The Nation State, Decoloniality and the Non-Nation State

legally speaking
The Nation State, Decoloniality and the Non-Nation State

For quite a few decades now, decoloniality has emerged in Latina America as a powerful critique of the Eurocentric or Western-centric nature of the Post-colonial discourse. Broadly, as a construct, decoloniality posits that despite legal and physical decolonization of former colonies, overt and subconscious coloniality:

(a) persists in the State institutions inherited by Post-colonial States;

(b) affects their thinking at the societal level and

(c) manifests itself even at the level of an individual.

In fact, existing scholarly literature on the subject suggests that in Post-colonial states, coloniality was and remains most pronounced in the minds of the Western-educated native ruling elites who continue to view their own societies and cultures through the erstwhile colonizer’s gaze. As a consequence, proponents of decoloniality agree that the entrenchment of its antonym is disturbingly the deepest in the most fundamental and vital aspects of Post-colonial societies, namely production of knowledge, education and legal systems. Not only does this affect the native society’s view of and attitude towards its own history, it perpetuates the perception that all knowledge and the very notion of modernity must necessarily be traced to the West, whose validity and universality are beyond any degree of scrutiny, and in any case beyond the native’s scrutiny.

In order to enable and empower the native voice, identity, beliefs, tradition and system of epistemology, decoloniality challenges the dogmatic Western-centric approach whose unspoken religious zeal could be arguably traced to or at least partly attributed to Christian Europe of the Middle Ages. Clearly, decoloniality represents the resistance of the native to Western epistemological imperialism.

One of the most visible yet inadequately understood consequences of Western epistemological imperialism a.k.a coloniality, is the idea of a “nation state”. What is unsurprising yet unfortunate is its near-universal acceptance as the litmus test for proving the legitimacy of the Statehood aspirations of a nation, meaning people. In other words, if a people do not qualify as a “nation” as defined by the West, they cannot aspire for the only form of political organization currently acceptable to the West, namely the nation state. While no single, static and academic definition can do justice to any transient historical phenomenon, the approximate definition of a nation that has been applied in the context of a nation state is a group of people who are bound by conscious cultural homogeneity and who share aspirations of statehood.

In a nutshell, under this definition, the requirement of cultural communion as a nation precedes the political aspiration of statehood. Needless to say, the universality of the cultural prerequisite to the idea of a nation state is expected to be acknowledged and accepted without challenge by all “civilised” nations. The proof of their “civilised” nature lies in their acceptance of the Western framework without demurrer.

Pertinently, the concept of a nation and the birth of a nation state, without applying the filter of decoloniality, have been traced by the West to the Peace Treaty of Westphalia entered into in 1648 that marked the closing phase of the European Middle Ages. This origin story explains the interchangeable use of the nation state and the Westphalian state. The Treaty was intended to bring an end to the largely Christian denominational wars waged in Europe after the advent of Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s. The nation state is presumed to be the product of assertion of secular sovereignty by Christian “nations” of Europe to loosen the vice-like grip of the Church. This, in turn, weakened the glue that held together that continent in the Middle Ages, namely Latin and Christendom. By the turn of the 19th Century, Europe was tearing at the seams owing to the exothermic and implosive nature of its nationalism which had degenerated into expansionism, imperialism, colonialism and racism, in the process threatening the peace and stability of the rest of the world. 

It is these purportedly universal yet Eurocentric history-driven definitions of a nation, a nation state and their much-maligned progeny, nationalism, that have been applied to the Indian society since before its Independence, to question its organic nature, as well as the legitimacy of its statehood. The commonly hurled allegation is that there was never an “Indian nation” to begin with prior to the arrival of the colonisers. Therefore, the Indian State, it is alleged, is artificial and has been forcibly stitched together much against the centrifugal impulses of a diverse group of peoples or nations, who have never existed as a single nation and remain incapable of doing so. In other words, according to this Westernised school of thought, both the synthetic Indian nation and the Indian State came into existence only on August 15, 1947 owing to the benevolent act of the colonisers, namely the Indian Independence Act of 1947.  

The native school of thought, while refuting this position, claims that the Indian nation has existed for millennia. However, the flaw in the native approach is that it rarely challenges the unwarranted application of Euro-normative terms and definitions to India. Even when this school of thought manages to raise an objection to non-indigenous lexicon being applied to India, it acutely lacks a rigorous framework within which it can present its case for Indian Statehood without having to satisfy Eurocentric criteria. It is in this backdrop that decoloniality presents itself as a prima facie viable framework to understand and critique the Eurocentric approach to the Indian society and the Indian State. Importantly, decoloniality could throw up more authentic and indigenous alternatives to the divisive and equally colonial Left-Right binary.

Critically, decoloniality as a framework could provide indigenous and original rationale for the legitimate attempts of the Indian society and its State to reclaim their identities, including from a Constitutional perspective. This, therefore, requires India to answer the following pertinent questions- if India rejects the Eurocentric definitions of a nation and a nation state, does it have its own definitions for the said terms? If not, does it subscribe to the idea of a “non-nation state”? If yes, is India then a civilisational state? The author will attempt to address these and similar questions in the next piece.

(J. Sai Deepak is an Advocate practising before the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Delhi.)