This is the time for all columnists to hold forth on the achievements and shortcomings of six decades of our independence. Hundreds of thousands of trees have been sacrificed to produce the newsprint needed to print long column inches to celebrate the independence of our nations from colonialism. Much has been written about what has been good and what has been bad in the past 60 years of our independent republics’ existence; of whether the defining word for 1947 is independence or partition; of whether in the final analysis these 60 years have been a success or a failure; of who our villains and heroes have been.
So can this columnist save himself from the temptation to jump into the ring with his own list of high and lows? Perhaps I can, and I will do this by arguing for the necessity of the death of the nation in the era of the success of globalisation.
In Europe and North America, the nation was the political form of the capitalist state and nationalism was the politics of dividing the working class into mutually antagonistic groups. The history of the nation in the developed, capitalist West is one of chauvinism and xenophobia. Its progressive past lies scattered in the debris of the war it fought and won against feudalism. Its living memory is one of dividing people on identities and legitimising vainglorious ideologies, which justified genocide and colonial plunder. Therefore, almost all leftists in Europe and North America have stood against their nation, they have been anti-nationals, traitors. And proudly so! Marx constantly exhorted workers to ignore national affiliations and unite into a global historical agent, and Lenin called on the workers, peasants and soldiers of Russia to defeat their “own country” in World War I and make common cause with the workers in Germany and Austria-Hungary.
But these very revolutionaries realised that “national” liberation movements in the colonies of Europe and the US were progressive historical processes that needed to be supported. Under colonial conditions, almost all freedom movements took the form of aspirations for nationhood – some more successfully than others – and there is hardly any anti-colonial struggle that did not engage colonialism in the form of an emergent or ancient nation. It is easy to see that unlike in Europe and North America, the nation traversed a very different path in the colonies. National identity provided the platform for uniting people against colonial oppression and therefore, almost all colonies grew into nationhood in opposition to colonialism.
Even in the first glow of independence the nation remained the most potent political form available to the people of what is commonly called the ‘third world’ to oppose imperialism and neo-colonialism. It was around the nation that countries like Vietnam and Palestine organised their struggle against neo-colonial oppression. Even the pan-Arabism of the mid-20th century was a form of nationalism that tried to erase national borders given by retreating colonialism and replace them by newer, self-created national identities. International groupings of newly independent countries, like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), were also premised on the idea of independent nations of post-colonial people coming together to oppose the depredations of their former masters.
Despite its stellar role as the prime form of anti-colonial mobilisation, the nation contained within itself the kernel of class exploitation and other discriminations and oppressions. By positing the uniqueness of a clearly identifiable set of people as the natural citizens of a ‘nation’, it lays the ground for discriminations and exclusions. In the very act of uniting a set of people into a compact political community, it divides them from others through identities based on language, religion, region and race/ethnicity. During the struggle against colonialism, these antagonisms sometimes tended to get muted. But prejudice, oppression, discrimination and mass killings based on these identities remained a constant companion of even the most left-wing and revolutionary national liberation struggle. The Chinese never lost their sense of being the Middle Kingdom of the universe, while in the British Indian Empire the upper caste Hindus never lost their sense of superiority over lower castes and other religions and the Muslim gentry nursed fantasies of the recovery of past grandeur. Chinese national chauvinism got them to invade Tibet and Vietnam (not to forget India), while the nationalist prejudices of various dominant groups in British India led to the bloodbath of partition and four unnecessary wars as well as the continued violence of caste, religious discrimination, patriarchy. All these are, willy-nilly, justified and defended in the name of our respective nations.
Despite these drawbacks, nationalism provided an effective tool to fight imperialism and neo-colonialism in the initial years after independence. It appears to me that, increasingly, this role has being forfeited and the progressive content of third world nationalism has been hollowed out. The political success of neo-liberal economic reforms in India has created conditions where it is now clearly in the “national interest” for the Indian nation-state to ally with the US. The entrenching of the feudal landed interests through the mullah-military alliance in Pakistan and the weakness of a truly “national” bourgeoisie has rendered the Pakistan state servile to US strategic demands. Irrespective of whether the nation-state has been successful in stabilising itself, the progressive element of such third world nationalism has steadily been eroded to such an extent that it is hardly recognisable now.
On the other hand, the exclusionary, discriminatory, xenophobic aspects of our nationalisms have not only survived but prospered. These reactionary elements of nationhood have been the favourite tool of our ruling classes to oppress the working population of their nation-states while they have used nationalism to politically defeat the challenge of the left domestically. If in Pakistan, Bhutto made Islam an integral part of Pakistan’s constitution, Zia fanned fundamentalist Muslim politics and Musharraf used the jihadi networks to shore up his power, in India the Congress and the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) have used nationalism and religion to divide and destroy working class politics. The ruling classes in both countries continuously use the stated enmity between India and Pakistan to rustle up nationalist fervour and jingoism.
This story of the changing political character of third world nationalism is not a specific case of South Asia or India-Pakistan relations. In every country of the global South, nationalism has lost, or is rapidly losing, its ability to mobilise people into anti-imperialist politics. But it regularly mobilises them into chauvinistic, xenophobic, militaristic camps ranged against each other which directly shore up the power of imperialism over the global South.
If this is the story of the nation and its ‘ism’ in the global South, in the headquarters of capitalism – Europe and North America – the nation is being made irrelevant. The national character of capital, which was evident even some decades ago, is rapidly vanishing. It is now difficult to talk of British, German or American capital. Increasingly, it is one humongous mass of global finance capital rapidly zipping around markets looking for profits. Not only is the national character of capital vanishing before our eyes, political and cultural boundaries of the nation too are fading. The European Union is but the most stark example of this trend. While the nation is disappearing in the headquarters of capital, national divisions and exclusions are stronger than ever in the developing countries. In a sense, the continued, and growing, strength of the nation among the victims of capitalism is the dialectical twin of the nation-less, highly globalised and centralised capital of the 21st century. What can suit capital better than to have the people of the world divided into a thousand mutually hostile nations, which will perforce fracture any political challenge even before it has a chance to form? While capital is overcoming national barriers, labour is being continuously hedged into smaller and more trenchant nations.
The nation, as a political community, served us well in our struggle against colonialism. Today it is an albatross around our necks. As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of our independence, maybe it is now time to dismantle our nations and search for more inclusive political forms which carry forward the unifying feature of nations without its divisive and exclusionary aspects. Rather than reaffirm our nationalism, the 60th anniversary of our independence from British colonialism is a good occasion to begin the difficult but urgent task of retiring our nations and national identities. Rest in Peace!
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This article was published in my column in The Post, on 15 August, 2007 on the 60th anniversary of India’s independence from British colonialism.