Reimagining Independence


Throughout human history the quest for colonial power by various social, ethnic or national groups has always been met with fierce resistance from those they have sought to conquer and subjugate. While the idea of the ‘nation’ and the shape of the ‘state’ meant to govern it have varied over time and from place to place, the dream of an independent homeland has sparked countless struggles, both heroic and tragic, around the world.

In modern times the dismantling of European colonialism in Asia, Africa and Latin America led to the formation of countless new nation states and membership of the United Nations has grown from a mere 51 countries in 1945 to 193 currently. Today, the Right to Self-Determination is a well-established principle in modern international law, emphatically stating that nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and equality of opportunity have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no external compulsion or interference.

Despite all this, it is not the case that all movements for independence or separation from already established nation-states get international recognition or support. There are conflicting definitions and legal criteria for determining which groups may legitimately claim the right to self-determination and while it was easier to support independence of black, brown or yellow people from their white masters it is not the same when it comes to freeing them from colonialists of the same color as the colonized.  

Further, the process of recognition of new nations in recent times has been quite arbitrary and entirely dependent on the alignment of global or regional geopolitical forces in favor or against the struggle for independence. For example, why should a Kosovo be privileged over Kashmir or a South Sudan over Tamil Eelam when it comes to the Right to Self-Determination?

While the various movements for national independence grapple with these issues and navigate their way through the rough seas of global realpolitik today another looming challenge they face is to put their political struggle in the context of the rapidly changing nature of the global economy also. So much so that, it is my belief, that all such movements, in order to remain relevant or effective, today need to reflect a little more deeply on the following questions:
a. In the world we live in today is there any nation that is truly ‘independent’ or sovereign? Or is everyone just ‘inter-dependent’ to varying degrees, with the idea of ‘sovereignty’ just a chip for bargaining better terms and conditions in the global marketplace?
b. When we still use the terms ‘homeland’, ‘motherland’ or ‘fatherland’ – do we still believe that ‘land’ is the primary basis of a nation and its economy? When corporations have become way larger than entire countries and the global capital flows determine the fate of even powerful nations why should land and territory alone become synonymous with the idea of a nation?
c. What does national identity of a nation really mean in today’s world? Are we not all citizens of the entire globe, holding multiple identities and in an increasing number of cases even multiple-citizenship?

Before I go into the themes outlined above I would like to take a quick look at the history of the emergence of the modern nation-state, first in Europe and subsequently in South Asia.  The modern nation state is defined as the product of merger of two concepts, namely the ‘nation’, which is a cultural and/or ethnic entity and the ‘state’, which is a political and geopolitical entity with jurisdiction or ‘sovereignty’ over a bounded territory.

While the idea of a state has existed for time immemorial, its modern form is a relatively new institution emerging through the democratic revolutions that overthrew monarchies in England and France. There are many reasons for the rise of the modern nation-state, which has become the dominant form of state formation around the world today.

One very important reason that comes to mind is the emergence of the idea of land as private property with clear ownership titles as against the notion of land as belonging to the monarch over which different people had only access for cultivation, grazing of animals or other uses. The modern idea of nation thus became closely tied to the notion of ownership of land and in many ways whether in Europe or the United States or Latin America the new nations that formed were essentially a coalition of many landowners who voluntarily agreed to have a common state apparatus to look after their welfare, security and governance.

The second very important factor that went into the creation of the modern nation was the availability of new techniques and methods for marking territory with clear boundaries, ensuring inheritance rights and protecting ownership over such land through various means. The techniques of geodesy or measurement of land using principles of trigonometry that emerged during the 15th and 16th centuries together with easier access to guns with which a small number of people could effectively defend territory speeded up the formation of the modern nation.

A third, and equally significant factor that played a role in the development of the modern nation was the spread of mass literacy and mass communication that helped consolidate old cultural, linguistic or ethnic identities or to form new ones. The iron fences that marked off private land were applied to caste, language, culture, ethnicity and once fluid identities rendered into rigid, inflexible identities. The national identity, though it superseded all these other identities and helped unite diverse populations was itself ultimately an invisible iron fence of sorts.

To give an example of how these processes played out in the Indian sub-continent let us see how the modern nations of South Asia were formed. While South Asia is undoubtedly home to many ancient empires and kingdoms the fact remains that the nations of modern times in the region are essentially the products of the world’s first global corporation- the East India Company together with its successor- the British Raj.  From development of economic infrastructure to the education system, even today, the stamp of the Company and colonialism is everywhere.

The task of forging a viable modern state out of diverse power centers and administrative systems that existed on the subcontinent for centuries was a long and brutal process, carried out through a variety of means. These included radical transformation of land holding patterns by introducing the concept of permanent settlement in property ownership, introducing an inflexible taxation regime, creating a market for sale of land, introducing the concept of a regular police and army and establishment of a modern bureaucracy and a modern judicial system that overturned traditional jurisprudence.

At the core of the idea of the modern state was the replacement of hitherto complex, dynamic, alive and unpredictable relational networks of families, clans, communities and interest groups with self-perpetuating systems run according to a set of fixed codes and laws. Permanent land settlements, permanent inheritable property, the permanent army, police and bureaucracy slowly gave birth to the idea of the permanent nation with a permanent territory.

One of the most important consequences of such emphasis on permanence was the conversion of all porous and easily transgressed territorial boundaries into rigid borders that were independent of living human beings and dependent only on dead signed treaties and codified law. In many cases new boundaries were introduced and these reified borders were guarded fiercely and could be crossed only at the risk of harsh punishment from the newly set up state machinery. The iron fence, the cannon and the gun, used in enforcement of the new world of rigid boundaries and borders also became its most potent symbols.  

The protection of private property and introduction of immutable laws and rules in turn hastened the growth of regional and ultimately national markets, which in turn helped, over a period of time, to create a ‘national’ consciousness. The vision of the East India Company, though molded by local factors, was largely European in nature and not surprisingly all its policies and actions led to the emergence of nation state in a manner quite similar to that of Europe. Of course, in the case of South Asia this process gave birth to not one unified nation but dozens of nations in all shapes, sizes and stages of formation. India for example, is essentially a conglomeration of over 30 nations in a federal structure but essentially presided over by one rambling state apparatus.

The idea of a united Indian subcontinent, under the thumb of the colonialists, was further given a boost by the process of mapping the region. While surveying land for purposes of tax assessment was already part of the pre-Mughal and Mughal traditions it was the East India Company that set about systematically marking the geography and topography of the sub-continent.

One of the pioneers of mapping in the Indian subcontinent was Lieutenant-Colonel William Lambton, a surveyor, and geographer who was the Superintendent of the Trigonometric Survey of India, which he began in 1802. Lambton took part in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and after the capture of Mysore in 1799 Lambton proposed that the territory be surveyed. The drawing and redrawing of borders in new ways was a key part of military strategy also in that period and his proposal was quickly accepted by Company directors. The effort came to be known as the Great Trigonometric Survey of India.

Since Independence national regimes in South Asia have essentially operated the same colonial system in each country with minor innovations or extensions here and there. Like for the colonial powers the idea of country or nation for the South Asian rulers is also about territory and not the people who occupy the land. For example, the Indian government says Kashmir belongs to India but sends its army to kill the Kashmiris and when the Sri Lankan state talks about the Tamils it is talking about their land and not the people themselves. And in their pursuit of ‘national unity or integration’, which is essentially protecting the integrity of land under their command, these regimes are willing to go to any lengths including carrying out genocide like the Sri Lankan state has done in the case of the Eelam Tamils.

 Can there be a nation without land or territory? I do not think so, for ultimately populations need to live on firm ground somewhere and ownership of property in the form of land is an essential part of what a nation is all about. However, it is my contention that in our times land and territory are no longer the most important part of becoming or being a nation. The central position of land in national economies has been taken over for quite some time by several other resources, namely capital in the form of both finance and technology.

Can there be a nation without a state? Again, the answer is no, for the mechanism of the state is essential to provide a mechanism of social and political consensus and govern any nation. However, here again the organization of the state has been superseded for quite some time now by other far more efficient mechanisms.

Let me be more specific in what I mean by giving some examples. A survey by the magazine Business Insider in 2011 found some very interesting results by comparing the annual turnover of 25 top US corporations to the GDP of entire countries around the world. Here are some results:
1. If Wal-Mart were a country, its revenues would make it on par with the GDP of Norway the 25th largest economy in the world by, surpassing 157 smaller countries. In 2010 while Norway's GDP was $414.46 billion Walmart's revenue stood at $421.89 billion
2. Exxon Mobil, with a revenue of $354.67 billion is bigger than Thailand with a GDP of $318.85 billion
3. Apple computers, with revenues of $65.23 billion, is bigger than Ecuador with a GDP of $58.91 billion

What I am pointing to is the simple fact that is staring us in our face for quite some time now that the giant corporations of the world are on par with or more powerful than many countries in the world in terms of economic clout, even political clout in many parts of the world. The management systems they run are often as much or even more efficient than that of any state apparatus. What they lack in order to declare themselves nation-states and join the United Nations are essentially a national flag or an anthem, which any advertising agency can produce for them in a few days.

As for the want of an army – let me say that if Microsoft sets up an office in New Delhi to recruit well paid soldiers willing to die defending Windows 8.0 copyright half the Indian army will switch loyalties. Let us not forget that a bulk of the soldiers the East India Company and the British Raj used to control the Indian sub-continent were from within India itself. So it is not very strange to imagine a giant corporation forming its own army in the future for that is how it was in the not-so-distant past. (The United States already has deployed thousands of ‘soldiers’, in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are essentially mercenaries employed by security companies)           

I am giving all these examples only to show that today land is not the essential ingredient of the nation and there are other ways in which a nation can be conceived.  Let me clarify here and say that I am not suggesting that you should or could build a nation-state without any territory at all and operate entirely like a company or corporation. All I want to do is to point out that power in the globe today is much more about capital of different sorts- from finance to technology to human resources- and not mere ownership or control of land.

To understand the tectonic changes underway and how territory is not the basis of economies anymore one has also to look at the world's financial system, which in the last couple of decades has ballooned to a size way bigger than the real world of tangible goods and services. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report in 2010, the total value of the world’s financial stock, comprising equity market capitalization and outstanding bonds and loans, touched US$212 trillion and was more than three times as large as the total output of goods and services produced across the planet that year.  The same year cross-border capital flows grew to US$4.4 trillion. Ninety percent of global capital flows run between three regions: the U.S., the United Kingdom and the European countries that use the euro. It is clear that as far as the world of global finance is concerned, outside these regions, the rest of the planet does not really exist at all!        

However these global capital flows have important consequences for all countries as each of them compete and chase the dream of attracting funds to their shores today. In South Asia the erosion of sovereignty of the region’s nation states has occurred steadily in recent years as country after country brings down protective political and economic walls in their bid to woo global finance.

To give an example of how nineteenth century or even mid-twentieth century nationalism has become obsolete even in a large country like India take a look at the concept of Special Economic Zones- pioneered by Mexico in the seventies and China in the 80s and which are common place all over the world today. While the Indian armed forces are supposed to be jealously guarding every inch of national territory along the borders, the SEZs, created through an Act of the Indian Parliament, are deemed to be territory1inside national boundaries’, which are however outside the jurisdiction of Indian customs. The Indian government appoints a ‘Development Commissioner’ to the SEZs, which are deemed to be ‘foreign territory’ for the purposes of trade operations and duties and tariffs. Obviously, the Indian state is willing to give up its ‘sovereignty’ in these territories in exchange for money.

So when this is the case even with a country like India, with a long history of struggle for Independence and against colonial domination of all kinds what are the prospects for any new independent nation that is waiting to be born? Let us take the specific example of East Timor or Timor Leste, one of the newest members of the global community of nation states born as recently as 2002. The East Timorese fought a valiant battle both armed and political for over three decades against the Indonesian regime of General Suharto, which occupied East Timor after the former Portuguese colonial power abandoned the country in 1975.

Two years after the Indonesian people overthrew the Suharto dictatorship international community agreed to back East Timor’s claim for Independence and organized a referendum in 1999 in which a majority voted to break free from Indonesia. This in turn prompted a frenzy of violence by Indonesian troops against the East Timorese resulting in one of the most horrific massacres in modern times before the ethnic cleansing that took place in Mullaivaikal in 2009.
After all these trials and tribulations finally when East Timor finally achieved independence it did so on the basis of a series of historic compromises:
a. In return for Indonesia agreeing to let go of East Timor it informally agreed not to press any war crimes charges against the Indonesian military.
b. Portuguese was adopted as the national language despite the fact that a majority of citizens speak either Bahasa Malay or Tetum.
c. The US dollar was adopted as the national currency
d. The offshore oil and natural gas fields that East Timor inherited were handed over to Australia for exploiting on very unfavorable terms to the East Timorese themselves
e. National security was to be managed by a UN security force
f. Economic policy was dictated to East Timor by institutions like the World Bank and IMF
g. East Timor’s foreign policy was largely guided by the United States.

Yes, East Timor is an independent country today-  but what we need to ask what is the quality or true cost of this kind of ‘independence’ ? The point to understand here really is, while many of the nation-states that are around today emerged after the break-up of the big Empires of the past such as the Austro-Hungarian, British, Ottoman or Russian Empires- today the same nation-states are being subordinated by the new Empire of Global Capital and the few powerful nations that act as their marketing agents. Corporations are the new monarchs of the globe and while nation-states are not about to disappear anytime very soon they are a much weakened entity shorn of genuine sovereignty or independence of decision-making.

So, while the term ‘independence’ is still important to mobilise public support and sentiment without clarity on the specific political, economic and administrative arrangements involved it is devoid of any true meaning. When one ‘separates’ from an existing nation-state framework one should not forget that one automatically becomes part of some other framework globally. While many liberation movements are very clear about what they are breaking away from they need to think harder about what they are uniting with after the break-up. Strategising about this at an early stage will help avoid the pain of discovering that without proper planning the alternative to the frying pan is always the fire. In the specific context of South Asia for example, if you are demanding an independent Tamil Eelam, you have to also implicitly or explicitly declare what is the new framework that you are moving towards. To put it bluntly who are the new friends you want to hangout with and what kind of arrangements are you making to ensure these friends will not let you down in any way? And remember here we are not talking about just countries out there to choose from but global corporations also!

Again, given the critical role of capital, finance, technology and human resources in achieving real power in the world today it is important to construct the idea of new nations based on the power of its people – wherever they are – and not just be focused on the acquisition of land and territory alone. No, I am not saying anything at all like giving up claims to land and territory- so please do not mistake this point for anything like that. All I am saying is that even if you do get the land and territory you want at some stage you will need to build up your financial, technological and human power in order to sustain or even hold on to that territory. Let the process of building that power start right now, wherever you are and not be postponed to a later period for it is in the process of building this power that the nation itself will be truly born.

Lastly, I want to take up the question that I raised earlier- what does nationality mean in today’s world? Whether due to conflict and subsequent displacement or migration through economic necessity people of all countries are today spread to all corners of the world making the issue of national identity extremely complex. Given the nature of employment and business today many people end up paying taxes often in more than one country.

What all this calls for is the need to be flexible in defining citizenship and go beyond traditional criteria such as ethnicity, language, religion or even shared culture. Throughout Europe today people have multiple identities without giving up their primary identities as French, German, Italian or Dutch people. Many countries around the globe allow multiple-citizenships too. Any new nation, wanting to be born, needs to formulate a policy on citizenship that is on par with the most cosmopolitan and advanced concepts that have emerged globally so far.

Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health activist based in New Delhi and can be reached at [email protected]

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