Fables of Nationalism

4 November 2010

Published here: The recent hullabaloo over the Delhi Commonwealth Games has been followed with much interest in Pakistan. Many have gloated over the inability of the creaky Indian state machinery to deliver in time and address the issues of quality that became apparent with the collapse of an overhead bridge. South Asia now lives in the new information age where despite the distortions created by the mainstream media, it is difficult to hide state failures

Each story of corruption in Delhi has been greeted with a strange familiarity here. Essentially, all narratives of shining and marching India aside, the two nations remain hostage to a postcolonial state and embedded corruption. To cite Pankaj Mishra who wrote a rather scathing piece on the Games’ saga (New York Times, Oct 2, 2010):
“Two weeks ago, a huge footbridge connected to the main stadium collapsed. The federation that runs the games has called the athletes’ housing “uninhabitable.” The organizers have had to hire an army of vicious langur monkeys to keep wild animals from infesting the venues. Pictures of crumbling arenas and filthy toilets are circulating more widely than the beautiful landscapes of the government’s “Incredible India” tourism campaign.”

These issues of self-image and imagined greatness are shared woes of new nation states – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – as they all suffer from this grandiose complex, of military and economic might over others. This is what makes such narratives so troublesome for they distort the essentials of freedom, Independence and the two Partitions of 1947 and 1971 which were all meant to lead to a poverty free and better environment for the ‘masses’.

Sixty three years later, the nation states are mired in issues of identity, violence, control and elite-extortion creating unequal societies that Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Bose would have shunned. India, admittedly a functional democracy has the advantage of citizen participation in governance. However, the corporate media’s celebration of 30 individuals who own more than 31% of national wealth is disturbing to say the least. Kashmir inhabited by 4 million people is guarded by 750,000 troops. Is this what a nation-state meant to achieve?

Pakistan on the other hand is battling with itself. Its extremists have rocked the country and have left no urban centre and shrine safe. Inequality is not perhaps as extreme but poverty and crises of governance remain severe. Its economic growth rate has dipped amid the war on terror and political instability. A nation-state that defines itself as ‘not-Indian’ and not unlike its nemesis holds nuclear weapons as a proof of its muscle and identity.

Bangladesh has just reverted to democratic governance after two years of a sham-technocratic model. Its dynastic, divisive politics remains a potent danger to the future of the process. The country’s inequality and poverty are grave challenges and it too wants to be a mighty nation separate from India and Pakistan. Yet, the Bengalis on the Western side share more with them than their original compatriots the Punjabis, Pathans and the Balochis. And, India still has almost the same number of Muslims as Pakistan and Bangladesh combined.

Let’s not even talk about the bloody ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka which dehumanized so many followers of Buddha and Hindu deities. Twenty years of conflict has temporarily ended but analysts say that the peace may not be as durable as imagined now.

What a royal mess and recipes of social disasters our elites carved out in the twentieth century. In this game of power, domination and nationalist hegemonic discourse the millions and now nearly 1.5 billion are disenfranchised and marginal to the construction of histories and setting the nationalist agendas. The colonial institutions of Army, steel frame bureaucracy and engineered classes remain dominant. Colonial clubs with restricted memberships continue to serve ‘nimbu paani’, Mulligatawny soup and tend their golf courses while slum dwellers don’t have access to a bucket of water. India Shining, Pakistan Rising and globalised Bangladesh are hollow slogans crafted by those who have benefitted the most – the rapacious elites and middle class opportunists who want to join the ranks of post-colonial masters. English language is the gateway to success and looking down on native cultures has acquired a new intense ferocity, which would make Lord Macaulay most content in his grave.
Globalization has fanned the iniquitous contours of South Asian societies. High levels of consumption (gadgets, credit cards, McDonalds etc.) and getting rich are new illusions of success and having arrived in the new age. At the same time, there are millions of younger people who are without skills, jobs and prospects in this skewed, misgoverned and resource-deficient South Asia.

Nation-state is a borrowed, passé framework, which our elite leaders had imbibed in the early twentieth century. Europe after massive wars and death of millions has moved on. European Union formula is the way the continent has devised an arrangement for coexistence and economic and social stability. It is not a perfect model but it is undergoing a lived adjustment. The world has moved on and we are busy blaming our neighbours for our internal fissures and fault lines. Bangladesh for a decade had played up the water issue. India holds Pakistan responsible for every terrorist act that happens within its territory overlooking how the state agencies are dysfunctional and in need of dire reform. Pakistan blames the entire world especially India for everything that goes wrong. RAW and ISI are the unpleasant manifestations of constructed nationalism.

India was barely a nation in a modern sense. Even Nehru’s romantic and most erudite ‘discovery’ did not make it into a nation state with Raj institutions. South Asia can only survive as a subcontinent that is interlinked yet gives autonomy to local cultures, peoples, ethnicities and geographical zones. It can definitely not continue for long the way it is being governed and turned into a nuclear region.

As Lenin had asked a century ago- so what is to be done? There is no alternative to people of these countries to exert pressure on their states to mend their ways and reimagine themselves as people-friendly and peaceful entities. This will not happen overnight nor in the face of a powerful corporate media that sells war, jingoism and paranoia. Nor would it happen when the arms industry is globally powerful and locally entrenched.

This calls for investing in alternative media, social movements and reshaping the political process that is disengaged from the war machine.Never has there been a more critical need for re-engineering SAARC and delinking it from the bilateral, child-like mess of Indo-Pak animosities. It has to be restructured and relieved from the clutches of conservative, status quoist bureaucracy that sets the agenda and drives it like a tamed mule.

We the disempowered people of South Asia know that the odds are great and the ever-present danger of nuclear conflagration is serious. But we will not give up. Our political parties, civil society and alternative media have a historical responsibility on their shoulder. Their lack of focus over the past six decades has led us to this impasse. Until we don’t re-imagine ourselves how will the subcontinent recast itself?
The farmer who is on the verge of suicide in India or the peasant who is about to join the Taliban in Pakistan or the boatman in coastal Bangladesh whose livelihood is a prey of changing climate care little about how Commonwealth games will launch India as a world power. Or whether Pakistan’s new test of a nuclear missile will give it a geostrategic edge? Their concerns are ours and they will be the natural allies in this process of shunning fables of nationalism. Prejudice, bigotry and xenophobia are rooted in this mess of our histories and fractured present.

Let us redo the broken pieces of our collective mirror and try to make sense of our splintered selves and identities.

Raza Rumi is a writer and policy adviser based in Lahore, Pakistan.






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13 Comments to “Fables of Nationalism”

  1. dear rumi saheb
    we indian muslims are equal to if not a few more than those in pakistan and i think bangla desh has outnumbered both of us by now. also the population of jammu and kashmir is closer to ten million.

  2. [...] on All Pakistan Music Conference …Tehseen Awan on Midsummer nightmares Jahane RumiFables of NationalismPublished here: The recent hullabaloo over the Delhi Commonwealth Games has been followed with much [...]

  3. Hello Raza

    A very thought provoking piece–yet what I see in South Asia are people who, despite being hard to categorise, are more alike each other than any other people. Like many foreigners I have also been struck by how well individual South Asians get on. Many of your other pieces are testament to this sense of fraternity.

    Getting politics and government to listen to the people, as you note, is the real problem.

  4. [...] Original article [...]

  5. Bob: many thanks for the comment. Indeed the problem is making the governments and the ruling elites aware of what people ‘really’ want beyond the nation-state narratives..

  6. [...] of Ms. Siddiqui is murky but she herself has suspiciously failed to provide a credible account [...]Fables of NationalismPublished here: The recent hullabaloo over the Delhi Commonwealth Games has been followed with much [...]

  7. Same blah by a Pakistani, whose conclusion about India is no different than any other Pakistani who feeds on negatives in India. Those ‘30’ (there are many more if you knew counting) odd Indians you mentioned are still making a huge difference in the lives of millions of Indians, accept it and recognize it but if you can’t, don’t bother to comment on it. I guess you have been to India and must surely have noticed many differences between India and Pakistan which exist to a great extent and are bound to grow in the coming years. The problem lies in Pakistan and its people who have been brainwashed from ages against the kafir Hindus. In my opinion, countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh adore and gleefully focus on flaws and negatives in India underestimating its positives and achievements. This makes them feel better about their flaws. They don’t want India to be a hegemonic power (which it already is) in South Asia. India is working for its people, why can’t Pakistan do that? Why are Pakistanis so (negatively) obsessed with India? I don’t know any Indian who even gives a hoot about Pakistan, let alone its problems.
    By undervaluing and nit-picking on India’s corporate world (which is India’s heartbeat), Pakistanis like you show nothing but a low self esteem which is quite prevalent among Pakistanis.
    If one follows the Pakistani media (highly jingoistic and irrational), one can conclude that Muslims in Pakistan will never stop having some (baseless) superiority complex over Hindus. First they weren’t happy in British India and wanted a separate sovereign state as Nehru, Ghandi and Patel didn’t agree to the demands of Jinnah (the so called ambassador of Hindu/Muslim unity) and Allama Iqbal (pan Islamist who called India the best ‘Muslim’ country in the world) of dividing India into separate states within India for the ‘protection and rights’ of Muslims. The Hindu congress leaders knew what this structure would lead to. The consequence being that Jinnah’s demands weren’t fulfilled and he went on to ask for a sovereign state for Muslims. Seeing the history of India, I think division of India is the best thing ever have happened to the Hindus whose country had been invaded and looted by foreigners from centuries. It is quite obvious that they were apprehensive in their decision and had to agree to the partition of India.
    Everyone talks about Babri Masjid, has anyone ever talked about the innumerable Hindu temples being destroyed by Muslim invaders? Has anyone ever talked about the atrocities committed by Muslims against Hindus when Muslims were so called ‘ruling’ over India? No, and nor will they ever be spoken about as Hindus have never been assertive like Muslims and have paid the price for not being assertive. I don’t condone the tragedy around Babri nor believe in tit-for-tat but I still find it bizarre and objectionable towards Hindus.
    Once again, the Muslims in South Asia, particularly Pakistanis aren’t happy with Indians (especially baniya Hindus). Now, they want to rule over whole of South Asia through Jihad as Hindus are disconcerting them by being superior economically and having a better name in the world.
    I just want to say to Pakistanis that we Indians don’t bother about your existence and way of life. Please don’t interfere with India’s governance, its economy and its internal problems. Indians are very much capable of running their country to the best of their ability. Thank you!

  8. The day has not yet come when all of well-educated South Asians, let alone the uneducated ones, can think at this level, unfortunately.

    Although the EU model should indeed be the ideal way forward, I think one vital impediment here is communalism. It’s not as if no progress can be made despite that. However, it remains a major bottle-neck and one to which no solution is in sight. It might take another few generations to get rid of it, if at all.

    In any case, may the tribe of rationalists flourish! :)

  9. Dear Raza,

    You seem to be seeking satisfaction by equating India with Pakistan and Bangladesh and believing that India is as bad as pakistan and Bangladesh. It is intellectuals like you who ensure that pakistan continues to live in a state of eternal denial.

  10. Raza Sir,
    You are spot on.Yes the common man has been a victim of ruling classes for many centuries.Our maharajas sided with british in 1857 for protecting their petty intrests.It was common man which fought for freedom of india.Now these politicans & industrywallas are taking place of those maharajas.Rich are getting richer & poor are getting poorer.Thanks for such an excellent article.

  11. Sorry i wrote “it was common man which…..”.Actually it should have Who.

  12. Sorry i wrote “it was common man which…..”.Actually it should have been Who.

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