Outsiders don’t exist, we create them

March 11, 2016

by Aprameya Manthena

“In respect to self-determination, we do not believe it is necessary to redefine it, to limit its meaning, or to restrict its internal and external dimensions. The right of self-determination is an individual and collective human right. By virtue of its exercise, states are born and disappear, and within states it is made up of various forms of autonomy. . . . Likewise, within states, the exercise of self-determination permits peoples and national groups to determine, within these states, their condition and political status through a process of decentralization and autonomy and permits them to participate effectively in decision-making about their economic, social, and cultural development. (Unofficial translation)”

This was the position affirmed by the government of Guatemala in the UN Human Rights Commission Working Group on the Draft Declaration in 2004. The question of self-determination is a poignant one, as Wolfgang Danspeckgruber says, “No other concept is as powerful, visceral, emotional, unruly, as steep in creating aspirations and hopes as self-determination”.

The JNU row has made a couple of terms de rigueur. Most of us now know we could add “anti-national” and “seditious” to the growing list of insults to be thrown at political enemies, with intent to demonize and persecute. In the din, some arguments are left unmade. This is an attempt to clarify certain assumptions that have not been understood in the global context, since the beginning, due to the overwhelming conservative backlash.

In the middle of the enfolding JNU fracas, a couple of things become clear.

a. Without doubt, this is politically motivated

A look at the Jat agitation and the reports of loot, arson and gangrape emerging from the ground suggest state complicity in acts that threaten public space, in this case clearly by violent means. However, far from being brought to task, certain groups enjoy complete impunity.

After the shooting of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Arun Mahaur, the city of Agra has been tense. Communal polarization is an inevitable consequence of such incidents and the back-stories have to be unearthed. Who is Arun Mahaur? What is his professional track record in Agra? (He is being projected as a Dalit Gau Rakshak, uniting in a single fell sweep the Dadri incident, Hindu nationalism and demonizing of the “others/outsiders”). Who are the accused? Why did they choose to do what they did?

These are questions that the law and media, the pillars of democracy, are meant to unearth in a fair and equal manner. These are not meant to incite an already flaming communal sentiment (having risen 17% in the present government’s time) and whip emotions into frenzy, as many irresponsible media channels have been seen as doing.

Going back to the recent Agra incident, from the Indian Express report,

“Speaker after speaker urged Hindus to “corner Muslims and destroy the demons (rakshas)”, while declaring that “all preparations” had been made to effect “badla (revenge)” before the 13th-day death rituals for Mahaur. “Human skulls would be offered to his martyrdom,” VHP district secretary Ashok Lavania, who has been jailed earlier for assaults on Muslims, said.”

The question of public speech and what constitutes hate speech has been a thriving debate in the subcontinent. When metaphors and symbols substitute for action and large groups of people are exhorted to violence, a case may be made for linking hate speech to wrongful acts committed in its wake. In the recent Agra case as evidence will show, there are multiple threats sounded from a public platform, all communal in nature, all profiling Muslims and meant to “cleanse”. Worse, they come from leaders of the present political party in power. From the same report,

Local BJP MLA Jagan Prasad Garg told the crowd, “You will have to fire bullets, you will have to take up rifles, you will have to wield knives. Elections are approaching in 2017, begin showing your strength from now onwards.”

VHP general secretary Surendra Jain and Bajrang Dal leaders were present where Jain thundered, “You have seen the result in Muzaffarnagar. Don’t convert Agra into Muzaffarnagar.”

Not sedition? Public inciting of murderous anger, spoken clearly and directly to an audience, speaking of using knives and guns in the name of identity and not-so-veiled threats about Agra turning into another Muzaffarnagar. The tone of the speeches clearly marks the “subject” and the “object”- it is the moral obligation of the Hindu to take up weapons against the Muslim. It has been confirmed that the Muzaffarnagar riots could have been prevented since it was entirely the handiwork of a certain political party.

Local BJP leader Kundanika Sharma called other parties “jackals” for seeking votes of “traitors”. “But we want the heads of these traitors, the killers of Arun Mahaur,” she said. “This is not the time to sit quiet. Chhapa maaro, burqa pehno, lekin inhen gher-gher kar le aao. Ek sar ke badle dus sar kaat lo (Raid them, wear burqas, but corner them. Behead ten heads for one head).”

b. How do we frame sedition, nationalism and self-determination?

Therefore, the question of sedition is complicated. Sedition works when the government wants to scapegoat/target certain communities that it sees as threats to its being in power; communities that question, and that are not guilty of much more. The present political dispensation (and its media wing) is insecure, and scrambling madly to the extent that it doesn’t verify claims, speaks of students’ (fabricated) links to “terrorist” organizations (proved by the fake Twitter handle) and after evidence of doctoring of videos and misunderstanding of slogans [1], allows the police to continue holding the students in remand for interrogation. Charges are being made against “outsiders” who raised “anti-national slogans” while exonerating the JNU students held on fabricated evidence. This is in the hope, perhaps, that the students confess to crimes that they may later be charged for? Or so it appears.

In the Agra case, on the other hand, we hear this:

“The police claimed the speeches made by the VHP and BJP leaders had “no adverse impact” on the locals even as activist and Congress support Shehzad Poonawalla has written a complaint to the Home Ministry and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav against the “hate speech.””

Therefore, simple conclusions from the above examples about the JNU row:

  • We do not have the right to criticize policies of the state unless we belong to ABVP/VHP/ RSS/ BJP, more so if we are students whose futures are uncertain and entirely in the hands of political masters.
  • If caught, we shall find suitable scapegoats.
  • Scapegoats to be found are of two kinds:
  1.  “Insiders” (enemies within)
  2. “Outsiders” to JNU campus (enemies without)

Many articles and essays in the public sphere have dealt with the cases of the JNU students arrested for organizing the February 9 event. Very few articles have dealt with those “outsiders” on the periphery of the discourse of nationalism. They are those that stand at most risk from established nation-states and its armies of vindictive civilians.

This brings us to the second phase of complicated inquiry. The students who organized the Feb 9th event rightly maintain that discussions around Kashmir’s self-determination movement alongside the State’s actions in Kashmir have been in discussion for decades in international spaces. Afzal Guru’s case has been discussed widely in the media and previously submerged narratives known and understood by a few, are finding wide currency. No “judicial killing” may be justified by claiming that “the collective conscience of the nation” demanded it.


Since the 20th century, many (now free) nations rescued themselves from the yoke of European imperialism. It is in the post World War II world that discussions began in the UN regarding the primacy of sovereignty, especially for those emerging from colonial occupations. The UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation) records that “The right to self-determination of peoples is recognized in many other international and regional instruments”. The list on the UNPO website is shared below:

  • The First Chapter of the UN Charter
  • Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007
  • Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1970,
  • Helsinki Final Act adopted by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) in 1975,
  • Article 20 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1981,
  • CSCE Charter of Paris for a New Europe adopted in 1990,
  • Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993.
  •  Self-determination has been affirmed by the International Court of Justice in the Namibia case (South Africa withdrew from Namibia)
  • Western Sahara case
  • East Timor case (in which its erga omnes character was confirmed)
  • Furthermore, the scope and content of the right to self-determination has been elaborated upon by the UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and numerous leading international jurists.”

Kashmir remains a state without statehood for many of its people. Under constant surveillance, with excessive military presence and unimaginable atrocities (most of which are documented by independent/ international human rights organizations), they are a nation of people who are denied their rightful place in the world-system.

As many lawyers, activists and scholars have insisted, sedition is an archaic law set in place by the colonial masters, the British, for the Indians they exercised political, economic, linguistic and cultural control over. Isn’t it rather telling that the same law is being used against those that protest local imperialisms? That should easily point us in the direction of Kashmir’s movement for self-determination. A. G. Noorani unpacks the details of the UN Resolutions pertaining to Kashmir and the history of the Kashmir dispute in South Asia. In fact, Noorani goes a step further saying, “The right of the people of Kashmir to a plebiscite is an inherent right and came even before U.N. resolutions”.  Irrespective of Noorani’s own personal solution to the problem, he draws attention to the present “obsolescence” of the UN Resolutions (which have been ignored time and again and not adhered to by the states to the point of redundancy) and the unquestionable right of the Kashmiri people to self-determination.

The right of self-determination has been adopted by the UN as part of the Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007. Surprisingly, it also has the support of the Obama-led USA government given in December, 2010 (though his stand changed when confronted with Crimean Self-Determination). As it is with many landmark agreements, there are more limits than freedoms, limits that force the reader to redefine the concept of “self-determination” constantly, but this is a start.

Robert T. Coulter, a participant in the UN debates on self-determination from its beginning in 1977, who saw the culmination of the final document in 2007, writes about the different meanings encapsulated in the term “self-determination” in his piece titled The Law Of Self-Determination And The United Nations Declaration On The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples quoting from Antonio Cassese’s work Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal (1995):

“Where territorial changes are made among countries, it means that the population concerned should have a right to decide democratically which country to belong to.

It is also a general political principle that the people of every country should have the right to freely choose their rulers and their form of government.

It is a principle calling for the independence of peoples and territories that were subject to colonial rule. It is also a principle forbidding the military invasion and occupation of foreign territories.

Finally, it is a political principle, but not a rule of international law, calling for the right of ethnic minorities, linguistic and national minorities, and other groups and peoples within countries to be permitted to freely choose their political status both internally and externally, that is, internationally, including the right to secede.”

However, Coulter mentions that not many of these meanings find their way into actual applicable international law due to the domain of control exercised by powerful states. The actual laws are bounded by “territorial integrity”, which is, that peoples may be granted access limited to “internal self-determination” i.e. “access to and participation in government” of the concerned state. Thus, there are “powerful limiting provisions” to the demand for separate statehood which have been set in place by “sovereign nations”.  A vocabulary of destruction is employed when speaking of the “right to independence”: “dismember”, “impair”, “disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity” [2],   showing quite clearly that many nations formed in the heat of the postcolonial moment have forgotten their own fractured histories and moments of gained independence. According to the Helsinki Act (Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe 1975), in the section titled “Sovereign equality, Respect for the Rights Inherent in Sovereignty”, it says unmistakably that “they consider that their frontiers can be changed, in accordance with international law, by peaceful means and by agreement.” Just as the Guatemalan government asserts in the meetings in the Working Group of the Draft Declaration (2004), “states are born and disappear”. Histories remain testament to the fact that boundaries of political territories across the world have constantly been changing for reasons connected to (top down) expansion of kingdoms, territories, states and (bottom up) people’s political aspirations. Violence on bodies, property and autonomy has unfortunately been an inescapable accompaniment.

The important questions are not asked: why would a distinct set of people choose sovereignty from another nation? Why should “national unity” always already be universally benign? How did the present set of “sovereign” countries come to be sovereign? Why do they deny this same right to many that seek complete autonomy (similar to their present political being) from other similar oppressive centres of power?

The question of self-determination is fractious because it never merely concerns the nation (s) in question. Other nations that share diplomatic relationships also intervene for their own strategic interests. BRICS itself emerged as a need to counter the unipolar dominance in world affairs. In the book The BRICS and Coexistence: An Alternative Vision of World Order, the “BRICS position is that the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of each nation should be respected and upheld, and that all parties to a conflict or dispute should resolve their differences through peaceful means and dialogue.” The BRICS is also committed to discussions on ongoing self-determination struggles in different parts of Latin America and Asia.

The only reason this essay takes recourse to the UN documents is due to the nature of international agreement, even among powerful nations, that self-determination is the only way forward for true sovereignty. It is now common knowledge that the UN functions on the imperatives of powerful nations, even though it is meant to be a neutral arbiter of international disputes. Despite the limits, the concept of self-determination is set to remain permanently. The UNGA Resolutions of 1960 (2) and 1970 make the case for economic, political, cultural, religious and other living freedoms in such territories very clear:

“The whole people of a state or territory has the right to be free from alien or foreign military occupation.”

This is in contrary to the present situation in Kashmir. A report shared by Amnesty International documents the misdeeds of the armed forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Human Rights Watch also shared a detailed document on the extrajudicial killings, indiscriminate use of lethal force, torture, rape and disappearances in Kashmir under the armed forces and Indian laws (and attacks by the militants on the mighty armed and powerful state).

The UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization) in an online statement made on July 19, 2006 states “claims to cultural autonomy may be more readily recognized by states, claims to independence are more likely to be rejected by them. Nevertheless, the right to self-determination is recognized in international law as a right of process (not of outcome) belonging to peoples and not to states or governments.”

However, this is a “dynamic process”; new rules are evolving in order to take into account the definitions of self-determination coming in from various oppressed nation contexts.  The political principle of “self-determination” has resulted in different outcomes in different places. This only alerts us to the already raging debates on self-determination of peoples that see themselves as distinct from majoritarian identities and whose very birth as nations, in the South Asian context, took from the subcontinent’s partition.

None of these discussions might have a binding force on countries since it is a Declaration and not yet customary international law. But for us, as students and political citizens, even a cursory discussion of the decades of debates show that this is an on-ground issue that is struggling to reach the higher echelons of power and decision-making. This is a genuine and legitimate demand, especially for those populations that have seen decades of betrayal even within their own “internal self-determination”. Both internal and external self-determination are the true markers of any nation’s sovereignty and it is clear that demands for “external” sovereignty also need to be engaged with in a robust, civil and constructive manner.

In the 21st century, many countries have sought self-determination:

  1. Scotland from the United Kingdom (Scottish Independence Referendum, 2014)
  2. Crimea from Ukraine (Crimea Status Referendum, 2014)
  3. South Sudan (2011) from Sudan
  4. East Timor (2002) from Indonesia

There are contrasting accounts, unmet demands and dissatisfaction with the methods of setting the process into motion. There are a lot of lessons for those nations that seek self-determination and those that retain power over such nations- of- people to learn from the experiences of other self-determined nations. “Self-determination” has long been discussed in international power corridors, not just for Kashmir, but also for many parts of South America, Asia, Canada, Arab-Israeli conflict among other nations.

Many countries have triggered these debates from their own national contexts in these forums, seeking to understand the limits of application of self-determination. While there is no one-size-fits-all and this is difficult in the face of neo-imperial strategic machinations, the Kashmir dispute is part of the international spectrum of territories under conflict. The Kashmir dispute is not new. It has been linked to the birth of the modern nation states India and Pakistan.

The armed self-determination movement in Kashmir began as a consequence of the 1987 elections, which the common people of Kashmir and independent observers believed was rigged. Many reports in national and international media share testimonial evidence to the nature of rigging of 1987 elections. Kashmir is the most militarized zone in the world, with 700000+ numbered forces occupying Kashmir’s cities, towns and villages. Electoral democracy cannot be made a farce since it is the last bastion of democratic hopes. In such a condition, what are the options left for those that seek reparation and a space to articulate their viewpoints, in the face of increasing state repression?

Professor Erica-Irene A. Daes, the Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations throughout the drafting of the Declaration, asserts that there can be systemic inequalities in power-sharing and government forming internally and those communities that see themselves as geographically, culturally and ethically distinct and discriminated against economically and politically should be eligible to apply for independence or secession from the larger state.

Elections have been taking place in Kashmir. Since the declaration makes very clear that “self-determination” includes internal systems of “self-governance”, through “democratic principles” and “representation”, this is a mask for the nature of oppressive political gambles with people’s desires in Kashmir.  It does not help that the political class in Kashmir is long alienated from the common masses. These political classes were long recognized as hand-in-glove with the occupying territories. The relationship of gains and losses in Kashmir are best explained by the people themselves.

c. Who are the “Outsiders”?

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum” -Noam Chomsky, The Common Good

It is in this context that the “outsiders” to JNU campus have to be understood. Shapeless rumours have circulated about them being “foreigners”, “not students of JNU” among other descriptions. The media is fanning the fear of the unknown in marking these people, who are shown with faces covered by scarves in photographs and videos. This is foundational in creating paranoia- never define, keep amorphous and this void can be filled by many unfounded fears and suspicions. The outsiders remain the category that everyone has deferred judgement upon, in the hope that this unspecified group of people shall eventually become the target for the bitterness and acute paranoia of the raging “nationalist” Indian masses.

However, some reports suggest they could be Kashmiri students. The experience of many Kashmiris, taking from their everyday experience, is filled with the persecution that the state has completely normalized. Universities’ freedoms are muzzled and those that speak against Indian policies in Kashmir are persecuted. Is this why they choose to cover their faces with scarves? Who will protect them if those stationed to protect these citizens in Kashmir are culpable of the worst crimes?

Do the Kashmiris have the right to speak their mind in Kashmir when PSA (Public Safety Act), AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and DAA (Disturbed Areas Act) are imposed? Most probably not. Where is the Kashmiri public speaking? How can we hear them? Where can we engage in discussions with them that remain separate from hatred and the froth of jingoism?

If the international mandate is peaceful engagement, then the few places left to hear Kashmiris among other oppressed nationalities are university campuses, centres of study and other cultural spaces for discussions. If the international mandate is negotiation and understanding of “self-determination”, then we need to be listening very closely.

If these outsiders were Kashmiri, present on campus to discuss the Afzal Guru execution which even Kashmiri political parties (part of Indian “democracy”) have denounced publicly as “a travesty of justice”, there is nothing shocking, threatening or hateful about their presence.  

If these outsiders are outsiders because of being Kashmiri, then why should we consider Kashmir an “integral part” of India if the very protectors of India’s “territorial integrity” mark them as outsiders?

Finally, if these outsiders are “outsiders” because they do not study on JNU campus, then would we be outsiders because we attend talks, meetings, protests in various venues, in solidarity? Many cultural centres in Delhi host cultural events on various issues including the present neoliberal incursive policies against several oppressed communities of people. If we were to raise valid questions at such meetings, would we be branded outsiders?

Who are the outsiders? They are outside of what precisely?

The need to mark private and public, inside and outside is the need to decide who belongs and who doesn’t. This has long been the narrative of places like Kashmir in mainstream “national” imagination. It is not surprising that this has come to haunt them even when they demand discussions on the issues concerning their sovereignty as political citizens of the world.

The point of universities is to allow free flow of ideas, students and political actors, irrespective of their political beliefs, to meet and contest ideas.  Isn’t the point of the “public” also the same? In India, caste, gender and sexuality complicate the discourses of “public” and “private”; we now realize “nation” and religion do too. Apparently, individual political beliefs have nothing to do with public political events.

If any group believes there is a place for their voices to be heard, for ideas to be discussed (not methods of perpetrating violence as in Agra, Ayodhya, Gujarat, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kandhamal) we hope JNU shall be that. JNU has a lot to answer for, even within its own “internal” functioning, but the students of JNU shall push these issues to the forefront and demand answers from those responsible.

In the bid to preserve the citizenship rights of a few, we cannot ignore the human and civil rights abuses that Kashmiris have had to face for many decades. If the outsiders were Kashmiri, they need to be welcomed to engage in political discussions and hopefully be provided the atmosphere to do so, without repressing their voices and inducing them to cover their faces. If they were to raise slogans of “Azadi” that threaten India’s sense of “national”, in India’s capital city of New Delhi, knowing full well the consequences of such actions, with the Right-leaning government at the centre and doing so regardless, India needs to question what it is doing to threaten their political sovereignty and sense of identity. Despite unbelievable brutality, the streets of Kashmir resound with slogans hoping for Kashmir’s freedom from India. It is very common to hear slogans of “India, Go Back” alongside others on the streets, not unlike the slogans raised in India’s public spaces in the early 20th century against British rule.

The BJP government has refused to acknowledge their representatives’ responsibility in the glaring acts of wrongful and heinous framing of JNU students.  Entry registers at JNU show details of media channel(s) allowed entry into campus with the help of ABVP, before the event. This highlights the framing and pre-planning of malicious intent. Debates and discussions on Afzal Guru’s execution have been taking place for the last couple of years in many cultural venues. Apparently, ABVP could predict exactly how it could be “anti-national” and in what way they could be framed.

However, even now, in public statements, the representatives of the right wing excoriate the sloganeers without paying any attention to the forensic evidence that has proved that some slogans were never raised and evidently doctored in the post-production stage. These slogans were introduced into the videos by external agencies or misunderstood by the news reporters from different channels, expressly to defame.

On the other hand, students across the country have mobilized spontaneously to counter the divisive agenda of the BJP. Despite the threat, they come forward to be recognized as political actors with progressive goals. In this context, it is also important to point out that on February 9, the “outsiders” filled public space with their political presence (albeit masked) and desire to participate in public sphere discussions. How can this be a crime? These discussions are two-way streets; easy marking of prey is the terrain of hunting and that has long been made a criminal offence. If this is a democracy, let us ensure we are not threatened by the dreams and aspirations of people that have been articulated strongly in international and national forums for many decades now.

It is the hope of JNU that we are all part of the “dynamic” discussions that make independence from oppressive, imperial forces a strong possibility for the future, irrespective of which ideology they may belong to. Let us hope that the present century allows for the triumph of ground-level aspirations of political freedoms and that grassroots people’s movements build democracies of the people, by the people and for the people.


[1] How can the media broadcast doctored videos and how can the police claim that the students shouted pro-Pakistan slogans when the 12-page report submitted by the Deputy Commissioner of Police (South) on the facts leading to filing of FIR No 110.16 dated 11.02.2016 lists 29 slogans shouted at the meeting but does not mention “Pakistan Zindabad”?  Nandita Haksar in her Feb 29, 2016 piece on JNU in Scroll titled “First Person: When a Kashmiri Met a Naga At JNU”.

[2] (The 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Peoples contains the following language in paragraph 6):

Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations. The 1970 General Assembly resolution noted above also contains powerful limiting provisions in its final two paragraphs reaffirming the rule of territorial integrity:

*Nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples as described above and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed, or colour.”

This stands in complete contradiction of the principle of self-determination which cannot breathe with “limiting provisions” of this nature. The debate on self-determination is thus manipulated and tenuous in the international forums though Coulter mentions “almost no countries opposed the right of self-determination for indigenous peoples, but debate focused instead on the precise content and limits of that right.” (page 3 of his essay)