Identity Crisis (in South Asia)

By Jalal, Ayesha | Harvard International Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Identity Crisis (in South Asia)


Jalal, Ayesha, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

With the sunset of the 20th century fast approaching, it seems more prudent to take stock of the Indian subcontinent's past and present without making facile distinctions between the religious and the secular, the emotional and the rational, or nationalist and communalist. Once this is done, it becomes easier to assess not just the recent history but also the current political tendencies informing South Asia's trajectory into the next millennium. The growing role of regional parties in the making or unmaking of shaky coalition governments is hinting at a dynamic new equation between center and region in India.

Text:

Headnote:

Rethinking the Politics of Community and Region in South Asia

On the eve of the 20th century, Rabindranath Tagore (1861 - 1941) wrote a poem called "The Sunset of the Century":

The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the west and the whirlwind of hatred.

The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of

steel and the howling verses of vengeance ...

Keep watch, India ...

Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul.

Build God's throne daily upon the ample bareness of your poverty

And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not ever lasting.

This poem, composed on the evening of December 31, 1899, was reprinted by Tagore in his 1917 book, Nationalism. As the self-love of Western nations danced to the clash of steel in the killing fields of Europe and the Middle East, the Bengali poet warned his fellow countrymen against the jingoistic hubris embodied in the model of the modern nation-state. While Tagore's songs have become the national anthems of two of post-colonial South Asia's nation-states, India and Bangladesh, the spirit of his message has remained largely unheeded. Last summer India chose to flaunt its national pride with a series of nuclear explosions in an attempt to force its way into the exclusive club of the most powerful nation-states of this world and, in the process, made a mockery of the ample bareness of its poverty.

What India could contrive in the desert of Pokhran, Pakistan could do just as well in the hills of Chagai. Yet Muhammad Iqbal, the Punjabi poet--philosopher who wrote in Urdu in the early 20th century, had shared many of Tagore's concerns about the dangers of worshipping the god of nationalism. India's and Pakistan's tit-for-tat nuclear brinkmanship is often explained in reductionist vein in terms of a civilizational fault line between predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. But on the roots of conflict Iqbal had a finer insight. It was nationalism, according to him, which gave rise to the "relativity of religions," the notion that religions were territorially specific and unsuited to the temperament of other nations. It was therefore nationalism, and not religion, which by compartmentalizing people into different nations, that was the source of modern conflicts.

The Trouble with Labels

Such an interpretation meshes awkwardly with common perceptions of the seemingly ubiquitous role of religion in South Asia. The image of essentialized religious communities locked in grim battle gives a very distorted perspective on the subcontinent's conflicting politics of identity and discourses of contested sovereignty. It has generated controversies as heated among scholars as among practitioners of politics in the post-colonial states of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. A debate shaped in large part by the colonial encounter, the question of religion appears to be intrinsic to the social processes shaping the politics of democratization and decolonization in the region. Lying at the cutting edge of the politics of difference, religion's epistemological and historical meaning in colonial and post-colonial South Asia needs to be understood in all its multifaceted nuances and textures. …

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