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The nation-state tests its limits

May 17, 2012 21:17 IST

Last week, as I was driving to work past Gowalia Tank Maidan in Mumbai, I could not help but wonder what the gentlemen assembled there on August 8, 1942 would have made of some recent events. The call they had issued that day to the British Raj government to "Quit India" resulted five years later in the Indian nation-state, one whose edicts within its geographic borders would be absolute and unchallenged.

But here we are, a mere 60 years later, on April 13, 2012, observing the Indian nation-state's edicts being flouted -- the Delhi high court had issued an injunction that a 13-minute video depicting the private sexual activity of a public figure not be published, telecast or broadcast, even as it was available for all to see on the internet websites hosted outside India.

A key element of what those serious men at Gowalia Tank sought 60 years ago, the "sovereignty" of the Indian nation-state, appeared no longer valid.

The concept of a nation-state and its all-encompassing authority to act for the common good is so entrenched in our beliefs that it is easy to believe that in the modern world, every person should "have" a "nation" as obviously as he must have a gender.

When asked, we easily produce a "passport" certifying that we are citizens of a "nation"; one cannot imagine a life of not being a citizen of some "nation". We readily rise to defend the interests of our "nation". We stand up when a "national" anthem is sung and readily salute the "national" flag. Our hearts swell with pride when our "national" teams win in sporting events.

In other words, we take it for granted that the "nation" is the natural and only way that the world can be organised. Yet, as Benedict Anderson famously pointed out, a nation is an "imagined community"-- the citizens of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, nor would they meet or even hear of them. Yet, in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. Nations have been "invented" in their minds -- with finite boundaries, sovereignty, and fraternal feelings among its members.

For all its assumed antiquity, the nation-state is quite a recent invention and gained ground in the 1870-1914 period, says Eric Hobsbawm in his book Nations and Nationalism.

He points to the extraordinary social conditions of that period which gave rise to the notion of "us" as different from "foreigners". The first of these was the onrush of modernity as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the widespread deployment of the railway system, which made many traditional elites feel threatened.

The second was the rise of a non-traditional middle class in the urban centres. And the third, he says, was the unprecedented transcontinental migrations of that period: the Irish and East Europeans to North America, the Spanish and Portuguese to South America and the Africans to the Caribbean and the United States. The sheer weight and pace of change in this period, he says, was fertile ground for political entrepreneurs to make the case that it was inferior treatment by "others" or by the ruling class that caused discontent.

Maps were commissioned marking geographic boundaries; museums were built testifying to the ancientness of the claim of nationhood; and, most of all, official languages were proclaimed in each nation-state.

The sun started setting on continents spanning empires, city-states and confederations such as the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs, and in their place sprang "nations" such as Germany and Italy.

Nation-states, over the years, have been followed by mechanisms for co-operation between them: the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the International Telecommunication Union, to name a few.

Unfortunately, nation-states, particularly the powerful ones, are known to co-operate on interstate issues that suit them and choose to ignore other issues. For example, the world has always needed a string of no-questions-where-you-get-the-money-from jurisdictions like Switzerland, Cayman Islands and Lichtenstein, and decades-long efforts at co-operation between nations to rein them in have not succeeded.

On the other hand, strong mechanisms have been developed to enforce patents and other forms of intellectual property.

One can see a similar trend in interstate matters concerning the internet. If an adventuresome entrepreneur in, say, Bolivia were to set up a website using the "rediff" brand name, it would only take a few weeks and a few thousand rupees in legal fees to stop him: elaborate safeguards and rules have already evolved under the World Intellectual Property Organisation to ensure that.

But no law or interstate agreement today exists to enforce the Delhi High Court's injunction on the offending video.

I guess the men who gathered at Gowalia Tank in August 1942 to call for an Indian nation-state lived in a world far simpler than ours.

Ajit Balakrishnan