Around the world, the narrative of the past two hundred years can arguably be framed in terms of how peoples of different ‘nations’ have come together and defined their nationalisms, and how they have succeeded – or not – in evolving into nation states. Most modern states take nationalism as their raison d’etre; and where an ‘organic’ nationalism does not exist, states generally have tried their utmost to manufacture one. Nationalism has thus enabled peoples across the world to work towards common aspirations, even while it simultaneously continues to define contours of strife.
Interestingly, for such a seemingly basic unit, nation as an entity is hard to define. Religion, language, culture, ethnicity – all have been proposed as bases for national identity, but none appears to be sufficient. In the absence of answers, questions loom, of both academic and practical interest. What makes some nations viable states while preventing others from achieving such a status? How is it that countries that have only tenuous claims to a common national identity are at times able to evolve into successful states? How does one negotiate the varied human identities to coalesce into a viable nationalism? Southasia certainly encapsulates these conundrums. The borders of the nation states of our region would be quite different depending on what definition of a ‘nation’ one subscribes to. Conversely, it would be difficult to come up with a logic of ‘nationalism’ that fully explains nation states as they currently stand. One can only conclude that historical accident and circumstance have as large a role to play as nationalism does.
Yet despite the obvious dangers of nationalism – particularly its tendency to define itself as much by whom it excludes as by whom it includes – it is not necessarily a negative force, unless it veers towards extremism and fanaticism, becoming ‘ultra’-nationalism. Indeed, the multiple identities of the average Southasian, emerging from the foundation of clan and family, eventually encompass language, faith, ethnicity, caste, gotra, province, district, city, village, and even hill flanks and watersheds. Still, here as in the rest of the world, it is the identity of the nation state that has been ascendant for the past half-century or more.
Even though the movement for the Independence of India might have been largely towards the creation of one independent nation state, the eventual result was several units. With the already existing nation states, and the success of the region’s other anti-colonial struggles, what resulted was a Subcontinent divided into multiple constituent parts. The two largest countries of the Subcontinent were immediately in strategic competition, for which the development of separate Indian and Pakistani nationalisms became essential. The ramifications of this, in Pakistan, and the state’s resultant attempts at ‘nation-building’, constitute the focus of the cover section of this issue of Himal.
Meanwhile, the embers from the fire of Partition burn potently to this day, providing fuel for the ultra-nationalists. Bangladesh too was required anew to define its own space vis-à-vis India after 1971, while never-colonised Nepal of course developed its own nationalism in contradistinction to the looming presence of its southern neighbour.
National identity is of utmost importance to members of the elite establishments in each nation state, and thus the efforts to define this identity tend to be concentrated in the capitals of each country. Central governments and capital-based elites have used nationalism as a tool for their own consolidation, in the political, economic and cultural spheres. One would have thought that the decades of developing individual nationalisms would have created a modicum of confidence and security among the individual establishments, allowing them to be more open towards neighbour countries and avoid using patriotism as an easy crutch to gain credibility and support. Instead, nationalist xenophobia has hardly been dampened.
Bomb blasts are automatically blamed on a neighbour; the smaller country ipso facto believes the larger one is out to get it. Rather than the ubiquitous overseas ‘foreign hand’ that dogged the discourse of the 1970s and 1980s, now it is the ‘neighbour’s hand’. Pakistan sees India in Balochistan, India sees Pakistan in Malegaon. The Kathmandu political elites see deep Indian penetration in everything from government change to crossborder inundation, while Biharis every monsoon are told by Patna’s politicos that Nepal opens the sluice gates to flood the plains (even though there are no reservoirs in Nepal that could do so).
The supra-national identity of the region is, of course, that of Southasia. But the overwhelming power of nationalism has thus far kept this sensibility from becoming anything more than a toehold. There are many reasons for this – one being that ‘Southasia’, as a term and a movement, is still confined to the English-speaking classes, and is yet to gain traction in the political discourses of the various vernacular languages. And in each country, there remains the unreasonable fear that accepting ‘Southasian-ness’ would weaken the nationalisms that have been so studiously established.
At the moment, no one is demanding the establishment of a United States of Southasia. Rather, what is critical is simply to continue to emphasise the development of an empathetic sensibility – one that, if nothing else, makes us incrementally less suspicious of each other. Eventually, each citizen of a SAARC member state will need to carry some amount of Southasian-ness in his or her heart. Incongruously perhaps, one way to develop the Southasia project further is to work to give more confidence to the individual nationalisms of Southasia. Does it do to tell the intelligentsia of Dhaka, Delhi, Kathmandu, Colombo and Islamabad that the idea of SAARC does no harm to the idea of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan? If and when the elite establishments are convinced that Southasia is not a sprawling attempt to undo the nationalist project – but rather, perhaps, even to strengthen it – then maybe Southasia, too, will become an idea whose time has come. At Himal, we are convinced that our individual identity would be enhanced if we also thought ourselves, for instance, as Baloch, Pakistani and Southasian.