Prasanna K Choudhary


The self-identity of European countries as ‘nations’ was invariably linked with the process of denying and destroying the identities of so many tribes, societies and countries of the rest of the world. Here we can have a glimpse of this process.

Between 1451 and 1600, some 2,75,000 African slaves were sent to America and Europe. In the seventeenth century this number rose to an estimated 13,41,000, largely in response to the demand of the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. It was the eighteenth century, however, that was to be the golden age of slaving, with the forcible exportation of more than six million people from Africa to the Americas between 1701 and 1810. Novelist Jaimaica Kincaid, herself a West Indian, has written,’ Twelve years after Christopher Columbus landed in this part of the world, over a million people he found living here, were dead. In addition, so many Africans were thrown overboard on voyages from Africa to this part of the world that it would not be an overstatement to say that the Atlantic Ocean is the Auschwitz of Africa.’ (5)

The competition among European nations for the plunder and colonization of Africa continued until almost the end of the 19th. century. (‘ For Europe after the final act of the Congress of Berlin in 1885, the colonization of Africa was the last great overseas adventure.’ ) In pre-colonial period, Africa was home to a few empires such as Ghana, Ashanti, and Edo empires. ‘ Ghana Empire had been established around 800 AD and so was contemporary with Charlemagne.’ Nigeria was home to the Haussa, Yoruba and Igbo cultures. There was Kingdom of Monomotapa ( now Zimbabwe ), Mali Empire ( which spread throughout the whole bend of the Niger ), Songhay Empire ( with its capitals in Gao and Timbaktu, destroyed in 1591 ), and Benin ( a clearing in the dense mass of equatorial rain forest between the waters of the Gulf of Guinea and the inland tablelands. It was in Yoruba country, between Niger delta and present day Lagos ). All these cultures were barbarously ravaged, ruined and sacrificed at the altar of the new industrial civilization. (6)

Latin America : At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan ( present day Mexico City ) was a great city, full of life – as large as Seville or Cardoba. In 1519, Spanish Army under the leadership of Hernando Cortes reached the capital and was amazed by the great highways leading to the metropolis. Cortes had expected to see savages, instead he encountered a civilization with its own language, an advanced calender, a central government and complex aqueducts. The sheer size and beauty of the temples and pyramids astonished him. Aztec Emperor Montezuma II’s empire had a population of 15 million. ‘ In the marketplace,’ he marvelled, ‘ over 60,000 souls gather to buy and sell ( and ) one can behold every possible kind of merchandize found in lands the world over. ….’ He entered Montezuma’s grand palace, which was big enough to house the entire Spanish Army. Cortes of ‘ civilized ‘ Europe threatened Montezuma II of ‘ barbarous ‘ America : ‘ Give me all your gold or I will kill you. ‘ Montezuma had never seen someone like him before. ….He yielded and handed over all of his gold. ….Despite his promise, Cortes killed Montezuma. Chaos ensued. The Spanish Army barricaded the roads, preventing any food from entering the city and they blocked off the aqueducts. Within eighty days, 2,40,000 inhabitants of the city starved to death. By 1521, just two years after Cortes first laid eyes on Tenochtitlan, the entire Aztec Empire  – the civilization that traced its root to centuries before the time of Christ – had collapsed.

About eleven years later, in 1532, the similar fate befell the Incas. The Spanish Army, led by Francisco Pizzario, captured the Inca leader Atahuallpa. A year later, with all the Inca gold in hand, the Spanish executed Atahuallpa. Again the annihilation of an entire society took only two years. (7)

The French essayist Montaigne wrote at the end of the sixteenth century, ‘ So many goodly cities ransacked and razed; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so infinite millions of harmless people of all sexes, states and ages massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and best part of the world topsyturvied, ruined and defaced for the traffick of Pearles and Pepper. ‘

Here I am deliberately leaving out the examples of India, China, Indonesia and other countries of Asia. Through loot, thuggery, massacres, unimaginable barbarity and monstrosity, the  ‘ civilized ‘ and ‘ powerful ‘ nation-states of Europe unfurled their flags of victory over Asia, Africa and Latin America.


With the emergence of nation-states, there also evolved several theories of nation and nationality. In this enterprise almost all the major thinkers of Europe made their contributions.

However, the names that are often quoted prominently in this regard are : Jean Bodin (8), Giambattista Vico (9),Johann Gottfried Herder (10), Emanuel-Joseph Sieyes (11), Thomas Hobbes, Hegel, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Max Weber, Lenin, Rosa Luxemberg, etc. On the various aspects of this discourse, J S Mill, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno and Benedict Anderson, too, are often quoted. Since nation constituted an important component of modernity in Europe, the inner contradiction of modernity also got reflected in this discourse.

In history, humankind has been self-organizing itself in different forms of community depending upon different modes of earning their livelihood. In hunting and food gathering stage, the primitive form of community evolved as patriarchal or matriarchal gens, tribes and later on as tribal confederations. The territorial sovereignty of the tribes took the form of chiefdoms. In different geographical areas this form of community acquired its own specific features. In the agrarian age, human community took the form of settled territorial societies ( janapadas ) based on social division of labour necessitated by agriculture. Village was the basic unit of these societies. In this age, the sovereignty of landlords took the form of kingdoms, and later on, of empires. This form of community too has specific features in different parts of the world. Members of the tribes ( based on blood relations ) became subjects of their respective kings.

In the age of exchange, human community reorganized itself in the form of nations in the capitalist countries of Europe. The sovereignty of the new bourgeois class culminated in the form of nation-state, and that of the colonial system of these nation-states. The ‘subjects’ of the agrarian age were transformed into ‘citizens’ of the nation-state. However, this form of human community was the product of the specific conditions of Europe where the sovereignty of the Roman Church was supreme – small states and principalities based on religious hierarchies were a great hindrance to the capitalist development. ( In fact, after the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War and the Vienna Congress, the first important step towards the unification of Germany was the ‘customs union’ formed by several German states in 1834. )

Thus nation was a historical product. It was a specific form of human community in Europe in the age of capital. But it was put forward as a ‘natural form’ of human community as if the humankind had at last found its ideal form of existence. Even its specific European form was made universal and capitalist nation-states of Europe tried to impose it all over the world. This attempt, combined with the competition among capitalist-imperialist states, resulted in protracted bloody civil wars in Africa killing millions of people – in Nigeria, Congo, Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, etc. In other places also, the situation was more-or-less similar. Indo-Pak partition, Israel-Palestine problem, etc. were also the results of the same process. Today, the nation-state exported to Africa, has crumbled in Somalia – what to talk of ‘nation-building’ efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Therefore, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri has rightly pointed out,” It may be true as Benedict Anderson says, that a nation should be understood as an imagined community – but here we should recognise that the claim is inverted so that the nation becomes the only way to imagine community. ….Hence our conception of community is severely impoverished. Just as in the context of the dominant countries, here too the multiplicity and singularity of the multitude are negated in the straitjacket of the identity and homogeneity of the people.” (12) So it was poverty of imagination. In the age of exchange, too, human community can assume ( and should assume ) different forms depending upon different circumstances and backgrounds  – this possibility was denied even at the level of imagination.

As a natural corollary to this line of thinking, many nationalist thinkers of Europe were convinced that after independence, India was destined to disintegrate. According to them, unity forged among various nationalities of India during their struggle against the British colonial rule, was not sustainable after independence. India’s balkanization, in their eyes, was a foregone conclusion.

However, after sixty three years of independence, barring a few areas in the north-east and Kashmir valley, the unity of India, despite all its diversities, has strengthened. On the other hand, even after more than three hundred and fifty years of the Westphalian Treaty, the process of building and rebuilding nation-states is continuously going on in Europe till today. In the last decade of the previous century and the first decade of the present one, most of the new nation-states emerged in Europe itself. Many western writers call this process ‘the balkanization of Europe’. ……….

Around 1922, ex-colonies of Russia ‘voluntarily’ merged themselves in the Soviet Union – after 1992 ( in the background of the fall of communism in Russia ) they, asserting their right to self-determination, ‘voluntarily’ broke away from the Union leading to its final disintegration. As a result, many nation-states emerged in eastern Europe and Central Asia — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan, Uzbekstan and Turkmenistan. Even the Russian Federation faced a bloody seperatist rebellion in Chechanya. …. Ukraine too is facing secessionist pressures, as the people residing in Galicia, the Bukovina and the sub-Carpathian Ukraine ( Who are different from the bulk of the Ukrainian people ) are clamouring for a seperate nation-state. Transdniestr region of Ukraine is currently under Russian military’s watchful eyes.

Similarly, after the end of the communist rule in Yugoslavia, all of its previous constituents are now independent nation-states  — Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Demand for the unification of independent Macedonia and Macedonia province of Greece has already soured relation between the two countries.

Kosovo has unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia. Czechoslovakia, too, now stands divided into two nation-states – Czech and Slovakia. Russia and Georgia have already fought a war over Georgia’s two rebel provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The rise of these nation-states has been a very bloody process in some cases – particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

However, this process is not confined to the erstwhile communist-ruled statesof Europe. As we have already seen, the independent development of nation-states in Europe has led to a number of national wars and in the twentieth century, to two world wars. Hence, the organization of the European Economic Community in the 1950s, and later on of the European Union, was also intended to check the growth of aggressive ultra-nationalist tendencies ( like Nazism ). However, the EU failed to contain nationalist movements for seperate nation-states. To the contrary, such movements acquired a pan-European forum to further their cause. Small nationalities in Europe, on the one hand, want to secede from their parent nation-states, and on the other hand, by becoming members of the EU and NATO, they want to enjoy the benefits of the unified European market as well as to guarantee their security.

In Belgium ( which houses the headquarters of the EU ), the strained relation between Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons is heading towards seperation. Flemings are now veering around the demand for independent Flanders. Basque seperatist movement is one of the oldest movements in Europe; so is the movement for independent Catalonia in Spain. Secessionism is gaining ground in the Lombardy region of Italy. Greenland has now declared its ( limited ) independence from Denmark – the first nation-state-in-the-making that owes its origin to the global warming.

In 1707, through the ‘Act of Union ‘, Scotland and England, in place of their seperate parliaments, established the single parliament for the whole of Great Britain. Now, three hundred years later, Scotland is well ahead on its road to independence.

The role of UNO as the word organization of nation-states has never been remarkable; today it has gone down further and become miserable. On the one hand, demands for its reorganization are gaining ground, on the other hand, through global, regional and bilateral conferences, treaties, and institutions, attempts to build new power equations and structures in different fields ( be it economic, political, cultural or environmental ) can be easily discerned.

Nation-state in Europe, it seems, is completing a full circle, albeit in a changed global scenario.

To be continued ……









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