State and nation-building: Imagination to reality

EJAZ HAIDER

The basic unit of identity and analysis in today’s world is the nation-state. In its current incarnation, it’s not a very old concept. Some scholars trace it to the 1648 peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties that ended the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years War between Spain and the Dutch Republic. Others trace the modern contours of the nation-state to the French Revolution (1789-99).

Be that as it may, the nation-state has emerged over the last three centuries as the concept that gives legitimacy to a collective.

Yet, it is a problematic concept. Scholars have — and continue to — debate what exactly constitutes a state, where it can be situated, what grants it its legitimacy, what makes it more powerful than the people that constitute it, why do states act in totalitarian and Orwellian ways, and so on.

Add to this the problem of the post-colonial state, an entity begot of independence from colonial rulers and often carved out in ways that destroyed the facts of geography, history and ethnic and other organic linkages, leading to bloody conflicts within and across states that have persisted and drawn much blood. Most post-colonial states can be better described as state-nations rather than nation-states, administrative units striving to build nations after having got the states. The experiment has failed at many places, with states imploding and giving birth to more states, arguably more organic than the previous incarnations.

Pakistan went through this experience in 1971, internal troubles leading to external aggression resulting in a politico-military defeat and the secession of its eastern wing. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, which itself split into 15 new states, there has been much upheaval in the Balkans, ranging from bloody internal wars in former Yugoslavia to the velvet divorce in former Czechoslovakia.

However, despite the ease with which the concept can be problematized, both conceptually and empirically the state remains the basic unit of analysis and legitimacy. The rise of trans- and multi-nationals, civil society actors, NGOs, and other global entities that cut across state boundaries have begun to play a much bigger role but remain, in the end, subservient to the states and their laws. In fact, even as globalization has caused greater integration, the changing nature of threats from non-state actors has forced the states into enacting laws that cut into civil liberties and tend to keep the aliens out through enhanced scrutiny. The paradox is that this segregation and building of legal walls is owed to the integration made possible by globalization and the communication revolution.

States still indoctrinate. They retain the monopoly of violence. They are crucial to the identity of every individual. They give passports and grant visas. They have national anthems, their versions of history, the idea of sovereignty, the concept of nationhood, one being distinct from the other. Everyone outside the in-group is the ‘other’ and a potential enemy. People fight for their states, they kill and get killed. The morality of the states is not judged by the benchmarks on which we judge individual morality. Like Luigi in Italo Calvino’s short story, Conscience, we get medals for killing enemies in a war. But just like Luigi, if we were to go and kill Alberto, a personal enemy, we are caught and hanged to death. Somehow, killing for the state is more acceptable than killing for personal reasons. One gets us medals, the other is termed murder.

That said, the state is just an imagined community. It is neither biological, nor organic. And once we have it, we get down to creating a nation around it through what the French scholar, Ernest Renan, called ‘selective amnesia’ by which term he meant that the narrative must be controlled in ways that allow highlighting certain aspects and forgetting others.

During the years that I lectured at the Command and Staff College and when I speak at the National Defence University, I flag the point that the entity for which we are prepared to lay down our lives exists only in our imagination. It’s a provocative point for sure, especially when made before officers who have taken an oath to defend the motherland, another term used to invoke powerful imagery of defending the mother’s honour. But it’s an important point. The two armies that have fought wars since 1947 were once one army. In 1947-48, as well as in 1965, the two sides facing each other were often commanded by former comrades-in-arms. It’s a lesser-known fact that when Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinlek realized that Partition was inevitable, he made a last ditch attempt to propose that the British Indian Army must not be divided. It was too late and his proposal, under the circumstances, was too impractical but it does show how the British looked at the army they had created and which, to wit, on both sides, remains the most organized and coherent organization.

Sixty-seven years ago, this month, Pakistan came into being. Sixty-seven years down the line, while we have travelled a long distance from the ragtag state we inherited, we have also lost on many fronts. The first shock was 1971. Even today, trouble simmers in parts of Balochistan, some sections of Sindhis and Seraikis and up north in Gilgit-Baltistan. It is not enough to say that these elements do not matter or that they are a minority. What is important to note is the point, proven once again, that states are imagined. Their reality lies in the strength of that imagination. And the strength of that imagination and the pride one takes in it is about state-society relations. It is neither about the strength of a state’s army nor its arsenal: it is about legitimacy.

As I once wrote elsewhere: “States, ultimately, are as strong or brittle as their acceptance by the people that make them up. Nazih Ayubi’s thesis comes to mind, distinguishing between ‘hard’ and ‘strong’ states. Ayubi argued that the authoritarian Arab states had little ability to control populations, trends and changes which is why they could not enforce laws and break traditional structures. The hard state coerces; the strong state achieves its goals because it is accepted by its people. By this definition, the Arab states were/are weak states.”

We will be celebrating the birth of Pakistan this month, as we should. But equally, we must remember that ceremonies alone do not keep a state together. Nor do national songs and speeches bristling with literary flourish. Nation building in some ways is the same as training for combat. The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. The more you invest in appreciating the complex, hard work required by political aggregation the less likely will it be for people to challenge the legitimacy of the state.

This article was originally published in the August issue of Hilal, the Armed Forces’ magazine. https://www.pakistanarmy.gov.pk/AWPReview/TextContent.aspx?pId=382

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