Over the past few decades, the nation-states of South Asia have been home to some of the most bitter and costly conflicts of the modern world. Women have opposed the domination of men; subaltern classes have resisted the hegemony of the elite; regions on the periphery have protested exploitation by the centre. To class and gender and geography have been added the fault lines of language, caste, religion, and ethnicity.

No region of the world - not even the fabled Balkans - has had a greater variety of conflicts within it. South Asians are an expressive people, and so they have expressed their various resentments in an appropriate diversity of ways - through electing legislators of their choosing; through court petitions and other legal mechanisms at their command; through marches, gheraos, dharnas, hunger-strikes and other forms of non-violent protest; through the burning of government buildings; and through outright armed rebellion. The record of our nation-states in dealing with these conflicts is decidedly mixed. Some conflicts, which once threatened to tear a nation apart, have been, in the end, resolved. Other conflicts have persisted for decades, with the animosities between the contending parties deepening further with every passing year.

From this vast repertoire of experience within South Asia, this essay will foreground some of the more intractable of these conflicts. I will analyse, among others, the Kashmir dispute and the Naga insurgency in India, and the rebellion of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. I will argue that these conflicts have remained unresolved because of the inflexibility and, dare I say it, dogmatism of the contending parties. The question I pose here is this - Could a middle path of accomodation and reconciliation, adopted by either party to a conflict or both, helped in reducing or mitigating the violence and the suffering?

In search of an answer, let me first turn to some forgotten episodes in the career of a man who might be considered a paradigmatic South Asian, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). Narayan was an Indian patriot, but he retained close links with the republican struggle in Nepal as well as the socialist movement in Sr Lanka. He worked actively for conciliation between India and Pakistan. And he was an early supporter of the Tibetan people.

Within India, JP is known and celebated for his role in two major movements: the Quit India struggle of 1942, and the 'Indira Hatao' movement of 1974-5. During Quit India, JP achieved countrywide renown for his daring escape from Hazaribagh jail, after which he spent more than a year underground, eluding the colonial police. The movement of 1974-5 was, of course, led and directed by him. Starting in his native Bihar, it soon became an all-India struggle against the corrupt and tyrannical regime of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Among the politicians and social workers of mainland India, Narayan spoke out longest and loudest against the illegalities of the Union Government in Kashmir.

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Both those struggles saw Jayaprakash Narayan in, as it were, an uncompromising mode. In 1942, he was a charismatic young leftist, who sought to throw the British out and rebuild India on socialist lines. In 1974-5 he was a charismatic old radical, who sought to throw Indira Gandhi out and bring about a 'Total Revolution' in India.

Thirty years after his death, JP is still remembered for his part in the upheavals of 1942 and 1974-5. What is now forgotten is his equally interesting and, in my view, even more noble work in the decade of the 1960s, when he tried heroically - if, in the end, unavailingly - to resolve the two civil conflicts that have plagued the Indian nation-state since its inception. These conflicts were at either end of the Indian Himlaya - namely, Kashmir and Nagaland.


Let's begin with Kashmir. Among the politicians and social workers of mainland India, Narayan spoke out longest and loudest against the illegalities of the Union Government in Kashmir. He was a close friend of the popular Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah, who was jailed by the Indian Government in 1953. JP called repeatedly for the release of Sheikh Abdullah, and when the Sheikh was finally set free in April 1964, encouraged the idea of sending him over to Pakistan as an emissary for peace. That idea, originally, was that of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. However, it was opposed across the political spectrum, by the Jana Sangh on the right as well as by the Communists on the left. Even the majority of Nehru's own Congress party thought that the Sheikh should have remained in confinement.

Bucking the jingoist trend, two men of a conspicuous independence supported Jawaharlal Nehru's initiative, despite being, on other matters, fierce critics of the Prime Minister's policies. One was C. Rajagopalachari; the other, Jayaprakash Narayan. When some Cabinet Ministers threatened to put the Sheikh back in jail, JP wrote that 'it is remarkable how the freedom fighters of yesterday begin so easily to imitate the language of the imperialists'.

Nehru died in May 1964; the peace initiative died with him. The next year Sheikh Abdullah was placed under arrest once more. In June 1966, Narayan wrote an extraordinary letter to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asking that the Sheikh be freed in time for the next elections. To 'hold a general election in Kashmir with Sheikh Abdullah in prison', remarked Narayan, 'is like the British ordering an election in India while Jawaharlal Nehru was in prison. No fair-minded person would call it a fair election'. If 'we miss the chance of using the next general election to win the consent of the [Kashmiri] people to their place within the Union', continued JP, 'I cannot see what other device will be left to India to settle the problem. To think that we will eventually wear down the people and force them to accept at least passively the Union is to delude ourselves. That might conceivably have happened had Kashmir not been geographically located where it is. In its present location, and with seething discontent among the people, it would never be left in peace by Pakistan.'

This letter got a brief, non-commital reply in return. It took another eight years for Mrs Gandhi to allow the Sheikh to re-enter politics. When Abdullah was made Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in February 1975, Narayan welcomed the move (despite being, by now, a bitter opponent of the Prime Minister). But the concession itself was perhaps eight years too late. For by then the Sheikh had become reconciled to subservience to New Delhi; and in time was to place the interests of his own family above the interests of the Kashmiri people as a whole. What might have been the fate of Kashmir and the Kashmiris had Mrs Gandhi listened to JP in June 1966, released Sheikh Abdullah, allowed him to contest a free and fair election that he would certainly have won, and then allowed him to run the administration in the best interests of the people themselves?


Let me now move away from India, and JP, to a civil conflict in another South Asian nation. In 1967 the rulers in New Delhi were too nervous to allow Sheikh Abdullah to conduct a provincial election in Kashmir. Three years later the rulers in Islamabad permitted a radical Bengali politician to contest a national election. To their great surprise, and shock, his party won a majority. What were they to do now?

Before answering that question, let us briefly rehearse the history of the nation of Pakistan. Created in 1947, it had two wings, these separated by several hundred miles of Indian territory. On his first visit to Dhaka, the Governor-General of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, told his Bengali audience that they would have to take to Urdu sooner rather than later. 'Let me make it very clear to you', said Jinnah, 'that the State Language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one State language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function.'

In 1952, bloody riots broke out in Dhaka after the police fired on a demonstration of students demanding equal status for the Bengali language. (Ever since, the Bengalis have observed the day of the firing - 21st February, or Ekushey February - 'as mother language day'.) In 1954, Bangla was recognised as one of the state languages of Pakistan, but the feelings of being discriminated against persisted. The eastern part of the nation provided jute, coal and other valuable commodities, but government revenues were mostly spent in and on the west. The West Pakistanis, and the Punjabis in particular, dominated the army and the civil services. Bengalis were under-represented in the upper echelons of the diplomatic corps and the judiciary. This being South Asia, there were even complaints of talented East Pakistanis being left out of the national cricket team!

The techniques of suppression, so often used by a state to settle an outstanding conflict, may seek only to intensify and deepen it.
Between 1958 and 1970 Pakistan was under military rule. Towards the end of 1970 General Yahya Khan called for elections. Apparently, the General hoped that the ambitious West Pakistani politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto would become Prime Minister, and allow him to continue as President. But these calculations went awry. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won 167 out of 169 seats in the more populous eastern part of the country. The Awami leader had skilfully played on Bengali sentiments of being excluded and discriminated over the years.

After the elections, Mujib's party had a majority in the new Parliament. Its platform included a federal constitution, in which each wing would manage its social, political and economic affairs, with only defence and foreign relations in the hands of the Centre. ( A key feature was that each wing would get to spend the foreign exchange it earned - previously, the gleanings from jute exports had been in the discretionary control of the Generals in the west.) The proposals to reform the constitution were deemed unaccepable by the Generals as well as the politicians of West Pakistan. In any case, the self-proclaimed martial Punjabi could not abide the thought of conceding power to the allegedly effete Bengali. Another reason for spurning Mujib was the large presence of Hindus in the professional classes of East Pakistan. As one General put it, if the Awami League came to power, 'the constitution adopted by them will have Hindu iron hand in it'.

Rather than honour the democratic mandate and invite Mujib to take office, Yahya Khan postponed the convening of the National Assembly. (In this he was encouraged and abetted by Bhutto.) The response was a general strike in all of East Pakistan. Now, the Pakistani army decided to settle the matter by force of arms. But with the Indians choosing to ally with the Bengali dissidents, the task was made much harder than they had anticipated. Eight months of episodic fighting culminated in a full-fledged war in December 1971, which led to the defeat and dismemberment of the nation of Pakistan. But would this still have been a single nation if Yahya and Bhutto had permitted Mujib to take over as Prime Minister?

In asking this question, I do not mean to turn the clock back, to suggest that the creation of Bangladesh was a mistake. I mean only to highlight how the techniques of suppression, so often used by a state to settle an outstanding conflict, may seek only to intensify and deepen it. The ruling elite of Pakistan was both obdurate and deaf; obdurate in hanging on to its privileges, deaf to the justice of the demands of those who asked merely for their rights as citizens. In this respect, the break-up of Pakistan holds lessons for the other nations of South Asia - not least Bangladesh itself - which seek, not always successfully, to deal judiciously with social and political divisions within their boundaries.

As it happens, the language problem is one issue the Republic of India has successfully resolved. Back in the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party had promised that when India became independent each major linguistic group would have its own province. But after 1947 the Congress leaders went back on their promise. India had just been divided on the basis of religion; would not conceding the linguistic demand lead to a further balkanisation? However, in 1952, a protest fast by an Andhra Congressman forced New Delhi to agree to the creation of a Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh. Other linguistic groups now intensified their claims for states of their own. A States Reorganisation Commission was constituted, which in 1956 recommended that the map of India be redrawn to accommodate these demands.

Now, fifty years later, it is possible to deem the creation of linguistic states a success. Contrary to the fears of the Congress leadership, they have not threatened the unity of India. On the other hand, they have deepened this unity. Once the fear of one's language being suppressed has been removed or allayed, the different linguistic groups have been perfectly content to live as lart of the larger nation called India.

Sri Lanka

In 1956, the year the states of India were reorganised on the basis of language, the Parliament of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) introduced an Act recognising Sinhala as the sole official language of the country. This made Sinhala the medium of instruction in all state schools and colleges, in public examinations, and in the courts. The new Act was opposed by the Tamil-speaking minority who lived in the north of the island. 'When you deny me my language', said one Tamil MP, 'you deny me everything'. 'You are hoping for a divided Ceylon ', warned another, adding: 'Do not fear, I assure you [that you] will have a divided Ceylon'. An Opposition Member, himself Sinhala-speaking, predicted that if the Government did not change its mind and insisted on the act being passed, 'two torn little bleeding states might yet arise out of one little state'.

The protests were disregarded. The insecurity of the Tamils was intensified by riots against them in the capital city, Colombo, in 1958. Then, in 1972, Sinhala was confirmed as the official language of the state, and Buddhism added on as the official religion (most Tamils were Hindus or Christians). Now, the Tamil youths became disenchanted by the incremental, parliamentary methods of their elders. In the decade of the 1970s several paramilitary groups were formed, these known by their abbreviations or acronymns, to wit, EROS, PLOTE, ERPLF and, not least, LTTE.

If the civil war were to end, it looks likely that this will be only though the creation of two torn little bleeding states rather than the reunion of the two fragments into one, happy, contented state.
Some Tamils still kept their faith in compromise. However, two events in the early 1980s decidedly put paid to hopes of a peaceful, democratic reconciliation of the linguistic question. The first was the burning, by the Sri Lankan army, of the great Tamil library in Jaffna in 1981; the second, the anti-Tamil pogrom in Colombo in 1983, this directed by Sinhala politicians. Now the Tamils increasingly took to armed struggle to meet their ends. And so we have had a quarter-century of a civil war that is apparently unending. If it were to end, it looks likely that this will be only though the creation of two torn little bleeding states rather than the reunion of the two fragments into one, happy, contented state.


Having illustrated my thesis with examples from Pakistan and Sri Lanka, let me now return to my own country, and to the compatriot with whom I began my talk. In the decade of the 1960s, Jayaprakash Narayan was concerned not just with a honourable solution in Kashmir, but with the restoration of peace in Nagaland. This too had been a most troubled part of the Indian Union. In 1946, a Naga National Council had been formed; this was undecided as to whether to join the soon-to-be free India. Then, in the early 1950s, one faction decided to make a compact with New Delhi. The other faction, led by A. Z. Phizo, held out for an independent Naga state. This was not acceptable to India; as a consequence, an armed conflict broke out in the Naga hills, with the Indian Army on one side, Phizo's guerillas on the other. As ever, the main casualties in the conflict were the villagers caught in between.

Finally, in 1964, after a decade of civil war, a cease-fire was declared between the NNC and the Indian Government. A three member 'peace mission' was formed, consisting of the Anglican missionary Michael Scott, the Gandhian nationalist B. P. Chaliha, and Jayaprakash Narayan. Tragically, the mission collapsed within a year, and the rebels returned to the jungle. It was at this stage that JP wrote an extraordinary if still little-known booklet in Hindi, based on a speech he delivered in Patna on Martyrs Day, 30th January 1965. The booklet is called Nagaland mein Shanti ka Prayas (The Attempts to Forge Peace in Nagaland). While ostensibly about a dispute within a single small state of the Union, it is actually a meditation on the meanings of democracy everywhere.

'In the history of every nation', began JP, 'there have been disagreements among the servants and leaders of the nation. Where democracy prevails, these disagreements are discussed and resolved by democratic means; but where democracy is absent, they are resolved by the use of violence'. However, history teaches us that violence begets counter-violence and, eventually, violence on one's own comrades. Thus 'when disputes arise, past alliances and friendships are forgotten, and allegations of betrayal, traitorous behaviour, etc. are levied on one's opponents'.

JP proceeded to recount the history of the civil war in Nagaland, the recourse to the gun of one side, then the other, and the brutalities committed by both. Then, in the spirit of his master, Gandhi, he asked each party to recognise and respect the finest traditions of the other. First, he told the Nagas that, among the nations of Asia, India was unusual in having a democratic and federal Constitution. Were the rebels to abandon the dream of independence and settle for autonomy within the Union, all they had to give up control over was the army, foreign affairs, and currency. In all other respects they would be free to mould their destinies as they pleased.

Narayan recognised the distinctiveness of Naga cultural traditions. While both East and West Pakistan bore the impress of the Indic civilisation, 'what we call Indian culture has not made an entry into Nagaland'. That said, JP thought that the Nagas could not sustain an independent country, what with China, Pakistan, and Burma all close by and casting covetous eyes on their territory. Why not join up therefore with a democratic and federal India? When New Delhi could not dominate Bihar or Bengal, how could it dominate Nagaland? Were the rebels to come overground and contest elections, said Narayan, they could give their people the best schools, hospitals, roads, and so on.

Towards the end of his lecture, JP turned to educating his Patna audience about the virtues of the Nagas. He was particularly impressed by the vigour of their village councils. Anywhere else in India, he said, to construct an airport the 'government can uproot village upon village', whereas in Nagaland it could not do so without the consent of the local people. He was even more struck by the dignity of labour, and the absence of caste feeling. In matters of co-operative behaviour, said JP, the Nagas could teach a thing or two to the people of India. He gave the example of a magnificent church recently constructed in a village near Mokokchung: with a seating capacity of five thousand, it had been built entirely with local materials and local labour, much of it contributed voluntarily by men with B. A.'s and M. A.'s. Narayan contrasted this with the contempt for manual work among the educated, upper-caste elite of the Indian heartland.

Around the world

The conflicts I have dealt with here had their origins in an inflexible state, but were often exacerbated by recalcitrant rebels. If such conflicts are to be successfully resolved, then they require both the state to be flexible, as well as the rebels to be more accomodating. That, certainly, is the lesson to be learnt from the most successful peace negotiations of contemporary times, which led to the demise of apartheid and the birth of a democratic South Africa. Had President De Klerk and his National Party not begun a dialogue with the African National Congress, and had Nelson Mandela and his comrades not turned their backs on the gun, there might yet be a civil conflict raging in that beautiful land.

In forging their compromise, the two sides to the Irish conflict gave up pride and prestige, to gain, in exchange, prosperity and peace.
One notable aspect of the transition in South Africa was that the reconciliation was racial as well as political. The whites handed over power, but did not relinquish their rights as citizens or professionals. The need for black economic advancement was recognised, but it was not pursued in wanton haste. The comparison with neighouring Zimbabwe is striking. There, the end of settler colonialism was followed by savage retribution, where the whites were forcibly dispossessed of their lands and encouraged - one should rather say coerced - to leave the country. As a result, what was once the bread basket of Africa has become a basket case where scarcity and famine stalk the land.

Looking further west, South Asians may also take heart from the political transition that took place after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Once run with an iron hand from Moscow, countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have emerged as vigorous democracies. After the hold of the Soviets was loosened - largely through a voluntary abdication initiated by the visionary Mikhail Gorbachev - the different sections of Polish, Hungarian and Czech society eschewed the politics of revenge and retribution. Instead of turning on one another, communists and anti-communists formed political parties of their own and fought elections based on universal adult franchise. Autocrats became democrats, while rebels became governors (most famously, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel). Who, in 1960, or even in 1980, would have imagined a transition as painless and productive as this?

South Asians might also profit from a look at the recent history of Ireland. After the Good Friday agreement, the previously militant Sinn Fein put away their guns and entered the democratic process. The two parts of the island remain under separate sovereignties; but the cease-fire has permitted a deeper engagement with the democratic process within the Republic of Ireland as well as Ulster, a free movement of people across the borders, and a sharp diminution of sectarian violence. These changes have led to a surge in economic growth, with investments pouring into an island always legendary for its natural beauty but now known also for being a rule-bound and largely peaceful society. In forging their compromise, the two sides to the Irish conflict gave up pride and prestige, to gain, in exchange, prosperity and peace.

Narmada Bachao Andolan

To return, however, to South Asia, and to move on from political conflicts to social ones. Consider the controversy over the Sardar Sarovar Dam in central India. The benefits of this project flow wholly to one state, Gujarat; whereas the costs are borne disproportionately by another state, Madhya Pradesh. When it is built to its full height, the dam will displace close to 200,000 people, a majority of whom are tribal. From 1989 the oustees have been organised under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), whose leader is the remarkable Medha Patkar.

Between 1989 and 1995, the NBA organised a series of satyagrahas to stop construction of the dam. Their struggle won wide appreciation, both for its principled commitment to non-violence and for its ability to mobilise peasants and tribals. By now, several scientific studies had been published calling into question the viability of large dams. These studies adduced environmental arguments - the submergence of scarce forests and wildlife; economic arguments - the fact that sedimentation rates and soil salinity had greatly diminished the financial returns from such projects; and social arguments - namely, the utter despair and demoralisation of the communities which the dams had rendered homeless.

The struggle and the science notwithstanding, the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam proceeded. Now, a group of engineers based in Pune advocated a compromise solution. Given that the dam had already come up to a height of about 260 feet, clearly it could not be stopped. But its negative effects could be minimised. Thus, the Pune engineers had designed a model of a dam smaller than that originally envisaged. The reduction in height would greatly reduce the area to be submerged, yet retain many of the benefits that were to accrue from the dam. The drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra would still get water. At the same time, many fewer families would be displaced.

Unfortunately, the compromise was rejected both by the Gujarat Government and by the NBA. The former insisted that the dam had to be built to its originally sanctioned height of 456 feet. The latter insisted that the dam must be brought down. As the Andolan's slogan went, 'Kohi Nahi Hatega! Baandh Nahin Banega!' (No one will leave their homes, for the dam will not be built). But a good chunk of the dam had already been built. Hundreds of tons of concrete had already been poured into its foundations. And thousands of families had already been displaced.

The compromise proposal for a smaller dam was rejected by the Gujarat government, as well as the NBA.

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In retrospect, it must be considered a pity that the NBA did not adopt the dam of lower height proposed by the Pune engineers. Had they advocated the alternative energetically, it is just possible that public opinion would have veered more strongly in their favour, and that the Supreme Court - to whom appeal had been made - would have given a more favourable verdict. Faced with the alternatives of continuing with dam construction and putting an end to the project, the Court would always be inclined to the former course - if only because many thousands of crores of public money had already been spent on the project. But if the Court had been adequately alerted to the compromise solution, which would still still bring water to the most deprived parts of Gujarat, while minimising the suffering of the displaced, they may have been persuaded towards reducing the height of the dam.

The case of Sardar Sarovar forcefully brings home the need for social movements to be flexible in their strategies. What seems feasible and plausible in Year 0 may no longer be so in Year 5 or Year 10. (As John Maynard Keynes liked to say, 'When the facts change, I change my mind'.) In this respect, I believe that it is past time that two of the most enduring oppositional movements in South Asia change their approach and strategy. To be more specific, I think the Naga people stand enormously to gain if their leaders abandon their dream of a sovereign homeland and agree to be part of the Republic of India. The same goes for the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the LTTE.

Nagas and Tamils - Time to sue for peace

The civil war in Nagaland has gone on, episodically, for fifty years now. The struggle for a Tamil Eeelam is almost as old. In the meantime, tens of thousands of lives have been lost, tens of thousands of families have been broken. But the dream of an independent homeland seems as distant as ever. Should not the rebels now sue for peace, peace with dignity and honour?

That last caveat is crucial - 'with dignity and honour'. To get the rebels to even dropping the sovereignty demand might require a handsome gesture or two from the Central Governments of India and Sri Lanka. As that sage journalist George Verghese has suggested, perhaps the people of Nagaland could have some recognition of their distinctive status on their passport itself - which might say, in their case, not 'Indian', but 'Naga Indian'. Perhaps Colombo should explicitly disavow the earlier enactment making Buddhism 'the state religion' of Sri Lanka, while at the same time placing the Tamil language on par with Sinhalese. Other measures will also be necessary - among them, the deepening of federalism to allow greater autonomy for the region concerned, special grants to rehabilitate victims and former combatants, and even - why not? - a public recognition of and apology for the sufferings caused by armed personnel.

Were gestures like this forthcoming, would the rebels give up their arms and, as it were, join the national mainstream? I am not so naive as to think this very likely. There is the issue of pride - having fought for so long for a certain goal, it cannot be let go of easily, or at all. There is the issue of sacrifice - having lost so many lives in the cause, would it be fair to the memory of the martyrs to settle for less than what they gave their lives for? Sentiments such as these are widespread both among the leadership of the Naga National Socialist Council (I-M), the leading insurgent group in Nagaland, and of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam, who have for some time now been the main, indeed, unchallenged, representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.

In both the Naga and the Tamil cases, compromise is also made more difficult by the desires of the diasporic community. Nagas in exile and Tamils in exile are even more emphatic that no solution short of complete independence is acceptable or desirable. Since they pay for the guns, their voice carries much weight. This is a depressingly familiar story, the story of the expatriate who is even more unyielding than those who live on the ground. Palestine might be a less violent place were it not for the Jews of the East Coast of the United States. The Good Friday agreement might have come earlier had it not been for Americans of Irish-Catholic extraction. Many fewer lives would have been lost in the Indian Punjab in the 1980s had Sikhs in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States not decided to support and encourage the struggle for an independent Khalistan.

The Nagas and the Tamils share certain attributes. They are both very able and hard-working peoples. They have a better-than-average acquaintance with English, the language of professional advancement in the global economy. As compared to other South Asian cultures they practice less gender discrimination - here, there are many women who assume leadership roles, women who are teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and guerilla fighters. And if one is able to make the last of these professions redundant, there will be much greater scope for the others.

Were this generation of Nagas and the Sri Lankan Tamils to put down their weapons, the next generation would reap untold benefits. They would be part of a larger economy in which they would enjoy advantages that other Indians or Sri Lankans do not. Apart from their facility with English and the advanced status of their women, there is something else these two peoples share - namely, that the landscapes they inhabit are utterly gorgeous. Aside from taking some of the best jobs in the national economy, the Nagas and the Tamils might also attract a healthy stream of tourists to their own homelands.

The burden of history

Among the things that stand in the way of a successful resolution of the Naga and Tamil issues is the burden of history. Both sides to both these conflicts have much to complain about. The Jaffna Tamils cannot forget the burning of the great library or the pogrom of 1983; the Sinhalese remember only the assassination of various of their leaders and the bombs that explode in markets, killing innocent civilians. The Nagas recall the promises made and betrayed by the Indian state down the years; the Indian state remembers only the seeking by the Naga rebels of Chinese help and the killings of Naga moderates. If one looks at the past, then one only sees crimes committed by the other party, crimes real as well as imagined. Can one then get the contending parties to look to the future instead, to think of the fate of the generations that are yet to come? Do they want them too to live a life of uncertainty and instability, plagued by the shadow of the gun?

History is a burden in another way too. In the thick of the rebellion, rebels are prone to rhetorical excess, to make commitments and promises that make compromise at a later stage difficult. Thus the LTTE has often said that it will hold out for nothing less than an independent nation, a Tamil Eeelam. The NSCN has likewise stood for an independent Nagalim; this to consist of the Naga-speaking areas of the Indian states of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam as well as Nagaland. When the rebels come to the negotiating table, these past promises come back to haunt them. If they are not reminded of these claims by their own cadres, then surely rivals within the movement will make certain to draw the public's attention to them. (In the same manner, Medha Patkar is still constrained by the stirring slogan that captivated her followers when the Narmada movement was at its height: 'Baand Nahin Banega! Koi Nahin Hatega!'.)


These constraints and impediments are real, and serious. To them one must oppose, again, the real and substantial benefits that shall flow to the people of these regions if a successful resolution of the conflict is to be arrived at. For the Nagas and the Tamils, especially, the potential gains from giving up the gun are massive indeed. The Indian Constitution does allow for a great degree of devolution. If, as Jayaprakash Narayan told the Nagas long ago, they can run their own economy and promote their own culture, then why does it matter that they do not have their nation and their own flag? A deeper federalism can also handily serve the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. With the attributes that the Nagas and the Tamils share, they stand to gain enormously from the acceptance of an honourable place within the constitutional framework of their respective countries.

It is, of course, not just the Naga and Tamil peoples who have virtues and traits in common. So do their acknowledged leaders. The main Naga separatist leader, T. Muivah, and the Tamil Tiger supremo, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, are both men of an extraordinary energy and drive. In a life dedicated to the cause they have nurtured the strengths and talents of countless cadres and followers. The Naga struggle is inconceivable without Muivah; so too the Tamil struggle without Prabhakaran. In the past, their charisma and determination have played a crucial part in the making and deepening of the struggle. Can that same charisma and determination now play their part in forging a compromise? For, if anyone can persuade the Tamils to give up the gun, it is Prabhakaran. If anyone can charm the Nagas into accepting the Indian Constitution, it is Muivah.

These two leaders have a legitimacy and popular appeal denied to their colleagues, and possibly also to their successors. While they are alive and in command, the state might consider giving up more than it wishes to. However, if a solution is not found within their lifetimes, the state may be tempted to withhold these concessions, in the hope that in their leader's absence the rebel movement will splinter into factions and thus lose its energy and legitimacy.

In other words, the Nagas and the Tamils may, at present, be able to get a better - perhaps even far better - bargain that might be possible ten or twenty years down the line. In a recent article, that long-time student of the Sri Lankan conflict, D. B. S. Jeyaraj, speculates on the future of Tamil separatism when its leader dies or disappears. 'Will the LTTE be as effective without Prabhakaran at the helm?', asks Jeyaraj. He continues: 'The answer clearly is "no". If Prabhakaran is no more, it will not be an immediate end of the LTTE. It will however be the beginning of the end and the decline and fall could be quite rapid'. Likewise, it is overwhelmingly likely that a post-Muivah NSCN will be far less influential and credible than it is now. All the more reason, perhaps, for a deal to be struck and implemented while the leader is still living.

Gandhi knew when to begin a movement, but also when to call it off, when to challenge an opponent, but also when to talk to and seek to understand him.
As things stand, however, it appears that the claims of passion are winning over the cold logic of reason. Several years of talks haven't brought the Indian Government and the Naga rebels any closer to a solution. While Muivah is at least talking, Prabhakaran has taken Sri Lanka back into a full-scale civil war. Back in 1966, when the state was strong and the rebels weak, the Indian Government refused to rehablitate Sheikh Abdullah. The break-up of Pakistan in 1971 was likewise the fault mainly of an arrogant and overbearing state. Have the roles been reversed now? Will it be that the window of opportunity in Nagaland and Sri Lanka will be shut principally because of the dogmatism and insecurity of the rebels?

The proposals I have put forward here might meet with scorn and derision, not just from the Nagas and the Tamils, but from my fellow writers and scholars as well. For, as the American critic Lionel Trilling noted long ago, intellectuals have tended to embrace an 'adversary culture': standing against the state, against the market, against the Establishment, against anything and everything but themselves. Conciliation and compromise does not come naturally to them.

However, conciliation and compromise were an integral part of the vocabulary and political repertoire of a man to whom I owe the title of this essay, the man whom I can, I think, uncontroversially refer to as the greatest South Asian of them all, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi knew when to begin a movement, but also when to call it off, when to challenge an opponent, but also when to talk to and seek to understand him. The only thing he was uncompromising about was the use of non-violence.

In many ways, Gandhi was the arch reconciler, the builder of bridges - bridges between Hindus and Muslims, between India and Pakistan, between high castes and low castes, between men and women, between the coloniser and the colonised. Independent India has had many failures, but also some successes. The most conspicuous of these successes are owed to Gandhi's political followers having honoured his spirit of compromise. India is not - or not yet - a 'Hindu Pakistan' because its first Prime Minister followed Gandhi in promoting religious pluralism. The Indian Constitution provided special privileges for low castes and tribals under the inspiration of Gandhi. (In fact, Dr Ambedkar was made India's first Law Minister and Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution on the recommendation of Gandhi.) It was also Gandhi who first advocated and promoted the idea of linguistic states.

Among the less adequately recognised of Gandhi's successes was the forging of a stable, harmonious, and even affectionate relationship between the United Kingdom and independent India. Certainly, nowhere else have Empire and Colony maintained such a friendship after the sundering of the imperial (and essentially inequitable) tie that once bound them. Consider the bitter relations that have existed - and indeed still exist - between the French and the Algerians, the Dutch and the Indonesians, the Belgians and the residents of the Congo, the Russians and the Poles, the Japanese and the Koreans.

That Indians do not hate the English is owed largely - one might even say entirely - to Gandhi. His closest friend was an Englishman, Charles Freer Andrews. When Andrews died, in 1940, Gandhi wrote that while the numerous misdeeds of the English would be forgotten, 'not one of the heroic deeds of Andrews will be forgotten as long as England and India live. If we really love Andrews' memory, we may not have hate in us for Englishmen, of whom Andrews was among the best and noblest. It is possible, quite possible, for the best Englishmen and the best Indians to meet together and never to separate till they have evolved a formula acceptable to both.'

In the six decades since the Raj ended, the 'best Englishmen and the best Indians' have met regularly and amicably - to their mutual advantage. Can there be a time when the same can or will be said of Nagas and Biharis, or Jaffna Tamils and Kandyan monks? It would take a great deal of give and take on both sides, an honest acknowledgement of error, a willingness to compromise, and, perhaps above all, the ability to think of a hopefully harmonious future rather than a bitter and bloody past.

The Naga and Tamil struggles are founded on the principle of identity. These two peoples have a strong sense of who they are and what unites them, this defined by a shared territory, religion, culture, and language. It is the denial, perceived and real, of this identity by the nation-state and its policies that explain the origin and persistence of the seccessionist movement. The key to a solution lies in converting the currency of identity into the currency of interest. The groups that are currently protesting about threats to their identity must be provided with a stake in power and decision-making. That is how, for example, the Solidarity generation in Poland, or the leaders and cadres of the African National Congress in South Africa, were encouraged to move from being rebels and freedom-fighters to becoming administrators and governors. But for inspiration, one does not necessarily have to look so far afield. The Dravidian movement in Tamilnadu, and the Mizo National Front, once stood out for independence as solidly as do the LTTE and the NSCN now. In the end, however, they dropped the demand of sovereignty, in exchange for a secure place within the federal system.

The honourable as well as effective compromises made by Mandela, Annadurai, and Prachanda might also compel the attention of T. Muivah, although he has an exemplar even closer at hand, in Laldenga and the Mizo National Front.

 •  A question of honour

One may take heart from the history of Tamilnadu and Mizoram or, indeed, from contemporary Nepal. It is too early yet to say whether this particular South Asian story will have a happy ending. But it has certainly had a salutary beginning. For Comrade Prachanda to embrace multi-party democracy was, in ideological terms, just as difficult as Prabhakaran or Muivah giving up on 'national self-determination'. Credit must also be given to the parliamentary parties, and perhaps to the elder statesman Girija Prasad Koirala in particular, that they set aside their old animosities and suspicions and welcomed the Maoists into the democratic process.

These examples suggest that for there to be peace in Sri Lanka, Vellupilai Prabhakaran does not have to become a Mahatma Gandhi. He - or his advisers and well-wishers - can take their clues instead from leaders and struggles closer to them in history and geography. Mandela's ANC was once just as devoted to the cult of the gun. C. N. Annadurai was once just as committed to an independent Tamil homeland - this to be carved out of the Republic of India, rather than the Republic of Sri Lanka. And that other rebel in the jungle, Prachanda, also fought on for years in the hope - and belief - that the struggle would ultimately end in a one-party state dominated by his men. The compromises - honourable as well as effective compromises - made by Mandela, Annadurai, and Prachanda might also compel the attention of T. Muivah, although he has an exemplar even closer at hand, in Laldenga and the Mizo National Front.

In a fine essay on the history of political moderation in the Western world, the historian Robert M. Calhoon suggests that 'moderates are made not born'. They are 'creatures of the moment, and of circumstance, who move away from antagonistic stances and toward [the] middle ground to achieve a goal or serve a purpose through a wider political advocacy and association'. This definition works well in explaining the moves away from extremism of those great rebels Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, or indeed of the ending of repression by their respective rivals, the apartheid regime and the British Raj.

Calhoon also writes that 'in our own time, moderation rebukes the corrosive partisanship from the Right or the Left'. In our own region, South Asia, Right and Left may be better represented as Rebel and State. It is the task of the moderate, and of moderation, to find common ground between these two actors, thus to replace a regime of suspicion and violence with one based on trust and co-operation.

That said, those who advocate moderation - including the present writer - live more in hope than expectation. Calhoon quotes a passage from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, where the Greek sage notes that 'it is no easy task to find the middle'. Closer home, this sentiment was echoed by C. Rajagopalachari, a close follower and associate of Gandhi, when he wrote to a Quaker friend that 'those who are born to reconcile seem to have an unending task in this world'. If not in the whole world, at least in South Asia, this region that has been so deeply marked by conflict and antagonism between high caste and low caste, between Hindus and Muslims, between Sinhala speakers and Tamil speakers, between the massed armies of its nation-states.

It is precisely because our region is such a cauldron of conflict that a special responsibility devolves on the writer and intellectual. The writer and intellectual has an obligation to the truth, the modern writer and intellectual an additional obligation to democracy and pluralism. For the signal lesson of the twentieth century is that dictatorships of both left and right are equally inimical to human dignity and well-being. Thus, as part of their calling, writers must stand consistently for the right to freely elect one's leaders, the right to seek a place of residence and company of one's choosing, the right to speak the language of one's choice and practice the faith of one's belief (which may be no faith at all).

These responsibilities are onerous enough, but for the South Asian writer and intellectual there are other obligations still. Because our recent history has been so bloody and divisive, here the writer and intellectual must always be in search of paths that might make our future less bloody, and less divisive. She, and he, should seek, wherever possible, to moderate social and political conflicts rather than to intensity or accelerate them. The extreme positions are well represented and passionately articulated in any case.

Rather than take sides on behalf of one caste against another, one religion against another, one nation against another, or to throw oneself in alignment with the state or to be always against the state, the writer and intellectual needs to keep away from an identification with one party to a dispute. Rather, he and she must try to interpret and reconcile opposing positions, to make each side see the truth in the other, thus to urge each party to move beyond dogmatism and self-justification towards acknowledging and embracing the beauty of compromise.