It is rare for an article written decades earlier to remain in public memory leave alone retain analytical relevance. The year 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of one such piece of writing: Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations? Written in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, the article has generated a huge literature, largely polemical, some useful and most eclipsed by the original piece and its later avatar published as a book three years later. The article continues to remain fresh and pose interesting questions and provide provocative answers.

Much of what this Harvard liberal had to say has turned out to be true. Apart from his specific observations about various conflicts, two themes stand out: civilizational fault lines and the idea of torn nations. Huntington argued that after the end of the Cold War, political conflicts between countries would largely have a cultural basis. Countries belonging to one civilization—Western, for example—would have much greater affinity with each other than those belonging to different groups. Increasingly, the world’s frontiers would be those where civilizations met, or more accurately clash, with each other.

In the world…

In his lifetime, he was unfairly accused of manufacturing The Clash as a pernicious idea to justify Islam-bashing and create a “West versus the rest" division for conquest and military adventure. Twenty years later, these conflicts are largely among the “rest" while the West has no appetite for military intervention even where it is amply justified. Take a look at the world’s map and you will see this clearly: East China Sea (Japan vs China), Radcliffe Line (India vs Pakistan), Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Kenya vs Somalia), and South Sudan vs Sudan. Superficially, these distinctions are between nation-states. But in reality, these are civilizational demarcations. Japanese vs Sinic, Hindu vs Islamic and African vs Islamic. There is no sign of the West here.

If these are external divisions, what about fissures within civilizations: Are there nowhere countries, so to speak? Here, the analysis takes an interesting turn. Huntington affirmed this and dubbed these places torn nations.

His prototypical example was Turkey, which is divided between an Islamic reality and the desire to join the West. The Balkans, Russia and Mexico are other examples.

…and at home

If one casts this gaze on India, the results are interesting if somewhat unsettling. One such analysis was offered by someone clearly at odds with what the author of The Clash had to say. This is the Marxist historian Perry Anderson. In his trenchant comments on India, Anderson used the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) as a civilizational measuring rod: “For what is perfectly obvious, but never seen or spoken, is that the hand of AFSPA has fallen where the reach of Hinduism has stopped." (The Indian Ideology, p144). If one ignores his inability to comprehend the country’s complex realities, he is not very much off the mark. India’s divisions, however unpalatable it may seem, are indeed civilizational. Two regions—Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and the bulk of the North-East—mark these limits. Stretched a bit, the vast swath of East Central India, too, falls in this class.

What, however, is of interest is the changing nature of this uneasy civilizational equilibrium. After independence, these areas were kept off limits for citizens. One reason for this state of affairs was a misguided quest for integrating these regions by assuring them of their special identity. In J&K, Article 370 was imposed to promise residents of the state that they would not be dragooned into the Union. In the North-East, concerns about plainsmen exploiting citizens of tribal origin played an important role in keeping the region isolated. These decisions marked the continuation of an old equilibrium, which was the result of an inability to penetrate these regions. For example, in the late Mughal empire efforts to add Assam to the empire by the governor of Bengal, Mir Jumla, in the 17th century, failed badly.

Somewhere in the decades after independence, these reasons changed again. What was originally a measure of protection has now fuelled a separatist imagination. Because these regions are well-integrated into the country’s system of electoral representation, local politicians—whatever their nationalist credentials—have to compromise with these tendencies. The result is a kind of brake to integration and the continuation of the old equilibrium. What have changed are the reasons: once military-cum-technological, then misguided idealism and now a corrupted political compromise. What has not changed is the equilibrium itself: Hinduism indeed marks a frontier in India.

Notwithstanding these detours, the original Huntingtonian insight about the nature of civilizations has proved true for India as well. In a more optimistic mood, one can take solace in the fact that what has not changed for two millennia is indeed durable. But the cost of maintaining this equilibrium is high, not only in terms of holding these regions but also in terms of a wasted future for many generations of Kashmiris and others who have chased the chimera of independence. There is no denying that India, in Huntington’s world, is a torn nation.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at siddharth.s@livemint.com.

To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist-

Close