Redefining Nationalism. By Dr Mubashir Hasan

Via: The News.

South Asia is a very special region. Mighty empires have risen and fallen on its soil. It has seen eras of great prosperity and poverty and epochs of profound knowledge and ignorance. Over thousands of years, the peoples of this land have been assimilating knowledge and technology from outside, always choosing their own particular way of learning. The accumulated experience has helped it to discern what to accept and what not to accept from other civilisations.

South Asia is the only region in the world shaped by all the great religions. This is not for the first time that South Asia is trying to re-emerge from a period of decline. It has done it before, time and again.

Sixty years after independence, it is obvious that the peoples of South Asia have not collaborated with the efforts made for their “progress and development” by the proponents of the modern Western civilisation.

The difficulties in discerning a new vision for South Asia are most challenging. Our way of looking at ourselves is deeply infested with the ethos of the Western civilisation, a non-South-Asian entity. We tend to view South Asia through Western eyes, in terms of concepts associated with the civilisation of the modern industrialised West. For example, “peace among nations” in the contemporary sense of the phrase would mean “peace among the nations which are armed and positioned to go to war” with each other.

The concept of “shanti among nations” sounds anachronistic. What it ought to mean today is the articulation of a new vision. Similarly, the words “progress” and “prosperity,” which have well-defined meanings in the West, present problems of understanding in the South Asian ethos. Unfortunately, most of us are hardly equipped to look at South Asia through South Asian eyes. A Persian couplet says:

Darmian-e-qaar-e-darya takhta bandam karda-ee

Baz mee goi keh daman tar-makun, hoshiar bash

(You have tied me to a plank in the bottom of the river

and then you ask me not to let my clothes get wet.)

The analogy of the Greek legend of the rape of Leda by Zeus, the god from Mount Olympus who descended upon the bathing beauty in the form of a swan, is applicable, as analogies can be, to the rape of South Asia by imperial Britain. Leda’s rape resulted in the birth of Helen who was kidnapped by Paris. A war followed, Troy was burnt and King Agamemnon killed. The rape of South Asia over several hundred years resulted in its political enslavement, economic exploitation, social disintegration and cultural mutilation resulting in the birth of imperialised states. The question posed by the great Irish poet W B Yeats, a nationalist himself

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

was answered in the affirmative. The great encounter in South Asia resulted in the birth of new state powers, deeply scarred, impressed and imbued with the rapists’ worldview. As a result, many Troys were burnt and many Agamemnons lay dead — Mujibur Rehman and Ziaur Rehman in Bangladesh; Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in India; Liaquat Ali Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan; Solomon Bandarnaike, Jayawardene, and Premadasa in Sri Lanka. South Asia developed its own internal imperial structure.

The newly emerged states of the region adopted the ideology and politics of nationalism that had evolved in the leading industrialising, expansionist and imperialist nations. Their choice of a capitalist, socialist or mixed capitalist-socialist mode of production had little impact on their nationalist and political agenda. Although based on different philosophical approaches, idealist and materialist, both converged insofar as the aims which were overwhelmingly materialist in content: Produce more, consume more, and the rest will take care of itself.

The agenda of nationalism meant inculcation of these doctrines:

(a) The nation-state constitutes a kind of holy unit. Each nation was sovereign. It is law unto itself. It can do no wrong. Its superiority over other nations is a matter of faith. Each nation has a destiny. Its population is superior to that living across the border.

(b) An individual conferred with the title of “citizen” owes his or her highest loyalty to the nation. Any infringement can be tantamount to treason. He or she must live for the nation, and be prepared to sacrifice all for the nation.

(c) Each nation has its distinctive culture; indeed, for larger nations a distinct civilisation superior to all others.

(d) A nation’s territory is sacred. It has to be defended at all costs with all the armed might that the national economy can scrounge the money for.

(e) The nations lying across the border are considered potential enemies.

(f) Each nation must covet more territory and extend its political and economic influence over territories in other national boundaries.

(g) Each national economy constitutes a separate entity.

Perhaps the most profound negative impact of adopting the ideology of nationalism is the sanctification of preparing for and perpetrating violence on a massive scale to achieve political ends. The new South Asian states adopted the Western axiom about war considered as “politics by other means.” Massive violence to be inflicted by one nation-state on another, not only upon other states but also upon its own people in the name of the nation-state was accepted as a holy doctrine.

The ideology of nationalism sanctifies violence of several kinds:

(a) Imperial violence — violence against other nation-states, and against nationalistic aspirations within the federation or union,

(b) Violence that is concomitant with governance,

(c) Violence committed against each other by communities, ethnic groups and castes.

Nationalism of the imperial kind permits a nation to commit violence on another nation without any sense of guilt. Conquest through war legitimises all. Wars there had always been. But before the era of nationalism, kings with professional armies fought wars between states. The professional soldier could fight for a king today and against him the next day. The people were not party to a war.

In the era of nationalism, wars have become national wars. The people of one country are supposed to fight those of another. Violence is inflicted by an entire nation over another. Acts of violence beget heroes as well as martyrs. To kill in the name of the nation is sacred. Zbigniew Brzezinski estimated 187 million deaths to have taken place due to wars and strife between nations in the last century. On a BBC programme last month, Tony Benn spoke of four million deaths in Africa during the last four years. The ideology of nationalism has claimed a horrendous toll, indeed.

The ideology of nationalism does not answer the question of what constitutes a nation. Masses of people claim to be a nation on the basis of race, religion, language, ethnicity, tribal identity or territory. They are willing to use violence to further their national aspirations. The nationalist ideology justifies this for them. They may want increased representation, increased financial allocation, autonomy, or secession, all in the name of national self-determination. Violence dominates the scene, weakening the nation-state in the domestic and international spheres. All the South Asian states face this problem in one form or the other.

The concept of nationalism must be redefined in such a way that national loyalties no longer breed parochialism, arrogance, bigotry, hatred and violence. The citizens’ love for their state, its armed might, honour, destiny, its unique personality, its superiority over other nations must be replaced by a patriotism that serves as a vehicle for peace and humanism.

The writer, a former federal minister, is among the Indian and Pakistani delegates meeting to discuss ‘A Common Destiny’, the first of a series of seminars on strategic issues organised by Aman ki Asha, Apr 22-23, Lahore. Email: mh1@



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