Saturday, April 9, 2011

In the name of national interest


‘National interest’ has the ability to mobilize national resources and national imagination in pursuit of the goals of a nation; it can also be the last resort of the ruling class to hoodwink the people. Hundreds of unnecessary wars have been fought, unholy alliances have been forged, human rights have been violated, oppositions have been silenced and numerous indefensible acts have been committed and then successfully defended - all in the name of national interest. Invocation of national interest has been one of the most potent weapons of statecraft and a convenient holy cow used by politicians, bureaucrats, national elites and just about anyone who wants to prioritize a particular interest over the others at a given point of time, often serving anything but the interest of the nation. What is interesting is that while national interest is invoked as if it is an objective category by those who propose it, its contents almost always belong to the subjective realm. It is this essential contradiction inherent in ‘national interest’ that also lends it the quality to be misused by the ruling elites: if something is open to interpretation by the ruling elites which can also be used as a tool to demand loyalty and silence opposition, is that not the most dangerous political weapon that anyone can possess?

Resorting to claims of national interest usually leads to depoliticisation of issues leading to their instant securitization. While politicization of issues engenders participatory public spheres generating debates on relevant issues, when these issues are securitized, there will be a lack of such discussions in the public sphere. And when issues are securitized and defined in the language of national interest, they are not only depoliticized and often readily accepted by the people but also forms the bedrock of assumptions which will then classify what is right and wrong, good for the country or bad, patriotic acts or unpatriotic ones etc. Once these sets of bedrock ‘national interest’ assumptions become, thus, part of the larger social consciousness, it becomes difficult, at times, even for the ruling elites to change it, when they want to introduce newer national interests. Don’t we often hear things like “the government wants to talk peace with Pakistan, but it is concerned about the potential negative reactions from the people”, or “the government wants to adopt a give-and-take policy with the Chinese to resolve their border conflict, but it is unsure of it acceptance domestically” etc.? This happens because when contents of national interest are securitized they tend to assume fixed meanings and when confronted with the challenge of change at a later date, there will be a great deal of resistance. And yet, national interest and its securitization are often co-existent.

That is where the importance of politicization (used here not in a narrow sense of the term that we often see) of national interest and the debates over differing conceptions of national interests in the public sphere become extremely important. The ruling elites will always have the tendency to silence the opposition by invoking the holy cow called national interest, but a political community should always resist such attempts and force the ruling elites to engender debates on what national interest entails like Anna Hazare did recently with regard to the Lok Pal Bill.

National interest and the Kashmir question
A pertinent case in point here is the history of relations between J&K and New Delhi. Successive regimes in New Delhi rigged elections in J&K, time and again, jailed many Kashmiri leaders, installed puppet regimes in Srinagar, floated all sorts of political and other outfits in the state in order to outwit the existing ones only to float newer ones to outsmart the ones floated earlier, violated human rights of Kashmiris, and killed hundreds of people in cold blood - all in the name of “national interest”. New Delhi and the Congress party in particular, believed, perhaps even ‘genuinely’, that given the history of Jammu and Kashmir and its proximity to Pakistan, it had to keep a tab on the political activities there and even try and manipulate it so that Kashmir remains with India. But then, even genuine criminality is not absolvable.

Hence Sheikh Abdullah was imprisoned for years together, Bakshi Ghulam Muhammed was appointed in his place in 1953 who was only too keen to obey New Delhi’s diktats to dilute all the important provisions of Article 370 by accepting the many Presidential and Constitutional Orders New Delhi issued thereafter to that effect. The 1975 Beg-Parthasarathy Accord was signed promising the restoration of Article 370 but a certain interpretation of ‘national interest’ by New Delhi prevented that from happening. The Farooq Abdullah government was dismissed by New Delhi in 1984 for organizing the opposition conclave in Srinagar because the Congress party thought that ‘national interest’ was not being served by Abdullah’s romance with the opposition – an instance where democracy was seen by the ruling elites in clear opposition to national interest. The Congress though found Abdullah in line with national interest when he gave up on the opposition parties and joined hands with the Congress. More importantly, the national interest of the nation was ‘supremely’ served when the two sides signed the ‘Rajive-Farooq Accord’ and thereafter went on to shamelessly rig the 1987 Assembly elections…!!

What is tragic is that the security forces, policemen, election officials and others who rigged the elections at various points of time in Kashmir seemed to believe that they were doing the right thing and were therefore serving the national interest. Through the 1990s, then, hundreds of Kashmiris were incarcerated, tortured and killed and the human rights of thousands more were violated, again in the name of national interest. The public opinion in India, for the most part, was, amazingly so, willing to buy these claims of national interest conveniently framed by the Congress leadership and New Delhi’s ruling class. Even today, what is unthinkable and seen as reprehensible in other parts of the country, and I am not merely talking about rigging of elections, are seen perfectly fine in J&K – in the name of national interest. Much of what is happening in Kashmir today is the result of this narrow, biased, partisan and imprudent understanding of national interest.

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