(Photo: Alamy)
(Photo: Alamy)

Opinion | Special status debate uniquely Indian? Not really, read history

Europe has examples of regional autonomy within nation-states just as much as it has had episodes of divided loyalties

At the time of filing this piece, it is still unclear whether the Indian government’s decision to revoke the special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) by Article 370 of the Constitution will pass constitutional muster. My working assumption, however, is that if a democratically elected government has made this decision, acting on a promise in its manifesto, it will be legalized in the end, one way or another.

Much ink has already been spilt either defending or critiquing the decision, with the usual competing chorus of extravagant claims and counter-claims. If you read some of our well-known commentators, depending on their political stripe, India is either witnessing a new democratic flowering, or slowly descending into totalitarianism.

Rather than taking sides in this tiresome debate, where everyone’s already made up their mind in advance, it may be more helpful to look at useful historical analogies for J&K’s special constitutional status and its putative abrogation. I have just returned from the northernmost region of Italy—in particular, Bolzano, the charming capital of the province of Alto Adige, and of the larger region of Trentino-Alto Adige (TAA). As it happens, this is one of several Italian regions that have special constitutional status not entirely dissimilar to what J&K had in some respects. To be more precise, these regions are semi-autonomous when it comes to internal policies, and have considerable fiscal latitude compared to the other regions of the country. TAA is also a legally bilingual region, the language other than Italian that is recognized is German.

The region’s history explains this situation. Long a part of the Habsburg monarchy, TAA was handed over to Italy as part of the Versailles settlement after World War I. The federal state of Italy now had a region where the majority were German, not Italian speakers, and their loyalty to the nation-state to which they now belonged was unclear. This changed after Benito Mussolini and the Fascists came to power in 1922. The Italian dictator encouraged, indeed all but goaded, large numbers of Italian-speaking migrants from poorer regions of Italy to settle in TAA. The region’s public infrastructure, inherited from Austria, was top-notch, and migration was plentiful. The end result was a demographic transformation of the state into a largely Italian-speaking one, with a minority now professing German to be their first language. Mussolini even received the blessings of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to pursue his Italianization drive after the latter came to power in Germany in 1933. In the end, there was never any question of TAA reverting to Austria, neither before nor after World War II.

The message in the present Indian context is rather clear. If the relevant provisions of Article 370 are indeed scrapped, then migrants from other parts of India are sure to flood into J&K, and these will presumably be a majority of Hindus. This will alter the demographic composition of J&K to the point where it will cease to be India’s only Muslim-majority region, which will also be abetted by the clever bifurcation of the state into two new Union territories. Essentially, the Kashmiri problem, if one wishes to call it that, will disappear—except for the large caveat that this will not happen smoothly if our bellicose neighbour, Pakistan, has anything to say about it.

To understand how things may not play out according to the Indian script, Pakistan’s military and security establishment is surely aware of the other potent examples of contested, multilingual regions between the two wars. Newly created independent states with new borders, especially Czechoslovakia and Poland, woke up after the Versailles Treaty to large German-speaking minorities in their midst. The capital of the Slovak region of Czechoslovakia, for instance, known in the local language as Bratislava, also went by the German name of Pressburg, and this region and the surrounding area remained staunchly pro-German even after accession to the new Slavic republic to which they now belong. Indeed, the Germans referred to this swathe of German speakers in what had become Czechoslovakia as Sudetenland. Something very similar was true about Danzig (now Gdańsk) and other German enclaves that separated easternmost Germany proper from Poland. The politically inconvenient truth is that many of these folk were aghast at finding themselves in new countries not of their choosing, linguistically and culturally alien, and responded eagerly to Hitler’s embrace.

Readers will no doubt recall that Nazi Germany annexed the Sudetenland on 1 October 1938, thus partitioning and crippling Czechoslovakia, and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, which triggered the outbreak of World War II. Recall then that Hitler’s rationale on both occasions was to reunite German speakers within a larger Germanic homeland. From his point of view, there was an even stronger rationale for the annexation of Austria on 12 March 1938, which was wholly German-speaking, plus geographically and culturally contiguous to Roman Catholic Bavaria, the south-eastern-most German state.

The message from this is also rather clear, if dispiriting. Pockets of minorities, sitting awkwardly within the belly of the nation-state, may prove a lightning rod to an external enemy to whom they owe putative allegiance, whether for reasons of language, culture or religion. Our “friends" in Islamabad and Rawalpindi know this just as well as our government in New Delhi.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist.

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