Fables of Nationalism

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.

Leave a Reply