Being a nation and the bogey of self-determination
M Rajivlochan, Historian
As India goes about dismantling the underpinnings of the structures that had nurtured separatist movements and ideas in the country, it is an apt time for us to reflect upon the idea of self-determination, its connection with the will of the people and the nation. Self-determination is an idea that is frequently used to accuse the government in India of being oppressive, imperialistic etc. Few today recall that the USSR was created by Russia subjugating over two dozen countries in the name of self-determination. Much like China today goes about unhindered, subjugating over six nationalities and claiming everyone to be part of the Middle Kingdom.
In European usage, the idea of a nation has had many meanings. ‘I am born’ was its meaning some 2,000 years ago. The term ‘nation’ was a derogatory term, used in common language in the Roman empire to refer to a non-Roman group bound together by some similarity in birth; either birth in the same city or land. The Romans never used it for themselves. Cicero used it for foreign peoples, like the Jews and Syrians, as being born in servitude.
After the collapse of Rome, feudal Europe used it in the councils for representatives of different European rulers at the great ecclesiastical meetings that were presided over by the Pope. The council of nations was an elite body which ruled over the commoners, who in turn, had no political or social identity. Till the 18th century, the term nation was used for the rulers and aristocrats. The ‘people’ had no existence. It was the ruling class that represented the nation. When in 1731, in the Transylvanian parliament, a priestly delegate spoke of the ‘Walachian nation’, he was shouted down by the rest, who said that there was no ‘Walachian nation’, only ‘Walachian plebs’.
In the 19th century, the humungous growth in the production of almost all goods seemed to empower the plebs. So much so, that the deep distancing between the commoners and those who ruled over them gave people like Karl Marx the hope that the plebs would recognise a sense of commonness between themselves and stop sacrificing their lives in the wars that benefited only their national elite. “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains” was based on the hope that the workers were disconnected from the land where they worked. It was this connection, which Marx was not able to see, into which began to merge the concepts of ‘people’, ‘nation’ and ‘state’ — all of them to uniquely define those who lived in a specific geographical region. The nineteenth century wars between the European nations that led to the First and the Second World Wars, fostered nationalism, forcing people to pay a heavy price for being part of that nation.
India, in contrast to Europe, was characterised by an easygoing culture in which people lived together, irrespective of language, religion or ethnicity. The common people knew three or more languages, the slightly educated knew four to five languages routinely, with the well-educated and well-travelled being comfortable with 10 or more. This was how Indians lived till as recently as the 1950s. The monolingual Indian, ever willing to protest the learning of other languages, was the creation of the crazy 1960s, when all of a sudden, Indians began to fight each other over identity. The easygoing ways of the past were now gone. People forgot that it wasn’t any idea of inclusivity which was behind appointing a Momin governor for the Konkan by a Hindu king in the eighth century. Neither were the Mughals appointing Hindu Rajputs as governors in order to appease the local Hindu population. The fact was that the mindscape in India was rarely based on religion, caste or ethnicity. A person’s individual capabilities were all that mattered. Till as late as the eighteenth century, the Brahmin Peshwas had Shindes, Gaekwads, Bhonsles and other people of lower caste working as trusted soldiers and generals. Pune had a habshi kotwal, as did Hyderabad.
The idea of a nation began to haunt Indians only in the nineteenth century. By this time, Indians had lost all their social and cultural moorings, saw themselves as losers, considered their society degenerate and began to find ways to fit themselves into some imagined European paradigm of being a good nation.
Indians never realised that the textbook idea of a European nation with a single language and religion did not exist in reality. France, despite the efforts of Napoleon to privilege the language of Île-de-France as the national language, continued to have many regional languages. As recently as 1999, the French Government recognised as many as 75 languages as regional or minority languages. China, great as it is today, comprises Han control over six major nationalities, representing between them eight main languages, each of which has hundreds of variations, not counting minority languages like Mongolian or Tibetan and their variants.
In fact, the only one time in history when the principle of self-determination was actually implemented was in the early 1920s when Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin used it as an excuse to militarily overthrow the governments of as many as 32 countries which had been forcibly occupied by Tsarist Russia at one time or the other. The Russians then installed puppet Communist governments in these territories which then were pulled together in the name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Since the simplistic Western notions of nation and nationalism did not seem to gel with the reality of India, Western observers of India have been predicting the falling apart of India since 1950. This was the time when the people of India gave to themselves a Constitution by which to live together. The Constitution did not specify a national religion or a national language. It did not even make clear whether India was a union or a federation of states. Not only that, it provided every adult Indian, irrespective of caste, class, gender, wealth or education, an equal weightage in electing a government.
The liberal British had promoted the idea of Islam being a separate nation in India that resulted in a disastrous partition, creating Pakistan as the only nation in the world for Muslims. Indians, despite suffering the Partition, have refused to be drawn into the morass of equating religion with nation. An unthinking acceptance of these Western ideas of what constitutes a nation created the bogey of self-determination in Kashmir and became the basis of much tragedy.
Courtesy : The Tribune