India is the Flavor of the Season – Vanit Sethi



[dropcap]W[/dropcap]OW! What a week it has been for India! Beginning with Mangalyaan’s successful final lap to the red planet on September 24, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rousing address to Indian Americans at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden on September 28, Indians couldn’t have asked for more.

It’s quite obvious that Modi and India are the flavor this month in America, and the back-to-back events are also attracting worldwide attention. What makes these happenings even more special for India is that they are taking place during Navratri, the beginning of the festive season in India that lasts for a month, culminating in Diwali or Deepavali – the country’s biggest annual festival – on October 23. I’m sure every Indian is standing a few inches taller these days, and the despondent national mood in the beginning of the year is giving way to a sense of euphoric well-being.

Isn’t this mood of the nation linked to a sense of ‘Indian-ness’ – a feeling that transcends all other narrow loyalties and identities? And isn’t this feeling most pronounced when we move out of those narrow confines that divide us? So, don’t we feel stronger when we are part of a larger enterprise or mission, than when we define ourselves in narrow terms?

It is this feeling of national pride and empowerment that millions of Indians experienced the whole of last week. When I woke up early on the morning of September 24 to watch ISRO’s Mangalyaan prepare for its final journey to Mars, and was later glued to the telly, watching with avid interest the PM’s visit to the US, a few questions related to nationhood kept popping up in my mind. Actually, five days before India’s historic mission to Mars, there was another historic event that compelled me to think about the concept of nationhood. It was the referendum on whether Scotland should become independent or remain a part of the United Kingdom. As it turned out, the citizens of Scotland, in their wisdom, chose to remain a part of the UK. The ‘NO’ vote must have disappointed many in Scotland, but pleased many more within the region, the UK, and rest of the world, including India. Why?

I found my answer to this intriguing concept of nationhood – which was bothering me since Scotland ‘narrowly escaped’ becoming a separate nation – during India’s Mars mission, and subsequently during the ‘Make in India’ campaign, and the PM’s visit to the US. Let me explain.

What if ISRO’s Mars Mission belonged to a country called South India? What if it was ‘Make in Gujarat’, not ‘Make in India’? What if Ganga just belonged to a country called North India? What if Modi in the US was not representing a country called India, but a country called Gujarat? Wouldn’t much fewer people have been happy with these events? And suppose a territory called Pakistan had remained with India today, wouldn’t they too have felt an equal measure of pride at these happenings, rather than envy and jealousy, or even hatred as they do now? So, isn’t unity and oneness the key to this national pride?

Indians across the world – despite their small and big differences – become one in such moments of national pride. They are one when the Indian cricket team is playing against another national team. Who is there in this team – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsees, or Punjabis, Bengalis, Maharashtrians, Tamilians etc – it hardly matters. All it matters is they are Indian and playing for India. But what if we were split into 30 different countries, with each state becoming a country? Then, would we have so many things to celebrate and cheer about? Would Bollywood take root in Bombay if it was in a country called Maharashtra? Would Bangalore become the world’s outsourcing hub if it was the capital of a much smaller country called Karnataka? Bangalore became what it is today – our science and IT capital – because of a combination of different factors; Mumbai became the commercial, business, fashion, and entertainment hub because of several favourable conditions that existed only in what was once upon a time called Bombay; and Delhi has been our national capital for centuries because it was geographically positioned to be so – in the heart of the nation.

So, I got thinking: ‘why do regions want to separate to form a new country’? Is it just the allure of a new romantic dream, or an enticing promise which may never be fulfilled? Yet, this dream has captured thousands across the globe, with many of them realising much later that the promised land was never to be. Even within the country, hundreds are fascinated by the thought of forming a new state, with little understanding of the obstacles that accompany such decisions.

Here, I want to raise three points regarding the idea of self-determination – a term that has gained wide currency across the world, often to the detriment of the very people asking for it. One, what should be the basis for forming a nation-state? Two, does the new nation-state really benefit or improve the lives of the people asking for it? and Three, are smaller states and nations really better off than the larger ones?

Nation-states have been conceived since the early nineteenth century largely on the basis of ‘one-language, one-culture’, or ‘one-race, one-religion’. That people speaking a common language and professing the same religion want to be together is an understood fact. Similarly, belonging to the same genetic stock, and sharing a liking for certain art forms helps people bond with one other. But are such commonalities a strong enough reason to form a nation-state? If they were so, all such nation-states should have been absolutely peaceful with no problems. Conversely, nation-states with too many differences and diversities should be in a perpetual state of internal warfare. We know that’s not true. If we look at India and Pakistan itself, we will find the opposite to be true. Given that Pakistan has more ‘commonalities’ within itself than highly diversified India, Pakistan should have been surging ahead into outer space, while India burdened with a fratricidal civil war. Again, the opposite is true.

Even if we look at the rest of the world, we often find that countries with a stupendous diversity of people (like the USA) are way ahead of countries which are largely homogeneous (like Afghanistan). And you will find such examples in every continent – the greater the diversity, the stronger a nation. So, weren’t most nation-states created on a rather flawed premise – homogeneity? If so, then what should be the criteria?

In my view, new nation-states – if at all they are to be created – should strictly adopt three touchstones – economic viability, administrative convenience, and geographical contiguity. If modern nation-states are created thus, they would be much stronger, and last longer.

That economic viability is a must for a new nation-state is now widely accepted, but it was not always so, especially at the time nation-states were created. If it were so, we would not have so many failed states today. And there are many states surviving, mainly on the rest of the world, through international tourism and its offshoots – sex trade, gambling, drug rackets etc. Many survive on export of locally grown produce (called banana republics), and others on constant international doles and grants by governments and NGOs.

Many failed nation-states have unemployed youth who turn to terrorism and subversion. All these problems might have been avoided if nation-states had been built on stronger foundations. But since they were built on socio-cultural factors rather than geo-economic ones, they never thought of their viability as a nation.

Then, new nations and states within a nation should be convenient to govern and easy to administer. Thus, within a nation, large states are more difficult to govern, and so they must be split into smaller states. But when a decision is taken to divide large states, it should not be for any ethnic or linguistic reasons, but on an economic or geographic basis, i.e. natural borders or contours (hills, rivers, forests etc), or the availability of natural resources (raw materials, minerals, fossil fuels etc).

States should also be geographically contiguous. That is, they should not be separated by a large landmass, and they should not be encircled on all sides by another state. Bangladesh could not have continued as part of Pakistan for long, because a very large landmass of India separated the two wings. Similarly, Lesotho (surrounded by South Africa on all sides) is not a very viable proposition in the long run. South Africa may have to take it within its fold.

Thus, new states must be created on sound logic (economics, administration, and geography), and not through raw emotions riding on ethnic, linguistic, racial, and religious divides. Here, I would like to focus attention on the Kashmir Valley, where an insurgency had been simmering for the past 15 years. Kashmir – the bone of contention between India and Pakistan – being a Muslim-majority state, feels culturally closer to Pakistan than India, but its best interests lie with India. More money can be generated out of tourism from Indian states than from Pakistan. Also, more international tourists visit the Indian Kashmir than its Pakistani counterpart, because image counts for a lot in tourism. Tourists like to visit a fast-growing nation, rather than a failed one.

So, isn’t creating a nation-state solely on the basis of religion a deeply flawed concept? After all, Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971, driving a nail in the coffin of the concept. And if Pakistan was created for the Muslims of the sub-continent, then why were there more Muslims in India than in Pakistan until very recently?

Coming to the question whether new nation-states or new states within a nation fare better than the states from which they were created, the answer is a surprising ‘no’. Ironically, territories that demanded separation turned out to be worse off than the territory from which they separated. In other words, separation or partition actually turned out to be beneficial for those who did not demand for it, and harmful for those who asked for it.

Take India and Pakistan. It was Pakistan that sought separation, not India. But ultimately, partition benefited India more than Pakistan. India could rid itself in 1947 of the problems that Pakistan now faces from within. That is not to say India never faced internal problems and divisions that threatened its very existence, but it overcame these problems because of its robust democracy, while Pakistan has eventually turned out to be a failed state.

Now, within India, I would like to cite the examples of Punjab and Telangana.  Punjab had already lost a big chunk of its territory to Pakistan during the partition of India. Most notably, it lost its biggest city Lahore, which was a shock to most Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs, especially since Lahore was the cultural and educational capital of not only Punjab, but the country as a whole. A new capital called Chandigarh was then built near the foothills of the Shivaliks. East Punjab was a much reduced territory after the West went to Pakistan, but it got further reduced by other political developments. The Akalis of Punjab wanted a largely Punjabi-speaking state with a Sikh majority. And so, the present Punjab was carved out of a much bigger state (that included Haryana and large parts of Himachal Pradesh).

But while Punjab did gain a Punjabi-speaking Sikh majority state, it lost out much more in the process. All the hill stations went to Himachal, and the areas closer to the national capital went to Haryana. Finally, Punjab had to even share Chandigarh (now, a union territory) as a joint capital with Haryana.

Now, what about Haryana and Himachal? They did not ask for division, but they gained at the expense of Punjab, which asked for division in the first place. Haryana got areas closer to Delhi, spurring its development. The state also progressed much faster economically as a new state than it did under Punjab, clocking one of the fastest growth rates in the country. Himachal gained the prime town of Shimla, making it the capital of the new state, and several other hill stations which were with Punjab earlier. It also progressed faster than Punjab through tourism, and a better educated workforce.

What about Punjab? The state which led the country during the Green Revolution in the 1970s, and was among the first in India to achieve complete rural electrification, slipped badly in the 1980s, when the Khalistan movement for separate nationhood terrorised the nation, and wrecked what was once the country’s foremost state.

For over a decade, battling terrorism from across the border, garbed in the cloak of Sikh religious fundamentalism, Punjab became a wounded state. Though terrorism ended in the state in the 1990s, Punjab never really recovered from its after-effects. Large-scale unemployment and the side-effects of the Green Revolution led to a large percentage of its youth being hooked to drugs, which the state is still battling. In addition, a culture of sops and subsidies has led to financial bankruptcy.

So, though Punjab asked for division of the state, the new states of Haryana and Himachal benefited, while Punjab kept sliding. Now, what about Telangana? It’s early to say now, but all indications show it may turn out to be worse off than before. Telangana is now the only southern state without a sea coast.

Coasts drive tourism and ports drive business. Telangana has also lost important rivers like the Godavari to the new AP. Like Punjab, it does not have a single hill station, with Araku Valley and Horsely Hills both with the new AP. Telangana has also lost out the temple town of Tirupati (with India’s richest temple). Then, the new-age India of rockets and space science is again in AP (Sriharikota). Even bigger towns are in AP (barring Hyderabad), like Visakhapatnam (Vizag), Vijayawada, and Rajahmundry.

In comparison Telangana, apart from capital Hyderabad, does not have a single big city. Its second biggest city, Warangal, is much smaller than Vizag and Vijayawada. In their sole obsession with the mega-city of Hyderabad, the leaders of Telangana did not look at anything else. Even the IT companies and MNCs in Hyderabad may shift out, if Telangana’s chief minister KCR insists on job quotas for Telangana people. And if AP’s dynamic CM Chandrababu Naidu attracts MNCs and IT firms to Andhra cities like Vizag, Telangana may lose out further. Naidu has proved that he walks the talk by making Hyderabad what it is today when he was chief minister of united AP.

The thriving Telugu film industry (largest in India, after Bollywood) – which is based in Hyderabad – may also shift to Vizag, as most of the stars and actors are from the Andhra region. Besides, building a new capital will provide plenty of job openings for AP. So, in all likelihood, the new AP could surge ahead of Telangana.

Finally, there is a myth that smaller states and nations are better off than bigger ones. Take the examples within the country and outside. Within the country, while there are many smaller states that are indeed doing well, there are many which are not, while some of the bigger states are also doing well. If smaller states like Delhi, Goa, and Sikkim are doing well, so are larger ones like Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Karnataka. On the other hand, if many bigger states like UP, MP, and Rajasthan are not doing too well, similar is the case with the smaller north-eastern states. So, how can one say with certainty that smaller states are more progressive than bigger ones?

Outside India, if we compare other countries, while smaller countries like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and UAE are doing well, so are many bigger ones like USA, China, and Brazil. On the other hand, if many bigger countries are not doing too well, like Russia, there are several smaller countries in Africa and the Middle East that are also not doing well. So, there is no economic argument for smaller states and nations. In fact, there is a better argument for bigger states and nations.

While both smaller and bigger nations or states may be rich, only the bigger ones can be powerful. So, even if Qatar and Switzerland may be the richest nations in the world, the most powerful ones will remain USA and China. If a poorer nation like India carries more clout than a far richer Singapore, it is only because of size. And if a bigger nation is also rich, it carries far more clout, like the USA. So, size does matter, after all!

So, isn’t it better for states to be part of a bigger nation than be independent? If all the 50 states of USA seceded from the federation, they would still be rich and prosperous, but far less powerful and important. Within the USA, they are not just rich, but also more powerful than if they had been independent. Compared to USA, the republics of USSR erred grievously when they separated from the USSR.

Within the union, the republics did have a say in world affairs, but after secession, many of them are failed states, exporting prostitution to the West and the Middle East. Russia was also far more powerful with them as USSR than without them, as only Russia. It wasn’t rich but very powerful – as powerful as the USA. But now, while Russia may have become richer, it is not as powerful as earlier. And the republics – they are not only far less powerful, but much poorer too. Some of them also have the problem of religious fundamentalism. So, what did they gain by secession?

It is important to raise these questions when more and more people start demanding independence or secession. In my view, there should be just three questions asked whenever a new state wants to get formed: 1. Will it be economically viable? 2. Will it have a more efficient administration and a responsible government?, and 3. Will it have well-defined geographic borders? Only if the answer on all counts is yes, should a new state be formed. Strategic experts and experienced administrators should be called upon to decide on these three parameters.

After all, why should the world be burdened with failed states and terrorist movements emanating from them? The UN should also be more careful in granting recognition to new states, as so many new states have come up in the recent past. Ironically, it is much easier to get recognition for a new nation, than for an established nation to become a member of the EU.

Within the country too, while there is some basis for the creation of smaller, new states from very large ones like UP, MP and Rajasthan, the basis should be purely administrative, and not ethnic, linguistic, or any other basis. Some of the smaller states created – like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand – have a recurrent naxalite problem, and the same may afflict Telangana too, if it is not careful. Only Uttarakhand seems to be doing far better than its parent state UP, but then, even within UP, it was performing better than the rest of the state. The basis for the creation of Telangana has been a misguided sense of victimhood, and not any sound economic principles or administrative measures. States that are created out of a sense of hurt, even if justified, will invent some new grievance later on, to justify administrative failures and bad governance.

So, the creation of new states and nations should always be done from the head, not from the heart – because the heart can deceive. Sound logic should accompany the creation of new states and nations, not emotional arguments. And self-determination, on the basis of a public referendum, I think, is a faulty way of creating new states and nations, as people cannot always be the best judge of their own future, as my examples have shown. Let such matters be left purely to the experts. Ethnicity, language, race, and religion simply should not be the basis – under any circumstances – for the creation of a nation-state. Period!

I would like to conclude by reiterating that heterogeneous nations are always stronger than homogeneous ones. Poet Rabindranath Tagore had put it quite aptly in his Nobel-winning Gitanjali:

‘Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Into that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake.’


All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan





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