Lecture 3: Race, Nation, and War: The Twentieth Century

Third of three lectures on
Nationalism and Globalisation: Britons, South Asians and Others, 1750-1950
Page-Barbour Lectures Delivered by C. A. Bayly, University of Cambridge
at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville on 10, 11, 12 April 2001.
(It is expected that these lectures, heavily revised and developed in view of discussions subsequent to their delivery, will be published in due course.)

National social betterment: M.K. Gandhi || Quasi-religious activism || Consolidation of the international order || Aga Khan's letter in 1935 || 1. Plebiscitary rights of essentialised ethnic communities || 2. Diffusion of eugenic language and practices || 3. Militarisation of political affiliation || Broad geographical themes || New perspectives on world history || Select Readings and Facts

     My last lecture considers the relationship between globalisation and nationalism from the south and southeast Asian perspective during the twentieth century. Asian as well as European historians regard the years after 1890 as the culmination of national struggles for self-determination. But the bright picture of newly-free Asian nations which prevailed in the 1950s and '60s has everywhere given way to disenchantment. Post-colonial scholarship now sees this as a period when the pathological dimension of the nation state- revolutionary and liberal as well as reactionary-became terribly apparent. The death roll of the apogee of European nationalism: the Holocaust, Stalinist terror and ethnic cleansing of the Second World War in eastern Europe is nearly overtopped by the Asian one. In the east these atrocities were matched by the the Rape of Nanking, the Partition Riots in India, the bombing of Hiroshima and the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Most Asian intelligentsias are now deeply ambivalent about the legacy of twentieth century nationalism. They applaud liberation from European domination, but widely regard the nation state as a bent and destructive force which has, in the longer run, 'betrayed the people.'

     These pathologies and social exclusions are only too clearly in evidence. Yet there is a great danger of hindsight. We can easily read back our own present anxieties over ethnic conflict and the so-called de-institutionalisation of the contemporary Asian nation state into the past. Even in the twentieth century, Asian nationalists continued that vigorous debate about rights and social entitlement, which, as I showed yesterday, was so prominent in the nineteenth century. That debate brought into being a pattern of national civil societies with some concern for general betterment, however attenuated or bent by the interests of the rich and influential these were.

National social betterment: M.K. Gandhi

     M.K. Gandhi, to take the most prominent example, once received attention for his religious views and idiosyncratic valetudinarianism. More recently, radical historians have seen him as a conservative force in politics hostile, or at best indifferent to, the establishment of social equality. If we look again at his correspondence and speeches, however, we see that Gandhi was constantly talking about popular rights. He acted not predominantly as an agitator or as an embodiment of a conservative Hindu spirit, but as a self-appointed roving ombudsman. He travelled the subcontinent in search of oppressed groups whose cause he could take up. Gandhi's starting point was, after all, the rights of Indians within the British Empire outside India, in south Africa, Mauritius and the Caribbean: 'If imperialism means anything' Gandhi stated, 'it must mean and include the capacity for protecting all interest that belong to it. According to that test, Indians who have settled abroad claim double protection... from [the Congress] and from the Imperial Government.' As his political movement broadened out, it sought to secure not the dominance of a class, but the rights of groups of workers, peasants, coolies and untouchables. It may well be that a resolute attack on structural inequalities by Gandhian nationalists might have resulted in a more equitable settlement of the land problem after Independence, as leftists now argue. Even so, the Gandhian movement had a cascade effect. The poor had always had their own understandings of good government and social entitlement. After 1919, they took up the methods of agitation and moral suasion which they saw used by Gandhi and his middle- or high-caste supporters. The long running tussle over ways and means to ameliorate the position of India's 'untouchables' between Gandhi and the their leader, B.R. Ambedkar, was only one prominent example of the continuing capacity of the concept of rights to subvert and challenge the established order, whether the colonial state or the self-interested idyll of nationalist elites.

     Elsewhere in south and southeast Asia the traumas of the Depression and the Second World War have erased the memory of the labour unions, moderate socialists and liberal groups which sought to enshrine the rights of workers and peasants in colonial constitutional practice. In Vietnam, liberal nationalists, denied constitutional politics, made a resolute attempt to increase basic literacy during the 1920s. That they succeeded gave the country a great bank of social capital which it is only now beginning to spend. Vietnamese Christians and neo-Buddhists also pressed hard on the question of women's rights, an issue which was pushed to the margins in the prevailing atmosphere of Confucian revival. These movements for social improvement were often met with repression by colonial governments. But that does not mean that the concept of the nation which they employed should be ridiculed. That nationalist movements became vehicles for small shopkeepers and rich peasants in the main, does not mean that they did not sometimes help to empower yet poorer and more underprivileged people.

     What is very difficult for the gloomy contemporary historian to recapture is the almost na´ve belief which animated many Asian nationalists and village intellectuals after the First World War. This was the view that social service by the enlightened and educated could raise up the masses and set in motion what Gandhi called 'the inexorable nature of redistributive justice'. True, this was a world of communal murder, police brutality and mass starvation. But it was also a world populated with burgeoning associations to help pilgrims at the great festivals, to feed the poor in the towns, raise charitable relief for famines and to cajole the populace into cleanliness and thrift. The academic world has been transfixed by the image of the peasant resister or working-class rioter.

Quasi-religious activism

     One thing that has been missed, in particular, is the continuing neo-Christian and counter-Christian element in twentieth century Asian nationalisms in India and Burma, but also in French Indo-China. We have forgotten the way in which national aspirations were generated out of a host of Christian-funded schools, hospitals, youth associations and conferences; how these were spread not only by indigenous Christians, but by Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Confucians who were themselves powerfully influenced by or antagonised by their reading of Christian doctrines. Gandhi's British Christian supporters, the missionary, C.F.Andrews, and Edward Thompson, father of the famous historian, were not entirely self-deluding when they stressed the influence of Christian humanism on the Indian National Congress. Andrews saw his own work as a giant act of atonement for the sins of British dominion. Revealingly, he used the Hindu term for ritual purification-- prayaschita-- to Indianise the doctrine of atonement. Voluntary associations such as the Ramakrishna missions in India or the Young Men's Buddhist Associations across southeast and east Asia consciously responded to the neo-Christian ethic. They also became forcing houses for the second generation of nationalists.

     The consequences of the globalisation of systems of religious ethics was not simply the creation of new public organisations. It also profoundly influenced the private sphere, even the self-understanding of the individual. The 1960s autobiography of U Nu, Burma's first independent prime minister illustrates the point. At first sight it is unclear why he dwells so resolutely on his own youthful transgressions, sexual peccadilloes and disdain for authority before recounting his re-dedication to national work. It soon becomes clear that U Nu is narrating his lifelong attempt to be a Buddhist server of humanity. He is structuring his narrative around the life and temptations of Siddhartha, the young Buddha, in the way that some nineteenth century Christians echoed the life of Christ in biographies. Elsewhere, other semi-Christianised versions of indigenous ethical behaviour were pressed into service. Themes of sufi benevolence, the idea of service--seva--to lord or deity within Hinduism- the Confucian duty of spreading harmony-all these themes and the practices they enjoined were swept into the constructive nationalisms of the 1910s and '20s. Even socialism, for many Asian nationalists, summoned up ideologies and practices which hearkened back to the sharing village, while at the same time invoking the ideal of elite self-sacrifice. The West was not only 'provincialised', in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, but internalised, struggled against and set to empower the indigenous. For this was far from a harmonious process. R.K.Narayan, the great Indian writer, records how, as one of the few Brahmins at his Lutheran school, he was mortified by the constant pillorying he was subjected to by the schoolmasters because of his reverence for the Indian deities. Still, the Bible stories 'enchanted' and thrilled him. All that is except the parable where Jesus speaks of his disciples becoming 'fishers of men'. Narayan tells us that he squirmed at this Bible story. He feared that it reminded his Christian classmates that Brahmin 'hypocrites' were alleged to eat fish in private, contravening their vegetarian vows.

Consolidation of the international order

     In addition to the worldwide diffusion of quasi-religious activism, another force that energised early twentieth century nationalism was the consolidation of the international order itself. Hobsbawm and writers on Asian nationalism have generally deplored Wilsonian plebiscitism. I will mention the destructive features of this shortly. But the idea of national self-determination, the League of Nations and, later, the Atlantic Charter of 1941, had a powerful impact on Asian nationalists. Even within the French imperial system the notion of citizenship and the indivisible, universalising republic provided a powerful rallying cry for interwar nationalisms. Emerging bi-lateral relations between subject and quasi-nations were particularly important in this context. For instance, it was Indian opinion in the main, which forced the British government to end the system of indenturing labour to south Africa and other parts of the Empire. This was because the British Indian Government had become, whether it liked it or not, the guarantor of the rights of its Indian subjects.

      The relatively inclusive, rights based form of modern nationalism, revealed here was not simply a product of the self-delusions of westernised intellectuals. Some of the peasant movements which were infused with the older, patriotic sense of attachment to land and dignity also spoke in the language of inclusiveness. It is true that much Indian nationalist discourse became more heavily imbricated with Hindu symbolism after 1924. In western India, again, old patriotic themes of the Maratha Homeland, mentioned in the first lecture, were appropriated by intransigent high-caste politicians. However, they appealed equally to low-caste spokesmen who insisted that the heart of the land was the peasant. Elsewhere, and especially in Bengal and south India, many leaders still imagined nation as Mother, succouring her diverse children. She was still inclusive at least of rural Bengali or Tamil-speaking Muslims. In Burma, likewise, at the very height of the anti-colonial Saya San movement in 1931, its monkish leaders proclaimed: 'We will repress and defeat the enemies only [the British]. We have no desire to repress Indians, Chinese, Shans and Karens.' This is all the more remarkable since the resumption of peasant lands by Indian moneylenders had been the proximate cause of the rebellion.

     At a time when Asian nationalisms are purported to have been slaves of the teleology of the monolithic and exclusive modern nation state, these examples are enlightening. Not all nationalisms were 'derivative discourses' on the point of turning pathological. There is no virtue in tempering this criticism. Historians' perversity on this matter is not only anachronistic; it has quite widely helped in the intellectual subversion of the contemporary state in areas where it still retains a degree of democratic legitimacy. If, as Prasenjit Duara cogently argues, history needs to be rescued from the nation, it is equally true that nationalism needs urgently to be rescued from the historians.

Aga Khan's letter in 1935

     At the same time, we all also agree that a healthy scepticism or even pessimism should spring eternal. I now go on to consider those pathologies- and it is difficult not to use that word- which imperial policies and global discourses introduced into the language and practice of Asian nationalisms. But let us start not by travelling into the rice paddies of Vietnam or the rural towns of Sri Lanka, but through the swing doors of the Ritz Hotel, Paris, in 1935. It was from here that the Aga Khan, the lordliest of the spokesmen of Indian Muslims, wrote of the future of his compatriots in south Asia. The Aga Khan represented, par excellence, the history of the globalised Islamic trading families of the archaic ecumene. Many of his lands and family connections were in Egypt where an ancestor had been regarded as one of the last of the Arab Khalifas or spiritual descendants of the Prophet. In the twentieth century the millions who followed him as a religious leader were spread across the Persian Gulf and Red Sea to western and northern India. The family operated international Muslim charities. But the Aga Khan was also among the most acceptable of all Muslims in the ruling circles of the British empire. He shared a passion for racehorses and the company of beautiful women with the late English King Edward VI. Between 1906 and 1911, he had vigorously pressed the claims of Indian Muslims for special representation in the electorates introduced into British India. As a global player he was in pole position to urge the claims of nationalists both in Egypt and in India. His family collectively embodied the shift from archaic globalisation to the modern order of nation states.

     In a letter to the Punjabi Muslim leader, Sir Fazli Hussain, the Aga Khan set out his understanding of the contemporary international struggles of races and nations. He wrote of the Muslims of India that they were in a minority in south Asia as a whole, but luckily they were in a majority in the west of the region 'adjoining Muslim states' and in the east in Bengal which was a 'maritime and frontier province.' Elsewhere, however, the Aga Khan said their position was 'similar to the Jews in Europe or the Parsees and Christians in India.' The best thing for the future would be if those Muslims in an irremediable minority would gradually migrate to the Muslim northeast or northwest, 'as the Turks have done in Europe through exchanges with Greece.' With unforseen tragic irony, he added that this should be a 'gradual movement, instead of a brusque and precipitous one.' Unless Muslims realised that British power was on the decline and Hindu power rising, he went on, 'they would descend to the position of the Jews in Germany at present' and would either 'have to go over to arianism or accept mere subordination.'

     This letter is striking in many ways. It was intended to support those Muslims and others in India who were arguing in 1935 that the British should bring into being a loose constitutional federation within the subcontinent. This alone could incorporate India's contesting nationalisms and ethnicities. But the Aga Khan's letter eerily predicted the events of the Partition of 1947. More than that, it reflects the type of global vision which had become a common language across the world, and not simply in south Asia, in the aftermath of the settlement of 1919. Not only colonial statesmen, but nationalists and local intellectuals everywhere envisioned an 'ethnoscape' in which the mass movement of millions of peoples was possible and even desirable. Partitions, emigrations and the handover of population to escape racial or ethnic dominations, or better, to create new ones, were part of the international discourse as clearly as the language of subjects' rights had been fifty or one hundred years earlier.

     The content of nation-building had also subtly changed since the 1880s and '90s. Nationalists were now more likely to envisage the state as an organic and interventionist entity, less as a guarantor of individual and international rights. The Aga Khan applauded a 'moderate state socialism'. Germany and Italy were perhaps 'reactionary' in some eyes, he said. But their financial and military self-strengthening had been most successful, he claimed. As in these countries, the emerging Asian national states should intervene to strengthen the physical and moral fibre of its citizens. 'Internally, we [the Indian Muslims] must strengthen our numbers by child welfare, by a hygienic home life, by intensive education and by the upkeep of our national individuality as Indians within India.' Finally, he argued that the Indian army needed to be changed from a professional force to a territorial one. The implication is clearly that this would enable Indian Muslims to have their own army as a territorial unit within a wider Indian defence force. This was a vision of ethnic nationalism, formally defined by religion, gestating within the husk of an imperial federation. It was only a vision of a shared future by virtue of a rhetorical placebo.

     The Aga Khan's letter was one intervention in a growing deluge of propaganda and programmes directed to Indian Muslims which sought to portray them a 'race' or a people with distinct historical roots from other Indians. Many dissented from this programme. Others, as has been powerfully argued by Ayesha Jalal, may have used such language as no more than a bargaining counter in a war of attrition over the degree of power that an independent Indian central government should have over the provinces. But for most politicians and local activists, this language was in deadly earnest. It may have been derived from western high theory, but it spoke to Asian conditions and was becoming rooted in Asian practice.

     Let us first of all investigate some of the broader implications for Asian nationalisms of the tendencies in ideology and practice revealed in the Aga Khan's letter. These are: first, the shift in political language from that of citizens' individual rights to the plebiscitary rights of essentialised ethnic communities; secondly, the diffusion of eugenic language and practices and, thirdly, the militarisation of political affiliation.

1. Plebiscitary rights of essentialised ethnic communities

      Several important studies have been written recently about the tyranny of ethnic statistics in late colonial politics, especially in the south Asian case and the Middle Eastern cases. Coming to this period from the early or even later nineteenth century, the pervasiveness of the language of dominant numbers, the constant reiteration of ethnicitities is indeed most striking. In the cockpit of south Asian separatisms, the Punjab, the correspondence of even a moderate and conservative politician such as Sir Fazli Hussain is full of references to Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians as undifferentiated blocs. For instance, 'The Hindus objected that if constituencies are reserved, in any constituency which is reserved for Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims will not have the right to vote for a member of their own community.' What has happened here is that the concept of the right to vote has now been subsumed into the language of religious community. It is ultimately now communities or, indeed, religions which have the rights. Some social theorists have seen this as proof that Asian nationalisms were always essentially 'religious nationalism.' In the best known statement of this position, Peter van der Veer acknowledges nationalism and religion as modern categories, but argues that the lack of a distinct, secular public sphere in Asia meant that religious practice inevitably became the marker of identity under colonial modernity. I take the view that both the language and practice of Asian nationalisms had been more varied and pluralistic in the nineteenth century. The claims of religious essentialisation was balanced by the debate about individual rights and social ethics. After 1900, and even more so after 1918, however, global ideologies and Asian conditions both tended to favour such ethnic and religious plebiscitism.

      One major reason for this was that the colonial state in Asia understood politics in terms of majorities, whether this was in the limited electoral system of British India or in the system of ethnically marked administrative zones introduced by the French and Dutch. Yet the sensibility was more general. These colonial categories increasingly made sense to colonial subjects. The unprecedented movement of peoples both as economic migrants and as distress migrants since the First World War had created new fears in the minds of ordinary people about the implications for employment, religion and landholding of mass migrations. The language of religious majorities was not simply, or even predominantly, a product of an attenuated colonial electoral sphere. It was the language of the slums, the bastis and the kampongs where people saw with fear and suspicion the introduction of foreign workers as industrialists or landlords tried to force down wages. The effect of the slump of 1918-22, vastly deepened by the World Depression of the 1930s was to turn millions of peasant owner-occupiers throughout Asia into landless labourers or urban lumpen proletariat. Fear of outsiders, even of outsiders from a few hundred miles away grew enormously. Before 1929, for example, few Burmese gave much thought to the floods of incoming Indians ferried to Rangoon by the British India and Scindia Steamship lines. After that date, uprooted Burmese farmers competed with Indians for jobs on the streets of Rangoon and even in small towns. Such fears, of course, were to be vastly exacerbated by the panic migrations of the 1940s. What was to happen to the one million Indians who fled from Burma in 1942 with the fall of the British Empire became the key defining feature of a more resolute and aggressive Burmese nationalism as the War ended. Likewise, the settlement of large numbers of southeast Asian Muslim migrants in eastern India helped spark off the savage communal rioting of 1946. This was the point, in the words of Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India, when limited 'religious riots' became 'a communal war of succession.'

2. Diffusion of eugenic language and practices

     What can we say of eugenics and race theory, that second component of the pathology of nationalism? Herbert Spencer, the prophet of the survival of the fittest race, was easily the most important social philosopher in the world between 1890 and 1940. His influence outclassed that of Marx, let alone Victor Hugo and Saint Simon. His influence has been detected in Chinese nationalist and Communist thought, as examined by Frank Dikotter, and has been elegantly traced by David Marr in the ideologies of Vietnamese nationalists. Social Darwinism inflected the ideas of the vast majority of Indian politicians from moderate proponents of universal education, such as G. K. Gokhale, to radical Hindu supremacists, such as V.D. Savarkar. But unless we are to retreat to the notion of 'derivative discourse' or simple diffusionism we have to ask why this was so. The answer seems to be that eugenics and racism had become particularly meaningful to many Asian intellectuals and leaderships at this particular period. They merged easily into indigenous discourses of sexual and bodily regimens at this particular social and economic conjuncture.

     In Vietnam during the 1920s and '30s, Social Darwinism was refracted through the lens of Chinese writers who bled out of it some of the more aggressive features of intra-group conflict emphasised by Europeans and Americans. It offered intellectuals a scheme whereby the vision of social harmony supposedly intrinsic to east Asian values would eventually restore China or Vietnam to power and prosperity. At the same time, social Darwinism no doubt nourished itself on the ancient fear and loathing of the so-called' Moi', the barbarian other, which was central to Sinincised, and consequently Vietnamese, ethnic thought. Now that distress migration was forcing ethnic Vietnamese into the hills and jungles, the vigorous language of racial dominance became particularly serviceable. Similarly in India, caste, the ancient bio-moral language of the Indian sages, reflected in habitual and almost unnoticed practices of ritual segregation and exclusion was reinvented-or rather expanded in scope to feed the sensibilities of ethnic nationalism. Swami Dayananda, leader of the quasi-political, nation-building Hindu movement, the Arya Samaj- the Aryan Society- had told Hindus in the 1860s and '70s that they must abandon the practice of ritual pollution amongst themselves. But he argued, with equal vehemence, that Muslims were guilty of unclean practices and he detested Buddhists. Total social boycott, validated by such ideas, increasingly became a feature of Hindu-Muslim relations in the Punjab and elsewhere as the politics of difference became more bitter. In a similar way, Islamic social and sexual proprieties easily came to bolster the micro-separatisms of the urban quarter or the extended household, as the Aga Khan envisioned it. By the 1930s Hindus were refusing to employ Muslim wet-nurses for their children and vice versa, as European expatriates had excluded Indians a century before.

     When I began to read the Burmese English-language nationalist press for 1946 and 1947, I was surprised by a number of recurrent themes. One was the loathing of leprosy. This was feared to be on the increase because wartime anarchy had supposedly released thousands of lepers into the countryside. The second oddity was the prevalence of female beauty competitions, presided over by the young military radicals of the Burmese Independence Army. These were invariably won by ethnic Burman women. During the war it had also been reported that the Burmese were deeply offended by glimpses of the Japanese invaders eating dog-meat and bathing naked at roadside hydrants. Burmese also were incensed that the Japanese military slapped their faces to chastise minor transgressions. The link between these varied sensibilities, of course. was the discourse of Burman cultural decorum and proper deportment. This was vigorously invoked at these American-style pageants of female allure and ominously unspoken in discussions of lepers, dogs and half-breeds. The global discourse of eugenics, as we now know, ran almost unchecked as a shadow of nationalism throughout the twentieth century even in democratic countries such as Sweden, the United States and Britain. It had propagated itself on Asian soil by bonding with local discourses and practices. By the same logic, officials of the post-colonial states kidnapped the children of tribals, excluded religious and ethnic minorities from schools on grounds of stupidity and deprived poor ethnic neighbourhoods of funds on the grounds that they were filthy anyway.

3. Militarisation of political affiliation

     Finally, in this second section of the lecture, I want to take up the theme of militarism which was again prominent in the Aga Khan's 'letter from Paris.' It is scarcely possible to doubt that a dominant feature of twentieth century Asian nationalisms, like those of Europe, was their militarism. This was reflected not only in the ways and means by which Asian nations became independent. In Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam full-scale wars of liberation were fought by nationalist armies against the colonial power. In India, the Indian National Army which had fought with the Japanese against the British, was a critical element in weakening Britain's resolve to soldier-on in the subcontinent. In Malaya, the campaign of armed Communist guerrillas forced the British to concede more than they would have liked to emerging Malay and moderate Chinese nationalism. The aggressive nature of post-colonial Asian states and their propensity to suppress internal dissidence with massive force seen in the 1980s in India and the 1990s in Indonesia, must also be traced to this legacy.

     The trajectory of armed militant nationalism in Asia owed much to the example of Germany and Italy which in 1905 was so spectacularly Asianised by Japan. It reflected also the combination of weakness and recourse to massive repression which dogged the history of the colonial state. The British Indian state which massacred its subjects at Amritsar in 1919 was, paradoxically, a militarily weak state. In the 1930s there were two hundred times as many soldiers per head of population in Palestine as in India. Relative weakness led through panic to military violence. When nationalists took over the apparatus of colonial policing, in the 1930s in India and in the 1940s and '50s elsewhere, they also found a weak and compromised police force. The intimidating use of the military in support of the civil power became their first and often last recourse. This was even more so in Vietnam where causal French violence against the civil population throughout the 1930s virtually ensured that the Viet Minh became a ruthless and violent opponent.

     However, the militarisation of the nationalist imagination preceded this date. Its legacy cannot be explained simply by the nature of colonial power or the events of the Second World War. The reasons lie deeper. Over much of Asia, the colonial powers had excluded subjects from their militaries, recruiting much of their client armies from mercenaries or from peripheral minorities, such as the Gurkhas, Moluccans, Moi, Karens and Shans. The everyday experience of the colonial military power clashed disastrously, therefore, with the sites of memory and the family traditions of Asians who remembered the glory of the pre-colonial patrias or experience of once-universal empires. This dissonance made the re-creation of indigenous military tradition a critical psychological requirement for many Asian elites and even peasants, to an extent even greater than that of contemporary European nationalisms.

      Reginald Dorman-Smith, the governor of British Burma in 1942, understood this well, particularly, as he noted, because he was a southern Irishman. He wrote: 'In every town and village there must be men who can tell their sons and grandsons from their own personal knowledge of the glorious days when Burma was free.' They would tell how Burma and its warriors had been the 'scourge of the Mughal Empire in Bengal.' how they had conquered the Siamese and the Assamese and how, only a few short generations of humiliation back, the now strutting Shans and Karens of the minority tribes had been humble subjects owing allegiance to the King of Burma. The immortality of Aung San the Burmese leader of 1942 and his Thirty Comrades was created not so much by their fairly marginal military exploits, but because they were the first Burmans since 1824 to re-enact the glory of the old warrior tradition. In that year, the great war-leader, Mahabandula, had vainly promised to bring the British Governor-General of India back to his capital loaded with silver fetters. In a similar vein, Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the Indian National Army, had stated it was a particular duty of Bengalis, who had let the British into India in the first place, to liberate the nation through war and self-sacrifice. Taking heart from the paramilitary traditions of social service which the Indian nationalists had adapted from Baden-Powell's boy scouts, Bose had already appeared once in military uniform at a nationalist rally in the early 1930s. Bose claimed both lineage and charisma from the last great independent Kingdom of South Asia. His troops conveyed with them on their abortive march to Delhi in 1943, dust in a silver casket gathered from the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor who had died in exile in Rangoon after the failure of the great rebellion against the British in 1857.

Broad geographical themes

     My intention thus far has been to show how Asian nationalisms responded to some of the global themes and debates of the twentieth century, but at the same time transformed and empowered them, for better or for worse. In the final section of the lecture, I want to return to some of the broader more general, geographical themes with which I started on Tuesday. The scheme I proposed there was that we could distinguish between two heuristic poles. First, there were Asian patrias, in which social and economic bonds were already quite tightly drawn before the full colonial onslaught. Secondly, there were wider arenas of cultural and economic interaction, the ecumenes, which fitfully supported great, universalising empires. What was the modern fate of some of these solidarities. I do not subscribe in the least to any form of social evolutionism. Yet I want to argue again that shared histories and traditions in the actual sense of beliefs and practices handed down were important. A sense of rootedness to place does in fact help to explain the configuration of Asian nationalisms in the more recent past. National traditions are, as we all know 'invented' or 'imagined' by literati and elites. But those everyday metaphors or slippery and inadequate. Why was one set of traditions invented rather than another? Why did the dreamer imagine one set of images rather than another? The omnipresent evil genius of colonial capitalism does not take us very far in this enquiry since it was largely random in its own invention of traditions and subscribed little to imaginings. It seems to me that the cultural geography and hermeneutics of memory of the earlier patrias and ecumenes acted to limit and form what later colonialists and nationalists were to do. It is striking, in fact, that most of those difficult entities, the 'old Asian nations', which Eric Hobsbawm excluded from his generalisation, have in fact persisted as recognisable entities, however transformed from the eighteenth century to today. The ecumenes are, at best, as Count Metternich would have said, 'geographical expressions.'

      It is difficult, of course, to argue that the social communities once gathered at the 'patria' end of the spectrum have been unmitigated exemplars of good government or internal cohesion. All the same, most of them have maintained a degree of homogeneity and identity, even if this is through coercion of their relatively small minority groups. Japan, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka alongside patrias outside the area from which we have taken most of our examples, such as Iran and Egypt, have remained recognised and recognisable entities for several centuries now. Within what is now the nation state of India, Maharashtra and Kashmir have remained well-marked political and cultural unities, though successive generations have vigorously contested the essence of these identities.

      To one degree or another, the earlier history of pre-colonial kingdoms and identities helps to explain the longevity of these political communities. In these cases the dominant cultural groups who had already achieved sovereignty could assimilate the relatively small internal minorities--so called tribal groups--were small enough and assimilable enough by dominant cultural groups. As Dorman-Smith , remarked, 'no-one had forgotten that in 1885 the Shans and Karens had owed allegiance to the King of Burma.' This was a memory and a geopolitical condition that could not be undone either by the work of American Baptist missionaries among hill-tribes or by British policies of divide-and-rule. In these communities outside minorities: Indian or Chinese migrant labourers or small traders could easily be targetted and removed as the travails of dying colonialism became more severe. Indeed, the very presence of foreign workers and moneylenders in these societies helped strengthen the sense of solidarity and the demands for a national political economy especially during the Great Depression and the devastation of the Second World War. The effort to expel Tamils perceived as foreigners has no doubt blighted the post-independence history of the once beautiful and prosperous island of Ceylon. But the idea of the Sinhala Buddhist identity has been reinvented generation by generation.

     Other factors in these denser, more compact pre-colonial polities have contributed to their solidity even when the pre-colonial elites and other bearers of old patriotism have long disappeared. For instance, religious institutions here were more amenable to state power and came to be associated with the community. Buddhist sanghas were regularly purged and reconstructed by kings in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand and, of course Japan. In Vietnam national Confucianism was complemented by national pagodas. They were designated with that charismatic word quoc. Of course in all these societies monks have often been dissidents. But the power of religion has generally helped to buttress rather than to challenge the state and the community it claims to represent. Language, again, has rarely been a dividing factor. The massive expansion of quoc ngu publication in the 1930s--Vietnamese in the Roman script-aided the spread of nationalists and national communist doctrines. It filled the gap left by the decline of Sinified Vietnamese and was not really in contention with it. These unities were sometimes perceived by the colonial powers and sometimes dismissed by them. But where colonialists tried to divide Vietnam, partition Persia or annex Thailand, they failed. Where a powerful patriotic sentiment coexisted with a much wider set of ecumenical cultural linkages as pre-eminently in the case of China, the oscillation between Han nationalism and Chinese statehood has been pervasive, as Duara has charted it. At present Chinese statehood is winning out, but within it no doubt lurks a powerful ghost of Han patriotism

     The fate of the looser ecumenes-Indo-Islam, the Malay world or the Arab-Turkish ecumene--has been rather different. The problems of their emerging nationalisms if not more profound have seemed more intractable. The Indo-Muslim central and south Asian ecumene was split up early on by the decline of the Indo-Afghan Empire and the imperialism of Britain and Russia respectively. In the last three generations, colonialists and indigenous politicians, playing on the tensions between Islamic universalism, Muslim localism and an emerging Hindu identity have split the subcontinent twice and have ignited a clutch of internal states of emergency. Identities remain protean; yesterdays marxists are today's Hindu fundamentalists.

     In the Malay world, the inheritance of Malacca was too weak to provide the basis for a colonial era Malay nationalism. It was only under the prodding of the British, and in the face of imminent Chinese dominance, that Malaysia became a nation in the 1960s. Its fate remains uncertain as it faces resurgent Muslim universalism and ethnic tension. In Indonesia, the emerging homeland of Java has never been able adequately to fill the huge peninsular mass of the archipelago, let alone dominate the old Malay ecumene. It is battered by Islamic resurgence on one side and the mutiny of many small and protean ethnic particularisms on the other. For its part, the great western ecumene of Turk and Arab fell apart under the pressure of war nearly a century ago. It remains a cockpit of nationalisms waiting to be born.

New perspectives on world history

     My aim in this course of lectures has been to draw attention to the new perspectives on world history which open up if we further de-centre the narratives of globalisation and nationalism from their European and American intellectual home to Asia, particularly south and southeast Asia. I have tried to show that while the aims and tactics of western colonialism explain a great part of the Asian present, they cannot explain its entirety. Even colonialism was moulded and provincialised by the social forces and intellectual contexts which it encountered in the east. Asian nationalism in the twentieth century has often presented a depressing and deeply pessimistic face. That has been overdone by worried elites who have despaired of ever entering the New Jerusalem, or perhaps the New Shangrila, which their nationalist forbears envisioned. Yet anyone who has recently seen the vigour of an Indian labour movement, the debates of village elders in the village Din or meeting house in Vietnam or even a hotly contested election in Malaya, will feel a tinge of hope. Asians remain vigorous in their assertion of rights. They do this not because the John Stuart Mill, Amnesty International or anti-capitalist protesters have taught them to do so. They do it because this is their rational strategy and their perdurings moral claim as groups and individuals. That it is difficult to balance common rights and individual ones-- to balance freedom with equity-- in these societies should not be a cause of despair. Where indeed has it been easy?

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    Select Readings and Facts, Bayly Lecture 3
  • Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (London, 1997)
  • J. M. Brown, Gandhi; prisoner of hope (London, 1989)
  • Carey Watt, 'Education for national efficiency', Modern Asian Studies, 2, 1997
  • R. K. Narayan, My Days (Delhi, 1974)
  • U Nu, Saturday's Son (London, 1975)
  • Sugata Bose and A. Jalal, Modern South Asia (London, 1998)
  • Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman (Cambridge, 1985)
  • C. J. Baker, An Indian Rural Economy (Cambridge, 1984)
  • Michael Adas, The Burma Delta (Madison, 1974)
  • Frank Dikotter, The Discourse of Race in Modern China (London, 1993)
  • Kenneth Jones, Arya Dharm (Berkeley, 1976)
  • Peter Van Der Veer, Religious Nationalism (Berkeley, 1994)
  • T.N.Harper, The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya (Cambridge, 1998)
  • Hugh Tinker, The Union of Burma (Oxford, 1961)
  • L. Gordon, Brothers against the Raj (New York, 1990)
  • M.K.Gandhi (1864-1948) , becomes leader of the Indian national Congress 1916, leads first non-copperation movement 1919-23, civil disobediance, 1929-32, Quit India, 1942; assassinated 1948.

  • Thakin Nu (U Nu) (1907-); first prime minister of independent Burma, a follower of Aung San; fought with Japanese 1942-45; turned against them in Anti-fascist People's League, 1945. Made Buddhism official state religion in Burma 1948.
  • Aga Khan III (1877-1957) ; leader of Ismaili Muslims and a founder of All-India Muslim League, 1906.
  • Sir Fazli Hussain (1877-1936), Punjabi landowner and leader of the Unionist Party, a regional grouping representing Muslim and Hindu landowners in the agricultural Punjab.
  • Basti (Hindi/Urdu) living quarter, often = a slum in an industrial town; kampong (Malay), compound, Malay living quarter.
  • G.K. Gokhale (1860-1915), Moderate Congress leader, espoused national efficiency through education
  • V.D. Savarkar (1879-1945), prophet of Hindu nationalism and self-strengthening; intellectual father of today's Hindu right.
  • Arya Samaj, a 'reforming' Hindu movement founded by Swami Dayananda, spread fast in Punjab in the 1870s and amongst overseas Indians.
  • Aung San (1916-47), leader of the Burma Independence Army 1942, who fought against with the British with the Japanese 1942-5 and then vice versa 1945; assassinated 1947 on eve of Burmese and Indian independence
  • Reginald Dorman-Smith British Governor of Burma, 1941-6; in exile 1942-5.
  • Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945), leader of the Indian National Army which fought with Japanese against the British in Burma 1943-5.

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Webber Philip McEldowney
Last Update - Wednesday, 18 July 2001