The nation state and its territory

M.S. Prabhakara
The Hindu, June 8, 2011

Every nation state, whether it formally came into being within living memory or has been a stable polity for centuries, views itself as a unique and inviolable territorial entity.

The nation state and its territory are symbiotically bound together, inseparable and inviolable. The diminishment of one leads inescapably to the diminishment of the other. This, the classic (and idealised) view of what constitutes the nation state, has remained more or less unchanged since the middle of the 17th century, despite the constant internal and external challenges to the supposedly inviolable territoriality of many sovereign nations, the changes that have come about in ‘unalterable borders,' and the emergence of new nation states.

As explained in political science textbooks, the series of treaties known as the Westphalia treaties, which ended the Thirty Years War (1618-48), are the basis of the modern nation states in Europe. This concept has, over the years, acquired universal applicability and is now the foundational basis for modern nation states everywhere, including India. Over and above this is the Indian nationalist view that from times immemorial, India has been a civilisational state, Bharat Mata, mystically transcending the narrow legal definitions of European theorists of what constitutes the modern nation state.

This is not unique to India. Every nation state, whether it formally came into being within living memory or has been a stable polity for centuries, views itself as a unique and inviolable territorial entity. Many also evoke the image of the nation state as the Eternal Mother, especially in periods of national crisis.

Mother Russia remained a living idea even in the Soviet Union and was evoked by Stalin when the country faced great peril from the Nazi invasion. The territory where “not a blade of grass grows,” in Jawaharlal Nehru's words half-a-century ago — or Siachen now — remains an area of contestation because of this inviolability of national territory. Thus the rhetoric of leaders at moments of foreign aggression: “We are not going to retreat from an inch of our territory.”

Interestingly, such passionate commitment to territoriality is not a unique expression of only an established nationhood. People struggling to attain nationhood are as fervid about the territory that is still in the realm of their imagination — imagined as part of their memory and aspirations, and not a reality on the ground that can be fought over — as established nation states.

The struggles for sovereignty going on in Assam and its neighbourhood in northeast India are a case in point. In popular perception, the whole region comprising seven States (with the artificial addition of Sikkim to the Northeastern Council, eight States) is aflame with violent separatist insurgencies. In reality, serious separatist or sovereignty struggles with some political and organisational substance to them, and a cadre trained in the use of arms to take forward such sovereignty aspirations, are a reality in only three States of the region — Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.

While the leaders of the dominant separatist outfits in Assam and Nagaland are engaged in discussions with the Government of India — for over a decade in Nagaland — the situation in Manipur is rather more complicated. The prospect of such outfits in Manipur coming on board and talking to the government is now linked, in the view of the insurgent leaders — not all of whom are clear about their objectives or even their readiness to talk — to the Government of India accepting some preconditions. The most important of these is that the government must agree to hold “a plebiscite under international supervision” to ascertain the will of the people of Manipur on sovereignty and independence.

On the face of it, such a demand is unrealistic. It is also deeply flawed in its apparent perception that the “people of Manipur,” even those who have sovereignty aspirations, have a common perspective on sovereignty and independence. The fact is, the “people of Manipur” comprising three distinct communities do not share a common vision of their past or their future aspirations. The point hardly needs to be laboured.

However, this is not the place to discuss the nuances of sovereignty narratives of the region, every one of whose seven States, while unique, also shares a commonality of history and memories, and a measure of resentment against ‘India.' Rather, in all States, the insurgencies have serious issues with others of their own kind, outfits that too are fighting the Indian state, on what constitutes the existing territory, and the territory of the putative sovereign and independent state that they aim to attain. In other words, while their principal contradiction is with the Indian state, there are serious problems over the territorial imagination of the mutually contending outfits.

The most striking of such contradictions prevails in Nagaland and Manipur. Nagaland is now one of the States of the Indian Union under the Constitution. It has all the formal appurtenances of a constituent State — executive, legislature, and judiciary, with Kohima having a Bench of the Guwahati high Court. However, the territorial imagination of the Nagaland government — its vision of what its territory should be — or of the political parties of Nagaland, including the Congress and the BJP (which had two Ministers in the previous National Democratic Alliance government), is no different from that of the three outfits fighting for or committed to Naga sovereignty. Each one of these claims nearly two-thirds of the territory of Manipur, to whose inviolability the government of Manipur is as fervently committed as the most uncompromising of separatist outfits fighting to secure Manipur's sovereignty and independence.

These contradictions were sharply heightened during the prolonged blockade in April-May last year of NH-39, the principal point of entry into Manipur, by student groups in Nagaland protesting the Manipur government's refusal to allow Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of NSCN (IM) to visit his ancestral village in Manipur's Ukhrul district. Indeed, Nagaland has claims on the Changlang and Tirap districts of Arunachal Pradesh, as well as the reserve forests on its border with Assam over which the armed police of the two States have fought pitched battles. It also has claims on Myanmar's territory.

Territory is such an ‘emotive' issue that even outfits with little muscle seeking greater autonomy within Assam, though the rhetoric remains sovereignty and independence, are hobbled by the territorial imperative. The demarcation of the boundaries of the territory of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) is still not complete because of claims and counter claims and, more to the point, the reluctance of several villages on the border to be included. Violent separatist ‘roll call' organisations (to borrow the terminology from Karnataka politics to designate groups engaged in extortion) in the two other autonomous districts, Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, have unresolved territorial issues between themselves.

The Manipur government's decision to upgrade the Phungyr sub-division of Ukhrul district, a key area of the future Nagalim dominated by Tangkhul Nagas, into a full-fledged district is opposed by the NSCN (IM), which runs the parallel government of the Peoples' Republic of Nagaland (GPRN) on the ground that the State government cannot take even routine administrative initiatives in areas claimed by the NSCN (IM) to be part of the putative Nagalim.

In other words, territoriality is as central to established nation states that define themselves in terms of their territory, traced to the history and memories of the people, as to the organised or disorganised groups within the territories of a nation state seeking to challenge the territoriality of the larger structure, and carve out a separate territory for themselves. In turn, those who challenge the territoriality and lay claims on the territory of ‘existing nation states' themselves have serious contradictions with others mounting similar challenges and, when these are weak, press hard on them. This Hobbesian conundrum is perhaps best summed up in these lines from the poem, On Poetry: A Rhapsody, by Jonathan Swift:

Hobbes clearly proves that every creature
Lives in a State of War by Nature.
The Greater for the Smallest watch,
But meddle seldom with their match …
So, Naturalists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey.
And these haves smaller Fleas to bite ‘em,
And so proceed ad infinitum

A Response to “The nation state and its territory”
by Bimol Akoijam on Thursday, 09 June 2011 at 08:49am

MS Prabhakaran, the author of the article,The nation state and its territory (Hindu, 8 June, 2011), is an old hand in the state of affairs in Northeast. In fact, you can almost count him as one of the Northeasterner as such. However, he, like most non-professional academics who haven’t grappled, perhaps, thoroughly with the conceptual categories and perspectives that are being invoked in his above article, ends up conflating the "categories" and correspondingly created confusions and avoidable conclusions which have far reaching political implications.

For instance, his conflation between “state” and “nation” and “nation-state” have produced a distorted idea of “territoriality” vis-à-vis the former three categories. In a similar manner, because of his conflation between “memory” and “history”, he fails to see the difference between those articulating the “Naga nation” and the “Manipuri nation” (and the geo-political statuses and the issue of “territoriality” in juridico-political terms) in the light of the “aspiration” that distinguishes between what he has termed as something that “came into being within living memory or has been a stable polity for centuries”.

Consequently, he misses two crucial aspects. First, he misses the difference in the definitions of “Manipur” and “Nagaland” (correspondingly, what are these two “entities”); for instance, going by the Schedule 1 of the Constitution of India, which incidentally also gives enough hints on the historicity of the formation of the present postcolonial Indian State (as different from the “idea of India” which has been appropriated by, albeit in a truncated form that does not sit well with, the present Indian State), the former (Manipur) as an “entity” existed as a “geo-political” entity with a stable polity before the commencement of the Constitution (thereby the present Indian State) while the latter (Nagaland) as a “geopolitical entity” with a “stable polity” came into being by virtue of the Constitution (thereby, after the present Indian State and in some sense, by virtue of its political will).

Secondly, that the historicity and contemporary reality of postcolonial politics have produced an “instable polity” in Manipur was completely ignored in his analytical engagement. It worthwhile to remember that a state with a constitution of its own with a democratically elected Assembly based on universal adult franchise and a “responsible” government was unceremoniously dissolved by New Delhi as it “took over” the state in 1949 and initiated a long 23 years of a bureaucratic rule of Manipur by New Delhi.

This was a crucial development in Manipur's recent history with critical bearings on contemporary Manipur. Having been freed from the alien rule, while the rest of world got the opportunity to shape their destiny on their own terms and aspirations as a mark of postcolonial ethos, Manipur was reduced to an unfortunate trajectory in the form of a deprivation of that postcolonial experience of self rule. As a result of this ironical post-colonial life, there have been corresponding weakening of “peoplehood” and polity based on the notion “popular sovereignty” in Manipur. Indeed, the fractured nature of the idea of “people of Manipur” has lots to do with that weakening of a democratic politics in the state. The awareness of being a people who have a common stake in the socio-economic and political processes determined by a shared (democratic) polity of being a state was substituted by a political culture wherein the people have been reduced to (competing) “clients” whose well-being was critically depended upon their competing proximity to the distant “patron” (New Delhi) and its representative at Imphal.

It is this aspect which brings in New Delhi as a primary mover in the region, particularly Manipur. Incidentally, it is also a fact that the deepening of the present so-called “ethnic” divide in Manipur is not un-related to the ongoing negotiation between the Naga rebels and the Government of India. This has also been subsequently left out of the analytical purview of Prabhakaran’s analysis.

Over and above this, things get complicated in Manipur as derivative discourses and politics that smack of “two-nation” theory (deeply informed by some sense of “ethnic” and “religious” ideas) and a majoritarian nationalist imagination that smacks of “imperial nostalgia” (a strand of which is a counterpart of Hindu nationalist, either in its right wing variety or those who equate “Indic”, wittingly or unwittingly, with “Hindu”) continue to play havoc in Manipur.

Indeed, that the political class and its intelligentsia of a “nation” whose birth trauma was caused by a “two-nation theory”, and whose contemporary life continues to be haunted by the ghost of that theory and remnant communal politics, have hardly countered the aspirations and politics of similar kinds that marked the so-called “ethnic conundrum” in the Northeast, particularly Manipur is a telling revelation.

Generally speaking, these issues have hardly been acknowledged, leave alone addressed, when one talks or writes of the “conflict” ridden Manipur and its contested and unstable polity. The present write up by MS Prabhakaran is no exception to that kind of articulation.

And it must go without saying that such absences or denials have critical bearings on the present and future of not only the Nagas or the Manipuris but also the people in the entire Northeast and arguably India as a “nation” and more accurately as a postcolonial “state”.

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