Pakistan, India and the rise and/or fall of the nation state

November 10, 2008

When the British left India in 1947, they bequeathed what was arguably a European notion of the nation state on a region for which the very concept was alien. I say ”arguably” because anything one writes about Partition or the nation state is open to dispute. And until the financial crisis, I relegated this argument to the realm of historians – a subject that interested me personally, but did not seem relevant today.

That was until I noticed a new debate bubbling up on the internet about the future of the nation state. Will it become more powerful as countries scramble to protect themselves from the financial crisis as George Friedman at Stratfor argues in this article?  Or does the need for global solutions to the crisis sound a death knell for the nation state, as John Robb suggests here?

Let’s just suppose the paradigm has shifted and the 60-year-old model defined by the departing British colonial rulers is no longer valid. What does that mean for Pakistan and India?

First the history. India under the British was far from what might have been considered a nation-state. Here’s Friedman’s definition: ”A nation is a collection of people who share an ethnicity. A state is the entity that rules a piece of land. A nation-state — the foundation of the modern international order — is what is formed when the nation and state overlap.”

There was no overlap between nation and state when the British left. At the time the region was a patchwork of different people, speaking different languages, with their own ethnic identities. It included more than 500 princely states which had retained nominal autonomy in return for pledging allegiance to the British crown, along with a sizeable proportion of Muslims who fretted about who would protect them in an independent Hindu-dominated India. Yet Britain created not one, but two nation states in the European model — India and Pakistan.

“…the concept of State itself was alien to Indian political thought. It could not be otherwise,” wrote former Indian foreign minister and defence minister Jaswant Singh in his book “Defending India”. “Civilisationally, the Indian nation is a unity, a whole: diverse, multilingual, with numerous shades and varieties of faith and kaleidoscopic cultural distinctions, also varieties of beliefs, languages, dialects, dress, food — but always with that indefinable, civilisational oneness: an Indianness.”

For Singh, a leading player in the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India was an idea that existed independently of defined geographical borders, or indeed of the kind of shared ethnicity that underpinned the nation state. It’s not an argument that goes down well in Pakistan, which until the late 20th century saw the BJP as a party which challenged its very existence as a separate country. But few would argue with his basic proposition: “An Indian state came into existence, for the whole of India, though admittedly for a divided India, for the first time ever only after 1947.”

After independence, India defined itself as a secular state. Its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, adopted state socialism and central planning to drag his country out of poverty. Its powerful interior minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, more or less successfully corralled many princely states into joining India, with the exception of Kashmir, which remains a problem to this day.

Pakistan struggled to find an identity. Unlike India, which inherited a functioning administration and capital city, Pakistan had to create a new country out of nothing, among people who had often had little in common with the Urdu speakers of the Indian heartland who had fought for its existence.  These included not only Balochis, Sindhis, Punjabis and — at the time Bengalis — but also the Pashtuns whose loyalty stretched across the border between the newly created Pakistan and Afghanistan — another problem which endures to this day.

The rest, as they say, is history. Starting with the first war over Kashmir in 1947-48, a region which had once had no need for borders became obsessed with borders.

India fought a disastrous border war with China in 1962 over a stretch of land inhabited only by nomads, the Aksai Chin, not because it needed it, but because, as Nehru said in an address to parliament, ”national prestige and dignity is involved”.  Pakistan created a nation through years of centralised military rule that lost it East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971, and left it floundering as it tried to establish itself as a civilian democracy.

India and Pakistan ended up in an expensive arms race which resulted in both acquiring nuclear bombs; they fought three wars and came to the brink of another in 2001/2002; and they developed a highly militarised frontier which choked trade, divided their people and stifled economic growth.

The British imposition of the nation state has not been kind to either Pakistan or India.

So is there an alternative?

A month ago, I asked in this blog whether the salvation of Pakistan’s economy lay in making peace with India. At the time, it seemed as though regional trade might provide the cushion to see both countries through. But as the global economy spirals into recession, I’m wondering if I asked the right question.  In other words, are there other models indigenous to the region that might work better than the now-discredited western postwar view of the world economy?

People are already beginning to talk about the use of barter. In this televised debate, the unlikely duo of former junk bond king turned philanthropist Michael Milken and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus discuss the value of micro-credit in helping the world deal with everything from poverty and employment to education and healthcare. The idea of providing micro-finance to villagers rather than relying either on state control within nation states or free markets across borders rings true to me, as far as South Asia is concerned, not least because I have seen it in action in India.

But maybe there are other ideas out there? Does the financial crisis offer India and Pakistan a chance to correct the wrongs of history and create their own solutions after 60 years of struggling with a model imposed by an outsider? Or are they condemned, as were western nations by the Great Depression of the 1930s, into the kind of protectionist, nation-state cycle that ultimately led to World War Two?

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