My country, right or wrong!

National identities aren’t permanent.  A citizen of Bangladesh born before 1947 would have started his life as an Indian but identified himself as a Pakistani for nearly a quarter century of his life, before becoming a Bangladeshi.  It is quite probable that he was fiercely nationalistic in each of his three incarnations.

There are fewer than a dozen countries in the world which may be called nation-states, which is defined as “a political unit consisting of an autonomous state inhabited predominantly by a people sharing a common culture, history, and language”.  More often than not, borders cut across territories to divide national, linguistic and ethnic groups.  Most countries are multi-national states, bringing many nationalities within their folds. 

A Pukhtun could be a Pakistani or an Afghan, depending on which side of the border Sir Mortimer Durand decided to place his forefathers in 1893.  Similarly, a Baloch can be a Pakistani, an Iranian or an Afghan citizen.  People of south-eastern Tibet and north-eastern Assam happen to be Chinese or Indian citizens on the basis of the line drawn by Sir Henry McMahon in 1914. 

A Bengali, whether Muslim or Hindu, may well be an Indian or a Bangladeshi.  In spite of the mayhem and religious cleansing of 1947 and three wars, an Indian Sikh or a Haryanavi is far more at ease in the company of a Pakistani Punjabi than with his compatriots from Tamilnadu or Kerala.  But if the drums of war were to beat again, they will resume the business of annihilating each other with bayonets, bullets and bombs.

Uzbeks and Tajiks spill over from their “national homelands” of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan into Afghanistan, while Turkmen and Azeris straddle the Iran-Turkmenistan and Iran-Azerbaijan borders.  In fact, there are more Tajiks in Afghanistan, more Azeris in Iran and more Pukhtoons in Pakistan than in their respective national homelands of Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan!

National identities aren’t permanent either.  For example, a citizen of Bangladesh born before 1947 would have started his life as an Indian but identified himself as a Pakistani for nearly a quarter century of his life (1947 to 1971), before becoming a Bangladeshi.  It is quite probable that he was fiercely nationalistic in each of his three incarnations.

Similarly, an Uzbek could have been a citizen of the Russian Empire as a child, fought the Second Word War as a citizen of the Soviet Union, but died as a proud and patriotic Uzbek, holding the nationality of Uzbekistan.

Ahwazi Arabs with kinship to the people of southern Iraq are citizens of Iran. Numbering about 20 million, the Kurds are a people without a country.  A Kurd could be the citizen of Turkey, Iraq, Iran or Syria.  This is because the present-day borders of these countries are the result of the expansion and contraction of four empires (Ottoman, Persian, British and French) and of decisions that put politics and administration before nation. 

The island of Borneo is shared between three countries, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.  As a percentage of the population, there are more Malays in Brunei (67%) than in Malaysia (55%). One of four Malaysians is of Chinese descent.

The people of Western Papua were put under Indonesian rule by the United Nations in 1969 simply because it was the most convenient thing to do.  As a result, these tribal people are ruled from distant Jakarta (3,500 kilometers away), by people with whom they have absolutely nothing in common.  An international border separates them from their fellow tribes in Papua New Guinea, with whom they share the world’s second largest island, as well as historical, cultural and linguistic affinity.

The situation is more complicated in Africa, which was a patchwork of tribal kingdoms and societies until the Europeans began to carve it up in the late 19th century.  When decolonization commenced in the middle of the 20th century, new nations began to emerge with borders which were more or less arbitrarily demarcated by the colonial powers depending on administrative conveniences and their mutual animosities. 

Given the intractable nature of the problem, complicated further by the nationalisms of some and the mineral riches of others, the Organisation of African Unity decreed that African countries would not contest their existing borders.  That did not prevent two of the most impoverished African countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, from fighting a border war (1998-2000).  It resulted in 100,000 troops killed and a million people displaced.

According to a reliable and neutral military expert, the Siachen Glacier, for whose control India and Pakistan are locked in battle since 1984, “has no significant strategic value”.  “On average, one Pakistani soldier is killed every fourth day, while one Indian soldier is killed every other day. Over 1,300 Pakistani soldiers have died on Siachen between 1984 and 1999. According to Indian estimates, this operation had cost India over Rs 50 billion and almost 2,000 personnel casualties till 1997. Almost all of the casualties on both sides have been due to extreme weather conditions”.

The Siachen conflict is an example of two countries ready to sacrifice men and materiel for the “sanctity” of one’s claimed territory and the “glory” of one’s flag.

Failure to heed the call to arms when one’s country is in a state of war is a crime everywhere.  Any attempt to undermine the war effort by word or deed is tantamount to treason.  When the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, decided to punish the Chechens for being rebellious, he found the perfect excuse by accusing them of collaborating with the invading Germans.  After that, it was easy to herd the entire Chechen population into cattle wagons and trains and deport them en masse from their mountainous homeland in the Caucasus to the deserts of Central Asia.  Thousands died in transit.

Stalin dispatched tens of thousands of people to the gulag or to the firing squads for the sake of  “socialism”, but when he desperately needed to rally the people of the Soviet Union for the war against Germany, he chose the most potent of all weapons, nationalism, and resorted to the battle-cry: “for the motherland”. 

It is a cliché to say that every inch of the motherland (some call it fatherland) is sacred. Whether a country’s borders happen to be the result of evolution, revolution, arbitrary decision, imperfect demarcation, imprecise delineation, war or annexation, they acquire a degree of inviolability and sanctity comparable to – perhaps even stronger than – religious faith.  Indeed, tens of millions of lives have been sacrificed at its altar in the last century alone.

For most people, it is “my country, right or wrong”. One’s nationality may well be an accident of history or the result of a decision made by one man or a committee in some government office.  It may even change over time, yet it acquires a value for which many are ready to kill and to die. 

Patriotic songs can moisten the eyes of perfectly normal and peaceful people. The sights and sounds of military parades and martial music, accompanied by an eloquent speech or two, are often enough to move multitudes to lay down their lives for “the nation”.

Albert Einstein definitely did not belong to this category.  He said:  “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to to shreds than be part of so base an action!”

(Published in Daily Times, 30 June 2005)


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