The 21st century world needs a better organising principle than national self-determination.
This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
(This essay was prompted by recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh, Kosovo and Tigray and written before the flare-up of the Israel-Palestine conflict after Hamas’s attack on Israel.)
Contrary to what its critics think, India is well placed to be a vishwaguru, an exemplar state that shows the world the way towards a better future. Like all good gurus, it is neither perfect nor without self-doubt. Its many failings are open for all to see. Just like a good guru need not be a mahatma, it is not necessary for India to attain moral, political or economic superpowerdom to put forth its formula to improve how the world governs itself.
Anekantavada is sometimes seen as non-violence in the intellectual domain.
That formula is pluralism. It is the single value that is consistent with our philosophical traditions, social behaviour and constitutional structure. The Jain philosophy of ‘anekantavada’ or non one-sidedness accepts the legitimacy of all standpoints and looks down on those that claim a monopoly on correctness. The Bhagavad Gita accepts a multiplicity of paths even while contending that some are superior to others. Kautilya enjoins the victorious king to respect the gods and traditions of conquered people, implying a pluralist state. Many Mughal emperors, most famously Akbar, conceded to pluralism in matters of state, as did the British colonists who came after them.
The political and social practice of pluralism through our history was in part a realist acceptance of a large and highly diverse population. But political pluralism would not have endured had it not been legitimized by philosophical traditions that explicitly or grudgingly accept it.
It is not a coincidence that the Indian republic is among the post-colonial states of the 20th century that has stayed united, democratic and prosperous. Most countries that acquired independence after World War I did so on the basis of their right to national self-determination. If you could claim to be a ‘nation’ you could assert a right to an independent state. However, if you think about it, there’s nothing natural in this ‘right’ as different nationalities and ethnic groups lived under empires for most of history. Similarly, there is no single definition of what qualifies as a nation. The emergence of the US as a power in the 1910s and its leaders’ dim view of European colonialism led to the Wilsonian moment; anti-colonial backlashes and internationalism coincided with the decline of war-ravaged European empires and led to the enshrinement of the right to national self-determination. The Indian freedom movement benefited from these favourable moral winds, but Partition came as an early reminder that national self-determination is a double-edged sword.
National self-determination was a humane response to the depredations of trans-national colonial domination; but it gets messier as you zoom in. The principle creates political incentives for differentiation, extremism and identitarian polarisation.
What has all this got to do with India as a global champion of pluralism? Well, national self-determination has run its course and is no longer a good principle to organize international politics. Its flip-side is ethnic majoritarianism. The consequence of majoritarianism is secessionism based on—you guessed it—the right to self-determination. The Bengalis of Pakistan had enough of Punjabi domination and created Bangladesh. Likewise, Eritreans split from Ethiopia, Timorese from Indonesia, Kosovars from Serbia and Southerners from Sudan, among others.
But there are many more people around the world struggling to break away from domination. And if they do get to form their own nation-state, the chances are that they too will first try to cleanse their country of troublesome minorities and then proceed to dominate them. The recursiveness and majoritarianism are not aberrations, only logical consequence of a world that accepts the right to national determination without any enforceable obligations to human liberty.
The answer is a world of states that look a lot more like the Indian republic. This is a world that accepts the legitimacy of religious, racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural communities while upholding the individual’s fundamental rights. No community has a constitutional or moral right to supremacy. If they so wish, members of any group could believe that they are better than others, but this has no basis in law. More importantly, social traditions uphold pluralism and civic values promote tolerance. The state itself is neutral, even if democratic politics often appeals to communal and sectarian causes.
This is not always rosy in practice and we in India are rightly cynical about the difference between the ideal and the day-to-day. Even so—and this is important—the Indian system, with all its ugly warts and imperfections, outperforms the alternatives. People in the Balkans, the Middle East, Central America, the Caucasus and many regions of Africa have trapped themselves in sub-optimal states and unsustainable economies because of their majoritarian polities. Lives would be far better for billions of people if they were to reorganise themselves into inclusive, tolerant and pluralist federations instead of tiny warring states.
We must, of course, regain the confidence in our own state and continue to promote pluralism at home. It is the way to address Kashmir, Manipur, delimitation, caste politics and communal harmony. The more we succeed, the stronger our vishwaguru credentials will be. A world constructed along the lines of the Indian Union will be far better than the one we currently live in. It will also be in India’s own interests.
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