Are ‘Modern’ Nation-States really modern? Looking at India and Sri Lanka

A nice paper by Devika Mittal.

She looks at this whole idea of Modern States and points how history plays a major role in making a modern nation.

The contemporary World is divided into about 200 nations. These nations have, however, been perceived to be a modern formulation. They have been known to have emerged in the modern period under specific conditions in Europe and in the rest of the world, have resulted through colonization or imperialism. But today they are a “natural” reality. However, even though they have been a product of the rational and “secular” world, the idea of history has been very important to formulate and sustain it. History has been used as an important tool in the making of a nation. It has been used not only to create a nation but has also been used by ethnic groups within a nation to demand a separate nation.

She looks at this debate on modern nations:

Nations and Nationalism are regarded to be a product of modernity. It is believed to be deeply infused with the emergence of industrial revolution. According to the modernists, it is a byproduct of interaction between state policies, commercial development (Industrial growth) and the emergence of a linguistic uniformity. In the rest of the world, the idea of a nation was exported through the process of colonialism or imperialism. (Hutchinston, 2000) Benedict Anderson, in his famous work “The origins of Nationalism” have proposed the emergence of print capitalism to be linked with the emergence of the Imagined communities – the nations. (Anderson, 1983) Nations have been defined in a specific manner to distinguish them from the political formations of the earlier period. They have been defined by the modernists as secular political units infused with ideas of sovereignty, based on a system of universalistic citizenship rights, with consolidated boundaries, monopoly of the central state over coercion and a culturally homogenous unit with a standard vernacular language and print capitalism (Hutchinson, 2000).

But as Hutchinson points out, there are several problems with this conception of the nation and nation-states. The Nation-states are “Janus-faced: on the one hand, oriented to an ancient (often imaginary) ethnic past and on the other, futuristic in mobilizing populations for collective autonomy and progress (Narain 1975, as mentioned in Hutchinson, 2000). Nationalism has been used to create and re-create the collective identity. Cultural nationalist intellectuals – historians, artists, philologists, journalists, social and religious reformers “re-create” national identities. They define the unique character of a nation in time and space and engage in moral and social regeneration. Nationalism has been used to re-create a sense of stability in times of crises and this is done by “revoking” or inventing a historical past. A historical past with models of prosperity and stability are required to unify and energize generations. (Hutchinson, 2000)

History plays a major role in binding people in nations:

A shared sense of history is an important factor to bind people in a nation. This seems to be more important in the decolonized nations. A glorified or romanticized past before the advent of colonialism had constituted an important part of independence struggle, as was in the case of India. Conversely, in some cases, like in the case of Pakistan, a past of suppression or neglect was required for the formation of the nation and to arouse feelings of nationalism.

For, History is, as Historian E.H. Carr had remarked, “a historian’s craft”. History is an interpretation of the historian. It allows for romantic interpretations of the past. History is an open field which can be approached by anyone. “To each, his own history” has been the mantra. Though history is subjective in this sense, it holds a binding authority over its subjects (the audience). History has been used to seek legitimacy. History tells us that those who have controlled history have ruled the world. This is because though history has written and re-written by few, it remains unchallenged. History is weaved in with the tools of nationalism. From the school textbooks to the ceremonies of the state, the carefully selected history models the mentality of the citizens.

History has also been used for an emotional impact. This power of history has been realized by several groups. It has served as a tool for oppressed groups to access political and economic gains. It has also been used by ethnic groups for ethnic nationalism. In the instrumentalist theory of ethnicity, it is argued that ethnicity is based on a historical memory. This historical past or shared sense of history which binds people is also exploited by the leaders for benefits.

Hmm.. The author then looks at the use of history in both India and Sri Lanka where history has been used to carve out an exclusive nation for the majorities. In India this is for Hindus and SL it is for Sinhalese.

In this paper, I attempt to explore how history has been successfully used by the majority population in India and Sri Lanka to carve out an exclusive nation for them. In this attempt, I will also compare and contrast the two cases. In the end of the paper, I will also challenge the “modern,” “secular” and “rational” conception of nation-states.

She covers how Sinhalese movement was started in  SL and the Hindutva movement in India. Broadly:

As we have seen, there seems to have been several similarities in the two case studies. Both Hindutva and Sinhalese Nationalism are nationalism of the majority. Both Hindus and the Sinhalese constitute the majority in their respective countries. Yet, both of them have expressed a “fear” or a “threat” by the minority. Another similarity is the over-emphasis in the reinterpretation of the history to seek legitimacy and sustenance. In both the cases, the carefully-selected/written history talks about a history of suppression by the minority. In both the cases, the historians have also exaggerated the invasions or plunders. In the case of India, the Hindutva nationalists had sought to “re-conquer” the invaded site, as in the case of Babri Masjid demolition. Both cases of nationalism have also developed a severe contempt, though relatively controlled, for the colonizers. I had chosen India and Sri Lanka as the case studies as there exists a hostile relationship owing to the ethnic clash in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese population and the Tamil population (the Tamils are also present in India) but what has been found is that that while India has blamed Sri Lanka for the suppression of the minority, the Hindutva politics in India has also done the same thing. The Hindutva politics does not cover Tamil culture and history. Infact, tamil nationalism has been seen as a “combat” or “counter” to the ideology of Hindutva.

There are also major deviations in the two case studies. The fundamental contrast between the two case studies is that while Hindutva nationalism is primarily based on religion, Sinhalese nationalism is meant for a particular ethnic group, the Sinhalese. While in both cases, the minority was believed to have received special concessions in the British period, in the case of Sri Lanka, economic struggles between the groups have been projected as a cause for the ethnic clash. This is not so apparent in the case of India. The Muslims were condemned largely for a “moral” or “religious” degeneration. In the case of India, as has been emphasized, the use and importance of history seems to have been greater as its foundation as well as sustenance was dependent on it.

So based on above, she questions modern states:

However, in all this, I was also reminded of the modernist argument of nations being secular, rational and of a modern formulation. How does this fantasy of past, the attempt to revive it or use it features in this argument? How can something so rational and modern make use of the ancient and often “mythical” to sustain it? How are the nations then “modern”? But there are other features of the modern nation-states but those features can also be met by other political formulations. Can we talk about “nations” in the past? The other features defining a nation can also be contested. So are modern nation-states, “modern” only because they feature in the modern period of history?

Superb stuff..


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