Reading classics broadens the mind. It also offers clues that help to sort out knotty contemporary concerns. The national question fills a large part of the socialist literature spanning from the mid-19th century. The reason is not at all obscure. A nation consists of a group of people who have a government of their own. Should some heterogeneities, such as of language and culture, distinguish the people constituting the nation, these are assumed to be taken care of by the deft hand of the government. The hand, however, can often be far from deft. The people are not unified, they are a baggage of nationalities riven by differences in ethnicity, language and culture, and the regime may fail to bring them together.
This was the problem afflicting the great Habsburg empire, dominated by German-speaking Austrians: German-speaking other fiefdoms had no difficulty in considering themselves as an integral part of the nation-state. The Slavs and the Czechs would not however agree to merge their identity with a nation chock-full of German-speaking groups. They kept resisting. The resistance was a major irritant to the emperor and his flunkies. It posed an almost equal problem for the ideologues dreaming of a magnificent proletarian revolution that would sweep across the whole of Europe. Leaders plotting and planning the revolution had no doubt in their minds: nationalities refusing to sacrifice their identity in the cause of the nation are a nuisance; their divisiveness splits the working class, and thereby, sets back the revolution. Marx had no time to spare for such splitters. Engels was somewhat more ambivalent, and had a word of praise at least for the Czechs valiantly fighting against centuries of German oppression; he was though not supportive of them on overall considerations. Lenin opted for a cautionary approach: yes, sympathy for the lesser nationalities, but they must not allow themselves to be used for sabotaging the revolutionary solidarity of the proletarian masses. Besides, while the Poles, for example, had a strong case for establishing a separate nation-state of their own, would they have enough resources to run the administration of the state on a viable basis' Lenin had his reservations.
Till the November Revolution and the end of the First World War, much of this was academic polemics. The births of Poland and Czechoslovakia apart, circumstances altered in a radical manner for revolutionary ideologues once the Soviet Union emerged as a reality in 1917. There was now no question of not acknowledging the datum of the existence of nationalities such as the Uzbeks, the Turkmen, the Kirgizh and others; their habitations were a bulk of the former Czarist empire and became annexures of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Lenin was incapacitated before he could attempt to tackle satisfactorily the national question: how to reconcile the interests of Russians and these other folk. It landed on the lap of Stalin, who approached the issue with rare imagination. Those firmly of the belief that Stalin was a cruel, insensate, blood-sucking dictator will experience a shock. “In [the Soviet] Union, which as a whole unites not less than 240,000,000 people, of whom about 65,000,000 are non-Russians… it is impossible to govern unless we have with us, here in Moscow, in the supreme organ, emissaries of these nationalities, to express not only the interests common to the proletariat as a whole, but also special, specific national interest. Without this it will be impossible to govern, comrades”: this was Joseph Dzhugashvili writing to the party’s central committee at the time the Soviet constitution was being drafted.
It is a different matter whether Stalin’s pious wishes were followed to the hilt in the Soviet Union during the tortuous seventy years of its longevity. Perhaps it was, perhaps it was not beyond a certain point of time. But the dictum Stalin scripted stands out for its clarity.
The terms and expressions have got shifted, the debate is no longer in terms of nation and nationalities; these days we talk of the centre and the periphery. The centre is the dominant category, those inhabiting the periphery lead a tremulous existence. They want to migrate towards power and self-determination, but are thwarted. Thereby hangs a tale of dispute, misunderstanding, fulmination, reprisal and counter-reprisal.
Like many other things, the centre-periphery imbroglio is now a global phenomenon. Consider the current state of affairs in Manipur, and, for that matter, in the rest of the North-east. The entities in this region were, in the course of the 19th century, gobbled up by the British crown and directly administered, till 1947, by the viceroy of India. They were not, strictly speaking, a part of the Indian empire; the government of India Act 1935 did not apply to them. With the departure of the British, the north-eastern provinces were taken over by the Union of India as if by inheritance. The question of nationalities was not resolved though. States such as Manipur remained in the periphery; the Centre was distant and authoritarian. Each year, Jawaharlal Nehru made quite a ceremony of commending to New Delhi artistes of different ethnicities from the North-east and have them perform tribal dances on Republic Day evening — a superficial gesture of this nature, smacking of feudal mores, took the periphery further away from the centre.
The nationalities in the north-eastern region have taken their turn to voice their discontent with the existing arrangements: they have many problems, and they want to be heard. The Centre has been cool and indifferent, provoking every now and then armed rebellions. A pattern has emerged over the past five decades in the region: the Centre initially is reluctant to even acknowledge the problems afflicting a nationality; riots rage; the Centre then falls back on army-bandobast. After many killings, a perfunctory attempt is made to arrange a ceasefire, followed by some sort of a written patch-up. This story has been repeated in Nagaland and Mizoram, and promises to be repeated in Manipur. But in no instance is any intent visible to go into the root of the malady. The Centre, besides, will rob one nationality to placate another, or set one against another, almost on a regular basis: fun and games.
Perhaps the inability lies in the failure to comprehend that the assumption — the Centre always knows best the periphery will have to fall in, or else — will simply not pass muster. And yet, the solution of the centre-periphery issue should have been easier than it was in the European historical instances. The entities in India’s North-east, in contrast to those 19th century nationalities who were dispersed all over Europe and flaunted their distinct identities, are territorially homogeneous. With adequate recognition on the Centre’s part that they deserve equal respect, regard and attention as other federating states such as Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu do, a happy season could still have unfolded in the North-east.
Instead, just watch what is happening in Manipur. While the Meiteis, concentrated in the three plain districts around Imphal, occupy only 10 per cent of the territory, they constitute 70 per cent of the state’s population. Their grievances fall by the wayside because, at this juncture, the Nagas and the Kukis, who hold sway in the strategic hill districts, have to be given more consideration. The plain Manipuris are disaffected. New Delhi tries to side-step the issue by buying up votes of legislators.
The culture of smothering genuine grievances by bribing legislators or chieftains remains the same whether the party occupying the power centre is the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party. Manipur is unquiet, the Centre sends hordes of army and police forces. The situation worsens. More troops descend, incensing the Meiteis further. Unlike in the days of yore, no contingent of women of easy virtue accompanies the troops. The latter therefore pounce upon local women, and the situation becomes a thousand times more explosive.
The Meiteis are in fact a very gentle people, grace spilling from their countenance and bearing. They were won over to the Chaitanya cult of Vaisnavism in the 16th century, which preaches love and humility. Provoked beyond endurance, the Meiteis are now on the warpath, and they are led particularly by the women. The Centre, installed in remote New Delhi, will conceivably continue to behave as woodenly as it has done in the past; it will send more troops.