ASEAN member states flags in a row at a pre-summit meeting held in Bangkok, August 2019. Photo: Twitter

Many scholars, recognized within academic circles as culturalists/primordialists, argue that nationalism is an expression of political will of a distinct identity. However, without dismissing their claim that there is historical basis to identities, it can be argued that identities are prone to politicization in the modern era.

Identities cannot be engineered according to someone’s whims and fancies (as some modernists claim) as they show remarkable persistence in some cases in the face of socio-economic and political modernization, nor should they be considered entirely hermetically sealed entities that cannot be constructed. Anthony Smith, a British historical sociologist, observes that in the modern era, the past works through myths, symbols and historical memories in the creation of national culture. Similarly, the role of a golden past, ancient heroes, myths and memories cannot equip a culture with the necessary material and ideas to shape it into a national culture in the modern period when science and reason rule over dogmas and beliefs.

In this context, John Meyer and others argue in their article “World Society and the Nation-State” in the American Journal of Sociology: “Religious ‘fundamentalists’ may reject the extreme naturalism of modernity by making individuals accountable to an unchallengeable god, but they nevertheless exhort their people to embrace cultural elements (modern ideas) such as nation-building, mass schooling, rationalized health care, and professionalization. They are apt to reformulate their religious doctrine in accordance with typical modern conceptions of rational-moral discipline.”

Considering cultural space hermetically sealed would deprive the scholars of the ability to analyze the politicization, homogenization and manifold breakup of a national identity as well as the socio-economic and normative conditions that lead to the growth of a national culture.

The scholar Andreas Wimmer, in his book Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity (2002), pointed to both positive and negative sides of modern statehood and argued that though the modern principles of democracy, citizenship and popular sovereignty allowed for the inclusion of large sections of the population previously confined to the status of subjects and subordinates, new forms of exclusion based on ethnic and national criteria developed, largely unacknowledged by the grand theories of modernity as a universalistic and egalitarian model of society. Belonging to a specific national or ethnic group now determined the rights and services the modern state is supposed to guarantee.

Gyanenrdra Pandey and Peter Geschiere, elaborating on the principle of exclusion, argued in their book The Forging of Nationhood (2003) that an early form of exclusion from citizenship was on the basis of assumed civilizational differences such as in terms of literacy, rationality, settled existence, cleanliness. But as an increasing number of countries joined the ranks of “civilized” nation-states, a culturalist argument took the place of the argument about political “unfitness” to ensure the dominance of particular group in these societies.

In 19th-century Europe, it was the bourgeoisie that employed the regulatory capacities of the state apparatus to monitor and oversee the gradual incorporation of select subaltern groups into the political community although the universalistic and inclusive discourse of the Enlightenment was used in the process. Contrary to the European societies where elites played a crucial role in shaping the national culture, some societies witnessed popular movements that strove to define the national identity in modern terms.

For instance, David Nugent writes in his book Modernity at the Edge of Empire: State, Individual, and Nation in the Northern Peruvian Andes, 1885-1935 that in Peru, in the absence of self-conscious modern bourgeois class committed to the modern principles of popular sovereignty, equality and liberty that could claim control over the apparatus of state, it was people themselves who undertook the efforts to define the national culture. However, he observes that the image of society and personhood contained within the discourse of popular sovereignty in Peru did not correspond to actual social conditions. Exclusion was an integral part of the movement and democratization meant not only the empowerment of the urban, male middle class, but also the systematic exclusion of women and peasants from the more “open” society envisaged within the movement.

Even though the transformations in local life brought about by the movement were consistently cast in the universalistic language of the Enlightenment (ideas of equality, liberty and justice), these changes represented the interest and motivations of particular groups depicted as the interests and motivations of all groups.

In most of the erstwhile colonies in Asia and Africa, social political elites played a key role in fostering nationalism by rallying masses around the Enlightenment norms against the colonial power and became instrumental in the formation of the modern state. In some states, such as Bhutan, traditional elites realizing the necessity of finding new legitimations in a secular democratic age defined by the Enlightenment ideals, sought to incorporate the masses by claiming a role as the permanent guardians of national continuity as the Prussian monarchy and land-owning aristocracy did in the post-1871 Germany. Nevertheless, irrespective of time and space, socio-economic and political factors were found not simply external to the dynamics of identity formation rather quite intrinsic and fundamental in determining the character and role of identity groups.

The idea of nation has been grafted on to the Afro-Asian landmass, which has been apparently at odds with the evolution of these societies. However, these nations-in-making derive their legitimacy from the international normative order and could claim to be guardians of popular sovereignty.

While historically, frontiers (which kept on waxing and waning) with their flexibility and openness determined the territorial sway of kingdoms and tribal systems of governance, and many ethnic and socio-cultural groups continued to define their existence within the loose territorial space, tight yet unresolved borders were forged by the imperial system for the convenience of its administration. For instance, the Indian subcontinent was artificially divided by the British colonial administration to facilitate its rule, resulting in either separation or merging of socio-cultural groups contradicting the history of their evolution.

While in Europe, nations were constructed earlier – of course not without their pitfalls, which automatically translated into their desire for forming their own states – in the continents of Asia and Africa, modern state systems with fixed territoriality and sovereignty were imposed by the colonial powers, which later adapted the Western model of nation-state through nation-building exercises even though these states had been created artificially without adequate attention to the lived experiences of socio-cultural and ethnic groups, and in most cases, borders remained as unresolved political issues.

More than the physical partitions that continue to haunt Third World societies is that in their bid to become nations, they engage poets and historians in defining and interpreting histories that project them as culturally different from neighboring societies. Politicians engage in rhetoric and selectively choose symbols that push countries to look away from each other further. Intellectual partition is a process that strives to construct nations artificially through selective memory and collective amnesia.

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