Sunday, July 5, 2009

Learning to Live Together: Towards a Civic Nationalism

We live in an imperfect world. Acknowledging the inadequacies as well as limitations imposed by mechanisms of exclusivity, “people” have been “driven” to forge (or at least attempting) to widen their sense of belongingness. Thus, identities are crafted through conglomeration of clans, tribes, ethnicity, race or nationality believing that vision of a nation and the desire for a better world can dispense deprivation, oppression, exploitation and so on. The idea of a nation and crafting one is political action that promises vision of a perfect society. Once formalized, ironically, one is back to the earlier position and continues to be confined from an inescapable trap of exclusivity. Take the cases of process of forging unity within each set of identity, as witnessed today in Manipur. They leave no scope to an individual native to have an idea which differs from the set political idea that is the very will of architect of the nation. This is the problem unsettling our existence and weakness of the vision of unity itself which is based on exclusivity. Possibility of the vision is supposedly measured on the nature and strength of nationalism, propagated and instilled, as a way of gathering the people for a political purpose. Thus, ethno-nationalism is taken to be the strongest and only imaginable alternative of mobilizing the people as far as experiences in Manipur indicate.
Two Possibilities: The French or the German Way
Yenning believes Manipur has two models, the French or German way, to anchor her vision of better if not a perfect nation to gather her people. The French Revolution of 1789 is considered to be the mother of modern nationalism. The ideology of modern nationalism is supposed to have a “vision.” That vision is to make the national unit and the political unit congruent. When the French Revolution declared the “nation to be the base of political sovereignty,” the idea was to enunciate civic nationalism as different from ethno-nationalism. The nation was conceived to be the people of all sorts including various minorities. The base of that kind of nationalism or civic nationalism was considered to be “the rights of man and the citizen.” The origins of civic nationalism could be traced to that revolution.
In contrast, the origin of ethno-nationalism was mainly in Germany. The two thinkers who enunciated ethno-nationalism at the onset of the 19th century were Johann Fichte and Johann Herder. According to them, people are eternally divided into nations. The proof of this division is the language. The meaning that they gave to nation is equivalent to race or ethnicity. The nation is a collectivity. It is like the body. Nationalism is its sole. The State of Ethnicity is the embodiment of both the body and the sole.
The distinction between civic nationalism and ethno-nationalism was first made by Hans Kohn in 1940 (The Idea of Nationalism). One reason to make that distinction was the experience in Germany under Nazism based on Fascist ideology. The emergence of the two types of nationalism was also observed vaguely by Ernest Renan as far back as 1882 when he wrote Qu’est–ce qu’une Nation? (What is a Nation?). The reason again was the distinction between nationalism in France and Germany.
Civic nationalism has only a functional or utility value. While ethno-nationalism is exclusive, civic nationalism is not. Civic nationalism is inclusive of diversity, pluralism and democracy. While the contrast between the two types of nationalism is considerable, in social reality they may exist side by side. The issue is what is dominant in a particular country and what the guiding principles of nationalism are.
Civic nationalism has proved to be quite useful in achieving the vision of national unity (if not congruence) in many countries that have advanced economically, socially and politically. The natural advantage of being socially homogeneous is obviously rare in countries. Only less than a dozen of countries might claim for the qualification today such as countries like Finland, Denmark, two Koreas, and perhaps Japan. Yet many of them are internally diverse or becoming increasingly multi-ethnic due to migration.
Relevance of Civic Nationalism to Manipur
One may question the relevance of the distinction between civic nationalism and ethno-nationalism to Manipur. Another may go even further and reject the relevance of foreign or “Western notions” at all to Manipur. Whatever may be the reservations, Manipur’s present predicament is related to these two notions directly and indirectly.
This does not mean that Manipur acquired these two notions one from France and the other from Germany. France and Germany are only two examples where these two notions appeared in distinct forms in the Western hemisphere. That is also not completely correct. While civic nationalism was predominant in France, there is evidence of ethno-nationalism appearing intermittently undermining civic nationalism at times. This was the case in Germany as well. Before Hitler came to power, there were attempts at forging nationalism on civic grounds under the Weimar Republic (1918–1933). Social Democracy was the main ideology that facilitated civic nationalism in Germany at that time.
The emergence of nationalism is related to modern socio-economic changes. In the process of modernization and nation building or one may say in the course of capitalist development, many countries both in the West and the East have zigzagged between civic nationalism and ethno-nationalism. Manipur is no exception. But the question is for how long Manipur could afford to go along in this tortuous path with instability and uncertainty. In the case of Manipur, it is not just a question of instability or uncertainty. Ethno-nationalism in various camps has led to internal conflict with over thousand deaths and state of mistrust among ethnic groups.
At the same time, one should also accept the fact that embryonic form of civic nationalism was visible towards end of 1930s. The idea of Manipur, formalized through years of monarchial rule had the most powerful challenge, when Manipur started demanding for responsible government from the British Colonial power. For instance, dropping of the word “Hindu” from the Nikhil Manipuri Hindu Maha Sabha (which spearheaded demand for responsible government) at the Chinga Session of 1938 under the leadership of Hijam Irabot is a case in point. Although the proclamation of the Chinga Session was largely directed against the religious exploitation and social persecution carried out by the Brahmins and the king, core underlying ideology was the recognition of plurality of identities in terms of religion, tribe and ethnicity.
The first phase of armed struggle confined in the valley areas in the 1950s was largely informed by the reality of plurality of identities in Manipur and rode on the wave of civic nationalism. One may even cite the synergy that developed between the hill and valley communities in the demand for statehood. Even the second phase in the early 1960s and 1970s used civic nationalism as a means of gathering the people for liberation of Manipur. However, armed organisations that sprang up in the 1990s in the valley are characterized by hard core nationalist agenda and are (mis)read by other camps as chauvinists fighting for a particular community or driven by ethno-nationalism.
The building of civic nationalism does not mean the eradication or suppression of all ethnic or religious affiliation or feelings. It means the transcendence of parochial or narrow ethnic or religious feelings for the greater good of all communities. Civic nationalism does recognize the importance of ethnic identity whether of the majority or the minorities. But there is no possibility of recognizing one or one against the other.
But in Manipur one may find many other additional reasons such as the pre-modern social influences, distortions in the democratic system or the “dark side of it,” (in the words of Michael Mann) or divide and rule policy of colonialism, to mention only a few. There is no question that Manipur still faced a vortex of problems which can be traced back to pre 1947 British colonialism. The issues of territory, official language, and fragmented politics at various levels etc. were some of them. In this regard one should not blame only to the parties of the majority community but also to the parties of the minority communities. The nature of demands for nations purely on the grounds of ethnicity and religion has created a situation in which cooperation on national policy of Manipur has become a distant dream. This is the predicament of ethno-nationalism as far as Manipur is concerned.
Way Forward
There is no meaning in arguing who started ethno-nationalism first or who should be blamed most. There is no possibility to say one type of ethno-nationalism is better than the other. All types of ethno-nationalism are detrimental to national or human progress. The only exception can be the fact that minority communities do have disadvantages than a majority community in general because of numbers and political power. This has to be recognized.
The question, however, is how to forge civic nationalism in the future while recognizing ethnic identities and their separate interests which are not detrimental to national unity. There is no possibility of de-ethnicizing people whether they belong to the majority community or the minority communities.
Civic nationalism is the overarching glue for national unity of any country. But it cannot be forged instantly. The most important might be to forge possible unity, solidarity and cooperation among the leaders of all communities to do away with ethno-nationalism and to seek solutions on the lines and in strengthening civic nationalism.
(posted on The Sangai Express, Imphal, Sunday, July 5, 2009)

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