Citizens, Nations And State

imagesBy Rajasingham Narendran –

Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

“As all men have a right- to be free, so all nations have a right to live freely. However, the larger nations whose freedom is secure still tend to consider freedom a privilege to which they are entitled. This is why even when the ‘threat’ to the ‘free world’ is mentioned, only the still free nations come to mind and silence covers the enslaved, their freedom not being a matter of concern. Not genocide alone is the shame of our century! Equally shameful is the silence of the world which call itself ‘Free’,  ‘the closing of eyes’ ( and of consciences too) in the face of this genocide. If we consider other centuries, we can agree that always those who were free tended not to notice those who were oppressed by slavery. Because of this, in all ages the consciousness of freedom has glowed most clearly among the enslaved. Fate has determined that we, the enslaved of all nations, testify to freedom in this age. A free nation in an independent State such is the authentic nationality principle, and such is our ideal” (Juozas Girnius)

The terms Country and State are synonymous and both apply to self-governing political entities. A nationhowever, is a group of people who share the same culture but do not have sovereignty. A state with the ‘s’ in lower case, constitutes a part of a whole country, with limited self-governing powers. Citizens are free and thus have freedom when they can lead a life of their choice;  are free to choose their leaders; are treated equally, justly and with dignity in a State that functions within just laws; and within the parameters of a constitution that guarantees his/her rights on the basis of universally acceptable civilizational norms.

What makes an independent State are: Has permanent residents; has absolute sovereignty over its territory; has organized economic activity that regulates foreign and domestic trade and issues money; has a transportation network for moving goods and people; has an education system; has recognition from other independent States.

A nation is a group of homogenous people- community who share the same culture, language, institutions, religion, and history- usually a group of people larger than a tribe or community. Territorially is not a necessary precondition, although it provides a necessary pre-requisite for sharing power within a State. When a nation of people has an independent State of their own it is called a nation-state. There are nations with States and nations without States (Kurds & Tamils). France, Germany, Egypt and Japan are nation-States. Canada and Belgium are States with two nations. The USA is called a nation-state, because of the shared American ‘ culture’ , despite it being a multicultural society. The Tamils of Indian origin working in the plantations in the hill country in Sri Lanka were a stateless people until J.R.Jayewardene finally resolved the issue.

In Sri Lanka, we are even after 68 years independence and a prolonged civil war fought across an ethnic divide, yet have not resolved the issue whether we should be a multiethnic State expressing its identity through forging a ‘Sri Lankan Culture’- Not Sinhala, not Tamil and not Muslim- that transcends our diverse ethnic identities or whether we will be a country or a State with two nations, with shared values and vision.  Sri Lanka, would never be stable if the Sinhala nation stamps its identity as the State identity to the detriment or degradation of the Tamil nation identity- an act that will not recognize the multicultural nature of the country.  On the other hand, the Tamils who have the pre-requisite of a territorial presence, demand they be recognized as a distinct nation within a united, but not unitary Sri Lanka and have devolved powers to manage their affairs in parts of the country where they are a territorial majority.

I set out to explore what the various terms and issues mean in a universal and philosophical plane. This essay is the result of that effort.  I have borrowed thoughts, words and sentences from various sources and authors to give form to this essay, though the nature of the medium in which I want to publish this essay, have prevented me from referencing them, as I would have in an academic publication.

The American Foundation of Lithuanian Research reviewed the concepts of nation and national loyalty in a study published first in 1961. It highlights that a community is something spontaneously formed, an innate group, while an organization is a group consciously formed for the sake of definite ends. A community exhibits organic relationships, an organization mechanical relationships. However, it recognizes that the distinction between communities and organizations does not distinguish two kinds of groups, but rather, the different kinds of relationships which we find in groups. The interplay between the Sinhala community and the JVP, and between the Tamil community and the LTTE would be apt examples of such a situation.

It identifies the concept that a nation is primarily a community of culture. A common perceived race (in our case ethnic identity), way of life, and history, all help to form nations and solidify national ties. However, national ties can exist where any one or more of these elements is/are lacking. Thus a common culture is the basic foundations of a nation.  Further, it emphasizes that the ties that bind the individual person to his nation are moral ties. A person ought to be loyal and love his nation. While in exile, national loyalty in particular becomes a moral task. These obligations hold regardless of the outcome. This seen quite explicitly in the Tamil Diaspora. More over a community in exile may become extinct in a few years. However, this fact apparently makes no difference to moral obligations felt. The moral task likely is not to foresee the future, but to create it.

What relations hold together the members of a nation? The answer is a nation is a group of the communal type, while the State is a formal organization. The distinction between community and organization helps also to distinguish nations from States.  A nation is a group of the communal kind, for its members are held together by communal ties. It unifies its members congenitally and internally, not formally and not for some definite purpose. In a double sense, a nation is an innate or a spontaneous community. It is first of all in the sense that by ourselves, from birth, we attach ourselves to the appropriate nation. Birth within a family is at the same time birth within a nation. We do not select this nation (Does Karma?) or that nation consciously, but from the very beginnings of consciousness we grow in the nation of our parents and are members of it. In a second sense a nation is an innate or unfounded community because it grows by itself and it is not established for a purpose.

A nation is formed in the course of history by a common life, which brings about a common life-style, a common language, common attitudes, and convictions. A nation is a ‘Result’. A nation is a ‘global society’ because it is a unity of a global kind, uniting the whole life of its members (eg: The Tamil Diaspora and the various organizational manifestations of it). A nation does not keep count of its members and does not bind them with a formal code. However, various members exert their influence on others, when their thoughts echo in the minds and hearts of their nation, wherever they may live.

Benedict Anderson in 1983 said, “ In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community- imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”  Another interesting definition I came across was that “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” This implies that ‘true communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact are imagined  The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations.  It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. It is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that made it possible, over the past two centuries, for millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings

In the case of the State, the opposite is true. A State is an organization, in its true sense. It is not the product of the natural course of living, but a creature of man’s thoughts and will. NATIONS ARE A MATTER OF BIRTH, BUT STATES, A MATTER OF CONTRACT.  They are not necessarily incompatible. On the contrary, what is incompatible with nature cannot be brought by contract. The State also benefits man’s social nature: social life is impossible without some order, and order needs a State to maintain it. However, it is man himself who has to develop the ways which would make possible a meaningful life. They were created not naturally by birth, but by man himself. For this reason, we can date the founding and fall of States by explicit acts. At the same time, it is almost impossible to date the rise and fall of nations. Nations are not the result of actions but processes occupying longer periods of time. The nation and the State can also be distinguished by another factor. A nation is a historically formed community of a common language, a common way of life, common customs and so on. But the form of a State, since a State is something produced by man undergoes change. The Greek city-State (Polis) differed from the Roman Empire. The feudal States of the ‘Middle Ages’ differed from the democratic States of the present age. A nation is a fact and there is no reason for wishing that it be different. But a State is subject to normative criteria and hence has to be always open to criticism which seeks better solutions.

A State is for a specific purpose for which it was made and reflects the natural relatedness of its members as in the case of a nation. The purpose provides the norm for evaluating States.  The purpose of the State is to maintain order and execute justice in the territory within its jurisdiction –the whole of Sri Lanka in our case- watch over the welfare of all its citizens and guarantee their freedom. This purpose involves a variety of functions: to defend the country against external enemies, to guarantee internal security, to watch over the economy of the country, its finances, transportation and so on. To carry out these functions, a government has to be formed, which represents the State. Since it must organize the country, the State itself is a formal organization: it has its leaders, the ‘head of State’, in charge of a complex government apparatus and representing the State. Membership in a nation is a fact of nature or birth, but membership in a State is a formal question determined by the votes of the citizens in a democracy. No external agency can take away one’s nationality, but citizenship can be constricted, repudiated or revoked.  However, governments can be changed by the citizens through their vote or through popular resistance.  Although devised to be just, the State can become unjust, arbitrary, corrupt and brutal. The unity of a nation is based upon the natural relatedness of its members and their solidarity, not on legal definitions.  Aristotle said of the State, “Justice which unites in itself the whole of morality, is a matter for the State.”

Nations and States should not coincide.  There are nations whose members belong to a number of States- Diaspora, and there are States that have several nations within their jurisdiction-Sri Lanka and India. There are nationalities holding diverse citizenships.  Nationality means membership in a nation and does not change no matter what country a person may be driven into by fate. Citizenship is membership in a State. Citizenship obliges one to be loyal to a specific country and its system of government, but it does not change the human being himself. If the idea of a State is born in a national community, this is only because the State provides the circumstances.

In a formal legal sense the political body- the State- is the sum total of citizens. All citizens must be equal before the State in the same unconditional way that moral norms hold for everybody equally. Thus, the distinction between a body politic and a nation should be understood. The duty of a State is to watch over all its citizens equally and create the conditions that accommodate the needs of individual citizens and the nations within its jurisdiction. Every State in fact, is based upon the concept of a larger all-encompassing nation, even when the State contains several nations.  With few exceptions, as history (particularly in Sri Lanka) vividly testifies, the OTHER nations within do not live freely, but are more or less repressed. The longing for freedom gives rise to the idea of the nation-State.

The deaths that result from the clash between nationalisms, bring us face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history generate such colossal sacrifices? The answer probably lies in the cultural roots of nationalism.