The great decolonization movements of the 20th century ushered in a common and easily recognizable political unit across the world: the nation state. Man’s traditional attachment to clan or tribe became extended to (in Benedict Anderson’s famous formulation) an “imagined community” of people who shared, or were seen as sharing, a common language, culture and history, and who became fellow citizens of a state that guaranteed their rights. The idea of the nation had a legitimacy that empires never had.
But, as we have seen repeatedly in the last 60 years, nationalism—the essence of which is the right of a group of people to political sovereignty and self-determination—is a complicated business, almost always subject to fissures. The work of nation building, of nationalist myth making, can frequently be inimical to the interests of smaller groups. Inside many nations are smaller nations waiting to get out.
Sumantra Bose’s book Contested Lands is about battles for political sovereignty in some territories around the world that have proved especially intractable. A scholar who has already written books on the Kashmir dispute and the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, Bose has now put together a highly readable account of what is at stake in these lands—Israel and Palestine, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Bosnia, and Cyprus.
Contested Lands: HarperCollins, 330 pages, Rs395.
The most stimulating aspect of Bose’s approach is that he takes the long historical view of these struggles, devoting a healthy 50-page section to each. By doing so, he reverses the built-in iniquities of both newspaper journalism, which because of its attention to the present moment can be superficial, and of op-eds and other polemical writing, which—for reasons of space or ideological perspective—often simplify matters. Yet, it is through these distorting and perishable forms that most of us put together an understanding of the situation in Israel or Palestine or Kashmir. To read Bose’s book is to understand (with some dismay) that our responses to these issues are usually more rhetoric than reason.
Bose also supplies a wealth of closely argued insights that open up the complexities of these contested lands in productive ways. Take, for instance, his emphasis on the way in which the principle of the will of the majority, which is basic to the workings of democracy, can become devalued and even indefensible when it becomes too simply majoritarian: that is, embodying in each and every case the will of an unchanging and arrogant majority.
This is what led to the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka, a country that began as a democracy and languished into an ethnic democracy in which the Sinhalese majority trampled over the rights of the Tamil minority. The same contempt for what are really the inalienable rights of another people distinguishes the Israeli attitude towards the Palestinian movement.
Bose also argues, counter-intuitively, that sovereignty referendums such as plebiscites (such as the one proposed in Kashmir in 1953 to determine the will of the people) are hardly a logical way of settling ethno-national disputes. This is because they represent an inflammatory winner-take-all approach in societies deeply divided on questions of allegiance and identity.
“A conflict as complex and incendiary as Kashmir calls for sophisticated tools of surgical precision, not the blunt instrument of a plebiscite decided by a simple majority,” he remarks. He proceeds to show how the varying allegiances of people, in Indian Kashmir at least, can be given voice through an unusual multi-tiered structure.
Although there are specialist works to be found on each of the conflict zones surveyed by Bose, the exceptional breadth of his book, the insights he generates through his comparative approach, and the lucidity and cogency of his style mark out Contested Lands as a work of unusual distinction.
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