Newspapers, playwright George Bernard Shaw famously remarked, “are seemingly unable to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation”. While “bicycle accident” can be replaced with any significant or even seminal event of political consequence, you can expect the media’s penchant for hyperbole to outrun it in scale.
That’s been evident in editorial reactions in some sections of the news media to the nullification of the key part of Article 370. In the diplomatic sphere, the Indian government is already dealing with a predictable response from across the border—something the Ministry of External Affairs identified as Pakistan’s invocation of “an alarmist vision of the region”.
Moreover, what has also been visible in the last few days is that even the turf of academic critique of the move has been limited to the rhetoric of bogey-raising. In the process, it conveniently blurred certain distinctions and considerations that could have enriched critical inquiry. Such wilful indifference to—or even obfuscation of—theoretical as well as historical aspects was seen in how two leading political scientists, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Yogendra Yadav, responded. In the process, such responses tend to muddle key theoretical issues in the emerging discourse with the misleading certitude seen in indignant diatribe.
The Centre arguably took recourse to the technicalities, rather than substantive part, of the constitutional process to overcome the status quo in the Indian state’s position on Jammu & Kashmir. What, however, is absent in the prioritisation of the lament about the former is the engagement with issues of its theoretical clash with the imperatives and impulses driving the latter.
For instance, one such key issue missing in Mehta’s piece is the inherent tension between what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas described as “constitutional patriotism” and the appeal of nationalist aspirations. In ruing the betrayal of “constitutional promises”—though not new as the abolition of privy purse, a part of the accession and integration deals of more than 500 princely states, or the abrogation of fundamental right to property even earlier showed—Mehta chooses to gloss over the limitations of a post-national framework in a contemporary world order which is largely a product of the nation-state system of the 19th century.
Last decade, such indifference to the obvious limits of constitutional patriotism vis-à-vis nationalist claims was also evident in Princeton political theorist Jan-Werner Müller’s defence of Habermas’s formulation in the eponymous work Constitutional Patriotism (Princeton University Press, 2007).
However, the shortcomings of the post-national perspective were obvious. Oxford-based political theorist David Miller had pointed out some of them in the mid-1990s (On Nationality, Oxford University Press, 1995). He reflected on the limitations of Habermas’s idea of constitutional patriotism and juxtaposed it to the enduring appeal of national identity.
“It does not provide the kind of political identity that nationality provides. In particular, it does not explain why the boundaries of the political community should fall here rather than there; nor does it give you any sense of the historical identity of the community, the links that bind present-day politics to decisions made and actions performed in the past,” Miller argues. He adds that while a private set of cultural values is significant, it shouldn’t be confused with national identity—the latter being the “public understanding of the terms on which we are going to carry on our collective life”.
In fact, given that political nationalism—sometimes a self-sufficient idea and sometimes as an extension of cultural nationalism—can’t be detached from the question of territoriality, it would have been theoretically useful if a political scientist of Mehta’s eminence could have examined a question that arises in the wake of repealing the special constitutional status granted to Jammu & Kashmir. The question that it poses is whether the claims of national self-determination can be shared by the sovereign nation-state with a constituent unit that has agreed to be a part of it under conditions of special constitutional privilege, or if the latter should make way for the former’s vision of national interest and territorial security. The question has an added dimension with Jammu & Kashmir having an international profile in India’s engagement with the world and a national security issue for the Indian state. Any comparison with other parts of the country could easily descend into false equivalence. These aren’t easy theoretical as well as administrative questions—and they’re aspects which went missing in Mehta’s piece.
The fact that Mehta takes recourse to arguments lamenting the subversion of federalism, and sounds alarmist over the state turning into a union territory, doesn’t conform to his persistent concern for constitutional reasoning. At the cost of stating the obvious, one may recall that India’s Constituent Assembly—the Union Powers Committee headed by Jawaharlal Nehru himself—opted for a strong bias in favour of the Centre while framing India’s federal structure. The obvious inclination towards a strong Centre has made scholars like Professor KC Wheare describe the Indian state as “quasi-federal” in nature.
More tilted towards the strong Centre, the Indian constitutional scheme has been seen as creating its own kind of federalism. In his landmark work The Indian Constitution: The Cornerstone of a Nation (Oxford University Press, 1966), Granville Austin calls it a “new kind of federalism to meet India’s particular needs”. At the time of the framing of the Constitution, among other factors, the imperative of a strong Centre was seemingly shaped by the challenge of nation-building in the face of the twin challenges of fissiparous tendencies seen in the experience of Partition, and bringing together more than 500 princely states of erstwhile British India into the fold of the Indian union. Now the “particular needs”, to use Austin’s phrase, are finding accommodation in more contemporary responses to nation-building and national security concerns. This aspect has been left unattended.
Moreover, it would have been useful if Mehta examined the degree to which the non-reciprocity in migration, settlement and public employment avenues with the rest of the country strains the federal arrangement with a border state that has been a site of cross-border terrorism sponsored by a hostile neighbour.
There is one conceptual conflation of “majoritarianism” that Mehta does and blurs the issue with dual application of the term. At one point, he goes with the deliberative connotation of the term to mean the dominance derived from emphatic electoral win, “the power of the vote”. At other point he employs the term to mean the dominance of Hindu identity assertion on a Muslim-dominated state. Such duality in use of the term can’t hide behind contextuality but reflects a conceptual fallacy.
Political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj traced the origins of this confusion to colonial times. “British colonial discourse introduced a deeply unsettling element into Indian political discourse by asserting that although in Europe majority was a deliberative concept, in the Indian context, majority and minority referred not to results of deliberative processes of voting, but to identity communities,” Kaviraj argued in his essay on nationalism (The Oxford Companion to Politics in India, 2010).
The application of the term isn’t just a point of semantic quibbling. In fact, it has led to the use of expressions like “Hindu majoritarianism” in contexts ranging from the Indian state’s military action for the integration of Hyderabad in Indian Union in 1948 to the armed action which led to Goa becoming part of Indian union in 1961—developments that belong to a period when Jawaharlal Nehru led the government as Prime Minister of India. Speaking at a conference, for instance, in the University of Westminster in 2011, activist-writer Arundhati Roy called such military interventions as motivated by the objectives of consolidating the Hindu state, an association that Nehru’s votaries in contemporary discourse will find difficult to swallow.
Some obvious gaps are also visible in political scientist-turned-Swaraj India leader Yogendra Yadav’s piece in The Print. He argues how India’s earlier model of nation- building was essentially a state-nation model rather than what he amusingly calls a “failed” European nation-state model, and how India is now replacing the former model with the latter.
These aren’t new arguments and are not unique to the Indian experience. British-Czech philosopher Ernest Gellner had applied the state-nation sequence to even the complex history of the European model of nationalism (Nations and Nationalism, Blackwell Publishing, 1983). In the Indian context, the idea of the modular influence of European nationalism on the Indian idea of nationhood in even colonial India has been contested by scholars like Partha Chatterjee (Nation and its Fragments, Princeton University Press, 1993). In contemporary times, the accommodation of multicultural politics and ethnic and regional diversities added new dimensions to nationalist projects not only in India but in different parts of the world. That’s also not a specific Indian experience.
What, however, is flawed in Yadav’s arguments are several assumptions and derivations which do not conform to historical developments and contemporary facts.
First, when the international system today is largely constituted by the building blocks of nation-states which started emerging strongly in 19th-century Europe, it can’t be assumed that the idea of the nation-state has been a “failure”. What has happened in the course of its spread is that it acquired different shades, modifications and streams, including political nationalism, to make space for different claims but centred on an idea of nation. It implies that even if not seen as an organic community by all groups, nationalist identity continues to hold appeal as what political theorist Benedict Anderson described as a form of sense of belonging to an “ imagined community” (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1983).
Second, it would be useful to remember that in, say, the last 30 years when the appeal of the nation-state was assumed to have dimmed a bit, the number of new political formations identifying themselves as nation-states kept growing. For instance, since 1991 “at least 22 new states have come into existence in Europe alone (15 of them as a result of the disintegration of the USSR), and all of them have claimed to be nation-states” (Andrew Heywood, Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Moreover, even the tide of economic globalisation in the late 20th century couldn’t restrict the appeal of nation-states in the modern site of its origin, Europe. The resurgence of Euroscepticism, with emphasis on sovereign national identities vis-à-vis transnational communities, was evident and of late can be seen in developments like Brexit.
Third, the flawed assumptions about the “decline” of the nation-state (which could be cyclic as could be its resurgence) hasn’t been restricted to the analytical frame of Indian academics like Yadav alone. Instead, it has infected social sciences the world over. In the process, it led to the neglect of “nation” as a theme of academic inquiry which in turn was based on rather naïve predictions of its gradual decline in the emerging global order.
However, the comeback of the nation-state belied such predictions of its disappearance in the last few decades of the 20th century. Such premature obituaries of nationalism, as seen in the writings of scholars like Francis Fukuyama (“defanged” is what he calls it in his famous 1989 essay End of History), had only to wait for a few years to eat their words. Someone had already foreseen that such predictions were quite naive. In an essay for the bimonthly journal Foreign Affairs, which earlier this year had a special issue on new nationalism, historian Jill Lepore remembers what Stanford historian Carl Degler had said in 1986. Degler was perceptively critical of his colleagues for abandoning the study of the nation.
“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said. He went on to identify the perils of such neglect: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less informed will take over the job for us.”
Fourth, while being forgetful of the inevitable rough edges in certain trouble zones that accompany territorial consolidation in established world powers of subcontinental size like Russia and China, Yadav views India’s latest approach to Jammu & Kashmir as a roadblock in commanding “a seat at the global centre stage” as an emerging world power. This line of argument is obviously incongruent with the trajectory of state power consolidation seen in some key players of global politics. In a way, the self-perception of some forces in world politics have become civilisational and in the process it has given rise to what global affairs commentator Gideon Rachman calls “civilisation states”. One may see it as a more ambitious extension of the core of nation-state to the overarching frame of indigenous civilisational values.
In a piece for the Financial Times earlier this year headlined “China, India and the rise of the ‘civilisation state’”, Rachman identifies a civilisation state as a “country that claims to represent not just a historic territory or a particular language or ethnic-group, but a distinctive civilisation”. While some countries could be seen as belonging to this category because of the distinct imprint of their civilisational identity, some countries go further and add to that identity a worldview imbued with the rightful share of civilisational standing in the power configuration of world politics.
Putting them together, Rachman includes China, Russia, India, the US and Turkey as some obvious examples of “civilisation states” in the contemporary world. It’s significant that even an avowedly communist state like China hinges its identity on core Chinese values and nationalist imagination—something that guides it to act tough in national interest on questions of Xinjiang or even Tibet. The recent script of the Russian state’s pursuit of its national interest while dealing with its trouble zones hasn’t been different either.
These theoretical considerations as well as historical-empirical strands should have found space in the response of two leading academics to a significant event in Indian polity. That could have been possible if the need for a holistic commentary prevailed over trappings of self-righteous outrage. It turned out to be the other way around and what they offered was the latter. That was already in abundant supply, that didn’t widen the canvas of ideas to reflect on.