The Narrator




                                                    Issues in Development:  The State of the Nation


Student:  Whether in Punjab, Assam, or Jammu and Kashmir, India seems to be going up in flames.


Teacher:  Is today's dialogue about the falling apart of India?  "The centre cannot hold," as Yeats put it?


Student:  Actually, haven't people been saying that for several years?


Teacher:  The threat of seccession has always been used to get a better deal from the Union.  You may recall that DMK politicians burnt the national flag and the constitution on their way to power.


Student:  So do you think that India will never fall apart, but will go on and on for ever?


Teacher:  The physical or conceptual boundaries of any state are never fixed, but always changing.  The map of the world gets redrawn every thirty or forty years.


Student:  I was amazed to see a pre-World War II map of Europe.  All the national boundaries were different.


Teacher:  Even in the last twenty years, how many new nations have been reborn or have changed boundaries.


Student:  Germany, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, to name only a few.


Teacher:  Even the boundaries of India have changed since independence.  We lost a part of Kashmir to Pakistan and another part to China.  We annexed

Goa and Sikkim.  And so on.


Student:  So is the stability of the nation state a myth?


Teacher:  The idea of a people, a civilization, a cultural group, or a way of life persists.  The geographical, political, and military entity changes.  Think of Tibet.  It's been gobbled up by China, but the idea of Tibet persists in the minds of the Tibetans, even when the geographical and political entity has vanished.


Student:  So is this a goodbye to nationalism?


Teacher:  There is nothing sacrosanct about the idea of a nation.  In fact, a nation is a convenience.


Student:  You mean that the moment Khalistan will be convenient to the majority of Sikhs, then they'll get their own state?


Teacher:  This idea of getting one's own state for a particular group of people on the basis of language, religion, race, or some other binding factor is a big myth.

No group is totally pure and cohesive.  It always has minorities, factions, sub-groups.

Take the Sikhs themselves.  They have so many internal dissensions--caste differences, vocational differences, and so on.  Will Khalistan be in everyone's interest?  And what will they do with the 40% or so Hindus still in Punjab?


Student:  Their slogan has been "Raj karega Khalsa."


Teacher:  But that's precisely the point--they want to rule, they want power.  And within any democratic set-up, that's legitimate.


Student:  Then how would you define terrorism?


Teacher:  Terrorism is the use of violence for political ends.


Students:  One would have thought that terrorism is violence for the sake of violence.


Teacher:  But who can afford that?  Terrorism, no doubt, has an economic base.  Someone has to pay the bill.  But its ends are political.  The way to deal with it is to make non-violent ways of negotiating with the state more rewarding than violent ones.


Student:  You mean, never take the terrorist literally?


Teacher:  Precisely.  He may say I want to leave.  But if you give him his own room in the house, he may simply stay back.


Student:  But aren't you worried about the escalating violence in our life?


Teacher:  Of course, we must see very clearly that violence cannot solve human problems.  Violence is simply a coping device, an escape from a reality which is too unbearable.  After the blood letting, we find the initial problem still staring us in the face.

    That's because we cannot destroy the enemy.  The enemy, our Other, will persist forever.  We must learn to live with him.  We must make our peace with him.

    Look at what's happening in Sri Lanka.  There's an unending cycle of violence and counter-violence between the state and the LTTE.  India intervened, but couldn't solve the problem.  And, in a sense, there's no solution but for the Sinhalese and the Tamils to learn to co-exist. Neither can finish of the other.


Student:  Closer home, what about the ideology of Khalistan?


Teacher:  Are the Sikhs a people, a nation?  Are Muslims a people, a nation?  Are Hindus a people, a nation?  No, no, no.  The concept of a theorcratic state is a failure except in certain exceptional cases.  The ideology of Pakistan failed with the breaking away of Bangladesh. Similarly, the Israelis haven't figured out what to do with the Palestinians.  They want a democratic state for themselves, but they want to give no rights to the Palestinians.  That's a bit like the regime in South Africa.  They have very liberal government for the whites, but the blacks have no rights at all.  There is a fundamental contradiction in such states which will eventually tear them apart. 

    Any state which gives rights to people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, race, or some other reason is trying to realize a contradiction. People deserve a certain form of government not because they are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or Christians, but because they are human beings.


Student:  But how to apply all this to India?


Teacher:  Talk to the terrorists.  Always keep the door open for negotiations.  Decentralize as much as possible.  Safeguard civil liberties.  And most importantly, make elections, not guns, the avenue to power.


Student:  I never understood politics.  Different groups of people are always trying to take over.  We never have a state which satisfies everyone.


Teacher:  No state is completely just.  It is always ruled by a specific group, like the house of Saud in Saudia Arabia.  There are dynasties, tribal affiliations, vested interests, and class groupings who wield power. The whole quest for power and the maintenance of it are horrible nightmares.

    Even in India, the jockeying for power is pretty ruthless.  There are seccessionst groups like the Punjabi, Assamese, and Kashmiri extremists and there are those like the naxalites who want to usher in the revolution. Everyone disgruntled in the present order wants it modified or overthrown. And they all offer so much more justice, equality, security, or if they are less sophisticated, power to some one group or the other.

    Gandhi detested this very drive to power.  That's why in his utopia, the state itself would wither away, leaving citizens to live in maximum freedom.  The only law would be self-regulation.  The only authority he recognized was that of the conscience.


Student:  So Gandhi was an anarchist?


Teacher:  Something like that.  The point is that human beings have not found the perfect form of government or social organization.  Even if such perfection were possible theoretically, in actuality, the form of government which ensues may be very unsatisfactory.


Student:  Among the present systems, which do you prefer?


Teacher:  I suppose, I would call it democratic socialism.  Plenty of freedom for the individual with a minimum standard of living guaranteed by the state. This is what we wish to do in India, but you know the contradictions that we face.


Student:  What about secularism?


Teacher:  No, if it means an irreligious, modern way of life, but yes if it means the separation of church and state.  To be ruled by religious leaders--priests, mullas, khazis, mahants, or sants because they are priests, mullas, khazis, mahants, or sants would be abhorrent.


Student:  That's why the idea of Khalistan is so repulsive.  Who are these so called "pure" people?  Who are they to dictate to you what to eat, what to wear, what to read, and so on.  These are forces of reaction and repression.  I can only think of unmitigated catastrophy if they come to power.


Teacher:  All authoritarian regimes are, similarly, repulsive.  Whether it's Indira Gandhi's emergency, or BJP's Hindutva, or Rajiv's yuppie India.


Student:  As we end this dialogue, I find that you have left most questions unanswered.  Will India stay together or fall apart?  Will our experiment in democracy succeed?  Will we be able to evolve a more just and equitable form of government?  In a word, will we survive as a nation?


Teacher:  Whether we survive or not is up to us.  It's up to all our politicians, bureaucrats, judges, journalists, teachers, businessmen, farmers, workers, and peasants--in short it is up to the people of India.

       Let us not waste the opportunity that we have earned through our freedom struggle, the opportunity to shape our destinies, to fashion our future.  Let us accept our responsibility and safeguard our rights.

    Because if we fail, we shall have no one to blame but ourselves.


Student:  But what can the common man do?


Teacher:  As Carlyle would put it, "do thy duty that is nearest thee."     If you really want to do something worthwhile, you'll find the way to do it.




  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape