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Fighting the Nation-State: From Rojava to Kashmir

26 December 2022

Fighting the Nation-State: From Rojava to Kashmir
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War and Peace, 2020, Parastoo Ahovan. Image Credit:

The South Asian decolonial movements of the 1940s and the contemporary Kurdish anarcho-communist revolution in northern Syria both flirt with the idea of the nation-state as a suitable structure to safeguard their marginalized communities. The Muslims end up successful in their fight for a nation-state, with the inauguration of Pakistan in 1947, while the Kurds deviated from the nation-state and instead opted to campaign for an anarcho-communist confederacy. While the orthodox historical consensus on the emergence of Pakistan remains that Muhammad Ali Jinnah led the campaign for a separate Muslim nation-state, many revisionist historians and philosophers challenge this view—arguing instead that Jinnah was hesitant on the idea of partition, and that the state of Pakistan bloomed primarily through British colonial 'divide and rule' policies and Hindu nationalism. The geopolitical conflict in Kashmir remains the biggest indicator of Pakistan's colonial origins, as well as fertile grounds for combatting the nation-state, with the emergence of insurgencies fighting for Kashmir's self-governance. Öcalan provides us with prescient insight into Pakistan's colonial origins by delineating the nation-state's inseparable relationship with capitalist modernity and imperialist politics. Indeed, rather than pushing for a nation-state, Jinnah was instead keen on self-governing confederacies in a similar vein to Öcalan's democratic confederalism. This paper thus aims to connect these two struggles and theorize Kashmir as a potential breeding ground for democratic confederalism à la Rojava.

This paper aims to draw parallels between two recent Asian political struggles: the wave of decolonial movements in the Indian Subcontinent in the 1940s, and the current Kurdish anarcho-communist revolution in northern Syria. Both these struggles center around questions of ethnic nationalism—two distinct ethnic groups, the Kurds and the Muslims, both flirt with the idea of the nation-state as a suitable political structure to attain the needs of their marginalized communities. The Muslims end up being successful in their fight for a nation-state, with the inauguration of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947; the Kurds, however, deviated from the nation-state and instead opted to campaign for an anarcho-communist confederacy.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), led by militant revolutionary and political philosopher Abdullah Öcalan, initially operated on a Marxist-Leninist model of national liberation, and campaigned for an independent Kurdish nation-state through the 1980s and 1990s. However, after his incarceration, Öcalan underwent a significant ideological shift through exposure to theorists such as Michel Foucault, Immanuel Wallerstein, and most significantly, Murray Bookchin. Through influence from anarcho-communist theory, Öcalan developed the political ideology of democratic confederalism, which became the new guiding structure for the PKK. In his political manifesto Sociology of Freedom (2020), Öcalan explains the reasons for this deviation, providing an incisive critique of the nation-state in the process, and detailing his new system of democratic confederalism which eventually gets established in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava.

The orthodox historical consensus on the South Asian decolonial struggle in 1947 remains that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All-India Muslim League and de facto ‘founder’ of Pakistan, came up with what historians have dubbed the ‘two-nation theory’ and campaigned for a separate nation-state for Muslims in the aftermath of decolonization. However, many contemporary revisionist historians and scholars—namely Ayesha Jalal, Markandey Katju, Ishtiaq Ahmed, Lal Khan, and Aijaz Ahmad—challenge this view, arguing instead that Jinnah, and most of the Muslim population of South Asia, were hesitant on the idea of partition and the creation of an ethnically defined nation-state. Instead, the state of Pakistan bloomed primarily through the forces of British colonial ‘divide and rule’ policies and Hindu nationalism. The geopolitical conflict in Kashmir remains the biggest indicator of Pakistan’s colonial origins, as well as a fertile ground for combatting the nation-state, with the emergence of revolutionary insurgent groups that are fighting for Kashmir’s right to self-governance. Öcalan’s commentary on the nation-state in Sociology of Freedom provides us with a prescient insight into Pakistan’s colonial origins by delineating the nation-state’s inseparable relationship with capitalist modernity and imperialist politics. Indeed, rather than pushing for a nation-state, Jinnah instead was keen on the idea of self-governing confederacies in a similar vein to Öcalan’s democratic confederalism. This paper thus aims to connect these two struggles and theorize Kashmir as a potential breeding ground for democratic confederalism in the style of Rojava.

Abdullah Öcalan and the Emergence of Rojava

Öcalan explains in his 2011 pamphlet “Democratic Confederalism” that the development of the nation-state in the 1800s and 1900s went hand in hand with the development of capitalist modernity, i. e., it was a structure that both stemmed from and reinforced capitalist politics and modes of production. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, borders between regions were significantly more flexible due to the nature of the feudal system. Empires and monarchies were constantly in flux—multi-ethnic kingdoms such as the Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, etc., would have continuously changing borders that incorporated many different languages, religious communities, and cultures. These empires managed to survive various political changes over extended durations of time due to their feudal foundations which “enabled them to distribute power flexibly over a wide range of smaller secondary power centres”. (1) Because of these porous, fluctuating borders and structures, “the boundaries between what the tribes saw as their homelands were not yet borders. Commerce, culture, or language were not restricted by boundaries. Territorial borders remained flexible for a long time”. (2) The sudden and precipitous increase in material resources and capital in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution vastly changed this dynamic. Rapid industrialization led to the steep rise of the new bourgeoisie class that aimed to entrench their power into state structures and be a more crucial part of the process of political decisions. As Öcalan puts it,

The development of the nation-state at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution more than two hundred years ago went hand in hand with the unregulated accumulation of capital on the one hand and the unhindered exploitation of the fast-growing population on the other hand […]. Capitalism, their new economic system, thus became an inherent component of the new nation-state. (3)

The nation-state, in its quest to replace the old feudal order, needed the support of the rapidly rising bourgeoisie class to establish itself as a dominant political structure that could unite all tribes and clans within a given area under the more rigidly defined moniker of a nation. The bourgeoisie, in turn, needed the establishment of the new structure of the nation-state in order to translate their power into a political framework. Through the development of this dynamic, capitalism and the nation-state became “so closely linked to each other that neither could be imagined to exist without the other”. (4) Consequentially, exploitation was not only tolerated by the state, but encouraged, as it became an inherent condition of its birth and functionality.

Rojava provides us with a useful example of why regions of geopolitical conflict, particularly conflicts that stem from the dysfunction of nation-states, constitute fruitful grounds for revolution: the failure of nation-states provides an opening to fight for alternative political structures.

Because of this inseparable relationship between capitalism and the nation-state, Öcalan asserts that the creation of an ethnically defined separate Kurdish nation-state is not the solution for the plight of the Kurds. The origins of what Öcalan calls ‘the Kurdish question’ lie in the partition of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. Once the British and the French made progress in defeating the Ottomans during World War I, they drew up their plans on what the Middle Eastern region would look like in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The resulting Sykes-Picot agreement (5) in 1916 birthed many nation-states based on the distribution of various ethnic groups and communities such as Turkey, Iraq, Syria, etc. However, even though the Kurds rightfully constituted a distinct ethnic group within this region with their own culture and communal practice, they were not given their own nation-state under the Sykes-Picot agreement. Instead, they found themselves divided primarily in the midst of the four newly developing nation-states of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Thus emerged the Kurdish question—how can the Kurds function and develop effectively as an ethnic community without a nation-state, in this newly emerging model of geopolitics that centers the nation-state? The absence of a nation-state meant that the Kurds were increasingly vulnerable to marginalization and had no effective political structure through which to bargain for their rights. In the 1980s, the obvious answer in Öcalan’s mind was to campaign for a separate Kurdish nation-state that he dubbed ‘Kurdistan’, so that the Kurds may have an established political structure that is recognized by their geopolitical partners and allies. Thus began his work with the PKK on a Marxist-Leninist model of national liberation that fought for the establishment of Kurdistan.

However, Öcalan undergoes an ideological shift after his incarceration that centers around the relationship between capitalism and the nation-state which he went on to outline in essays such as the previously cited “Democratic Confederalism”, as well as “War and Peace in Kurdistan”. As he states in the former essay:

Over the last decades the Kurds have not only struggled against repression by the dominant powers and for the recognition of their existence but also for the liberation of their society from the grip of feudalism. Hence it does not make sense to replace the old chains by new ones or even enhance the repression. This is what the foundation of a nation-state would mean in the context of the capitalist modernity. Without opposition against the capitalist modernity there will be no place for the liberation of the peoples. This is why the founding of a Kurdish nation-state is not an option for me. (6)

The desire for a separate state stems not from the wants of the people, but rather from the interests of the bourgeoisie ruling class. The creation of another nation-state would merely introduce another layer of marginalization for the Kurdish proletariat, giving their own bourgeoisie more political power, and providing them with the capacity to capture the working class in an inherently oppressive political structure. For this reason, the solution to the Kurdish question must be found in an “approach that weakens the capitalist modernity or pushes it back”—Öcalan touts the idea of democratic confederalism as one such potential solution.

In a nutshell, democratic confederalism advocates a non-state political administration—a democracy without a state. Öcalan notes the primacy that states have been afforded in orthodox political theory, but asserts that “states only administrate, while democracies govern” (7): states are an unnecessary appendage on democracies that weakens their ability to govern for the people. Democratic confederalism calls for alternative political structures and economies that depart from the centralist, linear, and bureaucratic understanding of administration and exercises of power that take place under the nation-state. Instead, confederalism posits forms of political self-administration where each and every group or cultural identity in society may express themselves and campaign for their rights in local meetings, general conventions, and councils. Such a formulation of democracy “opens the political space to all strata of the society and allows for the formation of different and diverse political groups”. (8) Furthermore, it advances the political integration of the society as a whole as politics then becomes part of everyday life, rather than in nation-statist structures where the everyday citizen is removed from the political process of their supposed democracy. Leadership institutions under democratic confederalism do not need ideological legitimization, and hence do not need to strive for hegemony in the way that nation-states do; thus, “in democratic confederalism, there is no room for any kind of hegemony striving”. (9) Democratic confederalism emphasizes decentralization, gender equality, and the primacy of local governance through direct democracy. It is therefore highly dependent on grass-roots participation—the local communities are at the heart of decision-making processes. Within the structure of the nation-state, one centralized body takes control of all the various spheres of society such as health, culture, economy, and defense. However, confederalism aims to decentralize such spheres by having them each be run by democratically elected offices with no statist metastructure that sits above them. This decentralized structure is geared towards getting more people in a certain region involved with that region’s politics and policies, with democratic structures that facilitate more direct and frequent policy changes. 

Detail of Figures Walking in Instanbul, Osman Hamdi Bey; Image credit:
Detail of Figures Walking in Instanbul, Osman Hamdi Bey; Image credit:

Öcalan therefore affirms that the goal for the Kurdish people must not be an establishment of a separate Kurdish nation-state. Instead, “the movement intends to establish federal structures in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq that are open for all Kurds and at the same time form an umbrella confederation for all four parts of Kurdistan”. (10) Öcalan and the PKK begin the first steps of achieving their goal with the establishment of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava. The PKK manage to secure Rojava’s de facto autonomy in 2012 in the midst of the Syrian Civil War, establishing a group of self-governing confederacies in the regions of Afrin, Jazira, Euphrates, Raqqa, Tabqa, Manbij, and Deir Ez-Zor, home to significant populations of Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian citizens, as well as minor groups of Turkmen, Armenian, Circassian, and Yazidi people. (11) Even though the region has autonomy, it is still not recognized by the government of Syria or any other state besides the Catalan Parliament.

In alignment with the political philosophy of Öcalan’s democratic confederalism, the AANES promotes itself as a secular polity with a direct democratic structure that stems from anarchistic, feminist, and socialist ideology. It advocates decentralization, environmental sustainability, social ecology, gender equality, and pluralistic freedom for the cultural and ethnic diversity within the region. The AANES has also abolished the death penalty and advocated for a social justice model that underscores rehabilitation, social care, and empowerment over the more conventional retributive model of justice. Their economic model aligns with their socialist beliefs by providing free healthcare through organizations such as the Kurdish Red Crescent and Doctors Without Borders, as well as providing the highest average salaries and standard of living throughout Syria. Even in times of political and economic instability the AANES strives to ensure the well-being of their citizens. For instance, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Syrian Pound, the AANES doubled salaries in commensurate to inflation to make sure the standard of living for the community does not drop. While Rojava remains a region mired with political instability in the center of geopolitical conflict, the AANES has proved to be a valuable and productive first step taken by Öcalan and the PKK to push us past the age of the nation-state and capitalist modernity. Indeed, Rojava provides us with a useful example of why regions of geopolitical conflict, particularly conflicts that stem from the dysfunction of nation-states, constitute fruitful grounds for revolution: the failure of nation-states provides an opening to fight for alternative political structures.

South Asian Decolonial Movements and Muslim Confederalism

Similar to Rojava, Kashmir also presents us with a story of the dysfunction of nation-states in the aftermath of decolonial partition. The predicament of the Muslims in South Asia in the 1940s is in many ways analogous to that of the Kurds in the Middle East in the 1980s. Like the Kurds, the Muslims thought of themselves as an ethnic community with a relative minority status in the South Asian subcontinent—an ethnic group that worried about their potential vulnerability to marginalization by the other majoritarian communities in the aftermath of the impending decolonization of the British Empire in South Asia. As mentioned earlier, the Kurds were in a similar position of geopolitical uncertainty during the fall of the Ottoman Empire where new borders and states were being formalized and the question of a possible Kurdish nation-state was on the cards. In the aftermath of the Sykes-Picot agreement, where the Kurds were denied a separate nation-state, Öcalan’s ‘Kurdish question’ was born. Similarly, politicians and activists alike in South Asia debated the ‘Muslim question’ during the ongoing fight for decolonization. As the departure of the British began to loom on the Muslims of South Asia, the question arose concerning whether the Muslims ought to stay unified with India, or use decolonization as a platform to bargain for their own separate nation-state. Orthodox historical accounts of partition paint the picture of an eager All-India Muslim League, yearning for a separate Muslim nation-state, fighting against the Indian National Congress who strove to maintain India’s unity—the Muslim League eventually winning out in this struggle with the establishment of Pakistan. However, many revisionist historiographies have since challenged this view of history, instead pointing out that most Muslim politicians and citizens alike were reluctant on the establishment of a separate Muslim nation-state. The emergence of Pakistan was instead a product of the Hindu nationalism of the Congress and the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the colonial British Empire.

The political milieu in South Asia during the fall of the British Empire was essentially analogous to that of the Middle East during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, in the sense that with decolonization came major political upheaval and the potential for revolution and innovation. However, the subcontinent was missing its analogue to Öcalan and the PKK.

Taken by many contemporary scholars to be the most established articulation of this viewpoint is Asim Roy’s “The High Politics of India’s Partition: The Revisionist Perspective”. (12) Roy takes apart two historical accounts of partition which he takes to be paradigmatic examples of the two opposing sides of the spectrum in how the creation of Pakistan has been interpreted: Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah of Pakistan, and Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. He asserts that the discrepancy between these two historical theses exhibit the “twin partition myths locked in a symbiotic relationship: ‘the League for partition’ and ‘the Congress for unity’”. (13) These two symbiotic myths constitute the orthodox (Wolpertian, for the purposes of this paper) interpretation of partition: one that identifies the Lahore Resolution of the League in March 1940 as the pivotal moment where the demand for the establishment of Pakistan was first made, with the Independence ceremony on 14th August 1947 being its logical culmination. There is also a Hindu nationalist component to this “historiographical orthodoxy” that earmarks partition as “the tragic finale of a heroic struggle of the Indian patriots against the sinister Machiavellian forces out to destroy the sacred Indian unity”. (14) Roy asserts that such a position has become indefensible in modern times with the recent insight into the dynamics of the transfer of power that has been gleaned through investigative documentaries such as Nicholas Mansergh’s Constitutional Relations Between Britain and India: The Transfer of Power 1942–1947, as well as the recent publication of the Quaid-e-Azam Papers, All-India Muslim League Papers, and Partition Papers, all being rendered accessible in the National Archives of Pakistan, together with a variety of other archival material being made available in the Indian National Archives and Nehru Memorial Museum. 

The revisionist perspective, typified by the work of Ayesha Jalal, argues instead that “it was not the League but the Congress who chose, at the end of the day, to run a knife across ‘Mother India’s’ body”. (15) The two different positions primarily diverge both chronologically and thematically from a specific event, i. e., the Lahore Resolution of 1940. According to the Wolpertian view, the resolution that was pushed forward at the Annual Session of the League on the 24th of March 1940 was taken to be the first official proclamation of the ‘Pakistan’ or ‘partition’ demand by the League. Even though the word ‘Pakistan’ is not actually mentioned anywhere in the resolution, it is read to have made the demand for the separation of the Muslim majority areas in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India as ‘sovereign and independent states’, therefore providing the nucleus for the ‘Pakistan demand’. Along with this perceived transformation in the League’s political principles, Wolpert further stakes the claim that this event signifies a major turn in Jinnah’s own political orientation, i. e., it marked the “Islamization of the ‘nationalist’ and ‘secular’ Jinnah, the former ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’ emerging as the most potent and dynamic influence in partitioning British India on religious grounds”. (16) Both of these assumptions are strongly questioned through the revisionist perspective, which argues that the Lahore Resolution was not meant to be the progenitor for the ‘Pakistan demand’ but instead was meant to be a tactical move and a bargaining counter to the demands of the Congress. While the central campaigning principle of the League has always been to negotiate a pattern of “sharing power with the Congress on the basis of a substantial League representation at the center” (17), there emerged an urgent need for a change of tactics with a decline in the League’s influence in the South Asian political sphere during the late 1930s. Their decline came to a nadir in the provincial elections in 1937: of British India’s eleven provinces, Congress won out with a clear majority in six, and as the largest single party in three others. This was a crushing blow to the League—while it was expected that the Congress would dominate all the Hindu majority provinces, the League seemed no longer able to control even the two largest Muslim majority provinces, i. e., Punjab and Bengal. The elections gave Congress a clear upper hand in negotiations with the League, and Jinnah feared the prospect of the British implementing the federal provisions of the Government of India Act of 1935 which would provide Muslims with not more than one-third of central representation. Jinnah realized that in a post-1937 British India, the League had no real choice but to rebrand themselves as “the ‘third’ focus of power in India and the ‘sole spokesman’ for Muslims”. (18)

The two separate historical perspectives wildly differed in how they interpreted Jinnah’s realization. The Wolpertian view is one of a “complete transformation of the mores of Jinnah’s personality, ideology, and policy” (19): abandoning his old secularist position of solving a Muslim ‘minority’ problem through provincial autonomy and substantial representation at the center, Jinnah instead pushes for a “radically new demand for ‘parity’ at the center based on the recognition of the Muslim claim of being a separate religious ‘nation’—the much publicized ‘two-nation theory’ of Jinnah” (20). Wolpert asserts that Jinnah’s Lahore Resolution “lowered the final curtain on any prospects for a single united independent India”, and from that moment on he was set on his seven-year campaign to realize the actualization of the sovereign state of Pakistan, transforming the League into a “political weapon powerful enough to tear the subcontinent apart”. (21) This interpretation thus forms the basis of both the ‘hagiology’ and ‘demonology’ of Jinnah—the former being the mythologizing of Jinnah as the leader to the Muslim promised land, while the latter being the vilification of Jinnah as the diabolical catalyst for the sinister ‘vivisection of Mother India’. 

The revisionist perspective strongly opposes this view, arguing instead that Jinnah’s transformation post-1937 was not one of ideology or political goal, but rather a mere change of political strategy to accomplish the same goal. According to Ayesha Jalal, the purpose of the Lahore Resolution was to stake a claim for Muslim right to self-determination, as well as to make an attempt to extricate Muslims from the subjugating category of a ‘minority ethnic group’. (22) The 1937 election had definitively shown that minority status at the provincial level was only ever going to condemn the Muslims to endless dominance by the Congress. However, seceding off the majoritarian Muslim areas from the rest of India could never be the answer: Indian Muslims were scattered unevenly across the subcontinent, and those living in majoritarian Muslim areas had different needs from those living in more Hindu dominated or co-religionist areas. A separate Muslim majority state would not provide any safeguard to the Muslim minorities in these areas. Thus, Jalal’s thesis is that although the Lahore Resolution was conveyed in terms of the separation of Muslim majority areas, this did not reflect Jinnah’s “real political aims”. Instead, Jalal views the resolution as a “bargaining counter”—a strategic embodiment of self-determination that could then be used “to overcome the obvious political disadvantages of a minority status in a federal constitution”. (23) The underpinning strategy was thus to initially secure the acceptance of the Muslim right to nationhood by the British and the Congress, thereby gaining an equal platform for Muslims in the future arrangements for India’s political future at the center. Once the Muslims gained this political leverage through the Lahore Resolution, it was thought that they could then “enter into a confederation with non-Muslim provinces on the basis of parity at the center”. (24) Such a confederation would allow Muslim-majority zones to be “self-governing, with a central authority weak enough not to impinge on them, but strong enough to protect Muslim minorities in self-governing Hindu-majority zones”. (25)

Roy presents a number of historic details that lend credence to the revisionist perspective both in Ayesha Jalal’s work and elsewhere, perhaps the most conclusive of which being Jinnah’s rejection of the Cripps Mission Plan and subsequent acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan. The latter appealed to Jinnah more than the former because the political structures espoused by the Cabinet Mission Plan more closely resembled the vision of Muslim confederations that Jinnah was campaigning for, “[bringing] the Muslim provinces under the control of the League at the center”, whilst also “[denying] the principle of secession and preserving India’s integrity”. (26) Most importantly, it suggested a weak central governance which would “thwart the prospects for a total Congress dominance”, which lead to Congress eventually rejecting the plan and going past their perceived commitment to Indian unity. While Indian unity was thought to be an integral aspect of Congress ideology since its inception, the truth is that communitarian ideology (27) “began to lose its fervor in the wake of the ineffectual and frustrating all-party negotiations in the late 1920s”, leading to a different strategy of “resolving the Muslim Question by taking a convenient line that freedom should precede and not follow the resolution of the communal problem”. (28) Congress simply saw no way of preserving Indian unity while maintaining a strong center that would provide them the dominance they sought—“confronted with a choice between ‘unity’ and a ‘strong center’, the Congress had been steadily coming to realize what might very well have to become the price for freedom, namely, division”. (29) While the Cabinet Mission Plan had presented itself as a conciliatory mechanism to satisfy both the party’s needs, the priorities of the Congress had since shifted with its realization that with the current state of negotiations, partition would be a must to preserve their stranglehold on the central political structures of the subcontinent. Conveniently, while Jinnah’s earlier assertion for Muslim self-determination in the Lahore Resolution was initially meant to bargain Congress into conceding stronger Muslim confederacies in India’s political structure, it now meant that Congress had an opening to reject the Cabinet Mission Plan whilst seemingly sticking to their party line. As Roy explains,

The Congress played the game in a masterly fashion. Jinnah’s whole strategy vis-a-vis the Congress was to use the ‘specter’ of the Pakistan demand which was clearly based on the assumption that the Congress would be forced, at the end of the day, to stretch itself fully to accommodate Jinnah’s ‘real’ demands and prevent the calamity of Mother India’s dismemberment. But, as Jinnah’s game became apparent to the Congress, the latter chose to ‘cut off the head’ to get rid of the ‘headache’. When all the chips were down, after Jinnah’s acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan, the Congress called Jinnah’s bluff and shattered his political strategy and ambition. Jinnah was caught in a bind because he had already presented his acceptance of the Mission Plan as a great ‘sacrifice’ and a proof of his ‘goodwill’. By accepting something less than Pakistan, he had lost the bargaining counter which the demand for the fully sovereign Pakistan gave him. (30)

This political strategy also allowed Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress to maintain their relationship with Louis Mountbatten (the last Viceroy of British India) and the British, thereby securing the Brahmin domination on the Indian political structures that they were aiming for. As Perry Anderson details in The Indian Ideology (2013), “there was no overthrow of the [British] Raj, but a transfer of power by it to Congress as its successor. The colonial bureaucracy and army was left intact, minus the colonizers”. (31) The rule of the British Raj in Hindu majority provinces had provided Brahmins with the platform for the political subjugation of other castes and ethnic minorities within India, and the fallout from the Lahore Resolution and Cabinet Mission Plan had allowed the Congress to maintain the same political structures in the aftermath of decolonization. Anderson duly notes that the Constituent Assembly that formed the Indian Constitution was a British-created body from 1946 where only one out of seven of the subjects of the Raj had been allowed to vote. After decolonization, Congress did have the power to call for new elections with universal adult suffrage, but it was in their interest to maintain the Brahmanic power structures that the Raj had instituted. As Sunil Khilnani writes in The Idea of India (1999), “A strikingly narrow body in terms of its social composition, the Assembly was dominated by the upper caste and Brahmanic elites within Congress”, giving rise to a constitution that “came to be perceived not as something that was constitutive of public life, but rather as akin to club house rules: a set of complicated procedures for regulating etiquette in a very narrow sphere of life”. (32) Beyond the Brahmanic political structures, even the constitution of India itself owes “majority of its provisions to Westminster: some 250 out of its 395 articles were taken word for word from the Government of India Act passed by the Baldwin cabinet in 1935”. (33)

While separatist military insurgency in Kashmir had initially emerged to campaign for Kashmiri self-governance and depart from the dysfunctional nation-statist democracy of Pakistan and India, it has now been distorted into a tool of the state to further geopolitical conflict and continue proxy wars.

This development seemingly brought to a close the brief opening for political innovation that had presented itself through the upheaval in the aftermath of decolonization in South Asia. The political milieu in South Asia during the fall of the British Empire was essentially analogous to that of the Middle East during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, in the sense that with decolonization came major political upheaval and the potential for revolution and innovation. However, the subcontinent was missing its analogue to Öcalan and the PKK. While the League’s plan for self-governing confederacies contained similar elements to Öcalan’s democratic confederalism, it still functioned under the lens of a nation-state, merely a unified one rather than a partitioned one, and thus did not have the extent of Öcalan’s anarchist theory that was truly required for true political change. Nevertheless, the plan for self-governing confederacies that the League had presented represented an important potential first step away from the nation-state, but because of Jinnah’s misfiring political strategies, Congress’ need to maintain a Brahmanic stranglehold on India’s central political structures, and the British Empire’s continuation of divide-and-rule policies, even this crucial first step was not taken. However, even though it has been decades since partition, the cracks that were initially sown still manifest themselves in the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. Despite the development of Pakistan and India as two distinct nation-states with defined, militantly enforced boundaries, Kashmir remains an issue yet to be solved, and a border yet to be conclusively drawn, and therefore presents us with the lingering crack of the door to revolution that is yet to be fully slammed shut. 

Revolutionary Potential in Kashmir

As Anderson details, the territorial conflict in Kashmir stems from the dysfunctional construction and implementation of borders by the British during partition in 1947. Once it was decided that both India and Pakistan would be inaugurated as two separate and autonomous nation-states, the British Government appointed lawyer Cyril Radcliffe to draw up the precise borders that would divide these nations. This process—which the U. N. estimated would take five years if it were to be carried out properly—was rushed into a period of merely 4 months. Additionally, there were no legitimate experts involved within this process: all of the commissioners, including Radcliffe, were lawyers by profession, with none of the specialized knowledge required to effectively carry out this task. Many theorize that the British left out bipartisan experts, such as the United Nations, deliberately in order to avoid delay, as well as to give the British more authority in their final decisions. (34) Indeed, even the committee itself was strategically assembled to accomplish this goal: while the views of Pakistani and Indian politicians naturally had to be considered, the British assembled the committee in such a way that they ultimately canceled each other out by giving them equal representation. Two members were nominated by the Indian National Congress for Hindu representation, and two members were nominated by the Muslim League for Muslim representation, but both parties would consistently clash in their views for borders, which ultimately led to Radcliffe and the other British members of the committee having the final say for where the boundaries would be drawn up, and making faulty decisions due to their inexperience and lack of knowledge. The implementation of these borders was just as haste and dysfunctional as their construction, leading to a refugee crisis with mass migration and violence across border lines. The inaccurate borders displaced many people as they found themselves on the wrong side, i. e., many Muslim communities were erroneously assigned to India, while many Hindu communities were erroneously assigned to Pakistan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that around 20 million people were displaced, making it the largest mass migration in human history (Bates 3). (35) The reckless implementation made it impossible to safely administer this migration, leading to mass violence and death: it is estimated that around 2 million people died at the hands of ensuing violence in the migration between Pakistan and India. (36)

Detail of 'Each night put Kashmir in your dreams' series, Nilima Sheikh, Hunarmand, 2014; Image credit:
Detail of 'Each night put Kashmir in your dreams' series, Nilima Sheikh, Hunarmand, 2014; Image credit:

One of the biggest fallouts from this ambiguous and haphazard implementation of borders was a protracted geopolitical conflict in Kashmir. The division of princely states across the subcontinent was administered according to the majority religion of the population and the rulers. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, the situation was complicated as even though it had a predominantly Muslim population, it was ruled by the Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh who was keen to join the state of India against the wishes of his citizens. As Lal Khan outlines in Partition: Can It Be Undone?, the accession of Kashmir to Pakistan seemed a foregone conclusion because of its Muslim heritage: “to Jinnah, as to most of his countrymen, it seemed inconceivable that Kashmir, with a population over three quarters Muslim, could become anything but a part of Pakistan”. (37) However, the Congress, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru, had a vested interest in attempting to accede Kashmir into India. Consequently, Lord Mountbatten and the British also thus had an interest in awarding Kashmir to India in order to maintain their relationship with Nehru. (38) As Anderson details, the capture of Kashmir contained both geographic and ideological importance—geographically, it occupied the position of a “strategic redoubt commanding the approaches to Central Asia”, while ideologically, capturing Kashmir would demonstrate that Nehru and the Congress had successfully built a “secular state in which a Muslim province could take its place among Hindu provinces, unlike the confessional state of Pakistan that had so gratuitously destroyed the natural unity of the subcontinent”. (39) Anderson further outlines the strategic collaboration between Mountbatten and Radcliffe during partition:


Acutely aware of the importance of Kashmir for Nehru, Mountbatten had as early as July 17, 1947, nine days after Radcliffe arrived to draw the borders of Partition, been minuted by Menon that for India to have access to it required passage through the district of Gurdaspur in Punjab, the only overland route from Delhi to Srinagar, and though it had a Muslim majority, Radcliffe duly awarded it to India. There was never any doubt where Mountbatten’s sympathies lay. (40)

This collusion between Mountbatten and Nehru, as well as Hari Singh’s eagerness to accede to India, clashed with the desires of the predominantly Muslim population and lead to turmoil in Kashmir. It began with Dogra ethnic cleansing attempting to drive out Muslims, followed by a full-scale Muslim uprising exploding against Hindu rule in the western borderland of Poonch, eventually culminating in the first Indo-Pakistani War in 1947, with more wars over Kashmir to follow between the two countries in 1965 and 1971. Following the 1971 war, the Simla Agreement in 1972 represented the first attempt at formally devising a temporary border or Line of Control around the Kashmir area, the intention being that the line of control could eventually function as a ‘de jure border’ that could serve to help integrate different areas of Jammu and Kashmir into federal territories within either of the two nation-states. (41) However, internal conflict in Kashmir as well as conflict between Pakistan and India has yet to cease, and fixed borders between the two nations within this region have yet to be drawn, leading to the rise of insurgency groups in the 1980s that represent a new variable in the conflict that attempts to move past the lens of the nation-state. 

While the Kashmiri conflict around the time of decolonization in 1947 was centered around the two options of joining either one of the new nation-states of Pakistan or India, due to the protraction of this conflict there has emerged a form of separatist militant insurgency that aims to campaign for Kashmiri self-determination. The roots of this development lie in the dysfunction of nation-state democracy, particularly in the disputed election of 1987 which directly led to some of the state’s legislative assembly members abandoning the legislature and creating the insurgent group Lashkar-e-Taiba. (42) Many have likened this developing insurgency as a ‘new intifada’ in the style of the Palestinian intifadas of the 1980s and 2000s. (43) The Kashmiri intifada represents a revolutionary change of perspective from the 1940s postcolonial nation-state oriented milieu of the Indian subcontinent. In denouncing the dysfunctional creation and functionality of both nation-states of Pakistan and India, the ethos of the Kashmiri intifada comes closer to the Kurdish vision of revolutionary, anarchist, anti-nation-state self-government. 

As Rojava has shown us, a strong revolutionary movement with clear and innovative political aims can implement change in areas of conflict where the nation-state’s grip has loosened.

However, there are two major issues that prevent the Kashmiri intifada from realizing its true revolutionary potential. Firstly, the intifada does not have the requisite anarchist political theory attached to the movement in the way that Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK provided for Rojava. Consequently, the intifada movement has failed to rally the masses with its lack of innovative political theory and has struggled to move past the nascent stages of revolution. Secondly, a major blow for the intifada has been the involvement of the Pakistani government and secret service in co-opting the movement and using it to fight proxy wars with India. The development of such a strong militant insurgency without a coherent political identity in the middle of a geopolitical conflict represented an invaluable opportunity for the Pakistani government, which they capitalized on by using the development of fundamentalist Islamic ideology to mold the Kashmiri insurgency into jihadist groups with nationalist loyalties to the de facto ‘Islamic’ state of Pakistan. (44) In this way, what began as a separatist movement was then distorted into an appendage of the state of Pakistan’s quest to accede the territory of Kashmir, as well as using nationalist ideology to weaken the position of its geopolitical rival state. Nowhere can this more clearly be seen than in the development of ‘Operation Tupac’ in the 1980s. Named after the 18th century Peruvian revolutionary Túpac Amaru II who led an Andean revolutionary uprising against Spanish colonial rule in Peru, Operation Tupac was a program initiated by the primary intelligence agency of the Pakistani state, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that aimed to use the Kashmiri insurgency to weaken India’s position in the subcontinent through a three-part action plan. First initiated in 1988 under the orders of the former Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the operation is currently still active and pushing forward under the direction of three primary aims. Firstly, of providing arms support and financing militant separatists in India whilst developing them under a jihadist and nationalist ideology; second, exploiting “porous borders” to set up sleeper cells and military bases to train anti-India militants; lastly, to “utilize the spy network to act as an instrument of sabotage”, and using the resulting conflict to “trigger a Balkanization of India”. (45) Under Operation Tupac the Pakistani state developed all six primary militant groups and molded them in their own image as vehicles for nationalism rather than Kashmiri self-determination. 


The involvement of the Pakistani state in the Kashmiri intifada has therefore dealt a major blow to its revolutionary potential. While separatist military insurgency in Kashmir had initially emerged to campaign for Kashmiri self-governance and depart from the dysfunctional nation-statist democracy of Pakistan and India, it has now been distorted into a tool of the state to further geopolitical conflict and continue proxy wars. However, there remains a crucial difference between the ongoing situation in Kashmir as compared to the South Asian decolonial movements of the 1940s: the conflict has yet to be resolved and there remains no potential solution in sight. This presents an invaluable potential for political revolution, particularly with the resources for militant insurgency already existent. The crucial missing piece for the intifada is the presence of revolutionary political theory, but the current geopolitical conditions present themselves as fertile grounds for implementing political innovation such Öcalan’s democratic confederalism. As Rojava has shown us, a strong revolutionary movement with clear and innovative political aims can implement change in areas of conflict where the nation-state’s grip has loosened. Kashmir functions as such a region, and with no resolution to the struggle in sight, represents an opening for change in the shape of Rojava if an analogue to Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK’s revolutionary movement may emerge.



1. Abdullah Öcalan, “Democratic Confederalism”, in The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan, London: Pluto Press, 2017, p.31. 

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p.32.

4. Ibid.

5. This agreement was an undercover treaty between the United Kingdom and France, prompted by the understanding that the Triple Entente (the alliance of the nation-states of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) was rapidly achieving success in the war, and thus aimed to look forward on how the territory of the Ottoman Empire would be divided up. This treaty essentially separated areas of French and British control along the Middle Eastern region.

6. Ibid., p.38.

7. Ibid., p.39.

8. Abdullah Öcalan, Democratic Confederalism, Transmedia Publishing, 2011, p.22.

9. Öcalan, “Democratic Confederalism”, p.45.

10. Ibid., p.47.

11. Thomas Schmidinger and Thomas Schiffman, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds, PM Press, 2009, p.12.

12. Asim Roy, “The High Politics of India’s Partition: The Revisionist Perspective”, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 1990.

13. Ibid., p.386.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p.387.

16. Ibid., p.388.

17. Ibid., p.389.

18. Ibid., p.390.

19. Ayesha Jalal, “The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan”, South Asian Studies no.31, 1985, p.390.

20. Ibid.

21. Stanley Wolpert, Jinnah of Pakistan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984, p.182; 325.

22. After all, as Jinnah pointed out in his Presidential speech at the thirteenth Delhi session of the League in April 1943, “when we passed the Lahore Resolution, we had not used the word ‘Pakistan’. Who gave us this word? (Cries of ‘Hindus’) Let me tell you it is their fault. They started damning the resolution on the ground that it was Pakistan … They fathered this word upon us. Give the dog a bad name and then hang him … You know perfectly well that Pakistan is a word which is really foisted upon us and fathered on us by some section of the Hindu press and also by the British press” (Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, All-India Muslim League Documents, National Publishing House, p.425).

23. Jalal, “The Sole Spokesman”, p.4; 57; 391.

24. Ibid., p.241.

25. Perry Anderson, The Indian Ideology, London: Verso, 2013, p.70.

26. Roy, “High Politics”, p.399.

27. In this context, ‘communitarian’ is meant to signify perspectives of composite nationalism, which aimed to preserve the unity of the various ethnicities and religions within India, in contrast to sentiments of ethnic individualism that aimed to partition the region along religious lines.

28. Ibid., p.400.

29. Ibid., p.401.

30. Ibid., p.405.

31. Anderson, The Indian Ideology, p.109.

32. Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

33. Anderson, The Indian Ideology, p.111.

34. Anthony Read and David Fisher, The Proudest Day: India’s Long Road to Independence, London: W.W. Norton and Company, p.482.

35. Crispin Bates, “The Hidden Story of Partition and its Legacies”, BBC March 3, 2011.

36. Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh, The Partition of India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p.2.

37. Lal Khan, Partition: Can it Be Undone? Crisis in the Indian Subcontinent, Lahore: Aakar Books, 2007, p.134.

38. Anderson notes that “Nehru, for whom its future was a matter of ‘intimate personal significance’, made no secret of the intensity of his feelings to Mountbatten, breaking down in front of Patel and weeping that Kashmir meant more to him than anything else, adding to Edwina that ‘Kashmir affects me in a peculiar way – like music sometimes or the company of a beloved person’. Later he would simply cry out ‘I want Kashmir’” (Anderson, The Indian Ideology, p.85).

39. Ibid., p.85.

40. Ibid., p.86.

41. J.N. Dixit, India-Pakistan in War and Peace, London: Routledge, 2002, p.228.

42. Mushtaq A. Jeelani, “Kashmir: A History Littered with Rigged Elections”, Media Monitors Netwoek, 2001, p.4. Lashkar-e-Taiba represents the largest militant group around Kashmir, which has since split into two factions: Al Mansurin and Al Nasirin. Other prominent groups include the Save Kashmir Movement, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Freedom Force, Farzandan-e-Milat, and Al-Badr. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference remains the organization that functions as the mediator between New Delhi and insurgent groups.

43. Sumantra Bose, Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009, p.107.

44. It must be noted that this involvement of the Pakistani state coincided with the involvement of the American state in developing and funding mujahideen insurgency in Afghanistan and North-Western Pakistan in order to fortify Asia’s position against Russia in the Cold War. Both nation-states cultivated mujahideen as a tool to fight proxy wars with their geopolitical rivals, and the same sources of militancy cross-pollinated through both of Pakistan’s opposite borders.

45. Sean P. Winchell, “Pakistan’s ISI: The Invisible Government”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 2003, p.16.

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