Nationalism Fuels Asian Bid for Respect

Article excerpt

HONOLULU - At the stroke of midnight Thursday, the most popular singer in India, Lata Mangeshkar, will rise in the great Central Hall of Parliament in New Delhi to sing the haunting and fiercely nationalistic "Taranye Hindi" ("The Song of India") in celebration of the 50th anniversary of her nation's independence.

Ironically, the hymn was composed by Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the Muslim poet, philosopher and political activist during India's struggle for freedom from British rule before World War II.

Iqbal first proposed an India in which all religions would be accepted, but around 1930 he became an advocate of a separate Muslim state that eventually became Pakistan.

After World War II, Britain began retreating from its empire and partitioned the subcontinent into Pakistan and India at midnight on Aug. 14, 1947.

It is a sign of the bitter rivalry between Pakistan and India that Pakistanis celebrate their independence on Aug. 14 and India on Aug. 15. Bangladesh was carved out of Pakistan in 1972 after a third Indo-Pakistani war.

Both Pakistan and India will observe the golden anniversaries of independence with parades, speeches and festivities.

In Britain and the United States, the days will be marked with exhibitions, seminars and social gatherings. These rituals may not attract the global attention of the spectacle surrounding the reversion of Hong Kong to China last month, but the underlying emotion will be the same: Nationalism.


Independence, national pride and a demand for respect are the driving forces throughout Asia today, even more than the craving for economic progress.

This lively nationalism, born of anti-colonial struggle and post-colonial achievement, often causes cultural rifts between Asians and Westerners. In Asia, the community takes priority, while in the West, it is the individual. Westerners are governed by law and contract, Asians by custom and personal relations. Asians decide by consensus, Westerners by voting.

A longtime British correspondent in Asia, Dennis Bloodworth, once wrote: "West and East do not speak the same language, even when it is English."

A Singaporean intellectual, Kishore Mahbubani, has asserted that Americans and Europeans have failed to recognize what he calls "the momentous nature of this psychological revolution, because they cannot step into East Asian minds."

He contends that Westerners cannot grasp the nationalistic fervor of Asia because "their minds have never been wrapped in the cellophane of colonialism."

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright may have reflected this failure during her recent trip to Malaysia, where she got into angry exchanges with Southeast Asian leaders over human rights and economic issues.

Her arguments reflected what many Americans consider to be universal human rights, but her tactics suggested that she did not understand that Asians will no longer tolerate lectures from their former colonial masters.

Just before World War II, foreign flags flew over every capital in Asia except three: Tokyo, where the Japanese had staved off Western colonialism; Bangkok, because Britain and France saw Thailand as a buffer between their colonies in Southeast Asia; and Katmandu, Nepal, where Gurkha warriors repelled British invaders, who gave up and recruited the Gurkhas into the British Army.


Today, the only Western colony in Asia is Macao, which Portugal will return to China in 1999.

Over the last 50 years, Asian nationalism has been manifested in achievement, in anti-Western outbursts and in quarrels among Asians themselves.

National pride shows up in political rhetoric, economic and business decisions, writing, the arts, the press, and in acquiring modern military forces. Religion is often an expression of nationalism among Asian Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. …