The dangers of exclusivist nationalism: Lessons from Jinnah's dilemmas and Theresa May's resignation

  • If the South Asian experience of the 20th century teaches us anything, it would be that it's important to be very, very careful to control the dosages of an exclusivist nationalism.

  • The pursuit of a single, all-defining principle of nationalism is a punishing and largely unachievable task.

  • Theresa May constantly found herself at the mercy of those who could ‘out-Brexit’ her, much in the same way that ever more refined and exclusivist claims to Islam promise to be a channel for advancement in Pakistan.

In June, Theresa May resigned from her post of Prime Minister because she couldn’t ride the Brexit tiger. A referendum, she said, which no one had thought they would win, had set up an impossible dilemma.

The trouble, as she herself said, is that she inherited an elusive mandate — what Brexit itself means, she noted, was a variety of things, not just a single-minded and pre-determined verdict for a planned out future. The Brexit vote was also, she said, the expectation for a better future and a feeling of helplessness in the existing political framework. There are many ways to deliver on this mandate, but to be on top of it, one also needs to agree with the central premise of the demand — a more exclusivist ethno-nationalist demand.

Her methods of trying to deliver on the referendum, keeping a more open, negotiable, and interconnected set of networks alive with the European Union, was being consistently out-voted by members of the party who found it was easy to out-Brexit her on her reason for having acquired power in the first place: Brexit.

To a Partition historian who happened to be sitting in London at the time of May’s resignation speech, the parallels were irresistible. It was as if the history of the past 70 years was dancing in front of her very eyes. This, I thought, was how Jinnah must have felt at the hands of his party members.

Jinnah, as many Indians and Pakistanis who know their Partition history will understand quickly, knew some of the dilemmas around this problem quite well. The merits of his demands aren’t in question — rather the political processes they embodied. Tasked with the endeavour to translate the demand for Pakistan after the 1946 elections, Jinnah had initially attempted to push through the Cabinet Mission Plan — where the spirit of his demands could be accommodated, while, at the same time, also allowing for a greater measure of flexibility in the implementation of his demand.

 The dangers of exclusivist nationalism: Lessons from Jinnahs dilemmas and Theresa Mays resignation

Today, more than ever, Jinnah’s dilemmas are worth mulling over in India. AFP

Even while asking for a separate homeland, on the basis of a feeling of a different identity, a less exclusivist vision of sovereignty was still possible. But the trouble was that the political processes he had participated in also entailed ways in which the path to power by others, who did demand a more narrow reading, had become much easier.

A demand for a homeland for Muslims didn’t necessarily have to translate into a exclusivist or extremist implementation of the letter of his demands. The Cabinet Mission Plan would have provided for a looser federation, less insistent on a completed or mutually exclusivist sovereignty. Yet, while trying to find a reasonable settlement for the disempowerment and under-represented minority communities of Muslims living in North India, he was forced to work with a collection of more virulent and prejudiced colleagues, characterised both by their ambition, as well as their narrowness.

Obviously, however, one should not let the storyline run away with itself. Jinnah, for one thing, never had to resign in humiliation at the behest of his rivals. For another, 14 million casualties were claimed in South Asia as this process worked out — as opposed to the one in the United Kingdom. The institutions of Britain moreover are stronger than those in India proved to be — a lawful conviction of Joanna Cox’s killer was legally upheld, in contrast to the manifest absence of any machinery for order or law giving in the monsoon months of 1947 in South Asia. Moreover, even a superficial glance at any Indian newspaper today would seem to show that Jinnah’s concerns about the plight of Muslim minority communities in South Asia — the central purpose that drove his political career forward — was not unjustified, as compared to a fairly transparent attempt at careerism and opportunism of most prominent Brexiteers. Indeed, the demands and prejudices of the Brexiteers, as opposed to the League, seem — at least to the untrained South Asian eye — problems arising out of scrapping for the resources of plentiful, as opposed to that of the pathetically meager.

Theresa May. AFP

Theresa May constantly found herself at the mercy of those who could ‘out-Brexit’ her. AFP

Obviously, it is possible to poke holes in this argument, out of the degree to which both these scenarios do correspond. But the kernel of the political sentiment in them is not dissimilar. Jinnah would have understood some of the sentiments arising out of May’s party — if not their particular issues — quite well. Her attempts — at implementing the vote for Brexit in a way that can also allow for a greater amounts of economic access, and less regulated travel across the Irish border — failed miserably, partly because her collaborators spotted that they could benefit far more in the political climate that they were in by reaching for a more extreme version of her demands. Theresa May constantly found herself at the mercy of those who could ‘out-Brexit’ her, much in the same way that ever more refined and exclusivist claims to Islam promise to be a channel for advancement in Pakistan. Neither leader may have been particularly persuaded by the need to adhere to these demands in personal terms — indeed, could even have conceptualised the meanings of these demands quite differently — they were also unable to withstand an onslaught from those who perceived the requirements of these demands quite differently.

The initial premise of both leaders may or may not be justified, but if the South Asian experience of the 20th century teaches us anything, it would be that it's important to be very, very careful to control the dosages of an exclusivist nationalism, since unchecked, a destructive search for the truly authentic can only lead to a narrower, more impoverished and depleted experience, as fragile as it is, and ultimately empty. In the end, the pursuit of a single, all-defining principle of nationalism is a punishing and largely unachievable task. They risk spiraling out of control, and lead in directions that the founders may not necessarily have wished for. Today, more than ever, Jinnah’s dilemmas are worth mulling over in India.

Updated Date: Jul 11, 2019 09:20:57 IST