The idea of the nation-state became globally relevant only in the wake of the First World War. It was, primarily, one man who was responsible, the US President Woodrow Wilson, who professed the idea of ‘a state for each nation’ of the world, as the foundation of a new world order, based on this idea of self recognition, amongst others – democracy, openness, global cooperation, and the like. The Wilsonian ideas of the ‘nation’ and the ‘state’ were distinctly Western, or Eurocentric, in origin. But they were globally popular. They found large scale appeal, and resonance, especially among the colonially oppressed nations of the world, but in most political societies, the enthusiasm was not towards a ‘new idea’, as such. Appreciation was but was inspired by agreement with the fundamental ideal of self-recognition. The idea of self-recognition of historically distinct nations was not a European invention. Each society has always had a philosophical core in its social and political landscape that allows it to persist through time and space. Those that don’t, well, do not survive to tell their story.
In most cases, nations attempt to capture the essence of the national idea, for themselves, their populations and their coming generations, in what we call national histories. National histories are typically constructed around some interlinked themes. These involve, for example, stories of struggle for existence against invaders, oppressors, and hegemons; these stories generally have their heroes, individuals who embody the national spirit, who inspire the people to come together, to collect as one national group; and, all such stories have some sort of vision for the future, of a national glory, which will be realized only if the people, without opposition from within, would come together in the national cause.
National histories are crucial for constructing what we could call the sense of a nation amongst the population, so they are propagated through school curriculums, valorized through mass media, captured in national monuments. In a way, national histories are as important as the other crucial text on which nation-states are founded, constitutions, but perhaps even more. The stories that national histories tell often form the justification for the nature of the constitution a nation-state chooses for itself. Take the example of the constitution of the United States, with its core principles of justice, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The American national story begins with the migration of individual fleeing from religious persecution in Europe, the nation is formed after a war against a colonial oppressor; that the American colonies were founded in a hostile environment, that they prospered and survived, that they became free, must show that the USA was destined, by providence, to be what and as it was. Indeed, America was destined to grow, as it had always done, against the odds since the inception of the colonies even befre the declaration of independence. So, manifest destiny, the frontier psyche, and universalism of values, as they are called by historians of American history, become the essence of both the national story and the justification of the Constitution. One could tell a similar story of another more or less young nation, Russia. Founded, in trading cities, along the Asian frontiers of European civilization, forever facing the wrath of the nomadic hordes of the Eurasian steppe, surviving, persisting and, ultimately, conquering and spreading across the entire continent, Russia was also, like the USA, destined to be. The successive forms of government in Russia, from Tsarism to Communism to whatever we have now, have been founded on this national story of struggle, survival and persistence, almost always against the odds, and fighting them, against nature, society or its enemies. It is perhaps the conviction of these belief that have inspired the Russian people to fight against overweening oppositions even from positions of weakness, whether it be Napoleon or Hitler. National histories do, in some measure, capture the essence of a nation, its people.
But, moving to the interface of national histories and constitutions, if there is such a balance of forms between national histories and political constitutions, then, it is only natural, that changes in one will transform the other. All nations occupy their places, their locations in time and place, in world historical order. They might overlap with other nations, involved in their own stories, they might, as they often do, clash. But something we don’t often think about, as much as we should, nations also co-mingle, with two, or many, becoming one. This transfusing of nations could involve a smaller nation fusing into a larger, and losing most of its character to the latter. Also, such a story could involve two or many nations transfusing their essences into another collective whole, and creating an entirely new, or renewed nation.
We see both in two other grand historical states, China and India. China has been, in the long run of history, more persistent in its basic form of national history. Absorbing world trends, curiously, very often from India, while re-ordering them into a persistent scheme of things, which some scholars call, confusingly and anachronistically, political order. India, on the other hand, is a composition of societies continuously re-making themselves, both due to new trends which flow in, or new forces that bubble upwards from below, in the social ferment of mixing races and ethnicities. That is not to say there is no persistent logic in Indian history. Historians, generally ‘outsiders’, have tried to find this logic in caste, religion or physiological features, or racialism. All explain a part, but are lost in the vastness and the intricacy of the whole.
Both these nations reflect the essence of their national stories in their national constitutions, with China, in the form of the People’s Republic of China, being an ordered, centralized regime, and India, as the Republic of India, being an almost perennially noisy, often bordering on anarchic, democracy. While the central is strong in China, with all dissent subsumed into the idea of the national, in India it is the local that dominates, with even every central decision having to be translated into almost 30 languages even to be communicated across the length and breadth of the country. Of course, the PRC is not the only country that can fairly claim all of the history of Chinese civilization, just as the Republic of India cannot claim all of the history of the Indian civilization without being challenged. This, however, at the moment would add unmanageable complexity to the question.
From this brief examination, however, it should be clear that every investigation into the present nature of any state should begin, or include comprehensively, and understanding of its long term historical trajectories. No compartment of time or space can be studied in isolation.
(TBC – an ongoing project.)