The urge to break the box

CK Lal is a writer and columnist based in Kathmandu.

Glittering beautiful words
Weighed down by their grand meanings
A high-class crudity
Golden cobweb of lucidity
The two of us are enmeshed in it
Sometimes I write and you read
Sometimes you write and I read.
–    Sundar Chand Thakur in "Buddhijibi Bimarsha ka Sarbhara Tuchchapan"

The banality of intellectual exchange in South Asia is too stark to warrant a reflection. Yet, it is impossible not to lose your balance when faced with the spectacle of top dogs of the media defending territoriality at a talk-shop held in Kathmandu recently on 'Mapping Borders'. Forget extending the frontiers of knowledge, most of us seem to lack the courage of crossing boundaries – those ludicrous lines in the sand and on the mud that are meaningless without the context that we ourselves provide.

Territoriality, political control over space, is exercised in many ways; writing is one of them. By Benedict Anderson logic, it was 'print capitalism' (the printing press) that imagined a community and spread it as nationalism. By implication thereof, media-persons are as guilty of the excesses of national borders as their governments. If we are as poor at mapping borders as was seen during the Kathmandu meet, the spectre of more intense conflicts over boundaries is what lies in store for us all over South Asia.

It is incredible, but even journalists who treat every decision of their government with scepticism stop short of questioning boundaries that create and maintain the myth of inside and outside. "Bit by bit," Bill Clinton declared grandly in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 1997, "the information age is chipping away at the barriers – economic, political, and social – that once kept people locked in and ideas locked". Sadly, the debonair president of the United States of America could not have been more wrong. Each one of those barriers remain in place, all that has crumbled is the ability of almost every state to withstand the might of the US military and market, though not necessarily in that order everywhere.

Barbed-wire fences
The territorial state system that originated in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 gave rise to what scholars call "a state-centric account of spatiality". Such a conception of space is characterised by three geographical assumptions: (i) states have exclusive sovereign power over their territories; (ii) 'domestic' and 'foreign' are distinct realms; and (iii) the boundaries of state define the boundaries of a 'society'. Nowhere on earth, at any time in history, have these assumptions ever held true. To create this ideal has remained the project of every government in the world, leaving unending and devastating conflicts in the wake. The story is no different in South Asia.

A year after his call for "Direct Action" had vitiated the atmosphere of Hindu-Muslim amity forever, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had the temerity to suggest in his speech of 11 August 1947: "In course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of the individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state". Coming soon after of one of the most brutal ethnic cleansings in human history, the Quaid's words worked like salt rather than balm over the raw wounds of Partition. Not surprisingly, this statement of the Father of the Nation was never remembered during the entire period of the Islamisation of Pakistan, though the words do decorate the Parliament Hall in Islamabad.

The ideals of India's nationhood have not had a better fate. No sooner had the leadership of the Indian National Congress agreed in principle to partition the land along religious lines, they lost their strongest claim to legitimacy – the unity of the country. Gandhi had based his entire freedom movement on the coexistence of all religions – Sarva dharma sama bhava – and Partition snatched the very vocabulary of independence away from him; he could no longer swear by Ram Rajya without a lump in his throat. The task of imagining a post-Partition India fell on the frail shoulders of Jawaharlal Nehru.

To his credit, Nehru did try to burrow out from under the revisionist mindset as displayed in his magnum opus The Discovery of India. The title is misleading though, in that he uses the book to create the past rather than to discover it. But, he utterly failed to conceptualise Swami Vivekananda's idea of India as an entity with a Vedantic soul within an Islamic body.

Nehru had, after all, grown in the Westphalian tradition where the boundary between the sacred and the secular realms are sacrosanct. Despite his long association with Gandhi, he failed to realise that faith gives meaning and purpose to the wretched of the earth. He could have settled for institutional arrangements for dialogues between faiths and toleration of multiple beliefs, but his aim was higher – militant secularism – and so he fell deeper.

Successive leaders of the Indian National Congress after Nehru managed to keep religious zealots firmly out of the way. Away from the sanitising rays of the sun, that of public scrutiny. But of course, there was no wishing away their hold on the people, and so Islamism and Hindutva developed in the shadows. Let alone Narendra Modi (the epitome of religious fascism), even Atal Behari Vajpayee (the public face of soft-Hindutva) lacks the ability to appreciate the political entity that Swami Vivekananda envisioned or Nehru imagined. That they are far removed from understanding the Mahatma's concept of sarva dharma goes without saying.

The ground reality in other South Asian 'nations' is not much different. The Durand Line that divides the Pashtuns has as little justification now as it had in 1893 when the King of Kabul and the colonial administration in India agreed to honour it. The Indo-Pakistan border is drawn in blood, and hundreds of thousands have died to keep it distinct, but it is getting blurred by the day since a vocal section of the population in both these countries have begun to question it – the last to join the queue is former Bihar Chief Minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav. In the history of a civilisation at least 8,000 years old, half a century is not all that long.

Bhutan, Burma, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are patterned after feudal territories under the control of tribal chiefs. In the system of beliefs that we have all incorporated into our beings, the land is sacred – the Mother Land – and to die for it is a higher honour than living by it. Granting autonomy to any component of the motherland is akin to vivisection, so the very thought is blasphemous. No wonder, there is little soul-searching among Bhutan's elites at the fate of Lhotsampas languishing in the refugee camps of Nepal, the Sinhalas take out 'anti-peace' rallies in Colombo, and Nepali politicians of every hue refuse to fashion an inclusive identity. The ideal of Nepali nationality continues to remain the unitary model (one language, one religion, one dress, one culture and one race), something that has already failed to hold in Sri Lanka and Bhutan.

Rather than questioning the logic of Pakistan, the creation of Bangladesh reaffirmed the rationale of Partition – since Bengalis could not live under Punjabi domination in 1971, the division along religious lines in 1947 that freed Muslims from Hindu domination was justified. Bangladesh, like Israel and Pakistan, is a country created according to the political theory of a country being a distinct identity of one language, one culture, one people and one 'society'. These three countries are experimental states – imagined into existence to fight the fear of another racial holocaust.

By their nature, states like Israel and Pakistan have to be violent – low intensity warfare in such societies is a safety valve that releases the pent-up hatred. They constantly need to fight the 'other' in order to keep the process of creating a 'self' on track. Foucault compares this process to the importance ritual human sacrifice has in tribal groups. However, despite its apparent homogeneity, Bangladesh is yet as away from being a 'natural society' as it was in 1971 – the universal character of Islam does not permit a political entity to establish an identity independent of the religion.

Like most post-colonial creations, the countries of South Asia are "nations in hope", to utilise the vivid expression of Rupert Emerson. It is for this very reason that our borders need heavy patrolling and there is a clamour to erect barbed-wire fences along the boundaries. People not sure of their own identity go to great lengths in order to create one for themselves. The scribes, as has been their wont throughout history, valorise those who die defending these meaningless lines in the sand that have no reason to exist save the whims of those who drew them. Millions of South Asians have died for the supposed sanctity of some arbitrary lines drawn whimsically by Messrs Durrand, McMahon, or Ochterlony. It has already been over 55 years since the British left, but their bitter legacy endures.

Unless the very fundamentals of imagining nationality are questioned, the so-called independence movements that are with us or are yet to be born in the far corners, would have little meaning and would be destined to repeat the mistakes of the independence movements of the past. For, of what use would be a Kashmir modelled after Bangladesh, in which the Pandits face the fate of the Biharis in Dhaka's camps? In all likelihood, every 'liberation' guerrilla group in the Northeast of India has the military junta of Burma as its ideal; if it weren't so, they would not be so intent in what can only be described as ethnic-cleansing. If Prabhakaran's Eelam would just be a Tamil parody of Sinhala-only Sri Lanka, there is no reason to champion such a flawed cause. Independence movements that model themselves on the 'recovery' of a nation state will only bring about more misery upon South Asia's suffering people.

The best course would have been to erase all artificial boundaries from South Asia. But, that is not likely to happen, to begin with, as long as the Hindutvawadis in New Delhi keep dreaming about their imperial Akhand Bharat. Curiously enough, the real extent of this imagination has been left open to keep everyone guessing. Modelling themselves after real empires – the Romans, British, and the present-day Americans – the votaries of virtual Akhand Bharat give more importance to the privileged Pravasi Bhartiyas than to the dispossessed living within India's existing boundaries. But, perhaps, that is inherent to the very nature of empire – it has to justify privileges in order to create more of it for the ruling class.

Breaking the box
Any discourse on border has to begin by questioning boundaries, not mapping them afresh. The concern for the disfranchised implies that there is no inside-outside perspective. The challenge is to remain outside of whatever is the 'inside' of the moment, be it bound by ideology, culture, religion, region, language, race, caste, class, gender, or the accident of birth.

The imagining has to begin afresh. The politicians will not do it, because the status quo benefits them most. Litterateurs could have done it, but most of them failed to face the onslaught of television and have given up the pen in quiet desperation. The business community could have benefited from the integration of the Subcontinent, but all of them have found the easy way out of the predicament – they have aligned themselves with the global capital in whichever country they happen to operate.

Alas, the constituency that is for the weakening of borders within South Asia is also the most powerless – the poor, the disadvantaged, and the exploited of the region. Nobody is willing to stick his neck out for them. It is a thankless task, so everyone wants the media to do it. Unfortunately, the media in South Asia is little more than the tool of its ruling elite. This elite consists of the military, the market and the mandarins. But suppose, just for the sake of argument, if someone were reckless enough to question the senseless borders that encircle and bind us, where would she begin?

It is said that an intellectual starts by offering a description ("this is how the world is") and then proceeds to the normative proposition ("this is how the world should be"). A 'leader' then takes over from there and offers a prescription: "this is what needs to be done".  From there, the imperative of "this is what must be done" is only a small hop that activists can easily take.

The way things are in South Asia,has been described to death – the Subcontinent is at the level of sub-Saharan Africa in terms of its Human Development Index. Its primary cause, arms race leading to alms race, has also been correctly identified by none other than the person who gave birth to the very idea of HDI – Dr Mehboob ul Haque. What the region lacks is a charismatic leader to stand up and say aloud – "these are the things that need to be done to establish the civilisational unity of South Asia".

But we are fortunate. No model needs to be imported for such a political project. The blurred 'open' boundary between India and Nepal can easily be the point of departure for the journey towards an integrated South Asia, in which all kinds of flows between the existing countries can proceed unhindered. The Nepal-India example dares us to recognise it as something that can be implemented in the other land borders of South Asia. But to dream the seemingly impossible dream, we must begin by coming out of the box of what Sundar Chand Thakur calls "the proletarian meanness of intellectual discourse". Perhaps this requires more courage than the actual exercise of erasing boundaries itself.

~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times

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