| Caught in their war
Nation-states have a logic of their own. So insidiously is this logic purveyed through the state’s institutions that it becomes common sense, particularly among the educated. Perspectives that differ from this common sense are then easily seen as signs of illiteracy, or more dangerously, treachery.
A woman employed for housework by a Pakistani living for a while in Delhi could never quite understand where her employer was from. “Bahar se'” she would ask, “Amreeka se'” No, would come the patient reply: from outside, yes, but not from America, from Pakistan. Where is that' Well, you know that “here” is Bharat' India' Hindustan' And yet again, the bewildered response — “Yahan matlab Dilli'” Here, meaning Delhi'
Illiteracy and ignorance, of course. She seemed to have escaped even the common sense that demonizes Pakistan. Had she gone to school, had she been a migrant from another part of the country, she would have had some notion of India-that-is-Bharat. But that is precisely the point: the recognition of the Nation, the feeling of belonging to it, must be learnt. It must, as Benedict Anderson famously put it, be “imagined”. Which is not to say that the Nation is imaginary, in the sense of unreal, but rather, that it has to be imagined, conjured up, called into being by a vast political project operating at many levels — the Nation is not simply that land-mass lying in the ocean, an easily recognizable object.
This imagining excludes as many groups as it includes, and when they in turn, fail to recognize the nation, it is they who are the traitors. I remember overhearing a snatch of horrified conversation between students of Delhi University — “You know, Naga students say ‘India’ for ‘Delhi’ whenever they leave Nagaland.” The horror is — we consider Nagaland to be part of India, but they don’t consider themselves to be part of us. How generous and inclusive our nationalism, how separatist and exclusionary theirs. Consider the conflation here between Us and India, and the division between the territory and the people. The territory that is Nagaland is an “integral part” of India, but the Naga people can be Indians only under stringent conditions — not on their terms, but on ours. Nagaland is ours, but not the Naga people, not if they insist on being Naga.
I learnt recently from a friend working on textbook revision in Leh, that for decades, schoolchildren of Leh have read textbooks using images that make no sense to them — flora and fauna not local to the region, for example. But what I found most striking was that generations of Ladakhis have read the same textbooks used all over the country, that say: “The Himalayas lie to the North of us.” Really' Not if you are in Ladakh. Check out a basic tourist guide. How could any Ladakhi have felt part of that “us”'
So, should we work towards a more inclusive nationalism' But to whom does that pronoun “we” refer' Can Ladakhis or Nagas ever say, referring to the rest of India, “we” should include “them”' That proud “we” can only be occupied by dominant, mainstream groups within the nation. Hence, We won the test match, We have the bomb. But never We are about to be drowned, any day now, by the Indira Sagar dam on the Narmada. The first “we” is eleven men, the second “we” a tiny state elite, the third “not-we” thousands of inhabitants of twenty-five villages in Harsud. But no, numbers don’t count.
The point then, is not about inclusion. The point is to question the very legitimacy of the nation-state as the arbiter of inclusion, of identity. To question the barbed-wire borders, the ethnic cleansing, the National Interest, the “illegal” immigrants, why shouldn’t people simply move to wherever there is work' After all, there are no barbed wires for capital, not any more. At Wagah, on the border between India and Pakistan, at sundown you can witness the sad spectacle of nation-states producing identity. The “Beating the Retreat” ceremony enacted daily is a dramatized performance of hostility. The drill is a series of choreographed moves of aggression, and this performance is wildly applauded by the audience onboth sides, with shouts of Pakistan murdabad or otherwise, as appropriate. (One evening at Wagah would certainly sort out the domestic worker I referred to earlier. An effective crash course on what yahan means).
Once upon a time, when nation-states emerged, in the 19th century in Europe and in the 20th in Asia and Africa, they bore the electric charge of opposition to empires. Once settled in however, each nation proceeded to obliterate rival nations within, both potential and actual. The process of creating the French citizen, the historian Eugen Weber tells us, was no less violent than colonialism. Nation-states can only be authoritarian.
These reflections were set off by being in Sri Lanka. The country is experiencing, ironically, a cease-fire between the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, while a new war has started between the LTTE and the breakaway Karuna faction in the East. Having physically eliminated all internal voices of dissent, the LTTE claims to be the sole representative of the Tamil people, but Karuna speaks for Eastern Tamils. Many in the East support him, since Jaffna Tamils dominate every institution in the east. Of course, the LTTE condemns this as “regionalism” — once the “Tamil Nation” has been formed, other voices within are, by that logic, traitorous.
But the immediate issue for Tamils today is the forcible conscription of children and young adults into the LTTE army, in effect to be used as cannon fodder in the factional war. Desperate parents are preparing to resist, in pockets, in a hopeless act of defiance. Some years ago, several parents committed suicide, helpless in protecting their children. In the disarray caused by Karuna’s revolt, parents all over the East went in thousands to the camps to force the release of their children, most of whom have been there for two years or more, both boys and girls. Because of the confusion caused by Karuna’s revolt, the camps were opened up, and for days the roads were flooded with children streaming home, carrying little bundles, hopping into buses, hitching rides. However, re-recruitment by the LTTE has begun, resisting parents have been beaten up, people working with them have received death threats.
But that is what states do. The next government of the United States of America, whether Democrat or Republican, is expected to bring in a bill for compulsory army service for all adults. During Vietnam, young men had to go to jail or into voluntary exile not to have to learn to kill and be killed. The LTTE is a quasi-state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Fascist' Authoritarian' Anti-people' Hey, it’s only doing what states do.
Is there no difference then, between fascist states and liberal democratic states' Yes, there is, and personally, I would much rather live in one than the other. I just wonder though, whether the villagers of Harsud, choosing death over being uprooted from their homes in the National Interest, and rehabilitation into urban slums and unemployment, are so much better off than the desperate Tamil parents in Sri Lanka.