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Thinking through the Postnation

A well-known opposition in globalisation debates is "the national versus the postnational" in which the static nation, defined forever by symbols of identity produced in the now-irrelevant era of nation states, is counterposed to the dynamic postnational corporation, located everywhere and nowhere, resisting the parochialism of national pride and national symbols. The term "postnational" is developed here in a sense different from that promoted by corporations and the self-defined "global civil society", which conceives of it simply as spaces above and beyond the nation state. Moreover, in a world in which dominant discourses valorise "flows", "fluidity" and "translatability", the term postnational may offer us a vantage point that insists on location in the face of translatability, while simultaneously insisting that "location" is autonomous of the nation state.

Thinking through the Postnation

Nivedita Menon

function, and not to Narayana Murthy’s controversial statement afterwards. Thus, the embarrassment for the Indian state, of taking on one of the most powerful and charismatic of India’s corporation chiefs, was avoided.1

This story illustrates a well-known op-

A well-known opposition in globalisation debates is “the national versus the postnational” in which the static nation, defined forever by symbols of identity produced in the now-irrelevant era of nation states, is counterposed to the dynamic postnational corporation, located everywhere and nowhere, resisting the parochialism of national pride and national symbols. The term “postnational” is developed here in a sense different from that promoted by corporations and the self-defined “global civil society”, which conceives of it simply as spaces above and beyond the nation state. Moreover, in a world in which dominant discourses valorise “flows”, “fluidity” and “translatability”, the term postnational may offer us a vantage point that insists on location in the face of translatability, while simultaneously insisting that “location” is autonomous of the nation state.

I thank the participants at the weekly seminar at the International Center for Advanced Studies, New York University, (where an earlier version of this paper was presented) for their incisive comments. I would like to especially thank Timothy Mitchell, Director ICAS and other ICAS fellows for their invitation to present this paper in their seminar.

Nivedita Menon (niveditamenon2001@yahoo. teaches at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

he idea that the nation state is a historically contingent if enduring institution is hardly a new one. When we use the term postnational, therefore, we both build on and depart from scholarship that has problematised the nation state in various ways.

I will begin with an incident that strikingly illustrates the most familiar of current globalisation narratives, in an effort to distinguish from it my own usage of the term postnational. In April 2007, Infosys, one of India’s largest IT companies, organised a function at its Global Training Campus in Mysore, attended by the president of India, A P J Abdul Kalam. According to press reports, a shoddy keyboard rendition of the national anthem was played at the entry and exit of the president. Media-persons, ever alert to potential threats to national pride, questioned Infosys chief Narayana Murthy as to why a more melodious vocal performance was not organised. Narayana Murthy, habituated to absolute and unquestioning media adoration, replied quite confidently: “Indeed, we had arranged for five people to sing the anthem. But then we cancelled it as we have foreigners on board here. They should not be embarrassed while we sing the anthem.”

There was a national furore caused by this remark from a person considered at the time to be in the running for the post of president of the Indian republic. In addition, a private organisation lodged a complaint against him under Section 3 of Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act 1971, claiming his statement was defamatory and an insult to the anthem. But on the eve of Independence Day, on 14 August 2007, the Karnataka High Court quashed lower court proceedings, holding that playing an instrumental version of the national anthem is not prevented by the act. In doing so, the high court sidestepped the really contentious issue by referring only to what happened at the

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position in globalisation debates: “the national versus the postnational” in which on the one hand, there is the static nation, defined forever by symbols of identity produced in the now-irrelevant era of nation states; on the other, the dynamic postnational corporation, located everywhere and nowhere, resisting the parochialism of national pride and national symbols.

The sense in which I will use the term “postnational” in this essay however, is very different to this sense in which corporations and the self-defined “global civil society” conceive of spaces above and beyond the nation state. I will use the term postnational with a hyphen to refer to arguments of this sort. I am aware that both with and without a hyphen, the term has come to acquire a particular meaning in that part of the world where nation states initially came into being – Europe. Two centuries after blood flowed to create France, Italy and Germany, those nation states are being dismantled, and various kinds of global and transnational institutions are in the process of coming into being. In the debates around the idea of the European Union, both terms, postnational and postnational, can only mean one thing – the end of nation states and the rise of supranational entities.

However, in a world in which dominant discourses valorise “flows”, “fluidity” and “translatability”, the term postnational as I try to develop it here, may offer us a vantage point that insists on location in the face of translatability. Let me add as the last prefatory remark here, that the term location does not imply indigeneity or authenticity. The point is not to claim authenticity for being located in the non-west. Rather, with the term location, I mean to gesture towards the materiality of spatial and temporal coordinates that inevitably suffuse all theorising. A sensitivity to location would invariably lead to a productive contamination of the

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purity of empty universalist categories and challenge their claim to speak about everywhere from nowhere.

In the first section I look at the discourse on the “end of the nation state” and the different views on this that emerge, particularly in the debates on the EU. Etienne Balibar points out that the end of the nation state is understood by some (he cites Hobsbawm), as a positive phenomenon bringing the “great universalist project of modernity to a fitting conclusion”, whereas for others, precisely because of the strong affiliation between nation and modernity, the decline of the nation state is a symptom of regression and crisis (2004: 13).

Our usage of the term “postnational” would outline itself very differently from both of these, not lining up with narratives of triumphant postnationalism rendering national borders obsolete, but at the same time, not retreating to a reconstituted national space in the face of this triumphalism.

1 Enlightened Europe Contra American Empire

One version of the view that celebrates the end of the nation state is evident in debates over the new Europe, through a reading of which, from our location in the non-west, I attempt to outline the terrain in which the idea of the postnational would emerge. Why engage with European debates? The reason is not that theorising in the west is central to, or even necessarily a reference point for understanding our own situation. Rather, it is the case that in the self-understanding of these debates, they play themselves out on grounds designated as universal – they speak about the globe in a manner which assumes that European concerns and experiences are translatable everywhere.

Jurgen Habermas has been a prominent voice theorising the “postnational constellation” in the context of Europe, conceiving of a world citizenship posed in opposition to the imperialist agenda of the US. Here he distinguishes between the US “enforcing the global implementation of human rights as part of the national mission of a world superpower” and a European vision of “enforcement of a politics of human rights…aimed at establishing

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the rule of law in international relations” (1999). However, from the perspective of the global south in an unequally structured global economy, the distinction between US hegemony and European hegemony does not appear to be a significant one.

Habermas suggested in the celebrated statement against the US invasion of Iraq, written by himself, signed also by Jacques Derrida (in Frankfurter Allemande Zeitung, 31 May 2003, later published with responses as a wider debate in 2005), that a “core Europe” (France, Germany and the Benelux countries), should play an avantgardist role, and “be the locomotive” to “endow the EU with certain qualities of a state” (Habermas and Derrida 2003/2005: 4-5).

What, according to Habermas, are the qualities of a distinctively European, as opposed to an American public sphere? These are: secularism in politics (“Citizens here regard transgressions of the border between politics and religion with suspicion”) broad popular agreement on the crucial role of the state in controlling capitalism’s destructive qualities, a proper sense of cynicism about the possible achievements of technological progress, (Europeans having “a keen sense of the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’”), and the desire for a multilateral and legally regulated international order within the framework of a reformed United Nations (ibid: 9).

The statement concludes with a rejection of Eurocentrism, and a “Kantian hope for a global domestic policy”, urging that the European experience of imperialism should give European powers the chance to “learn from the perspective of the defeated to perceive themselves in the dubious role of victors who are called to account for the violence of a forcible and uprooting process of modernisation” (ibid: 12).

Some of the responses to this statement, brought together in the volume cited here, highlight the sharp disagreements within Europe itself over the very idea of an avant-gardist core Europe, particularly from the perspective of East Europeans (Esterhazy 2005), but also from those who term the idea as “Euro-Gaullism”, or a form of elitist privileging of some part

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or parts of Europe (Garton Ash and Dahrendorf 2005).

One is also struck by Habermas’s unproblematic definition of secularism that begs the question of Europe’s internal Other, Islam. The controversy over the French state’s attitude to the headscarf (“conspicuous religious symbols”) in schools surely has produced discussion of sufficient complexity to counter Habermas’s simple assertion that “citizens here regard transgressions of the border between politics and religion with suspicion”. Disagreement over what exactly constituted the transgression of that border – the state’s banning of religious symbols or citizens’ wearing of them – was precisely at the heart of the controversy. Moreoever, it was apparent that the category of “citizen” was internally split – the question of which groups of citizens objected, and to what, brought every tension in the classic European conception of secularism into focus.

Further, Iris Marion Young objects to the reference to imperialism in the concluding paragraph cited above, as an “uprooting process of modernisation”, which makes it sound, she says, like “colonialism is an unfortunate by-product of the otherwise universalistic and enlightened project Europe led to establish the principles of human rights, rule of law, and expanded productivity”. She reminds Habermas that colonialism was not just a “vicious process of modernisation, but a system of slavery and labour exploitation” (2005: 157).

The rejection of the EU constitution, termed by Antonio Negri a “constitution of multinational corporations” (at the Conference on the Constitution of Europe, Rome 2004), by the people of France and the Netherlands in 2005 was recognised by analysts as reflecting not a simple nationalism but several different, perhaps mutually contradictory strands – distrust of the liberalisation and free trade policies of the EU, of its lack of democratic accountability, but also simultaneously, fears of being overrun by immigrants from those internal Others – east Europe and Turkey. The rejection has further sharply brought into view the impossibility of a shared European voice.

What the debate on postnationalism in the European context alerts us to, is the fact that the assertion of a grand identity that transcends “smaller” identities is necessarily insensitive to the powerless and the marginal, even when articulated in the best traditions of the Enlightenment – or perhaps especially then. For after all, the Habermas who speaks of a “core Europe” and of secularism as if it is a simple given, also argues that modern self-understanding (in contrast to the universalism of old empires which had a centralising perspective), “has been shaped by egalitarian universalism that requires a decentralisation of one’s own perspective” (Habermas 2005: 25). If despite this insight he is unable to decentralise his perspective, we must question the very possibility of the universalist project.

Nancy Fraser has pointed to the difficulties inherent in the idea of a transnational public sphere, and in doing so, unintentionally exposes the impossibility of even the national public sphere as a normative ideal. She points out that Habermas’ public sphere theory, conducted simultaneously at the empirical-historical-institutional level and at the normative level, was implicitly conceptualised as coextensive with a territorial nation state. It assumed a national state apparatus and economy, national citizenry resident on the national territory, a national language and literature and a national infrastructure of communication. She has earlier tried to rescue this ideal from the limits set by bourgeois democracy, but today, she argues, the critique must go beyond that. Each of these assumptions is problematic if not counterfactual. The “who” of communication is no longer a national citizenry but a collection of dispersed subjects of communication; the “what” of communication, previously theorised as a national interest rooted in national economy, now stretches across the globe; the “where” of communication is no longer national territory but deterritorialised cyberspace; the “how” of communication, far from being a national print media, is “a vast translinguistic nexus of disjoint and overlapping visual cultures”; and finally, the addressee of communication once theorised as state power to be made accountable to public opinion, is now a mix of public and private transnational powers that is neither easily identifiable nor rendered accountable (Fraser 2005: 39-45). She believes therefore, that the transnational public sphere cannot be assumed to exist, it is necessary to bring it about by “major institutional renovation” that needs to be thought through carefully.

What is interesting about this critique is that it brings to the fore the problems inherent, in the very idea of a public sphere as a normative ideal even at the level of the nation. The assumption of a national citizenry with common and shared interests, with a shared language and values, as a given, or as a desirable goal, obscures the violence by which nation states produced such homogeneity even in the limited cases where it existed. It is at this point that we may glimpse the critique that we may offer of the national as the counter to the trans/postnational, which will be expanded on a little later.

1.1 Global Civil Society Contra the Nation State

A different postnational understanding from the Eurocentric one outlined above is the idea of “global civil society” in different forms. For instance, Daniele Archibugi promotes the idea of “cosmopolitical democracy” through which he attempts to apply the principles of democracy internationally. Faced with problems that transcend national borders, such as the protection of the environment, the regulation of migration and the use of natural resources, Archibugi argues, democracy must transcend the borders of single states and assert itself on a global level (2003: 7).

What institutional forms can cosmopolitical democracy take? Some examples that Archibugi suggests are a world parliament, peace assemblies that invite representatives of peoples rather than states, the International Criminal Court. Inevitably though, when action is to be taken against erring states, whether European or non-European, the actors are conceived of as existing nation states. Although their actions will require corroboration by world citizens in assembly, “world citizens” are not imagined as being agential themselves, in the form of cross-border political movements or struggles.

Arjun Appadurai’s understanding of “globalisation”, on the other hand, does take cross-border initiatives seriously. However, in his formulation of globalisation from below, there is a conflation of political movements with funded nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). He refers to “new sovereignties” that are


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“definitely postnational” in Modernity at Large (1997) and in a later essay uses the term “grassroots globalisation” to refer to a worldwide order of institutions of which the most recognisable are NGOs (2001). These differ in their size, legitimacy, influence and relationship with nation states, but by and large he characterises them as progressive. Some of these have now emerged as transnational advocacy networks (TAN) – “part movements, part networks, part organisations” – and according to Appadurai, these forms are the “crucibles and institutional instruments of most serious efforts to globalise from below”. Successful TANs might, he argues, “offset the most volatile effects of runaway capital”. The reason they have not been able to do so is because they lack the assets and planning that global capital has. One of the biggest disadvantages for “activists working for the poor in fora such as the World Bank, the UN system, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) is their alienation from the vocabulary used by the university-policy nexus…” (ibid: 16-20).

Thus, Appadurai offers “globalisation from below” through NGOs and TANs as an alternative both to “globalisation from above” as exemplified in institutions such as the World Bank, as well as to the nation state. But the conflation referred to earlier is problematic from the notion of postnational politics this essay offers. It is crucial to recognise that people working with funded NGOs, including “activists working for the poor” in the World Bank, are salaried employees, while cross-border nonfunded political movements have a radically different character. It is our understanding that this distinction is crucial to recognise and maintain if we are to retain the idea of the postnational as an ethical horizon. It could even be argued, I suggest, that TANs, in performing the valuable function Appadurai identifies as “offsetting” the “most volatile effects of runaway capital”, thus play a critical role in stabilising global capital.

Very revealing in this context is a startling analysis of currently popular moves by governments in the global south to create formal titles in land for the poor,

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provided by Timothy Mitchell in a closely argued paper, “The Properties of Markets” (2004). On the face of it, these programmes use progressive and leftist language to justify the creation of formal property rights in land for people who have hitherto lived on these lands in semiformal and informal ways. NGOs all over the world are being funded by bodies like the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) High Level Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, in order to promote this agenda. The ideologue behind this campaign, Hernando de Soto, believes that assets held informally are “defective”, and that the absence of property title and the mechanism of credit it enables are the principal reasons for the failure of capitalist development outside the west. What property titling is intended to do is to bring the assets of the poor from the “outside” to the “inside” of the capitalist economy, thus bringing into being opportunities for speculation, concentration of wealth and for the accumulation of rents. However, the NGOs working on this agenda see their work as promoting “empowerment of the poor”. The use of leftist/Marxist language is particularly noteworthy because De Soto is from Peru, and his intervention was promoted by the government also as a way of cutting the ground from beneath the Maoist Shining Path with its own agenda of land rights.

The fact that transnational NGOs are funded means that the question of the funders’ agenda can never be far from the surface. More often than not, they are coopted into the project of fulfilling the agenda of global capital, even if sometimes unwittingly. This is why we insist that a clear distinction must be maintained between cross-border political movements and transnational funded NGOs if we are to retain the idea of the postnational as an ethical horizon. The term “postnational” as I use it here suggests currents running counter to both nation and capital.

Tom Mertes offers a micro-example of the fragile process that “organising from below” is, threatened by both TANs as well as powerful states. When activists based in Los Angeles tried to get in touch with workers in Mexican maquiladoras (sweat

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shop factories), they found they were being blocked not just by the Mexican state and global capital, but by the moderate NGOs that controlled the funds for transport and translators, who wanted to control the LA activists’ interaction with the workers (2002). In what seems to me to be an interesting postnational twist, Mertes refers to the Los Angeles-based American activists as “Angelenos” and to the Mexican workers as “their Tijuana counterparts”. This nomenclature dismantles the national identities of both partners by foregrounding the localities where they are based. This is consistent with the understanding of the postnational that I work with, which involves recognising currents going “under” and not just “over” the nation, a point to which I will return in the last section of this essay.

1.2 A Bulwark against Global Capital?

In response to arguments such as those outlined above, which in different ways suggest supranational alternatives to the thrust of global capital, one kind of position seeks to reinstall the nation state as “the only concrete terrain and framework for political struggle” (Jameson 2000).

Timothy Brennan in his response to Archibugi’s suggestion outlined above, of a global civil society that will monitor the system of states, asserts that national sovereignty is the only way under modern conditions to secure respect for weaker societies or peoples (2003: 42). Like Jameson he knows what nation states are: “discrete units for the organisation of profitmaking, resource extraction, and the perpetuation of unequal social relations” (2003: 47). But he holds nevertheless, that within a world system of unequally powerful nation states, the only chance that local or indigenous peoples have “to draw a boundary between what is theirs and what lies beyond” (2003: 47), is offered by national governments.

Whatever happened to Marxist internationalism? Although that tradition too, eventually took a form that legitimised existing nation states, Jameson and Brennan seem to have given up even on its attenuated form. Brennan’s assumption that indigenous and local peoples can unproblematically lay claim to what is “inside” a nation is puzzling. More often than not, such people are engaged in continuous struggles to stake a legitimate claim to “national” resources, even when these resources are located within territories in which they have lived for centuries. Such resources, whether forest produce, minerals or rivers, are harnessed by nation states for the project of “national development”, leaving the areas depleted and ecologically devastated, often displacing the local people or leaving them impoverished. When Brennan argues therefore, that “[n]ations are ‘manageable’ in both directions. They allow the state to manage the subalterns and the subalterns to petition the state, with a rhetoric of the ‘popular’ that appeals to a shared cultural identity” (2003: 47-48), there appears to be an amnesia about the history of actually existing nation states, how “shared cultural identity” was produced if it exists at all, and how nation states have engaged with subalterns.

Etienne Balibar points out that the construction of European nations involved the constitution of a “fictive ethnicity” (2004: 8) through the nationalisation of cultures, languages and genealogies with different histories, leading to “permanent rivalry” from the inside. Similarly, Crispin Bates points out that the English believe their own history to be continuous, but

the so-called “English” culture is a congeries of Celtic, Pict, Angle, Saxon, Viking, Norman, Asian, Carribean, Polish, Italian, Huguenot, French, East European and of course, American cultures, and of the different gender biases within each. By selecting from this mélange however, a set of ideas is upheld that somehow enshrines the “exceptionalism” that is held to be “English” (2001: 22).

The Indian project of “nation-building” has been similarly beleaguered. In the next section I will discuss some points of resistance to this project as well as some examples of postnationalist currents running “under” the nation, as an illustration of the historical impossibility of attaining nationhood.

2 When was India?2

Sudipta Kaviraj has pointed out how “European models of nation formation”, in which cultural unification preceded the coming into being of the nation state, were understood by Indian nationalist leadership of all shades to be paradigmatic and universal. Consequently, the nationalist myth, whether secular-Nehruvian or Hindutvavaadi, involved the idea of an already existing Indian nation formed over thousands of years, waiting to be emancipated from British rule. In this understanding the Indian nation had been for millennia “an accomplished and irreversible fact” and any voices that questioned this were of necessity “anti-national” (Kaviraj 1994: 330).

However, there are regions and peoples residing in the territory that came to be called “India”, which have histories autonomous of the Indian nation state, and which had independently negotiated relationships with the British colonial government. One of the significant achievements of the nation-building elite of what subsequently became India, was the incorporation into the Indian nation of these peoples and regions, at varying degrees of willingness. The hegemonic drive of the anti-imperialist struggle as well as the coercive power of the Indian state after independence was deployed to enforce the idea of India as a homogeneous nation with a shared culture. Its very diversity was supposedly its strength, the popular nationalist motto being “Unity in Diversity”. However, the idea that all the multiple identities and aspirations in the landmass called India are ultimately merely rivulets flowing into the mainstream of the Indian nation, was never an unchallenged one. The project of nationbuilding therefore, 60 years down the line, continues to be a fraught exercise.

It would be misleading to assume that the two well known “trouble spots” on the borders of India – Kashmir and the northeast – are unique instances of the crisis of the nation state. Many other instances illustrate the perpetual anxiety generated by the need to preserve a nation – assumed to be simultaneously eternal and perpetually under threat of disintegration. Ranabir Samaddar terms this a “particular kind of post-colonial anxiety” – the anxiety of “a society suspended forever in the space between the ‘former colony’ and the ‘not-yet nation’” (Samaddar 1999: 108).

Consider just two instances. One is the linguistic reorganisation of states in the 1950s under pressure from popular movements that mobilised all the passion and emotiveness associated with nationalist sentiments. The fear of the nationalist leadership was not entirely without basis then, that linguistic states could lead to “Balkanisation”. Since then there have been other new states created under pressure from mass movements, the latest

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being Uttaranchal (from Uttar Pradesh), Chhattisgarh (from Madhya Pradesh) and Jharkhand (from Bihar) in 2000. The renaming of Uttaranchal as Uttarakhand in 2007 is another revealing instance of the identities that run under “the idea of India”. While anchal in Hindi suggests “region”, khand means “piece” or “fragment”, suggesting a breakaway portion. The popular movement had demanded “Uttarakhand”, but the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power at the centre when the state came into being, and it was named as Uttaranchal. Seven years down the line, the state legislative assembly decisively reasserted the khand.

Innumerable and continuing disputes over water-sharing between states, which go beyond bickering between state governments and often take a popular form, are another indicator that the idea of India cannot be assumed but must be subject to a “daily plebiscite” (Renan 1996: 53). One instance of this is the dispute over the waters of the Kaveri river between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, resulting in rioting and violence against Tamilians in Karnataka in 1991 (Menon 2002). Another dispute, ongoing at the end of 2006, is between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar dam on the Periyar river arising from an agreement between the British government of Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu) and the princely state of Travancore (now part of Kerala). Significantly, the opposition of the Kerala government to Tamil Nadu’s rights to Periyar waters is sometimes expressed in the language of independent nation states – that the colonial government had arm-twisted Travancore into an agreement that was disadvantageous to it, and that Kerala today should consider its own interests first (Special Correspondent 2006 : 1).

Thus, there are several simultaneous levels at which “non”, “sub” and “cross” national identities manifest themselves, all of which contribute to our idea of the postnational. I will end this section with a brief but hopefully, suggestive discussion of one of the two most dramatic flashpoints continually interrogating the nation – the “north-east”. Kashmir, the other flashpoint, is much written about,

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and for reasons of space I will not go into it here.

The most important recognition for a postnational perspective on the “northeast” may be drawn from scholarly work suggesting that the region cannot be understood solely as the “north-east” of India. It is after all, also the “north-west” of south-east Asia. Ninety-eight per cent of the borders of north-east India are international borders. Like other such border regions, this one too, exemplifies the tensions produced by the idea of bounded nation states. From the viewpoint of nation states, cross-border affinities can only be “anti-national” and unregulated movement across borders can only be “illegal immigration”. As Walter Fernandes puts it, “the north-east” could be understood as a gateway to closer ties with south-east Asia and China, but the Indian state “seems to be obsessed with security and treats this diversity as a threat and the region only as a buffer zone against China” (Fernandes 2004: 4610).

Most movements here are armed struggles for independence from India, which is regarded as an occupying power that moved in after the British left. For example, in 1947 the kingdom of Manipur had been constituted as an independent constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected assembly, but the king was arrested under instructions from the Indian government and the state forced into a merger with India in 1949.

Similarly, the Naga National Council (NNC) as early as 1929 had met the Simon Commission (set up to examine the feasibility of self-government for India), to petition against Indian rule over Nagas once the British pulled out. When a Naga delegation met Mahatma Gandhi in 1947, he supported the Naga right to independence. He said

I believe you all belong to one, to India. But if you say that you won’t, no one can force you…I will go to Naga Hills and say that you will shoot me before you shoot a single Naga (Baruah 2005).

Of course, by that time, Gandhi’s distrust of the emerging nation state was already irrelevant to mainstream politics. Under the Hydari Agreement signed between NNC and British administration, Nagaland was granted protected status for 10 years,

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after which the Nagas would decide whether they should stay in the Indian Union or not. However, shortly after the British withdrew, independent India proclaimed the Naga territory to be part of the new republic.

Thus, it is important to note that insurgent groups such as United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah) – (NSCN-IM) – insist that they are not “secessionist” movements, asserting rather, that Assam and Nagaland were never part of India. Both of these consider themselves to be independence struggles for selfdetermination against the occupying army of a colonial force.3

At the same time, the logic of the nation state is overwhelming and each insurgent movement tends to “think like a nation”. In a context of extreme economic and cultural alienation of indigenous or local populations, the “foreigner” issue is on top of the agenda of many ethnic movements in the north-east. The claim to indigenous identity has come to play a central role in the politics of this region because of the need to lay claim to local resources. Many conflicts such as the Naga-Kuki conflict in Nagaland and the Naga-Meitei conflict in Manipur are all about land and exclusive control over depleted resources, as land increasingly becomes the only reliable long-term capital (Fernandes 2006; Misra 2000; Oinam and Thangjam 2006: 66).

Similarly, the claim to Nagalim, a “greater homeland” for the Naga peoples, that would bring all Naga-dominated areas in the north-east under one administrative mechanism, brings NSCN-IM into conflict with other ethnic groups in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. On the other hand, the Indian government’s decision to recognise Nagalim de facto through the extension of the ceasefire agreement with the militants, to all Naga-dominated areas, can only be seen as an attempt to further dissension among ethnic groups in the north-east.

It seems the movements in the region are replicating the logic of the nation state and the notion of the sanctity and integrity of national borders, the very logic against which their struggles began in the first place. As Bimol Akoijam puts it, “the region called the north-east of the postcolonial Indian state…is a theatre” in which the actors can only “make sense of each other in terms of an intelligible shared world of colonial modernity” (Akoijam 2006: 117), that is, the world of clearly bounded, homogeneous nation states.

3 Postnationalism as Counter-hegemony

Balibar argues that historical nations at a given moment put to work only “one of the existing possibilities for uniting populations in the framework of the same institution”. But it is never the only possibility – “other possibilities that seem to open new historical and political perspectives …can always recover their credibility – whence the frequency of ‘divisions’ or ‘separations’ and ‘fusions’ or ‘federations’” (2004: 17). The nation-form as a type of social formation is only one of the models in history for “administering the economy and managing the symbolic” (others have been the city-state, the empire), nor has there ever been a time when it was the only existing form or even the only dominant form at work everywhere to the same degree (2004: 18).

He urges that democratic politics should avoid becoming enclosed in representations such as the nation state, that have historically been associated with emancipatory projects and struggles for citizenship, but have now become “obstacles to their revival” and that prevent their “permanent reinvention” (2004: 10).

The politics of the postnationalism I have outlined here can be represented by any idea that is counter-hegemonic, whether that hegemony refers to development, sexuality, caste/community or any other. But equally importantly, it must be seen as having two dimensions – one, “over” the nation, across national borders, and two, “under” the nation, resisting inclusion into the “larger” national identity, insisting on space/time trajectories that do not mesh with progressivist dominant narratives of nation and history.

The first dimension is easier in a sense, to recognise as a subversive strategy, for it begins with the assumption of existing nations, which it then interrogates. For example, Black Laundry, an Israeli antioccupation queer group, positions itself differently from other Israeli gay/lesbian groups that presented themselves as part of the mainstream. It also distinguishes itself from the Israeli Left, with its universalist understanding against which Black Laundry posed its “concrete social positioning” as a platform for critique. Amalia Ziv, in a study of the group, suggests that Black Laundry tied together “sexual deviance” and “national deviance” with slogans like “Free Condoms, Free Palestine”, “Bull Dykes, Not Missile Strikes”, “Transgender not Transfer” (forced deportation of Palestinians) – which break down the hierarchies of nation and sex, challenging queer politics with antioccupation politics and vice versa. Ziv argues that through the twin strategies of national betrayal and sexual depravity, Black Laundry deliberately situated itself outside the discursive community of Israel/Palestine as well as hetero/ homosexual (Ziv 2005).

The diasporic location too, is one that offers rich insights from “over” the nation. An instructive example is the relationship of gay and lesbian people of Indian and south Asian origin in the US, to something called “India”. The Federation of Indian Associations, a private organisation dominated by Indian businessmen in the US, refused permission for years to South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA, formed in 1992) and Sakhi, (an organisation that addressed the question of domestic violence against women in the south Asian community), to march in the Indian Independence Day parade in New York city. The presence of SALGA and Sakhi would have disrupted narratives of the Indian nation in two crucial ways, as the reasons given for their exclusion attest – one, they insisted on the south Asian identity, which would have meant that Bangladeshis and Pakistanis would have marched in the Indian parade. Two, SALGA is gay and lesbian, identities that could not, by definition, be “Indian”, since homosexuality did not exist in India. Sakhi was evidently, additionally problematic because it exposed disjunctures in the family, the cornerstone of the Indian nation. After sustained pressure, Sakhi was “allowed” to join, but SALGA had to carry on struggling for much longer, until in 2000, it won the

march 7, 2009

right to participate. The presence of SALGA and Sakhi in the India Day parade in New York is a constant reminder that the idea of the unified and homogeneous nation has the potential to unravel through feminist, queer and counter-nationalist politics (Shah 2001; Gopinath 2005).

The other dimension of postnational politics – “under” the nation – is less obvious as a strategy, because it does not assume the prior existence of the nation. A significant contribution to postnational thinking is feminist work on abducted women during the Partition of India. The governments of India and Pakistan set up administrative mechanisms to recover these women and the children born to them. However, many of these women had been absorbed into the families of the men who had abducted them, and refused to return. Nevertheless both governments intervened to ensure that as far as possible, abducted Hindu women were “returned” to India and abducted Muslim women to Pakistan, regardless of their own desire in the matter. Feminist studies, by insisting on uncovering the voice and agency of these women, disrupt nationalist narratives of citizenship on both sides of the border (Butalia 1993; Menon and Bhasin 1993; Das 1995).

More significantly, the subversive edge of “under” the nation may lie in the exact opposite of what animates the politics of “over” the nation, which is the strategy of exit and movement across borders. The interrogation of the nation from under may involve rather, the refusal to move, as for example, in the struggles against big dams or mining operations that involve massive relocation of populations. This dimension may involve claiming histories that run parallel to, that do not intersect with, that of the nation. Or, claiming forms of family and kinship that produce identity that are splintered and fluid, that resist inclusion into larger formations. A startling moment, de-normalising the idea of family, is produced when hijras contesting elections claim that precisely because they cannot have children, they will be less selfish and corrupt.4 Sex-workers refusing to shift their work-premises in the face of intimidation by local communities force a recognition of the imbrication of sex-work in everyday life.5 This

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politics of refusal thus implies the simultaneous transformation, through practices of everyday life, of the place where you insist on staying.

In conclusion, let us briefly consider the current debate in India over the Indo-US nuclear deal as a tragic instance of the deliberate silencing of a voice that has the potential to link postnational currents both over and under the nation. As the mainstream media presents it, there are only two views possible – for the deal (United Progressive Alliance, pro-US hawks), and against the deal (the BJP, the Left). The concern of those against the deal at both ends of the political spectrum has to do with the fact that the

2 This section is based on part of a forthcoming book jointly authored with Aditya Nigam, Power and Contestation: India Since 1989 (London: Zed Books).

3 See Homepage of ULFA http://www.geocities. com/CapitolHill/Congress/7434/ulfa.htm. Downloaded on 10 December 2006; and Homepage of NSCN html downloaded on 25 December 2006.

4 See interviews with hijra candidates, http:// html, downloaded on 22 March 2006.

5 For an extended discussion of postnationalism in the context of feminist politics, see my “Outing Heteronormativity: Nation, Citizen, Feminist Disruptions” in Nivedita Menon (ed.), Sexualities, Women Unlimited, 2007.

6 Sudheendra Kulkarni, ideologue of Hindutva, (2006) commends both BJP’s Arun Shourie and the CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat for having “publicly aired convergent views on an important national issue”.


in Daniel Levy, Max Pensky and John Torpey (ed.),

Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe Transatlantic Relations after the Iraq War (London and New York: Verso).

Gopinath, Gayatri (2005): Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (Duke University Press), pp 16-17.

Habermas, Jurgen (1999): “Bestiality and Humanity: A War on the Border between Law and Morality”, translated from the German, Franz Solms-Laubach, Die Zeit 54, 18, April. English version available at Global Library, 2000,

– (2005): “Interpreting the Fall of a Monument” in Max Pensky (ed.), Globalising Critical Theory (NY: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers).

Habermas, Jurgen and Jacques Derrida (2005): “February 15, or, What Binds Europeans Together: Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in Core Europe” in Daniel Levy, Max Pensky and John Torpey ed. Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe Transatlantic Relations after the Iraq War

(London and New York: Verso). Hoodbhoy, Pervez (2006): “South Asia Needs a Bomb-

Hyde Act (which will be the basis for the final version of the Indo-US nuclear deal), places India in a subordinate position to the world’s sole remaining superpower (Jayaraman 2006; Kulkarni 2006).6

In other words, the long-standing debates within the country on nuclear disarmament and the desirability of nuclear energy have been wiped off the map of public discourse. In the sound and fury around the Indo-US deal, which has mobilised all the familiar and widely popular tropes of nationalism and sovereignty, the crucial strand of thought in India, Pakistan and the US committed to global disarmament and universal nuclear non-proliferation as well as to ecologically sustainable forms of energy (Bidwai 2006, 2007; Hoodbhoy 2006) has been rendered invisible. This strand consists of scholars and activists who consider themselves as part of the global anti-nuclear peace movement rather than as representing nation states. The anti-nuclear energy campaign has the potential to link global anti-nuclear movements with the local struggles of communities against “their own” governments, through their resistance to the devastation of uranium mining (Jaduguda, Meghalaya), and against being incorporated into the nation state’s agenda.

We have yet to test the imaginative horizons of the postnational as concept and as practice.


1 “Proceedings against Narayana Murthy quashed”, The Hindu, 15 August 2007. Available online at stories/2007081553290500.htm

Economic & Political Weekly march 7, 2009


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– (2007): “Drifting into Nuclear Blunderland”, South Asians against Nukes Available at groups.

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– (2006): “Shortages, Ethnic Conflicts and Economic Development in North-Eastern India” in C Joshua Thomas (ed.), Engagement and Development: India’s North-east and Neighbouring Countries (New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House).

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less Deal”, Economic & Political Weekly, 15 April.

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