The Kashmir imbroglio suddenly brings it home: that India is not a swayambhu or spontaneously generated country.

On that first independence day in 1947, everything was uncertain. Which states would become part of India? They fell into two groups. British India was the core territory of the republic and the Constituent Assembly elected by people living in this area was expected to quickly draft a constitution for the country.

The people here were not, however, asked if they wanted to become Indian citizens.

Then there were the ‘princely states’, whose sovereignty was restored when the British left. Their rulers had the option of joining India or Pakistan, or remaining independent.

Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel and his officers acted boldly and swiftly, ‘persuading’ most of them to accede to India. The excitement of those days can be sensed even in the dry prose of V.P.Menon’s Integration of the Indian States.

There was a dilemma when the Nizam of Hyderabad, a Muslim, decided his state would be independent. It was assumed that his views must run contrary to the desires of the majority of his subjects, and the Indian army violently pushed through his abdication by what is euphemistically called ‘police action’.

Much of what happened then was not strictly democratic, since the people living within these territories were not consulted about their choices. Looking back to those eventful and turbulent times, the creation of the country that we know today as India seems a bit of a miracle. It was a close shave indeed. The subcontinent could easily have splintered into scores of political units.

I was born into independent India, in Madras State, before the Constitution was adopted and just before the assassination of the Mahatma. I realised the fragility of the new nation even when I was a schoolgirl. I vividly remember the clamour of separatism that surrounded me just before the first elections held after the reorganisation of states in 1957.

No, I did not grow up in Kashmir or the northeastern states, not even in Hyderabad or Travancore, where the Dewan, C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer, almost persuaded the Maharaja to remain independent. My school was in Madras, now Chennai and the air was full of demands for a separate Tamil state, a Tamil Illam, combining the Tamil speaking areas of what is now Tamil Nadu, and of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).

The people of this region had not formally been asked whether they wanted to be part of the country, since it was within the Madras Presidency of British India, the core area.

The DMK under Annadurai opened its account in Tamil Nadu in 1957. A decade later, when the Congress party lost control of several state governments, the DMK became the second non-Congress party (after the Communists in Kerala in 1957) to capture a state government on its own.

This was the beginning of what would soon become a tidal wave, unseating Congress leaders of all social classes in Tamil Nadu, followers of Rajaji as well as Kamaraj.

We know today that 1967 was the last stand of the Indian National Congress in that state. Never again would it get the chance to govern it.

Tamil Nadu quickly generated a regional two-party system, in which national parties became irrelevant. The Tamilian parties also kept the central government at bay, while sending MPs to represent their interests through resonant Tamil speeches in Parliament. They guarded their turf with fierce independence, exercising every state and concurrent power given to them under the Constitution. We have several examples of this.

M.G.Ramachandran was roundly criticised as irresponsible and populist by economists and planners, for channelling the state’s resources into the revolutionary school midday meal program. But MGR followed his own political instincts, and transformed the nutritional and educational status of Tamil Nadu. He lived to see the Planning Commission ask all states to follow the Tamil Nadu model.

The state has never accepted the educational policies of any government at the centre. It is also the only state that has stubbornly held on to its State Electricity Board, when the rest of the country converted such boards into corporations.

The Congress did not easily discard its ambition of making a comeback in Tamil Nadu. In 1976, the Indira Gandhi government misused the provisions of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act to dismiss Karunanidhi and placate his rival, MGR. The lesson was learnt. Tamil isolationism was no longer possible.

A new model of political federalism became endemic in the state: the practice of alliances with national parties, not (I suspect) to enjoy national privileges or power, but to buy peace to run the state on its own priorities.

A major change in this strategy occurred in 1996, going almost unnoticed. The DMK joined the Deve Gowda led central government. For the first time since independence, a regional party from Tamil Nadu had become a partner in the ruling coalition at the centre. This was the final signal, the indicator that Tamil separatism had died a natural death.

Can we easily imagine today an India minus the state of Tamil Nadu?

Unlike Madras, Kashmir was not part of the core territory of British India. As in Hyderabad, the ruler’s accession could not automatically be interpreted as the concurrence of his people. Yet, a reading of eminent jurist A.G.Noorani’s A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir suggests that the Kashmir of the 1960s was close in separatist tendencies to the Tamil Nadu of those days.

Sheikh Abdullah who represented the views of many Kashmiris of different religious hues, was, it appears, not seeking to join Pakistan nor to establish an independent state. The focus was on picking the right mix of subjects to be handed over to the national government, so that the special concerns of Kashmiris could be addressed.

There are crucial differences between Kashmir and Tamil Nadu, of course. A neighbouring state, Pakistan, was actively fomenting separatism in Kashmir using violence, funds and training. In Tamil Nadu the shoe was on the other foot. Our neighbour, Sri Lanka, was concerned about Indian (specifically, Tamil) support to its separatists, which continued in many forms, even after the dream of Tamil Illam had faded from Tamil Nadu itself.

The political battle for autonomous development was probably similar in the two states, but it developed in a totally different manner. As in Tamil Nadu, the Congress party insisted on retaining power by fair means or foul. And, unfortunately, in Kashmir it succeeded.

Reading Noorani, I came to know how Abdullah had been detained under various pretexts for a total of almost eighteen years, by Jawaharlal Nehru and then Indira Gandhi. How Jammu and Kashmir has been directly ruled by the central government for more than ten years.

And how, when two regional alternatives, the PDP and the National Conference, both committed to the Indian Constitution, evolved within the political environment, meddling by Congress leaders never allowed them to develop policies and purposes specific to the people of the region.

We live with the dire consequences of these misguided actions. Tamil Nadu got democracy and used it to preserve its autonomy. For the most part Kashmir had no such option and could not seek its own path within the umbrella of national unity.

Surely, what Kashmir needed and needs now is more democracy, not less! Why are we, once again, going down the wrong path?

Cover photo: Basit Zargar