National question and the state

Europe is recognised to be the birth place of the modern national state. The processes of ethnic consolidation and socio political development triggered by industrial revolution and followed by democratic transformation between 15th and 19th centuries were supposed to have shaped the phenomenon. In some cases there were relatively more united national entities such as Dutch and Portuguese nations that gave birth to states catering for the needs of these entities. In other cases such as France and Italy, the birth of modern democratic state led to the consolidation of national identities. In Germany and Italy campaigns by nationalists are supposed to have played a role in the emergence of national state. Marxism regards the capitalist interests of national bourgeoisie for enjoying hegemony over national markets to have played a determining role in shaping national identities leading to the formation of the national states. The Westphalian treaty of 1498 played an important role in providing a conducive external framework to national state by formally recognizing sanctity of the sovereignty and national borders of all European states including monarchies, empires and republics. By 19th century the nation state had become such an impressive model that most of the newly emerging post colonial states in Asia, Africa and Latin America started fashioning themselves after this model although many of them weren’t even close to being a nation state by any stretch of imagination. Actually this line of thinking became a basis for the subsequent suppression and exploitation of smaller nations and nationalities.

Be that as it may the recent wave of dramatic secessionist movements by smaller ethnic entities from the so called national states in Europe has exposed the limits of this model. Catalonia in Spain, Basque in Italy and Scots in UK are well known ( although not the only) examples. Spain, Italy and UK are established democracies with a long history of representative governments. But that is mainly in terms of vertical representation. There are serious problems in horizontal democracy, in recognizing and including smaller ethno-cultural entities that are different from the predominantly nationality. These are unitary state systems that have failed to correctly tackle the question of autonomy and devolution of power. As a member of the Parliamentary Committee On Constitutional Amendment in 2009/2010 and sustainability as a member of the Implementation Commission in 2010/2011 I had very interesting experience in this regard. After the passage and the initial implementation of the 18th Constitutional Amendment members of the Implementation Commission led by Senator Raza Rabani were invited by UK government in July 2011 for a visit to exchange experience on devolution of power from central government to provinces/regions. Our delegation met authorities in London who were dealing with the issue at the level of central government. After that we also payed visits to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. We found no clarity on the question of national character of UK. We were told in London that formally UK is a national state but informally it can also be considered a multinational state. We also learnt that the process of devolution of power was asymmetrical. The type of autonomy granted to Scotland was different from the one granted to Northern Ireland. It was interesting to know that UK cannot adopt federalism because it doesn’t have a written constitution. Even more interesting was the response to our question about a future written constitution for UK. We were told, “ no we can’t do that. We have been ruled by conventions which are so contradictory that if reduced to writing they wouldn’t marry together “. These are the dilemmas of the old states in Europe leading to the recent challenges.

But national question as a serious challenge to the state system has also surfaced in many parts of Asia and Africa where the dominant ethnic and national groups have refused to recognize ethnic and cultural diversity and give it the required political and constitutional space in the state system. Many so called republics are in actual fact prisons for oppressed nations. The Kurd question in West Asia is a case in point. Kurd nation is divided in four adjacent countries namely Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. All these four states have adopted extremely oppressive policies towards Kurds. They have even tried to deconstruct Kurdish identity and absorb it by force into Arab, Turkish and Iranian identities. Kurds have long history full of sacrifices for gaining their legitimate rights. The result of the recent Kurdish referendum in Iraq has proved that imperial arrogance of the dominant national groups can just delay autonomy/freedom by force but it can’t deny it forever. States can save their unity only by consistently recognizing and internalizing both vertical and horizontal democracy.

In Indian sub continent the national liberation movement was fragmented by communal divisions before the departure of British raj that created complications. But the question of autonomy and devolution of power was at the core of partition of India. It is therefore surprising that both India and Pakistan even after the traumatic experience of partition on this question failed to properly tackle the issue of handling ethno-cultural diversity and devolution of power. Pakistan had to face disintegration in 1971 after its failure in shaping and implementing a federal democratic constitutional system. India as a state has remained united so far but it is also facing serious challenges on the question of regional autonomy. Although Indian Union recognizes sub nationalisms but Indian federation has failed to devolve powers to the states to become a genuine equitable federation. Situation in Jammu and Kashmir has aggravated because the BJP government has not only failed to respond to the aspiration of Kashmiri people but it is even threatening to snatch whatever little autonomy the Kashmiris have. Situation in the north eastern states remains dismal. Pakistan opted for a federal constitution in 1973 and the 18th Amendment (2010) has been important step on the path of devolution of power to provinces. But the federation here remains imbalanced because of the two things. First is the brute majority of one federating unit Punjab over the rest of the three federating units put together and the second is absolute dominance of Punjab in civil and military bureaucracy. Far from being neutral constitutional entity the federal set up permanently remains an extension of the Punjabi ruling elites.

Unless the multinational countries, both new or old, consistently adopt and implement principles of federalism they will face the challenges of centrifugal forces culminating into disintegration.

Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs

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