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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 40, September 27, 2014

Nation-states and Frontiers: Old Tumours or New Tremors?

Sunday 28 September 2014, by Javed Jabbar



This article was sent to us by the author for publication some time ago but could not be published earlier.     —Editor

Pakistan completes 67 years as a nation-state while its Armed Forces conduct an unprece-dented campaign to crush the sanctuaries of terrorists who breach the country’s land fron-tiers with impunity. Another country, located 10,000 miles away, uses drones with equal impunity to violate Pakistan’s aerial frontiers. But it does so implicitly, with a benignly helpful aim of eliminating a common threat. The irony is over-ridden by a question and a canvas larger than one country alone. About 69 years after the formation of the United Nations in 1945 with 51 Member-States, is not Pakistan only one of several of the 193 Member-States of the UN in 2014 that have to deal with long-suppressed historical factors now surfacing, and also face entirely new threats to the conven-tional notions of the sanctity of frontiers?

 The tumours and tremors span continents and causes alike. Asia, Africa, Europe are the principal current settings.

 Ethnic, linguistic, cultural affinities coalesce. Russia re-claims Crimea. Donetsk wants to break from Ukraine. Transnistria, with barely a million people, wants to secede from Moldova which, in turn, with just over three million people, emerged from the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The Basques and the Catalonians want freedom from Madrid. The Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons in Belgium co-exist in often uneasy tension. In one of the world’s oldest parliamentary systems, Scotland will vote in September this year about whether it should remain part of the United Kingdom.

 In South Asia, religious, sectarian dimensions can converge with, and diverge from, the affinities as in Europe. Deprivation of human and economic rights thickens the tensions within and across frontiers. Regrettably, Pakistan led the way when it became the first state to disintegrate after the Second World War: largely due to profound failures of political and military leadership. But also actively facilitated by a certain neighbour.

In Sri Lanka , notwithstanding the elimination of the Tamil Tiger terrorists, Tamil alienation from Sinhalese dominance continues to fester. It has now been joined by the new embitterment of the Muslim Lankans who protest atrocities by Buddhist extremists, who have their counter-parts across the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar where the Muslim Rohingyas, as a small minority shunned even by predominantly Muslim Bangladesh, have no prospect of obtaining territorial autonomy, leave alone independence.

 In India, the country that rightly and proudly lays claim to be the world’s largest electoral democracy, post-1947 expansion of national frontiers by the state force—and not by the free will of those being “inducted“ into the nation—is a major characteristic. Kashmir, Hyderabad, Sikkim are just three prominent examples. How democracy can entrench power elites, enforce rapacious internal frontiers and exclude the deprived is evident in the eruption of the violent peasants’ movement born in Naxalbari, West Bengal in 1967 to safeguard the rights of indigenous people. Spreading over the past 47 years to, at one point, almost 200 out of 800-plus districts, now curbed to a reduced figure (as per the official version), the rebels are nevertheless termed by the previous Prime Minister as”the single biggest internal threat to Indian national security“. And this in a country where the military—which is supposed to provoke centrifugal forces by arbitrary disrup-tions of the people’s will—has never intervened politically at the Centre, though the Indian military’s covert influence on political policy in Kashmir and the North-East is well-established. An ominous recent move to indoctrinate school-children with a contrived sense of a glorious past which never actually existed sends distur-bing signals to virtually all nation-states that border India. Over 40,000 schools in the Gujrat State now provide supplementary texts to pupils which evoke the image of a “Mahabharatan” India. This fabricated mythical territory includes present-day Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

West Asia has spawned a perverse parallel to the delusion of a Hindu-dominated South Asian milieu. This is the brutal degradation which demeans the name of Islam and calls itself the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Precipitated by earlier trends and events such as the disastrous American invasion of Iraq in 2003 but at the same time an expression of how religion can be used to produce killing machines, the ISIS has rampaged across the frontiers of both Syria and Iraq. At one end, this freak exposes the weaknesses of both the affected nation-states. At the other, it revives memories of how unreasonably frontiers were demarcated in the Middle East by the British and the French. The savage disproportionality of Israel’s assault on the people of Gaza and Palestine symbolises the most tragic consequence of arbitrarily-imposed frontiers.

Colonial crudity was reinforced by imperial hegemony. Listing the disorienting effects of prolonged foreign occupation, the great historian Eric Hobsbawm in his panoramic study The Age of Extremes: a History of the World 1914-1991 observed:

“The post-colonial world is...almost entirely divided by the frontiers of imperialism.“

 Limitations of space prevent consideration of individual cases from Africa. However, there are many instances of acute territorial and frontier stresses among states in both North Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa. This was most recently evident in the birth of South Sudan.

Similarly, one is not able to dwell here on the Americas. But it is worth remembering that Canada’s break-up into French-speaking Quebec and English-speaking states was averted by barely a whisker less than 20 years ago in a 1995 referendum.

 Other fundamental themes also become pertinent when we consider that contrasts in the locations of troubled nation-states are marked by some, or all, commonalities that apply to the formation and survival of these units of organised society. These themes include the varying nature of nationalism. Its elusive complexity prevents a single, binding expla-nation of the phenomenon. There is the assertion of identities by sub-national groups. They either retrieve neglected histories or create new profiles for being recognised in conditions where their smaller numbers are sought to be steam-rolled into the majority. Perhaps these are simply aspirations for equity by groups that have been discriminated against on the basis of their inherited features. There are trans-border affinities of races, dialects, customs and codes. There is the sheer collapse of political structures as in Yugoslavia and the USSR followed by the inability of some succeeding structures to satisfy the expectations of all groups.

 On a pervasive, global level, there is the impact of a true revolution in human culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. More than half of the planet’s seven billion people have probably not yet become part of this global process in a holistic way. Many have acquired only some of its tokens and benefits—for example, cell-phones. Yet people at large have developed a new “sense of themselves”, courtesy of the cumulative impact of diverse media. Equipped with these new mirrors (despite their distortive nature), people who have either willingly become parts of new nation-states or have been coerced to do so, do not see self-images that make them feel secure, wholesome and good about them-selves.

 At the primeval level of rooting for their respective national teams in sports matches, the very same people may temporarily set aside their discontent and their dis-illusion. But soon enough, when the match is over, and even if one’s own team wins, the perpetual tournament of the combat with daily life goes on.

 The problems of security, livelihoods, basic needs and sheer dignity are aggravated by the new threats of fast-moving viruses and epidemics, of natural disasters and man-made disorders which test the durability of all frontiers. The earth’s eco-systems cannot be subjected to human-made walls. They wilt under population pressure, water stress and the impact of climate change.

 Even brave supra-national innovations, such as the European Union, which quickly expanded its own frontiers in the past 20 years, are now severely challenged in the past three years by the Eurozone crisis. A disturbing shift has occurred of voters’ preferences towards narrow, parochial motivations rather than the larger vision that inspired the formation of this unique coalition of nation-states.

 To identify the strains and stresses that the territorial dimension of nation-states currently faces across regions and continents is only to take stock, not to abandon the stocks! An enor-mous investment has been made by humanity over the past three to four hundred years in moving towards conditions in which people can co-exist as nation-states. This form of co-existence, by those who share similarities as well as by those who are dis-similar, has come to be applied both within borders, and side-by-side with other borders. Demarcated frontiers constitute the sign-posts, the entry and exit points, in both literal and figurative senses, of nation-states. In theory, and in principle, given certain pre-conditions or simultaneously evolving conditions, the entities of nation-states can peace-fully subsume primordial loyalties to clan, tribe, sect, caste, religion, language.

Till a better alternative emerges, the process of evolution of the contemporary nation-state and the imposed or adjusted frontiers will continue to be dynamic and often unpredictable. Sometimes this is likely to be violent and destructive, sometimes hopefully creative and cohesive, depending on how different variables apply. Factors such as dual citizenship, diasporic connectivity, forced or willing migration, the porousness of borders, critical resource pressures, trans-frontier interventions, brief or prolonged, without necessarily being followed by long-term or permanent external presence: together, or separately, will impinge on the path taken by structures.

Like the principal law of natural species, the nation-state as a form of organised human existence, and sub-forms within that main species, will either meet or fail the test of “the survival of the fittest”.

What of Pakistan? Can a country, whose founding rationale of pre-dominant Muslim identity is wrongly derided by some as being negated by the events of 1971, ever hope to remain religion-driven and also remain stable and secure? Specially so when Pakistanis often work overtime to wound and bleed themselves? The first response to those questions is to assert that Muslim nationalism in South Asia today is even more potent than it probably was in 1947. Be they in Pakistan or Bangladesh, to be Muslim is to take pride in a distinct identity. Muslims in India as well, willing to live loyally within a pre-dominantly Hindu India, nevertheless remain deeply devoted to the religious roots of their own identity. The two-nation-two-state theory has merely developed further into a two-nation-three-state reality.

 Since this reflection commenced with a reference to the USA, it is only proper that we also conclude with a glimpse into the well-springs of American national identity and its subterranean nexus with national identities in Europe. Both those parts of the world are cited as thoroughly secular states (while secularism remains misinterpreted by many of its advo-cates, and its antagonists!). Writing his thought-ful book Who are we? America’s great debate about ten years ago in 2004, and exploring the implications of Hispanic immigration and other factors on America’s future, the eminent historian, Samuel Huntington, quotes Adrian Hastings to the effect: “...every ethnicity is shaped signifi-cantly by religion just as it is by language...(in Europe), Christianity has shaped national formation.” He goes on to quote from a survey of 41 countries. The survey found that “ ...those countries that are more religious tend to be more nationalist, ...and more proud of their country than those who are less religious.”

America has its own demographic and external conflicts to resolve in the years ahead. But its nice to be reminded that the two countries, so unlike each other, are yet alike in at least one respect: religious in their own respective ways (!). Pakistan, or rather, each single Pakistani, has to determine how to re-capture Islam from the violent extremists, how to use the strength of this faith to build enduring frontiers within which thrives a nation that becomes great, particularly by how equally well it esteems its Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. 

A former Senator and Federal Minister in Pakistan, Javed Jabbar is the author of Pakistan—Unique Origins; Unique Destiny (

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