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Lessons from Scotland for South Asia

September 25, 2014 | By

Though ‘No’ finally trumped ‘Yes’ and the United Kingdom stayed ‘united’ the recent referendum for Scottish independence holds several important lessons for both votaries of separatism as well as national unity everywhere.

It also raises many questions, chief among them being, on a planet run by corporations and shaped by tsunami-like capital flows, do terms like national ‘independence’, ‘unity’ or ‘sovereignty’ have real meaning anymore? An even more fundamental question would be whether the nation-state, in its current form, has any future at all or not?

Coming to the lessons first, among the most obvious is the fact that it is possible to hold a referendum on independence peacefully, without a single shot being fired or spilling a single drop of blood.This has been hailed as a triumph of democracy and rightly so too. How many countries around the world, which call themselves democracies, can muster the guts to allow a section of their citizens to exercise their right to self-determination through a simple vote?

This is in fact a lesson of particular significance in South Asia, where millions of lives have been lost in the name of both nationalism, with its fetish for ‘territorial integrity’, and sub-nationalism that insists on formation of new states from existing ones as the only way. Just think of the numbers killed in the frenzy of nationalist passions during the Partition of India and Pakistan, the Bangladesh war of liberation, the struggle of Kashmir, Nagaland in India or that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka for their own state.

Today, as South Asia witnesses the inexorable rise of intolerant fundamentalist forces, the reduction of democracy to majoritarian bullying, a deepening economic crisis and an unbridled arms race there is unfortunately much more violence to come in the name of both nationalism and separatism. The dispute over Kashmir, in particular, has an apocalyptic edge due to the presence of nuclear weapons, of uncertain quality and even more uncertain security, in both India and Pakistan.

Without a new framework for managing or defusing nationalist and sub-nationalist tensions on the sub-continent it is only a matter of time perhaps that even the hitherto ‘unthinkable’ can actually happen, with enormously tragic consequences. In that sense, for all the trickery employed by the English ruling class to prevent Scottish independence, the fact that theyused a political process and not violence to handle the issue is worth emulating by regimes throughout South Asia.

A second lesson from the Scottish referendum is that, despite the rhetoric about shared history or culture on all sides,the real debate boiled down to whether or not the Scottish economy would be a viable one. While those who opposed independence questioned Scotland’s ability to repay debt, raise cheap credit, launch and manage a new currency the pro-independence camp rested its case on increased revenues from North Sea oil, Scotland’s highly educated population and the possible benefits of being part of the European Union.

In other words, shorn of sentiment, the core idea of the nation-state today is not very different from that of an average company, whose life expectancy hinges around the usual business concepts of profit and loss, debt and equity or marketability of its various resources.This brings us to the question asked at the start of this article- in the era of rampant financial and economic globalization, what does it mean to be an ‘independent’ nation?

  1. In the world we live in today is there any nation that is truly ‘independent’ or sovereign, including the United States- the biggest debtor nation in the world? Or is everyone just ‘inter-dependent’ to varying degrees, with the idea of ‘sovereignty’ just a chip for bargaining better terms and conditions in the global marketplace?
  2. When corporations have become way larger than entire countries and the global capital flows determine the fate of even powerful nations why should land and territory alone become synonymous with the idea of a nation?
  3. What does national identity or citizenship really mean in today’s world? Should not all inhabitants of the globe, have equal rights instead of parceling the planet into a few fiefdoms of private property called ‘nations’?

No, I am not suggesting that there can be a nation completely without land or territory, for ultimately populations need the right to live on and have access to, if not own, firm ground somewhere. However, it is my contention that in our times land and territory are no longer the most important part of becoming or being a nation. The central position of land in national economies has been taken over for quite some time by several other resources, namely capital in the form of finance, technology and even human resources.

Let me be more specific in what I mean by giving some examples. A survey by the magazine Business Insider in 2011 found some very interesting results by comparing the annual turnover of 25 top US corporations to the GDP of entire countries around the world. Here are some results:

  1. If Wal-Mart were a country, its revenues would make it on par with the GDP of Norway the 25th largest economy in the world by, surpassing 157 smaller countries. In 2010 while Norway’s GDP was USD$414.46 billion Walmart’s revenue stood at USD$421.89 billion. (For comparison Scotland’s GDP that year was USD $216 billion)
  2. Exxon Mobil, with a revenue ofUSD$354.67 billion is bigger than Thailand with a GDP of USD$318.85 billion
  3. Apple computers, with revenues of USD$65.23 billion, is bigger than Ecuador with a GDP of USD$58.91 billion

What I am pointing to is the simple fact that is staring us in our face for quite some time now that the giant corporations of the world are on par with or more powerful than many countries in the world in terms of economic clout or even political clout in many parts of the world. The management systems they run are often as much or even more efficient than that of any state apparatus. What they lack in order to declare themselves nation-states and join the United Nations are essentially a national flag or an anthem, which any advertising agency can produce for them in a few days.

As for the want of an army – let me say that if Microsoft sets up an office in New Delhi to recruit well paid soldiers willing to die defending Windows 8.0 copyright half the Indian army will switch loyalties. Let us not forget that a bulk of the soldiers the East India Company and the British Raj used to control the Indian sub-continent were from within India itself. So it is not very strange to imagine a giant corporation forming its own army in the future for that is how it was in the not-so-distant past. (The United States has already for many years deployed thousands of ‘soldiers’, in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are essentially mercenaries employed by security companies)

To understand the tectonic changes underway and how territory is not the basis of economies anymore one has also to look at the world’s financial system, which in the last couple of decades has ballooned to a size way bigger than the real world of tangible goods and services.

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report in 2010, the total value of the world’s financial stock, comprising equity market capitalization and outstanding bonds and loans, touched US$212 trillion and was more than three times as large as the total output of goods and services produced across the planet that year. The same year cross-border capital flows grew to US$4.4 trillion. Ninety percent of global capital flows run between three regions: the U.S., the United Kingdom and the European countries that use the Euro. It is clear that as far as the world of global finance is concerned, outside these regions, the rest of the planet has indeed fallen off the map!

The point to understand here really is, while many of the nation-states that are around today emerged after the break-up of the big colonial Empires of the past today the same nation-states are being subordinated by the new Empire of Global Capital and the few powerful nations that act as their marketing agents. Corporations are the new monarchs of the globe and while nation-states are not about to disappear anytime very soon they are a much weakened entity shorn of genuine sovereignty or independence.

In the context of terms like ‘independence’ another point to remember is that when one ‘separates’ from an existing nation-state framework, one automatically also becomes part of some other framework globally. The problem with many national liberation movements is usually that while they are very clear about what they are breaking away from they don’t think harder about what they are uniting with after the break-up.

To put it bluntly who are the new friends they want to hangout with and what kind of arrangements are they making to ensure these friends will not let them down in any way? And remember here we are not talking about just countries out there to choose from but global corporations also!

In the case of Scotland for example it is clear that the prospect of joining the European Union’s political and economic frameworkor protective security cover of NATO was what made breaking away from the UK attractive for many of its supporters. Also, though the Scottish National Party, which led the campaign for independence, is a champion of social democracy and the welfare state it is doubtful they would have been able to resist the pressure from global capital to dance to its dictates and implement policies in favour of business and investors.

All this would have made the newly independent Scotland a minor version of the United Kingdom itself, resulting in no particular benefit for either ordinary working class Scots or the people of the world at large. A better way to go forward for the Scottish progressives could be to fight for transforming the United Kingdom, one of the most unequal societies in the developed world and also radicalise the European Union itself in the long run.

Similarly, in South Asia, separatist movements – instead of focusing on forming imitative nation-states of their own- should consider forging a ‘United States of South Asia’ or ‘USSA’ of sorts that will be an example to the world of how very diverse people can live and work together with mutual respect and for mutual benefit. For this to happen however the precondition would be dramatic changes in the federal structure of India, without which there is little chance of anyone accepting to be part of a larger united South Asia.

To be more specific it is my contention, that throughout South Asia and in India in particular there is a need for encouraging the dialectical process of both separation and unityby promoting the right to self-determination at smaller and smaller levels parallel with the construction of a larger region-wide federal unity. The idea is not as crazy as it sounds if you look at the history of the world’s most powerful country, the United States itself, which was born of the union of independent colonies coming together in a way that allowed maximum autonomy with maximum cooperation.

One starting point for a movement towards a united South Asia could be the extension of the provisions of Article 370, currently accorded only to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, to all the states of India (both existing and yet to be born). This would enable a far greater degree of autonomy to the states and make India a federal republic in the true sense and attract new partners in South Asia to come and join it.

This article specifies that except for Defense, Foreign Affairs, Finance and Communications, the Indian Parliament needs the State Government’s concurrence for applying all other laws. Thus the state’s residents lived under a separate set of laws, including those related to citizenship, ownership of property, and fundamental rights, as compared to other Indians.

Another specific measure that can be implemented is to give up the idea of citizenship and of ‘one-person, one nationality’, which is anyway becoming obsolete globally with many countries accepting multiple citizenship. Even in India, dual nationality of sorts has been allowed by bestowing various privileges to ‘People of Indian Origin’ or PIO to to citizens of Indian origin living overseas. India can take a decisive step towards the formation of the USSA by extending the current PIO recognition to the people of all neighbouring countries in South Asia.

I realize that, given the current political and geo-political situation in South Asia, my proposal does sound like something dreamt up after a lot of Scotch whisky. I also understand that for the idea of a USSA or a South Asian Union of any kind to actually get implemented it will take not just time but also a very great mobilisation of people and groups across the sub-continent.

And yet considering the threats of globlal imperialism knocking at the doors of South Asia, the unending and bloody ‘property fight’ between nationalists and separatists, as also the real possibility of nuclear war in the region, it is important to urgently starttalking and debating about alternative ways of running all our societies, before it is too late.

Satya Sagar is a public health activist and writer who believes that the only good nation is a donation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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