The South Asian Nation needs to re-invent itself before it is torn apart by internecine conflicts.
In South Asia, ´nation´, ´nationalism´ and ´nationhood´ are all products of colonial history. There is no evidence of such concepts or ideas having any relevance to South Asia´s history prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
Indeed, the very fact that the Europeans (first the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the French and the British) arrived in South Asia as ´nations´ contributed to the diffusion of such ideas propagating a ´governing principle´ for reproducing and replacing colonialism— the former by way of organising the power of the colonialists for the benefit of the European fatherland and the latter by way of uniting the indigenous population under the leadership of the local dominant forces.
Nationalism in South Asia soon became one of the major tactics for organising the majority of the people for reproducing state power. But paradoxically, due to its alien-ness and the mechanical way it was applied, it also became a source of tension and unrest for pluralist South Asia.
Nationalism is first and foremost a modern construction with precise political ends. An obvious question ask is, what is modernity? What does it signify intellectually and politically? Modernity, in essence, is the wisdom of the West. Having its roots in the European Enlightenment, modernity nurtures a linear vision of progress, including the idea that the West occupies a central position in the history of the world.
Accordingly, ´progress´ is measured by the extent to which non-Western, non-modern societies have succeeded in replicating the experience of the modem ´Western´ state politically, economically, technologically as well as militarily.
In South Asia modernity is a condition of colonial history. This fact itself separates South Asia´s experience with modernity from the one that has been nurtured by the West. But there is more to it. In the nearly 200 years of British rule, the latter succeeded in transforming the societies of colonial South Asia to such an extent that a certain kind of stigma, otherwise referred to as the colonial legacy, continues to haunt the people of South Asia and there seems to be no respite from it in the immediate future.
This has come about not merely as a result of the physical presence of the British, although it was a necessary condition, but more importantly as a result of the organisation of ´colonialism proper´ (a synonym for intellectual dependency of the South Asians on the West) by the British.
Such replication of modernity, however, had two critical impacts. On the one hand, it created a milieu where a South Asian mind could survive without being imaginative, for ´imagination´ rested with the ´modern West´ and South Asia needed only to borrow from it.
On the other hand, contempt for indigenous things became a national elitist trait as more and more ´development´ of the nation state was modelled in the image of the modern ´Western´ state. Put differently, modern South Asia was placed in a pitiful situation; it was made to reproduce itself not only unimaginatively but also with things that were alien to it.
This intrusion of modernity and the organisation of ´colonialism proper´ has brought into South Asia a precise model of nation state-building, different from both the latter´s pre-modern experiences and the modem ´Western´ state. ´Model,´ however, is understood here not in the sense of a miniature or a device representing the appearance of things but rather as a device organising and reproducing the tactics and strategies best suited to the task of nation state-building.
Let me explain this by reflecting on three general areas of nation state-building, namely, ´politics,´ ´economics´ and ´military,´ which, in the light of their colonial and post-colonial experiences, are no longer in their puerile forms but represent specific ´models´ of nationhood, development and security.
Model of Nationhood
In all the South Asian states, nation-building is organised and measured in terms of the ´will of the majority,´ the latter defined, however, by the dominant social forces. That is, nation states have tended to reproduce hegemony and the power of the ruling class by fulfilling the demands and aspirations of the majority people, who are often reconstructed by categories as diverse as ´ethnic,´ ´religious,´ ´race,´ ´language,´ or even a combination of some or all of them.
If this has resulted in the organisation and consolidation of a ´majority,´ it has also created alienation of minority communities. The fragmentation of people into ´majority´ and ´minority´ communities has critical consequences both at home and regionally. Let me explain this further.
Under the subtle guidance of the hegemonic forces, Hinduism in India is increasingly being transformed from a multi-faceted religious system into a single unifying conformist religion, almost in the likes of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Such a transformation, however, obliterates the social reproduction of the caste system.
The ´outcaste´ Dalits, who are often found in a disadvantageous situation vis-a-vis the caste-conscious Hindus, have already reacted to this modernist trend. But aside from this, there also exist inter-caste conflicts, particularly between Brahmins and the so-called ´backward castes´.
In a situation as complex and chaotic as this, the only way to ensure the modernist transformation of Hinduism and the organisation of a ´Hindu majority´ is to play the communal card, mostly in the form of Muslim or Sikh or, as it is increasingly found, non-Hindu bashing. In this effort, all political parties, either for making the majority community the target of their electoral campaign or for remaining dependent on it for recruiting members, are involved. And that includes the Communists as well!
The power of the ´Hindu majority´ in India is felt at several levels, from communal riots to the demolition of Babri Masjid at the hands of fanatics to the state-sponsored militarisation of Kashmiri society. Each of these levels, either singularly or collectively, tend to reproduce hegemony and the power of the majority community.
Such levels of violent conflicts are less the outcome of a state-sponsored conspiracy than the result of the very structure that has been organised to reproduce hegemony. But in this context, the reproduction of hegemony in India, in so far as it breeds fear and leads (for instance) to the underdevelopment of the minority Muslim community, creates conditions of mistrust and misgivings within the majority Muslim communities across the border, namely in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The reverse is equally true. That is, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the consolidation of the ´Muslim majority´ leads to the alienation of their respective minorities, often contributing to the deepening of animosity between them and India.
The nationalist consciousness in Sri Lanka also began to be constructed in a way, which, while favouring the ´Buddhist- Sinhala majority´, put a burden on the latter to ´govern´ and ´lead´ the rest of the society, almost in the fashion of Kipling´s “White Man´s Burden”. The alienation of the non-Buddhist-Sinhala, particularly that of the ´Hindu-Tamil minority´, remained rooted in the nationalist discourse that unfolded in the island. The success of the Buddhist-Sinhala identity only undermined the interests of the Hindu-Tamils to the extent that between 1956 and 1970 there was a drop from 30 to 5 per cent in the proportion of Tamils in the Ceylon Administrative Service, from 50 to 5 in the clerical service, 60 to 10 in the professions (engineers, doctors, lecturers), 40 to 1 in the armed forces and 40 to 5 in the labour forces.
It does not take much imagination to contemplate how the Hindu-Tamils would react. Indeed, the ´Tamil Tigers´ arose out of a nationalist discourse well-disposed towards the ´Buddhist-Sinhala majority´, one which has been organised, nurtured and meticulously followed in post-independence Sri Lanka. Not long after such developments, the (Sri Lankan) Hindu-Tamils impressed their plight upon the ´Hindu majority´ of India, a factor that soon contributed to the state of misgiving and suspicion between India and Sri Lanka.
The case is no different for other nation states of South Asia. Today, ´Muslim Pakistan,´ ´Hindu India,´ ´Buddhist Sri Lanka,´ ´Muslim Bangladesh,´ ´Hindu Nepal,´ all suggest the simultaneous organisation of the ´majority community´ and the ´nation state,´ albeit in each case in the manner defined by the dominant social forces.
Interestingly, both ´regimented´ and ´democratic´ regimes play identical roles in this regard, both catering to the hopes and aspirations of the majority community; in the case of the former, such catering is more often deliberate and crude compared to democratic regimes.
In fact, in democratic regimes, the organisation of majoritarianism is more related to electoral politics, where parties are forced to woo the majority section of the people to win elections. In a socially fragmented society, often the party or candidate would settle for the easiest way—that is, heat up communal or religious feelings to organise the nation and the nationalities.
In this context, Nepal´s case is an interesting one, where the transition to democracy is equally matched by a transition from a predominantly ´Hindu Kingdom´ to a (democratic) state which is increasingly championing conformist or syndicated Hinduism to reconstruct the majority community.
Model of Development
But lest one understands the activities taking place in the political domain as something bordering on a series of conspiracies under the leadership of the dominant forces, it is important to refer to the ´developmentality´ of the state, i.e., a mentality where ´development´ is primarily geared towards the needs and aspirations of the ´majority´ of the people.
The critical thing to reflect upon is the task of making the bourgeois ´national.´ While lots of emphasis has been given to the bourgeois side of the term ´national bourgeoisie,´ little attention has been given to the other half. An example or two will make this clear.
It is common to say that in India the economy is developing under the leadership of the ´national bourgeoisie,´ while in Nepal or Bangladesh it is developing under the leadership of the ´rising national bourgeoisie,´ the latter having strong imprints of compradorism and pettiness. But how did the members of the bourgeoisie come into being? What sort of schooling did they have? What constructed their minds? From where do they get their fresh recruits?
Indeed, the organisation of the national bourgeoisie requires certain specific tactics, which, at times, include elements as diverse as intellectual intervention and developmental protectionism.
Education, or more precisely, national education, is vitally important. In all South Asian nation states education is delivered in a way which, while reproducing the model of development suited to the hegemonic forces, tends to make the school-goers and, later on, the learned few ´nationalist´. With this is an implied bias towards the majority community which has critical implications in the maintenance of inter-state animosity.
Moreover, the governments of all South Asian nation states are involved not merely in the development of the public school system but also in organising the content of knowledge. Such govemmentalisation of knowledge, however, not only limits competition and creativity, which otherwise could be found in autonomous and independent schooling, but also caters to the populism of the majority community bent on organising the developmentality of the state.
This situation undermines the quality of education on the one hand, and invites dissent from the minority communities on the other. It creates conditions for civil and inter-state conflicts (between majority and minority communities, and between the different nation states of the region), and retards the generation of innovative ideas towards resolving such conflicts.
It is not difficult to see the intellectual parameters in which the public at large and the national bourgeoisie in particular are brought up in South Asia. Once the developmentality of the state takes shape, it quickly begins to influence the entire range of activities, including the much-respected phenomenon of developmental protectionism.
In the case of the Farakka Barrage and Kaptai Dams, for example, the citizens of both India and Bangladesh, when tutored about the merits of their respective dams, find themselves being fed with strong scientific and technological reasoning, including the reasoning of progress and modern development. But such reasoning ends at their respective borders, for both governments take a moral position, and this time thoroughly devoid of any scientific and technological reasoning, when referring to the consequences brought about by the dam of the other.
Bangladeshis, forced to live with an alarmingly low level of water in the rivers during winter seasons, are time and again reminded of the ill-effects of Farakka, while the Indians, forced to share the burden of settling more than 50,000 Chakma refugees in Arunachal Pradesh, blame Kaptai for the refugee flow. Neither, however, dares blame the development of dams within their own borders!
Indeed, we have been brought up in a way to believe that unless our ´national interest´, ´national waterways´, ´national market´, ´national development´, etc, are protected by the states, not only will there be no development of the country but the leadership (or more precisely, the bourgeoisie), in whom the onerous task of development has been entrusted, will also cease to be national. In the process of glorifying the ´nation´, we seem to have trivialised the people both within and outside our borders!
Model of Security
There is an intrinsic relationship between the development of the modern state and the development of modem security forces. This is true not only with respect to the security forces as an institution but, importantly, with regard to the question of organising and defining the security problems of the country.
In fact, not only do the security forces, in the backdrop of the organisation of the nation state, become ´manned´ by the members of the majority community (much above their percentage in the country´s population) but, interestingly, the majority community itself becomes the ´purpose´ for the organisation and development of the security forces.
Consequently, national security becomes a thing of the majority, predisposed towards the task of organising and reproducing the latter´s hegemony. In the case of South Asian nation states, this has led to the construction of hostile structures only to reproduce inter-state animosity between the countries.
In the backdrop of the communalisation of the modern state, the development of the Indian security forces is viewed in Bangladesh in communal terms. A sizeable section of the Bangladeshi intelligentsia views the might of the Indian military, including the 1974 nuclear explosion at Pokharan, as something representing the might of the majority Hindu community.
It is from this perspective that one must understand that behind Bangladesh´s endorsement of Pakistan´s South Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone and Nepal´s now-defunct Peace Zone Proposal lies its tacit approval for a ´balance of nuclear terror´ in South Asia, one which has been made possible by nothing other than the alleged development of Pakistan´s ´Islamic bomb´.
Given the balance (or rather the imbalance) of forces between India and Bangladesh, the latter´s Indophobia is understandable. What is less understandable is India´s concern with the organisation of Bangladesh´s national security; unless, of course, it is viewed from a majoritarian perspective. True to its modernity, Bangladesh´s security forces, like those of India, have become a thing of the majority. This is best reflected, albeit to different degrees, in the alienation of the minority communities, both Hindus and the hill people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts
While the insurgency in the CHT, as one Indian scholar maintains, “is being actively supported by New Delhi, which sees it as an opportunity to control its impoverished neighbour,” it is less important, outside the State of Tripura, in reproducing hegemony. Indeed, far more important in this task is the manner in which the dismal condition of the Hindu minority in modern Bangladesh is interpreted and organized in ´Hindu majority´ India. It is no surprise, therefore, that the issue of migration from Bangladesh gets top priority in India, including (alas, amongst many serious litterateurs and their works) Taslima Nasreen and her Lajja.
One important fact that needs to be stressed is that both Hindus and Muslims, albeit more ´poor Muslims´, have migrated from Bangladesh to India to overcome economic and environmental hazards. We need not go into the relationship between the development of such hazards and the developmentality of the state, which is not very difficult to discern. What is interesting is that the activities surrounding migration have become more of a security issue, with security forces on both sides of the border playing a determining role. It is otherwise not difficult to see that India´s ´push back´ policy or, inversely, Bangladesh´s ´push in´ problem, while strengthening the security forces, help reproduce hegemony and the power of the majority communities in both India and Bangladesh. In the meantime, the people suffer….
What is to be done?
The answer begs both theoretical and practical interventions. If the organisation of the nation state itself is the source of alienation and suffering, it is futile to keep strengthening the nation state to try to contain such alienation and suffering.
In fact, what is required is not only a critical appreciation of the state of things but more importantly, the imagination and the will to ´rethink´ and transform the state of things. It is very difficult to outline a precise plan, particularly relating to the practical side of the ´rethink-ing´ and the transformation that is to be accepted from it. Let us look at just three areas where innovative intervention is required to transform the current state of things:
- Reinventing Security. The triadic representation of security forces (i.e., army, navy and airforce, with the nuclear option for some) has outlived its utility even from a purely strategic perspective (unless, of course, one assumes that we are still living in the age of territorial expansion and the colonisation of people). In fact, in the case of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the air force can safely be dismantled and the regular army replaced by (three-year service) voluntary armed forces.
As for India and Pakistan, given their current state of arms buildup, a more realistic approach would be to decentralise the national army and provide avenues for non-offensive defence to take over. But this would require a new mode of thinking in defence strategy, something that is now a taboo to military personnel and ´well-wishers´ of the modern armies of South Asia.
The urgency for reinventing security, however, lies elsewhere. If anything is going to bring about reinvention, it is paradoxically the increased use of security forces in civil conflicts in South Asia. This is because the more security forces become essential to the task of conflict resolution, the more the art of government becomes paralysed, leading to further militarisation.
Indeed, the art of government, if it is to remain civil and innovative, requires freedom. It cannot spread and develop in an environment of regimentation. It is, therefore, no surprise that in the midst of an increased use of the security forces, the governments of all South Asian states time and again fail to nurture a lasting solution to their respective civil conflicts.
If civil unrest is to be contained, the much-abused notion of ´national security´ needs to be replaced with a more sober and practical notion of societal security. With the organisation of the latter, much of the current thinking on security, including the arsenals that it had helped to reproduce, will simply become redundant.
- Reinventing Development. In light of the consequences of (mal)development, it is quite clear that the politically-constructed modern majoritarian state has lost its will to support and nurture the material aspirations not only of the minority communities, but also of a sizeable section of the majority community. In this context, it is high time for the public and the politicians alike to rethink development. Education is one area to start with.
The modernist mind has become uncooperative and conflictual, when what we need is an education that can produce ´cooperative minds´ in large numbers. Set to reproduce the power of nations and nationalities, modern education tends to reproduce violence and conflicts, even considers them acceptable, so long as they are directed against alien cultures, nations or countries. Much of the problem, apart from illiteracy, lies with the kind of education that we have been providing. The children of South Asia are literally brought up as ´nationalists,´ tutored to fall in love only with the nation that they have been born in. Making people literate is, of course, the first step. But literacy alone will not guarantee the production of ´cooperative minds´. Modem but fragmented Sri Lanka, with a high literacy rate, is a good example. What we need is a thorough and an innovative remaking of our education, at both national and regional levels.
Nationally, the organisation and reproduction of the ´national curriculum´ must be abandoned and in its place a curriculum of the people must be designed to perform the newer task of cooperation. At the regional level, there must be cooperation among issue-oriented faculties throughout the region to create ´South Asian´ minds, through something like a “South Asian University”. If such a university, along with the changes in the curriculum nationally, could be introduced and sustained, it would go a long way in freeing our minds from the conflict-prone nationalist and communalist discourses. Development will then cease to be ´national´ and ´communal,´ instead it would be constructed on newer and friendly grounds, with people as its sole concern. Its students would look into the business of organising cooperation in diverse fields, not from the standpoint of nations and states but from the standpoint of people.
- Reinventing the State. The urge to identify ourselves in national terms, including the practices of modem majontarianism, has created havoc. Given our pluralism, one which is far different from the Western experience, the organisation of such national states has led to the alienation and suppression of minority communities. They have become pariahs in their own states. This has to be rectified, not merely for sake of idealism, but for the interest of the country and the region. Put differently, the very rationality of the state must be ´rethought.´
There ought to be ´reasons´ in life, but it is difficult to understand why such ´reasons´ must be borrowed ones, that too mostly from a bygone period of the West. This is not to suggest that we replicate what is fast turning out to be a post-modernist era (albeit a ´pseudo´ one) in the experience of the West, particularly of Europe, with the European Union as its flag-bearer.
In fact, one can have serious reservations about some of the developments now taking place in Europe, particularly on immigration and the treatment of aliens. Rather, what would be welcome is a serious, innovative and indigenous effort in developing a rationale for the state that is responsible to all ´living´ and ´would-be living´ things around, devoid of the current practices of both inclusiveness and exclusiveness.
This is no easy task, but unless we have tried, and tried well, we cannot just brush it aside simply as another dream in the quest for free souls and a living blessed with tranquility in a post-nationalist South Asia!