Nation building is not the answer

Stabroek News
August 8, 2001

Dear Editor,

Mr. David de Caires, publisher of the Stabroek News, recently delivered a lecture in Trinidad on the "Problems of Nation Building" within the context of the "ethnic problems" which Guyana has been experiencing (published in Sunday Stabroek 29.7.200l). From the title of his lecture, one would assume that Mr de Caires is proposing that "nation building" is a process (or an end) which would address the ethnic problems identified.

He confirms this when he asserts unequivocally that while Guyana is a "state" "we are not yet a nation". His "yet" joins him with those who conflate or would conflate nation and state. We contend that this is an extremely dangerous notion since it is this conflation over the past two hundred years, which has been the cause of ethnic conflict to begin with. Now it is self evident that groups defined as "different" by their disparate cultures have always existed. But for most of the history of mankind it was accepted that these groups could define themselves by their origin in a particular territory as "citizens" of that territory or state (jus soli) and simultaneously as a "nationality" through their culture and heritage (jus sanguinis). It was accepted that citizens could be of various nationalities and the distinction between citizenship and nationality wasn't merely academic.

While all citizens would have all of the rights and obligations of citizenship, each "nationality", for instance, was governed by the personal laws of their culture.

Mr de Caires glosses over England's and France's "territorial" style of nation?formation as "not always a comfortable fit" but the fact of the matter is, it is this insistence that all citizens of a particular territory be practitioners of one particular culture that led to the peculiar modern virulent version of ethnicity and nationalism. For those steeped only in western history we note that in the polyglot entity of the Ottoman Empire, which accepted the distinction between citizenship and nationality, the struggles between the various "ethnic groups" were quantitatively and qualitatively different. It never had the ethnic?cleansing phenomenon of some of its modern day "nation-state" successors such as Yugoslavia.

We also note that there are not more than possibly three states where the boundaries of state and nation coincide (Iceland, Portugal and Norway). Even Japan has their Ainus and a substantial Korean minority. Until we disjuncture the fusion of nation and state we are ensuring continued ethnic conflict. In the modern world the norms of "equality" and "self-determination

of peoples" have become much too pervasive for us to be talking about monochromatic or monocultural "nations". England, France and other western states thought they had "solved" their ethnic problems by forming more or less homogeneous populations at the

time they became states. But their ethnic conflicts became two "international" world wars as late as this century. Their minorities were dominated but not stifled. Mr de Caires even alludes to Britain's attempt to move away from the nation-state equivalence through "devolution" and yet touts the "nation-state"

as the ideal. We have to shift our focus of organizing our societies away from wiping out differences towards celebrating differences. The question therefore is not one of "nation building" but of organizing on the principles of autonomy and differences.

The ideal of a "nation-state" evolved in a Western Europe that had been swept over by a Christianity that insisted that there is only one set of beliefs. It reached its apogee in that Western Europe as a means of defusing class tensions during the rise of capitalism since it appears that in its early stage their capitalism generated greater irregularities than in the preceding feudal period. "Nation" arose out of a discourse where, as usual, the power relations were disguised and oppressions became not only acceptable but desired. One was exhorted to sacrifice "for the nation"; and accept the irregularities. The English lower classes would willingly throw themselves as fodder against the German Huns and vice versa. To promote "nation building" is also to assume that all other states have to follow the Western European path of "development". This thesis has been totally rejected even by the Ivy League Professors who promoted it under "Project Camelot" under the broad rubric of "modernization". Our contention in ROAR is that we can address the tensions arising out of inequalities and differences by other mechanisms than seeking to blend everyone into some melange of what will always be some group's conception of culture.

As a part of his litany of obstacles to his "nation building" ideal, Mr de Caires claims that in Guyana, "The folk memories of the society begin with slavery and indenture". This statement is certainly incorrect as it relates to Indians and indentureship. Indians who chose to remain in Guyana did not fixate or define

themselves by the indentureship experience. It was a period that they endured and then moved on to create a life based on their folk memories of village India within the constraints of their present circumstances. Their sequestering on the plantations facilitated this process and even as late as the 1950's, when Indians were moved off the "logies" and into the new housing

schemes (12,000 homes) they constituted Mandirs, Masjids, festivals etc. from their ancestral memories. There is no research to show that the folk memories of Indians "begin with indenture."

Seemingly, as a second best compromise, since we cannot seem capable of getting it together as a "nation" Mr de Caires asks, "Can't we survive as a multi-national, multi-cultural state by defining acceptable terms on which to co-exist-" We don't see such a state as a compromise but as the only realistic way to build a society where different groups can have a chance of living together harmoniously.

Yours faithfully,
Ravi Dev (MP)

Editor's note
We believe Mr Dev does not address certain vital issues. First, is there such a thing as a Guyanese culture, as distinct from an Indian, African or European culture. If so, what is this and does it provide a basis for what Anthony Smith called the `civil religion' of nationalism.

In other words, we must start with an honest examination of who we are. We suggest we can only be properly understood in the context of Guyana and without external references which are now of limited relevance. It is this difficult analysis that must be undertaken before we can make real progress.

Secondly, can separate `ethnie' or `nations' co-exist in a `state' without a common nationalist ideology of some kind that links them together? This does not imply the obliteration of different cultural traits, but it does suggest that without a common nationalist position separatist tendencies may be overwhelming and may make the state non-viable. As Sir Arthur Lwis had put it, speaking of West Africa in the sixties:

"In such a situation it is hard for any one political leader to emerge as the leader of the whole nation. Houphouet-Boigny is the only West African to have this distinction. Every other political leader has had strong support in part of the country, and met equally strong hostility in some other part. In the case of Senegal, opposition to Senghor has had some regional aspects, but has not mainly been of this order. In every other West African country regionalism has been more important in politics than the division between radicals and the middle classes".

Though talk of creating a common mythology and heroes and legends may undoubtedly historically have unfortunate fascist historical overtones it is surely a process that has been utilised in all modern states, including for example the United States of America (the pilgrim fathers, the pioneers who opened up the West) where a dominant Wasp culture exists in a nation with a multitude of sub-groups with different cultures.

The problem is surely much more complex than Mr Dev's somewhat reductionist analysis would suggest and needs to be the subject of an ongoing national debate.