The perils of nationalism in a fluid, mobile world

The perils of nationalism in a fluid, mobile world

By RAGINI BHUYAN | | 26 January, 2013
Public outrage against the recent gang-rape case at India Gate
Arjun Appadurai, professor of Media, Culture & Communication at New York University, speaks to Ragini Bhuyan about the challenges facing the nation-state in the wake of globalisation.

In Fear of Small Numbers, you argued that the majoritarian fear of minority groups is a fundamentally modern/post-modern phenomenon. How has globalization aggravated this?

A. Globalisation has had two large effects on this problem — ideas about equality, affirmative action, equity, inclusion, have now spread dramatically from society to society, often through organised transitional social movements, otherwise simply through knowledge, information and the internet.

On the other hand, the troubling part is that modern nation states are increasingly caught between the demands of their citizens and the pressures of the global market and in that process they find it very difficult to deal with internal dissent of any type, especially that which comes from minorities. The state itself feels squeezed and pressed, and can react aggressively, and when it does so, it often reacts with the support and complicity of the majority.

Q. How do you think this genocidal impulse is playing out in India? Who is at the receiving end? How are such communities reacting?

A. There is a wide range of social groups that are experiencing one or the other aspect of this. The best place to begin is with Dalits. For at least 20 to 30 years, they are experiencing new forms of oppression and repression which are tied to their growing role in the public sphere, both through politics and affirmative action policies, and it's evident that those who have something to lose from this are also becoming increasingly aggressive; they implicitly tend to be a middle to upper caste reaction which is often a Hindu one.

The second group that is facing even more naked aggression is tribals. Everyone knows that the tribal belt is very closely allied with the red belt which runs from Nepal to South India, a mineral rich belt. That is the second place where I am seeing minorities who are supposed to have a large number of rights under our constitution, not in a position to exercise those rights, being exploited just because they are sitting on a great deal of wealth.

The third group and that is the most recent, is a minority group, not necessarily in a demographic but cultural sense. This group is constituted of women. For example, the recent Nirbhaya case shows perhaps the most troubling version of this, which embodies anger and rage about the public presence and assertion of women, who are barely a minority but are in conceptual terms seen as minor figures in the household and so on.

Finally, we have all these movements in the North-East, Kashmir and so on, which are also displaying the kind of inability of the nation state to have delivered serious inclusion to all kinds of political minorities, who are therefore now asserting their rights either in politics, or though global public opinion, or through violence.

The original nation-state model is itself a bit of a fiction, as it was imposed even in the West with great force. But in the era of globalisation where market forces are so disrespectful of national borders, it’s even more acute.

Q. Globalisation has challenged nationalism and the idea of 'ethnos' underpinning the nation-state. Across Europe, there has been the rise of right-wing rhetoric against immigrants and minorities. In India's peripheral North-Eastern states, tribal communities are afraid of becoming minorities in their own spaces in the light of labour migration from Bangladesh and mainland India. Do you think legislation can really fight against this flow of labour that flows from the laws of economics?

A. You have rightly pointed out that this is an aspect of the market, and what we are seeing in places like the Gulf and Switzerland and earlier all over the European Union is that throughout they wanted people from Eastern Europe and from the Islamic world to come to do their dirty work but not express any voice otherwise. That is clearly not viable. People come and absorb new ideas about citizenship and rights, and that's true everywhere, so the nation-state is in a bind because it cannot function in an economic island, but it wants to still assert its power, who is the legitimate population and so on, the temptation is to deal with it through surveillance, control and force. The better approach is indeed through public debate, public policy, legislation.

But that requires a very difficult thing, which is to move out of the nation state as a self-governing sovereign unit, and recognize that there are a lot of demographic and population flows that need to be accommodated creatively. This means all democratic societies have to make room for a variety of citizens and allow them a range of place which balances the needs of say historical national citizenship against the needs of a temporary, diasporic or partial citizenship. But the original nation state model, with the idea of the people as being bounded in a certain space, having a certain historical identity, is itself a bit of a fiction, as it was imposed even in the West with great force in France, Germany etc. where regional identities had to be forced kicking and screaming into new nation states. So it's not a new problem, but in the era of globalisation where market forces are so disrespectful of national borders, it's even more acute.

Q. James Scott in Seeing Like A State has described the problem that nation-states face with nomadic, mobile populations within their borders. He argued that states always prefer to have settled populations.

A. Of course he is right that there is a historical discomfort of the modern nation state with mobile groups, but the point is that mobility is now a global condition. Many groups are mobile, many groups have multiple loyalties, and these loyalties are not always well defined. His analysis is very relevant, but seeing like a state is even more a problem in this age of globalisation than it was, say two hundred years ago.

Q. Can you comment on the Indian mediascape and its narratives of nationalism? Specifically with respect to the war-mongering and Pakistan-baiting that has ensued in the light of the recent tensions unfolding in the LoC?

A. I think there are two fundamental difficulties and they flow from the fact that India and Pakistan were created by the British in the partition mode which also happened in Ireland, in Palestine — the problem of creating national entities arbitrarily. As far as India is concerned, it is evident that Pakistan and its military and security forces are a kind of symbol of all the other kinds of threats that the Indian state is facing. It's the most explicit threat, it's the most easy one against which to deploy nationalist sentiment, it's tough against Mizos, or Sikhs in Punjab, or Telangana.

Pakistan is convenient. I think it's a crutch for Indian nationalism and India would do much better to focus on its real problems and not use Pakistan as a crutch for all its problems.

On the other side, of course, Pakistan is one of the most fragile, vulnerable and volatile societies in the world — a nuclear power, a large society with a large army, and between the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISI, army and the civil forces, nobody knows who controls the state, and each day we see that crisis deepening.

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