML), the Naxals and the Communists united to overthrow the ‘semi-colonial and semi-feudal Indian state’ through a people’s war which was put down by force after 72 days (about 2 and a half months). However, while the attack was officially shut down other actors were inspired to take up the cause. During the following eight years, the movement splintered, and grievances witnessed a decline. With the liberalization of the Indian economy in 2004, the movement relapsed as the exploitation of forest resources by the private sector grew. Following the merger of the CPI-M-L (People’s War) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI), the Naxals became a powerful agrarian movement to establish a socialist-communist rule. Estimated to be around 11,500 fighters and 38,000 fighters armed with basic weapons (bows and arrows and machetes), the Naxalites fought for anti-mining agitation, land acquisition and discrimination based on caste. Due to the resulting Naxalite threat, the Indian government took drastic measures against the movement as 84 million tribal became victims of violence and counter-violence with the eradication of the group. While the government was successful in crushing the insurgency, the impact of the British colonial legacy remains to be a root issue of the grievances faced by many including those who attempted to take on the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency.
Seven and a half decades later, India continues to be impacted and shaped by its colonial past. Constituting diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs, when governed as a homogenous place, India faces the risk of abetting insurgencies and separatist movements. While insurgencies are extremely difficult to defeat once entrenched, by addressing community grievances and recognizing the importance of inclusive politics it is possible to prevent them from taking root in the first place. Thus, moving forward the rise of radical politics with inflammatory language is a serious threat to India’s stability.
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