Crisis of identities

Thinking aloud

It seemed outrageous to me 56 years ago to find students sporting ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Hyderabad’ on the lapel badges meant to indicate country at the freshers’ reception at my university in Britain. Looking back now, I can find it in me to be less censorious about those young Pakistanis asserting what they felt was their primary loyalty.

Race and religion are the prime movers of history, and the burqa controversy in France demonstrates they continue to shape human behaviour. The instinctive contemporary reaction that burqas are medieval means that the garment represents an unfamiliar race and religion. But when president Nicolas Sarkozy denounces the burqa as an affront to French ‘values,’ he is only upholding a rival form of ethnic nationalism.

The thousands of Asians and Africans who risk their lives every year trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach the shores of Spain or France can testify that Europe does not welcome settlers of alien race or religion. Exclusiveness is rationalised on economic grounds but the barriers are not as high against poor migrants from other European countries. France may have five million Muslims but has many more East Europeans.

Ethnic nationalism
The point is not to condemn Europe as racist but to underscore that ethnic nationalism is not only an Asian or African phenomenon. Europe's 19th century overseas empires took little note of existing demographic differences; so, when the colonial power receded, it was natural for tribal identities to surge back again. Rwanda-Burundi became Rwanda and Burundi; Bangladesh and Timor Leste separated from Pakistan and Indonesia respectively.

 Some artificial unions (the inclusion of the Borneo territories, Sabah and Sarawak, in Malaysia) continue; some minorities made a bid for independence (Biafra) and failed; and some like Katanga became the tools of neocolonial adventurism. Some also -- and the Kashmir Valley must be mentioned -- fear their identity might be swamped in a larger culture.

France’s St Bartholomew’s night massacre of Protestants and Spain's Inquisition remind us that Europe is no stranger to such passions even if the European Union is held up today as the model superstate that Saarc, Asean and the Gcc should try to emulate.
 Ethnic cleansing began in Europe when Greeks and Turks vacated each other’s territory. Spain’s Basque nationalists are waging one of the world’s oldest guerrilla wars for a homeland, and it's a moot point how long ethnically-split Belgium will survive. Only strict citizenship laws preserve Switzerland's domestic ethnic balance of power.
But erstwhile Yugoslavia points both to the power of ethnic nationalism and the means of containing it. When the Cold War ended, the constituent units lost little time in demonstrating that far from being ‘imagined communities’ in Benedict Anderson's sense, they were full-fledged muscular nations.

The revelations of Slobodan Milosevic’s misdeeds confirm how far the Serbs went to establish the point. But it wasn’t only Tito's iron hand that kept Yugoslavia's constituent units together. The kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed as a willing union at the end of the First World War by people who preferred a new monarchy to the old Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empires.

Monarchical Yugoslavia was a more apposite model for inter-state unity than the European Union with its cumbersome superstructure of bureaucrats and rules creating work for itself like decreeing that British ice-cream has no (or not adequate) milk content.
This fictional unity is part of the make-believe that Europe has exorcised ethnic nationalism which is blamed for two world wars and denounced and denied. Denounce it as much as you will, but to deny it is burying your head in the sand.
 We understand that in India where identity consists of language and religion, with the Indian label tagged on almost as an afterthought. The scholarly journalist, Dr Jay Dubashi, takes this to an extreme in his column when he stakes his claim to Hindu nationality.

What is not clear is whether he calls himself Hindu because he belongs to the land of the Indus or the Sanatan Dharma. If the former, then Muslims are also Hindu, which may not be to their liking. If the latter, then Islam can also be cited as a nationality. Even individual choice has to be exercised with discretion because one decision can impact on another.

Central diktat
Ethno-nationalism cannot be wished away. But it can be subsumed in partnership structures that encourage full cross-border cooperation while respecting the core identity of nation-states. The old Soviet Union failed because the central diktat suppressed its republics. Yugoslavia might have survived if the Soviet collapse had not left Europe in a flush of tribal assertiveness.

Perhaps the most pragmatic and yet idealistic blueprint in this respect was Jawaharlal Nehru's vision of an Indo-Pakistani confederation. He expected a confederation to be the solvent for Kashmiri restiveness and also to pre-empt secessionist sentiment in what was then East Pakistan.

It didn't happen but that doesn't mean it cannot one day, or that the formula should not be tried in other troubled regions where race and religion are at odds with the demands of modern statehood. Confederal states could also provide a partial answer to the challenge of cross-border terrorism.

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