The legacy of N Chauvin lives on in Southasia.
The odour of ancient edifice,
Fill up the crevices of ancient desires.
Where we have lived,
For several years, holding breath.
– Anamika in Ichchha
The compulsions of living with antagonistic and resourceful neighbours forced the French to make a fetish of nationalism. That, perhaps, is the reason ‘chauvinism’ owes its origin to a reckless soldier of Napoleon Bonaparte named N Chauvin. After all, excessive displays of unreasonable nationalism are often little more than bravado – a pretentious, swaggering show of false courage intended to hide deep-seated insecurities. Regimes unsure of their stability have always looked to France to replicate their attempts at manufacturing homogeneity and instigating xenophobia. After the Meiji restoration, Japanese modernisers learned from France that if the onus of proving innocence was placed upon the guilty, there was very little chance of any ‘outsider’ escaping the netting of native justice. Similarly, the Jus Sanguinis principle of citizenship, which privileges descent over residence, ensures that France and Japan are two of the most exclusivist nation states of the modern world.
Jang Bahadur Kunwar, the first Southasian potentate to have visited Continental Europe, was so impressed with the uniformity principle behind the Napoleonic Code that he promulgated similar civil laws for Nepal immediately upon his return. Though Jang’s subsequent “Muluki Ain” has seen massive modifications since the mid-19th century, the Nepali psyche has been so conditioned that some of those homogenising laws are still extant – in spite of the fact that the country has now been declared a secular, federal and democratic republic.
Despite a shared history of close association with the British Empire, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is the only country in Southasia to have a president modelled after the magnificence of French strongman Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970). In view of his army’s advances in the north and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s showing in the recently concluded elections to provincial councils, President Mahinda Rajapakse can be forgiven if he has begun to consider himself a latter-day de Gaulle. But can Sri Lanka sustain Sinhala-only chauvinism modelled after French homogeneity? That is the question the chattering classes of Colombo should be asking as they gloat over the ‘progress’ their ethnic forces have made into Tamil territory.
India is helping Sinhala chauvinism as we speak – though by default or design, only New Delhi would know. The Indian establishment nurses several grudges against the LTTE and its unchallenged supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The defence establishment in New Delhi is convinced that, in addition to the chutzpah of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, it was the obstinacy of Prabhakaran that helped to transform Jaffna into a mini-Vietnam for the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) on the island. Sleuths of external intelligence – primarily the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), but also others that had initially trained some of the hardcore Tigers – have yet to forgive Prabhakaran for first deceiving Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and then having him assassinated, once he was out of office. Meanwhile, South Block is still smarting from the drubbing it has repeatedly received at the hands of European interlocutors, Norwegian peacekeepers, Japanese funding agencies and sundry other INGOs that appeared to be working in tandem to undermine India’s role in an area once considered to have been strategically under its sphere of influence. Indian diplomacy has yet to find its feet in Colombo, and had decided to back the current regime to the hilt.
President Rajapakse has reasons to be smug, but his bluster is merely a symptom of fresh Indian adventurism in Serendib. Since only vested interests are permanent in foreign relations, Sri Lanka would have to bear the future costs of chauvinism all on its own. Even though kamikaze Tigers missed their targets, the most sophisticated insurgent group in the world showed – through its audacious air raids on Colombo in mid-February – that it would be a mistake to write them off on the basis of the setback of recent days. The regime in Sri Lanka would have to review the unitary structure of the state, including its Gaullist constitution, to sow seeds of peace once again on the war-torn island. Certainties of the past may offer temporary respite, but there is no alternative to courageous course correction to address historic grievances.
Unfortunately, the Colombo regime is not the only one in Southasia to fall for the apparent safety of a default position. For a while, it had appeared that the newly elected government of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League in Bangladesh would use its massive majority to introduce bold innovations in secular, democratic and
progressive governance. But hours before Ekushey (Martyrs’ Day), she approved the dreaded Anti-Terrorism Bill that was first promulgated as an ordinance by the military-backed interim government in May 2008. Little did her cabinet colleagues pause to reflect as to whether the law they had decided to bring would have placed individuals such as the revered Ekushey martyrs into the box labelled ‘terrorists’.
The ‘war’ that cowboy George W Bush declared on ‘terror’ has, in practice, legitimised draconian measures against anyone opposed to the regime of the day. But all anti-terror laws are inherently susceptible to misuse by authorities hard-pressed to produce quick results. They are the nets that catch the small fish while the big ones break through with ease. Was it a pre-poll deal between the Awami League and the Dhaka defence establishment that decided that the elected government would legitimise all decisions of the military-backed interim regime in lieu of its acquiescence to popular verdict? The alacrity with which Begum Hasina has been endorsing the policies of her illegitimate predecessor raises doubts over her commitments to the values of democracy.
Meanwhile, in the Malakand region of NWFP, the Islamabad government has bought temporary respite by bartering away the fundamental freedoms of its citizens for Sharia rule and the offer of ‘permanent ceasefire’ by the Taliban. What this means in concrete terms for the prospect of peace in the Swat Valley remains to be seen. But either way, the lives and liberty of the ‘faithful’ cannot be ensured by legitimising kangaroo courts and their whimsical decisions of amputation, beheading or death-by-stoning.
For the generals of what was once the Royal Nepal Army, remembrance of things past has a decidedly Proustian ring. Now, they want a referendum on state structure, and want to have the final say in matters of security – just as they did during the direct rule of the king, with doubtful efficiency and unrestrained brutality. The Maoist-led regime’s recent penchant for rule-by-ordinance compounds the confusion in Kathmandu. This is a technique that the former insurgents, now in government, have borrowed straight from the handbook of the autocratic king they helped to depose in the name of democracy and rule of law. As an astute Frenchman once noted, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
That axiom is even truer in the forever-changing-but-never-really-changing entity called the Republic of India. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s prime-ministerial hopeful, Lal Krishna Advani, has proclaimed that his main agenda is still the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. This is a tacit admission of defeat and will embolden unabashed right-wingers like Narendra Modi in the party. Little wonder, then, that a poll by CNN-IBN and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies – for whatever it is worth at this stage – has found that the share of votes of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will drop to 29.4 percent from the current 35.9 percent. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Congress, remained neither united nor progressive once the left parties withdrew their support in the wake of the US-India nuclear deal, but the coalition will probably revive simply for TINA (‘There is no alternative’) reasons.
So, for the moment, Southasia remains lost in “the dreary desert sand of dead habits” (as Tagore once put it), as its leaders yearn for crevices of crumbling ideologies with no respite in sight.