The Catalan crisis in Spain, where regional political leaders created their own referendum on independence from Spain and then sought a dialogue with the national government on separation – an idea instantly rejected by the government in Madrid – is one more nail in the coffin of the nation-state. The idea of the nation-state was invented in Europe, and it is perhaps appropriate that it will be slowly buried in that same geography.
Catalonia’s claims to nationhood stem from the fact that it has a distinct culture and language; other “independence” movements claim nationhood based on a common religion (Pakistan, for example), or ethnicity, or race, or some other distinct aspect of a large group of people situated in a geography. Sometimes, a sub-national or national sense may develop from economic interests, or a common enemy.
But culture, language, common economic interests and other forms of identity are in a constant state of flux, especially when one looks at the broad sweep of centuries, and when we factor in globalisation, cross-cultural marriages, and immigration. For example, no one will disagree that the French are a “nation” in the aggregate. But when you consider the sizeable influx of Africans, many of them Muslim, this idea weakens.
America may be an invented nation, but given its increasing diversity in terms of racial and linguistic composition (where Hispanics and Latinos are the single largest linguistic/ethnic group, exceeding Afro-Americans by a wide margin), this is questionable. America is not a nation as defined in the old European sense of the term, where people with a common cultural or linguistic identity live in a defined geographical space.
Or consider the UAE. Its native population is less than 10 million, but the seven Emirates are inundated with immigrants. One estimate in Wikipedia (sometimes suspect, but probably broadly correct) is that 90 per cent of the workforce is immigrant. In fact, the Indian population (estimated at around 2.6 million) is more than the population of even the biggest of the Emirates. Except for the fact that immigrant workers never get to be citizens even by naturalisation or birth, the UAE could well be considered multi-ethnic with no sense of nationhood despite being situated on the Arabian Peninsula.
Take the case of Scotland, which wants independence from Great Britain but wants to remain a part of the European Union. Britain exited the Union partly due to large-scale immigration of Poles, among others, but Scotland, where the independence vote was lost by a wide margin in 2014, wants to stay in the Union without realising that more immigrants may now head to Scotland. Once this happens, the idea of the Scottish nationalism will itself change.
Here’s the nub: the very idea of nationhood is about a sense of belonging to a group, but the forces of globalisation, immigration, modernity, demographics, urbanisation, and even the politics of gender and sexual choices, tend to impact culture and ideas about where we belong. While some sources of identity – language, religion, race, caste and culture – tend to be stronger than some others (the sense of belonging to a “liberal” elite, or a “conservative” ethos), new sources of identity tend to emerge all the time. For example, the LGBT community may have its own sense of solidarity and belonging when it comes to sexual preferences, but in racial terms they may belong to some other group. At the individual level, we have multiple identities; we belong to different kinds of nation.
A related issue is this: if nationhood, howsoever defined, is the basis for creating a country, then it automatically follows that smaller entities within the nation as originally defined can also claim separation, as the Catalans want, and some Islamic-minded Kashmiris too want. Pakistan was created on the basis that Muslims constituted a separate nation, but over time the Bengalis decided that language is a better marker of identity, only to realise that even this idea has its limits. Hindu Bengalis are being gradually driven out of Bangladesh.
The idea of nationhood, whether based on commonality or identity or interests, can proceed endlessly. For example, the interests of a metropolitan city like Mumbai are quite different from those of the rest of Maharashtra. Based purely on economic interests, Mumbai can well be a separate state in the Indian Union, or a special region in Maharashtra with its own laws. Limited secession is useful to make Mumbai a truly global metropolis that can drive growth and jobs. History suggests that city-states are as viable, if not more viable, than nation-states.
A stark reality is that the very idea of nationhood is a form of veiled (if not open) bigotry. To achieve a sense of nationhood you must divide yourself into “us” and “them” – a natural human tendency – and if “them” are in a minority, it means trampling on their emotions and rights to assert your nationhood. Thus, the idea of Islamic Kashmir has trampled on the rights of Hindu Kashmiris. Ditto for even post-liberation Bangladesh. Abul Barkat, a professor at Dhaka University, says that over 600 Hindus leave Bangladesh every day, and if this rate of exodus continues, there will be no Hindus left in 30 years.
Given the ability of all nationalisms to ultimately degenerate into xenophobia and even violence against the “other”, some social philosophers have coined the term “civic nationalism”, which is broadly about individual rights, tolerance, equality, etc.
But even this term has its limitations when you use the term nationalism in the suffix. If “civic nationalism” stands for all the above values, it will seek to exclude those who don’t believe in those values. For example, civic nationalists and “liberals” in US campuses seek to exclude conservatives from getting their share of voice. For the liberal, conservatives and cultural traditionalists are the “other.”
The point one is driving at is this: nationalism of any kind cannot be the basis for creating a country or for separating from existing one. However, there is no getting away from the need for a state. We need to de-hyphenate the ideas of nation and state. The state, the administrative unit where laws can be legislated and imposed on the population, is the only valid reality.
The only way states can have legitimacy is by keeping their law-making functions to certain core areas (law and order, defence, macroeconomic stability, currency, etc), and passing on the remaining powers lower and lower down. In the Indian context, Delhi should have limited powers, but this does not mean state capitals should concentrate power in their hands. States need to devolve power to cities administrations, districts, and villages. Let’s not forget, the average India district has more than two million people – more than enough for a viable state.
Viewed in this perspective, secession is nonsense, for there is no end to it. What is important is to ensure that real power is exercised lower and lower down in administrative units.
Nations are figments of the mind. You can have a Hindu nation that is part of the Indian state, but this nation can exist even beyond the boundaries of India, just as global Christianity and global Islam exist. What you cannot have is equivalence between nation and state. The two are different things, and the idea is well past its sell-by date.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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