Beyond nation states: Union of South and Central Asia (USCA) – by Shiraz Paracha

by admin

The death and destruction in name of nation state has taught the West to discard the narrow concept of nation state, however, in some parts of the world, the West is encouraging separatist movements and ethnic groups which aspire to create new states driven by ethnicity.

The idea of ethnocentric nation states is a recipe for disaster in regions where ethnicity is a form of tribalism and societies are under developed in social and economic terms.

The institution of nation state emerged in Europe nearly 300 years ago and has been the cause of bloody conflicts. Millions of Europeans died in useless wars when narrow ethnic nationalism turned the continent into a sea of hatred.

Since the 1789 French Revolution, Europe went through many wars in which different European nations fought against each other for the ethnic and racial superiority of their states.

The French Republic gave a new and sacred place to the State in the lives of ordinary citizens and loyalty to the State became important than all other loyalties. Citizens and soldiers lived and died for the State.

Nationalism was at its peak in the 19th century newly industrialized Europe. European powers competed for influence and colonized vast areas of the world. In the first half of the 20th century two World Wars were fought, mostly among Europeans, to settle the issue of racial superiority and prestige of nation states.

The Second World War, however, weakened imperial Europe. Consequently, maintaining direct control of colonies became very costly. Nonetheless, before receding from the colonies, European masters sowed seeds of hatred in the occupied regions. The European nation state model was applied to colonies, which were pre-industrial societies with different historical and cultural experiences.

The nation state experiment divided cultural and ethnic communities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and led to conflicts around the world that exist till date.

After the end of the Second World War, several dozen newly independent states emerged on the foundations of mistrust, hatred and division. The creation of India and Pakistan is just one example.

Western colonial powers used religion as well as ethnicity to establish new states.

A new Jewish state should have been established in Europe as Christian Europe was guilty of crimes against Jews but with the American support, the British created the artificial state of Israel in the middle of the Arab world, using faith as a pretext. Since the birth of Israel the Middle East has been bleeding.

The British oversaw the creation of Israel and Pakistan, in both cases faith was the main motive behind the establishment of the new states, interestingly, the same United Kingdom denies rights of Catholics in the British occupied Northern Ireland.

The West applies different principles in different situations and regions. NATO separated Kosovo from Serbia by force but, paradoxically, Basque nationalists in Spain and France are denied the same right. Basques want a separate state but the French and the Spanish governments proscribe the Basque party, ETA, as a terrorist group. Western ‘terrorist lists’ are not objective. As long as an ethnic group serves Western interests it can be labelled as freedom fighters even if it is involved in violence and human rights violations.

Europe and the United States encourage and support the Chechens separatist in Russia, the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Iraq in their struggles for separate states. The above mentioned ethnic groups use violent means to achieve their goal.

The West supports creation of new ethnic states but the institution of nation state is in crisis because much has changed since 1789. In the 20th century dozens of new states sprung up on the world map and older nation states remodelled themselves yet the ‘crisis of nation state’ continues. Despite modernization, nation state seems to be a redundant institution in its purist or classical form.

Globalization is the biggest threat to nation state as global markets have replaced national markets. Privatization has given immense power to corporations and now they transcend national borders. Capital knows no boundaries and can flow from one part of the world to another with one click. Instant and the free flow of capital and economic interdependence have reduced the power and prestige of nation states. Global trade and travel demand new structures and revision of social contracts.

Moreover, communication revolution that started in the second half the 20th century has changed the world and in many ways. The pace of the change is very fast and increasing number of people feel that they can simultaneously belong to global and local cultures.

The above factors have provoked a debate about the future of nation state. Nation states may not diminish completely but their power to control or influence national economies and governing systems will certainly decrease dramatically.

Against this backdrop, Europe has moved away from the strict concept of nation state by establishing a supranational body, the European Union (EU). Now European nationalism is culturally different from the political nationalism of the 19th century. The EU members showcase nationalism in cultural expressions but the key political decisions are made at international bodies and are not the sole prerogative of national state institutions. National boundaries and territorial issues no longer cause hysteria in Europe.

Ironically, though, in non-Western regions demands for new ethnocentric states are encouraged. Pakistan is an interesting example where some groups, including a section of the Taliban, are using religion and ethnicity to create a greater Pushtoon state comprising Pushtoon areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some reports suggest that NATO and the United States support the creation of Pushtoonistan or Pukhtunistan.

At the same time, struggle for the establishment of a new Baloch state that will be home to ethnic Balochs of Iran and Pakistan continues.

Separate Muslim identity had played a key role in the birth of Pakistan; however, the Pakistan movement was an expression of political nationalism as different ethnic groups from across the Indian Subcontinent had taken part in the Pakistan movement.

Nonetheless, areas included in Pakistan were also home to culturally homogeneous ethnic communities. In the following years, the Pakistani nationalism, which was political in nature, found itself at odds with the cultural nationalism that existed in Pakistan before the creation of the country.

During the most part of its 63 year turbulent history, Pakistan has been governed and controlled by the military. The Pakistani military believes in the centralization of power and has been playing the fear card to maintain its grip over power. The military has been trying to manufacture a common national identity using religion and suppressing cultural identities.

The policy of fear backfired and disenchanted ethnic groups revolted against coercion, and the centralization of power and resources. The Bengalis in East Pakistan took the lead and succeeded in establishing Bangladesh in 1971. It was a bitter lesson for the Pakistan Army.

During the Cold War, Pukhtunistan was a sensitive issue between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan claimed that the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan was part of Afghanistan as people on the both sides of the British drawn Durand Line were the same, Pushtoons.

Since the 1950s, the fear of Pushtoon and Baloch states has played a central role in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pakistan has been seeking influence in Afghanistan to neutralize the demand for a Pushtoon state.

Since the NATO occupation of Afghanistan, suggestions of Pushtoon and Baloch states have resurfaced. This time the United States and NATO seem to be endorsing the plans for the new ethnic states. India, too, has obtained full access in the NATO-controlled Afghanistan. Islamabad obviously feels bewildered.

But redrawing political map in the parts of South and Central Asia with the help of foreign forces is an absurd idea. It will result in endless bloodshed and instability in the whole region. NATO which is looking for ways to escape Afghanistan could be stuck into ethnic conflicts for decades.

NATO and the US presence in the region is the root cause of tensions. If Western masters pushed an agenda that would divide Afghanistan and Pakistan along ethnic lines, it will be a grave mistake and will create problems that would be beyond anybody’s control.

Pushtoons are not a nation in political terms as they do not adhere to a single political ideology and values. For example, a large number of Pashtoons support the Taliban. Due to the mass support in the Pashtoon areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban are still key players in the Afghan politics. At the same time, secular and nationalist Pashtoons are another shade of the same ethnic group. Therefore like any other ethnic and cultural community, Pashtoons are a distinctive cultural group which exists for hundreds of years. They speak common language and have their own traditions.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, on the other hand, are political nations. An Afghan could be a Pushtoon, Uzbek or Tajik. And people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds are members of the Pakistani nation. The majority of Pakistanis follow the same faith and common languages of communication are Urdu and English. All regions of Pakistan are economically interdependent and there are other strong political and cultural bonds that make Pakistan a nation.

Pashtoon or Baloch states can be created either by the will of all Pashtoons and Baloch or by military means.
Many Pushtoons and Balochs are very proud Pakistanis and all of them may not support the creation of separate Pushtoon or Baloch states.

Former East Pakistan was geographically apart from the West Pakistan and Bengalis had strong political aspirations and yet the powerful and popular Awami League had contested the 1970 election on the slogans of more political autonomy rather than complete independence.

At the moment, no separatist or nationalist political party in the provinces of Khyber Pukhtoonkhawa or Balochistan enjoys popular support that would translate into the establishment of separate states.

On the other hand, if created with the help of foreign military support, the new ethnic states will be security states dependent on their foreign sponsors for a long time.

Similarly, the survival of the new landlocked Pushtoon state, for instance, will depend on Pakistan, but maintaining friendly relations with a foreign sponsored breakaway part will not be possible for the remaining Pakistani state.

Most important of all, future new and smaller states are unlikely to stand up to pressures of international monetary and trade systems and will be unable to defend their national interests unless they are part of strong groupings of states. To meet the challenges and pressures of globalization, nations and communities that share land and resources or other common grounds will have to form alliances to defend their interests in a globalized world.

The Scottish Nationalist Party, for example, hopes that Scotland will become an independent state very soon. Even so, the independence will not make a big difference for the citizens of the new Scottish state because being EU citizens, they will still be able to live and work in Scotland as well as in England. In future, EU member countries are likely to manage local affairs, including promotion of local cultures. Major decisions will be taken at international bodies and by supranational states.

In the 21st century, the South and Central Asian region can develop its own model of integration. Geography, natural and human resources as well as cultural and historical similarities offer opportunities to forge new economic, social and political bonds among the countries of the South and Central Asian region.

Europeans are strangers in the region but people of Central Asia share culture and history with South Asian people. There is a great potential of mutual trade and economic connectivity that would lead to social and cultural harmony in the region.

If South and Central Asian states could introduce internal reforms guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities to different ethnic and cultural communities living within those states, it will be a move towards stability and bright future of the whole region.

On the external front, the South and Central Asian states can engage in a serious dialogue on the possibility of establishing a supranational body or alliance of South and Central states that could be a Union of South and Central Asia (USCA) or South and Central Asian Union (SCAU).

The proposed block can include the six Central Asian and the seven South Asian countries plus Iran. The Union can develop partnership with China and Russia and could be a sister organization of the Shanghai Corporation Organization (SCO).

The new alliance should form a single trade zone with uniform custom duties and taxes, and flexible immigration rules for traders and labour.

Many countries in the region spend huge sum of their resources on defence but if the new alignment turns into a reality defence budgets can be heavily reduced and the money can be diverted to social and economic development of the people.

The West may consider the new block a threat to its strategic and economic interests because such a development could reduce Western influence in the region. The West could also be deprived from Central Asian natural resources as the energy would flow eastward to South Asia and China. Therefore the West is likely to oppose the creation of such a block and may use divide and rule tactics to stop it.

Besides, it would be naive to ignore the existence of serious clash of interests or conflicts among the countries of South and Central Asia. Also ethnic divisions and other misunderstandings in region are serious challenges but future economic and political benefits of establishing an alliance of South and Central Asian states outweighs such differences and divisions.

Shiraz Paracha is a journalist and analysts. His email address is:

3 Comments to “Beyond nation states: Union of South and Central Asia (USCA) – by Shiraz Paracha”

  1. Innovative and thought provoking proposal!

    I wonder how might the relevant players (US, Russia, China etc) react to such a a proposal? As you noted, the West may consider the new union as a threat to its strategic and economic interests as such a bloc might reduce American (or Russian) influence in the region.

  2. i wish the writer should have confined the Union for the South Asian States….SAARC countries….that would e a natural block…homgeneous, speaking almost similar languges and cultural affinity….
    moreover, i also feel that to eastablish such an Union we must build a team, a group, an association; trying knotting representaives of all nations……we can achieve this Union with focussed and concerted efforts….I have a feeling that if such a Union is not forms within next few years Pakistan will be the worst sufferer, economically, geeographically and politically….

  3. With the way things are, expect status quo to be maintained at all costs.
    A great article though

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