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November 21, 2019

Politics, ecology and the nation-state


November 21, 2019

The postcolonial nation-state, from Africa to Asia, is an artificial geographical division of landmass which has not only divided the people but has also divided their history, culture, livelihood and ecology across political borders.

Therefore, the postcolonial nation-state has not been an outcome of the struggle for the liberation of colonized people against colonialism. And it does not fully represent the political aspirations of the wretched people of decolonizing societies. From the scramble of Africa to the ecological fragmentation of High Asia, the colonial experience has played havoc with the nature, ethno-bio diversity, civilization and collective imagination of people living across Africa and Asia.

Postcolonial political conflicts are directly linked to the bifurcated politico-legal identities created during the colonial period which is more pronounced in the Anglophone (the colonies under British Empire) states. This is because of the indirect rule orchestrated through local rajas and tribal lords rather than employing the British legal and political system in the colonies. The indirect rule created a two-tiered governance structure in the British colonies.

The first one was the modern administrative institutional structure to control the subjects of the empire; and these bureaucratic institutions enjoyed unrestrained power to administer local rajas and tribal lords. The second was the bifurcation of the legal system into civil law and customary law for settlers and locals respectively. The local rajas and tribal lords were allowed to exercise customary laws to control their subjects while all the settlers or non-locals were to be governed through civil law. The customary laws became ossified in a medieval tribal framework as they could not evolve with the changing political and historical realities.

As a result of this, the local political and legal imagination became stagnant and it started to create an imagined ‘other’ and hence a political and legal dichotomy between the so-called ‘local’ and ‘non-local’ started to take shape, which ultimately turned into an anticolonial political expression. That is why all anticolonial movements were not necessarily progressive or transformative as most of them took the form of ethno-religious nationalism as a political ideology. This ethno-religious nationalism, which was essentially wrapped in a medieval tribal framework, started to create an imagined enemy out of everyone and anyone who was deemed to be a ‘non-local’.

The bifurcated governance structure created a legal and political rift between the local and the non-local which in turn continued to create bifurcated political identities. Despite their political authenticity, anticolonial movements were essentially predicated upon the bifurcated identity of the struggle of the local against the non-local. This is exactly why the postcolonial nationalist movements continued to define their identity politics in contradistinction to an imagined or real non-local exploiter. With the departure of the non-local colonial exploiter, the nationalist movements found a new exploiter from within the postcolonial state.

In Pakistan, the regional nationalist groups found Punjabis as the new exploiters and their nationalism became synonymous with an anti-Punjabi struggle in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, AJK and Balochistan. In Gilgit-Baltistan, the nationalist groups found two exploiters, in the form of Punjabis and Pathans, and to a lesser extent the Kashmiris who were settled in Gilgit-Baltistan.

In a nutshell, these nationalist groups – despite all their claims of being progressive – have remained regressive in their politics. Their political perspective has essentially been framed in a colonial political imagination of bifurcated identities and xenophobia. Thus, the postcolonial state failed to overcome the legal and political bifurcation of identities because this state in itself is the product of a scramble by colonial masters.

In the postcolonial state, the concept of citizenship can never be flourished until it is reconstructed through the political movement of people beyond xenophobic nationalism. The process of nation-building and citizenship requires democratization and mainstreaming of local nationalist groups and it requires decentralization of the governance structure.

Contrary to the stereotypes of disgruntled nationalist groups in Sindh, KP, Balochistan, AJK and GB, the Pakistani state is not run by ‘Punjabis’ but – like other postcolonial states – it is controlled by a powerful political elite. This powerful political elite has no ethnic affinities but is the beneficiary of the ethnic and sectarian division of political resistance. A poor Punjabi is equally exploited as anyone from other ethnic groups like a poor Sindhi, Pathan, Balochi , Kashmiri or Gilgiti. It is, therefore, important that the regional nationalist groups transform themselves into a political force to promote the idea of citizenship rather than promoting hatred against an ethnic group.

The most effective way to enter into a new social contract with the state is to promote the idea of citizenship in that the citizens of Pakistan have a collective voice to safeguard their interests in a state ruled by an unaccountable powerful elite. The mainstream political parties are family dynasties and they are one of the key impediments in the process of nation-building. The citizens of this country must have their own political platforms to assert their economic, political and legal rights and help build Pakistan as an inclusive democratic polity.

Beyond the trivialization of political and legal identities colonialism also brought about fragmentation of collective geological, ecological and economic resources in the High Asia region in particular. High Asia includes vast geographical areas surrounded by the world’s highest mountain ranges of Karakorum, Hindu Kush, Himalaya and Pamir. These areas are divided into the political geographies of Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, China and Central Asia.

While nation-states are political realities, there needs to be a regional ecological bloc to safeguard the environmental and economic interests of the communities living across this most ecologically sensitive region of the world. The people living across the High Asia region must be declared as ecology citizens with rights of free movement across the region under a common transit systems between the nation-states that share parts of the geography of High Asia. The integration of the European Union was driven by economic necessity; the integration of the High Asia region has to be driven by ecological necessity.

The postcolonial states of South, Central and East Asia may be far away from an EU-style integration due to political reasons but they can work closely for the ecological integration of the region of High Asia. This integration can be initiated with a minimum agenda of protecting the environmental and hydrological reserves which are on the verge of destruction due to negligence and hydro politics. The fallout of the environmental catastrophe will have a much larger regional and global impact if the regional states do not take the necessary steps for ecological integration. For the upper riparian mountain communities, the political fragmentation of the ecology has resulted in the destruction of their centuries’ old economy and livelihood which was dependent on the free grazing of their livestock.

The movements of these communities have been restricted as their pastures and communal livelihood resources have been divided across national borders. The lower riparian communities face natural disasters like abrupt floods as well as a water crisis which has destroyed the agro-based economy of the poor. It merits another article to discuss the regional and global impact of ecological fragmentation of the roof of the world – High Asia.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76