Nation and State

The Imphal Free Press
May 11 2010

Political science students would vouch that between the “state” and the “nation”, there is a sea of difference. The “nation” is an imagined community as Benedict Anderson says, and indeed it is this imagination which binds together people into political identities. After all, how many people can an individual know personally and strike up rapport with? If the average of contacts saved in individual cell phones were to be taken for the entire Indian nation, probably it would be about 300 or less. Yet, the nation is over a billion strong, and all are supposed to share bondage of a common identity. This feat only “imagining” can achieve. But for this imagined community to have a tangible sustainable architectural, it must have a state as its backbone. The state in this sense is a political mechanism invariably involving a centralised bureaucracy (or government) with a definite hierarchy of functionaries and institutions to run its political and economic administrations optimally. When this twin projects of national “imagining” and “state” formation not only succeed, but becomes congruent, a “nation-state” can result. As many would agree, this can be a no mean accomplishment. The state can fail, so can the “imagining” that makes a nation.

There are also a few interesting deduction any keen observers would have noticed in both the processes of “nation” formation and “state” formation. There can be few other places to match the Northeast region to make these observations either. One of these deductions is, “nation” formation would normally precede “state” formation. Another is, in the process of social evolution, people have existed outside of any national “imagining” and thereby lived outside of the understanding of the “state” as well. This condition of apolitical organisation of society is indeed an attribute of many if not most indigenous populations. In other words, both the birth of the national “imagining” and “state” formation happen at different times for different peoples, and the evolution of these conditions depend largely on the status of the economy. As Friedrich Engel tells us in “Evolution of Family Private Property and State” this is almost entirely dependent on any particular economy producing a surplus. At its very crux, according to this theory, the state is a mechanism for managing surplus economy. It also implies, subsistent hunting-gathering, or primitive non-productive agricultural tribal economies, are hardly the condition for the evolution of the “state” or the “nation”.

The third interesting observation is, history is an account of “states” and that “states” recognize other “states” only, either as friends or enemies. This is also why “non-state” communities seldom figure in any known history. Taking the case for instance of the Northeast’s history, the question as to why in the 1819 devastating invasion by the Ava (Burmese) kingdom under King Bagyidaw, mentions were found only of Manipur and Ahom kingdoms, how these principalities were devastated etc. It is as if beyond these few feudal principalities of the time in the region, the rest of the map was just blank spaces. It is not as if the rest of the spaces were actually blank and not peopled. In the account of the Ahoms when they first entered Assam to establish their kingdom in the 13th story the story was very much the same. “States” fight or conquer or make friends with “states”. This does not and cannot mean the rest of the “non-state” spaces were never conquered and were always independent. In most cases, they were just presumed to be part of a state or another. The changes of suzerainty of the then empty non-political space of Kabaw Valley between Manipur and Ava kingdoms should again serve as an example of this. The fact is, until the political organisation of these “non-state” spaces began centralising to acquire attributes of a “state”, there was nothing much for a “state” to conquer or take cognizance of. As “non-state” peoples invariably begin awakening to the brave new world of the modern times and cross into the territory of history and national “imaginings”, most of the time they wake up within territories of already formed “states” and “imagined communities”. The challenge facing much of the modern world is to accommodate this new phenomenon. Assimilating new “imaginings” within old existing ones is never easy and has tremendous conflict potential. The Northeast and Manipur know this only too well.

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