Ethnic polarisation : An unwanted gift of ethno-centric nationalism

Yenning *

Manipur Maps showing the different districts
Manipur Maps showing the different districts :: Pix - TSE

One political analyst has defined nationalism as a set of political beliefs which holds that a nation a body of individuals with characteristics that purportedly distinguish them from other individuals should have its own state. Nationalism need not be malevolent in nature, but may simply remain a benevolent (soft) nationalism, in which a nation is merely taking pride in its accomplishments, characteristics, etc. However, benevolent nationalism has frequently been turned into malevolent (or hyper) nationalism by governments or other forms of political organisations in order to mobilize the masses in support of national security policies or in pursuit of certain aspirations particularly when they will require sacrifice on the part of those same masses.

Hyper-nationalism can best be described as the belief that other nations or nation-states are both inferior and threatening, and must therefore be dealt with harshly as espoused by the Nazi Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler in the 20th century. Malevolent nationalism or hyper-nationalism always assume it essential to project a ubiquitous enemy, whether real or imagined. In the case of Nazi Germany, it was the Jews who were painted as the irreconcilable enemies of the German people.

Nationalism as Cause of Ethnic Conflicts

As discussed in the essays published earlier in the same column of Hoi Polloi and Mundanity, nationalism can be broadly classified into civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. Though these two types of nationalism have their own merits and demerits, it is the latter which is potentially dangerous, more particularly so in multi ethnic societies. Centrality of nation and state is common in both the genres of nationalism but conceptually precedence and areas of stress are quite different to the point of contradiction.

According to the general understanding of civic nationalism, nationhood is defined by having common citizenship. A civic nation consists of all those who subscribe to its political creed, regardless of ethnicity or race, colour, religion, gender or language. Again, a civic nation is in principle a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.

A civic nation is "democratic" in the sense that it vests sovereignty in all of the people (all citizens); a civic nation-state claims self-governing rights and rights for its citizens vis-a-vis other nation-states. Civic nationalism is exemplified by creation of British nation-state in the late 18th century out of the English, the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish united by a civic rather than an ethnic definition of belonging & by attachment to civic institutions like the parliament and the rule of law. Civic nationalism is also exemplified by the French and American Revolutions which created the French and American republics and put forth civic nationalism as a world embracing project.

On the contrary, in ethnic nationalism, nationhood is defined by language, religion, customs and traditions. According to ethnic nationalists, it is not the state that creates the nation but the nation that creates the state. According to them the glue that holds people together is not shared political rights but pre-existing ethnic characteristics. European ethnic nationalism is exemplified by Germany's reaction to Napoleon's invasion in 1806 and Germany's "Romantic" reaction against the French ideal of the nation-state. The German ideal of ethnic nationalism appealed to the peoples of 19th century Europe who were under imperial domination Poles and Baltic peoples under the Russian Empire, Serbs under the Turkish rule (Ottoman Empire), and Croats under the Habsburgs (Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Some of the contrasting points between these two fundamental concepts of nationalism are, civic nationalists put their faith in law, choice, rational attachment and unity by consent whereas ethnic nationalists are more fascinated by common roots or ancestry, inheritance, emotional attachment and unity by ascription. Again, when civic nationalists view citizenship, Supreme Court and national flag as the primary symbols of their nationhood, ethnic nationalists have more regard for their birth of place, town hall, tribe council, etc. By nature, civic nationalism is inclusive as opposed to ethnic nationalism which always tends to be exclusive.

The very exclusive characteristic of ethnic nationalism is the fundamental cause of ethnic conflicts in multi ethnic societies. Assertion for dominance and fear for assimilation into pluralistic society, uncanny attachment to ethnic identity are some other factors which often lead to ethnic-based conflicts. The tragedy is, ethnic nationalism predominates civic nationalism in most underdeveloped states. This is exactly what is happening in Manipur.

Manipur, the Boiling Pot of Ethnic Nationalism

Ethnic nationalism has virtually reached its epitome in Manipur with one ethnic group demanding a separate state of their own and another shouting with full vigour and violence for alternative arrangement outside the Government of Manipur pending settlement to the Indo-Naga (sic NSCN-IM) political dialogue. Leaving aside the questions of rationale and feasibility of these demands, it is clear that there are some deep entrenched grievances, and distrust and fear of each other.

The Manipur situation is all the more intriguing if one takes into account the steadfast stance of the third party which holds the territorial integrity of Manipur as the most sacrosanct, something untouchable under any circumstances. In fact, it is the third party against which the first two parties target all their political salvos in the name of salvaging themselves from exploitation by the majority. This does not mean the first two are under any form of consonance or any position of reconciliation. The third party just happens to be their common adversary yet they themselves are no friends by any yardstick. The third party happens to be common adversary because it wants to maintain status quo of the present day Manipur vis--vis territory as against the demands of the first two to disintegrate the state.

The demands for alternative arrangement and separate state as well as the seemingly non-negotiable stance to preserve territorial integrity of Manipur are all fuelled and fired by strong undercurrents of nationalism. It is clearly the case of ethnic nationalism which is driving the political agenda of separate state and alternative arrangement. As for the third party, it is not yet well defined which stream of nationalism is inspiring them to maintain status quo of the state.

Evidently, it cannot be a case ethnic nationalism as the pluralistic character of Manipur must be preserved and promoted. If it is civic nationalism, then, there must be no place for chauvinism, dominance or imposition of majority rule. The third party need to raise above the position of superiority it once enjoyed in the historical past. Chauvinism should make way for equal partnership and power sharing.

Most important of all, the third party need to develop and promote such values, systems and symbols which can identify and be identified with by all the ethnic groups, rather than imposing its own will or tradition. Yet, we cannot guarantee that embracing civic nationalism in its true spirit and principle would resolve all the conflicts but it would certainly serve as a landmark stride towards promoting and demystifying the pluralistic character of Manipur. Over and above, it can lay a strong foundation for evolvement of Manipur into a progressive nation in the future.

If these are the proposals then the need of the hour is giving a patient hearing to the aggrieved parties. However, mere listening cannot bring about any changes. The need of the hour is to enter into dialogues. But for this homework is needed. For example, how far Manipur is ready to negotiate on capitals such as land and resources? Does awarding autonomy and giving in to political demands necessitate giving away control over land, resources, forest, rivers, etc. to the newly formed autonomous councils?

In other words, what should be the limit and scope of negotiation? But assuming Manipur retains control over these items, will the aggrieved parties agree to the terms of agreement. Yenning does not foresee a tangible atmosphere of peace in the near future, as the very basis of demands of both the Manipuri Nagas and the Kukis are on land and resources. Genocide of Kukis by NSCN-IM was precisely to claim over the land and use it as a political capital.

But today, autonomy and control over land and resources have become the unifying element for both these parties. In this confusing political scenario, the Manipuri Nagas and the Kukis are no longer enemies but political partners who are hell bent on claiming and control over these assets. If this is the case, then, should the modality of the negotiation centre around sharing of the assets. It is a complex scenario but we believe, ultimately, this is the only viable option if at all a situation of negotiation arises.

Majority Manipuris can no longer be lost in the purple haze of history or the historical sanctity of its territorial integrity. Negotiations can unmake history and create new ones. The issue is how far Manipur is ready to give, and in return what does it get.

Still, we do not believe sacrificing the territorial integrity of Manipur to fulfil the quests driven by ethnic nationalism would serve any any political or social purpose in the long run. Rather it would be suicidal for all the indigenous peoples.

* Yenning wrote this article for The Sangai Express as part of "Hoi Polloi And Mundanity" Column
This article was posted on March 03, 2013

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