Nation building or destroying?
Nation building or destroying?
It will be helpful to begin the discussion by defining some of the often misunderstood and commonly misused terms. Academics define a nation as a self-identifying community and state as a territory governed by common political institutions. Nation is different from ethnic group which can be otherwise defined (the two concepts share many similar characteristics, such as having common culture, myth, history etc. that has often led to inappropriate usage of the terms). Based on the definition, Nepal has numerous nations because many Nepalis self-identify as distinct communities. Likewise, nationalism is loyalty to the nation and it should be distinguished from loyalty to the state, which can be termed as patriotism.
The project of nation-building led to destruction of nations because the nation-builders attempted to develop a nation out of many nations within a state. The project failed around the world because building nation-states required assimilation. In practice, one group often monopolized the state and imposed its values, views, culture, and language on the rest of the society. In countries with multiple nations, the other nations rejected it. It led to de-legitimacy of ruling regimes, violent conflicts, disorder and breakdown of democracies. Sir Arthur Lewis, the noble laureate in economics, demonstrated that democracy failed in many West African countries after independence because they adopted political institutions, which many had borrowed from their colonizers that did not recognize and accommodate different groups existing in the countries. As a result many countries witnessed violent conflicts and coups and eventual breakdown of their fledgling democracies. Ashis Nandy, hence, argues that the concept of nation-state is the source of domination, exclusion and violent conflict.
The nation-building projects came into vogue in the fifties and sixties because it was thought that modernization would sweep away ethnic/national identities. The aim was to build a single community that was loyal to the state, even if that meant many groups had to assimilate. Building a nation-state in countries with multiple nations required assimilation by many into one favored group. Accordingly countries adopted aggressive assimilation policies. The problem, however, was that groups and communities change and assimilate but they do it at their own speed and for their own reasons. When assimilation is imposed from the top, they reject it, especially in open polities where rights to express, dissent and organize are protected to some degree. Violent conflicts and separatists movements may ensue. Proponents of assimilation often point to the melting pot experience of the US. The difference between the US and most other countries, however, is that in the former, people left their homeland and as immigrants in a new land, made self-choice to assimilate for social mobility. It was not a top down process.
The modernist ideology of nation-building that emerged in the sixties still seems to guide many well wishers of Nepal today. Many modernists disparage ethnicity and identity politics considering it parochial, backward and traditional. The modernists’ attitudes towards ethnic/national group are ambivalent at best and derogative at worst. However, they overlook the fact that even ‘modern’ societies are imbued with ethnic/identity traditions and norms such as following certain rituals at birth, marriage, death and having public holidays on certain occasions. Second, if the marginalized groups had not mobilized along their identities, they would not have received even the minor concessions that they were successful in getting. Scholars studying Indian society have demonstrated that caste associations and mobilization led to the empowerment of the deprived groups. The Nepali experience also bears it out. If it had not been for the Madhesi movement, federalism would not have been incorporated in the interim constitution. If it had not been for the Dalit, indigenous, and women’s assertion, reservations would not have been granted. The dominant groups have not handed over their privileges because one fine day they got enlightenment. Unless the underprivileged groups mobilize and force the dominant groups to concede, the dominant groups often put forward thousand and one ‘good’ reasons to deny rights.
The ‘modernist’ attitude that disparages ethnic/caste/national identity does not completely recognize that domination has occurred along ethnic and identity lines. Thus, whether intended or not, it has helped to continue domination of the traditionally privileged groups. As a result, underprivileged groups are forced to mobilize and struggle for their rights. These mobilizations could turn violent and destabilize society. In some instances, they have fueled separatist movements.
The way out of the problem is to accept the concept of multination state in place of the outdated nation-state. In the multination state conceptualization, every self-identifying community will feel that it is part of that state and the community. Hence, nations will be loyal not only to their own self-identified communities/nations, which they already are, but also to the multination state because they will feel part of it as well. It is in the interest of Nepal to formalize the concept that recognizes its ground reality of multiple nations. Policies that do not recognize ground realities not only fail but sometimes exacerbate problems. The pursuant of nation-state in Nepal has not only undermined different nations but the reaction to it has questioned the viability of the Nepali state, which can be strengthened by re-conceptualizing it as a multination state.
(Professor Lawoti is the author of Looking Back, Looking Forward: Centralization, Multiple Conflicts and Democratic State Building in Nepal, East-West Center Washington, 2007)
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