India was also a real country before the British colonized it, whereas Iraq was a colonial contrivance from the outset. ~Fred Kaplan
Keeping the human losses of the Partition in mind as many throw around ideas of how to decentralise or partition Iraq is something worth doing, and much of Kaplan’s article makes for interesting reading, but I had to marvel at this statement. Which India does Kaplan mean? I don’t object to making distinctions between polities that have meaning for their inhabitants and those that have little or none–this is a significant difference between what we can call “artificial” states and “real” ones. It is the difference between largely fictitious, failing states, such as Bosnia or Somalia, and more “real,” successful ones, such as a Slovenia or a Thailand. Of course, it is important to recognise that all modern nation-states are to some extent founded on the ruin and death of other even more real countries that they gobbled up and suppressed, but even so there are nation-states today that actually have meaning for their citizens and many that mean next to nothing at all. At some point, every nation-state is a contrivance and something imposed, because it seeks to unify any number of polities and peoples who have previously not identified or united with one another. A crucial difference between successes and failures may be related to who is engaged in the contrivance. With Iraq, the contrivance was largely introduced from outside, the product of gutting the Ottoman Empire and the need for an additional place on which to fob off another Hashemite on the locals. In India’s case, the contrivance was less sudden, slightly less arbitrary and done with the participation of more of the people. A longer experience of empire had fashioned a greater sense of identity and solidarity than could have been the case in Iraq.
Still, Kaplan is attributing a pre-existing “reality,” unity and identity to “India” that certainly did not extend across all or even much of what is today’s India. This may seem to be tangential to the main argument, but it is actually the crux of the issue. What makes a state “real” and how it becomes “real” (i.e., able to inspire loyalty and something with which its members identify) are the two basic questions for Iraq today.
It is significant that the modern nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is heavily, though not exclusively, North Indian in its definition of Hindutva and in its electoral support. The preeminent place of the Hindi language is also representative of the connection between North Indian culture and the definition of national identity. (Hochdeutsch played a similar role in unified Germany, and likewise the Tuscan dialect in Italy.) While it is possible to speak of a shared Indian civilisation in which all of the Subcontinent (including Pakistan) participates, I think it goes too far to say that ”India” was a “real country” in the way Kaplan means it. In a political sense, and as a matter of the self-identification of people living there, it was no such thing. “India” was mostly an administrative fiction or more appropriately, as Metternich might have put it, a geographical expression in, say, 1800.
The regions, polities, cultures and communities with which people identified (and this is true of so many places) were not on such a grand, abstract scale. This is normal, and it even applied to our own country in the nineteenth century. Our country, which Kaplan might grant possessed a certain reality, was a number of countries and a number of states bound together in a political federation. In India, colonial-era railways served and increased political centralisation and more closely connected different parts of the Subcontinent; the shared experience of colonial domination also helped to forge a political-national identity across communities and regions. Arguably, the numerous, more “real” countries of the Subcontinent were subordinated to the construction of a nation-state, which follows to some extent the model of modernisation and centralisation in Germany and Italy.
It is true that the Mughals ruled over an expansive stretch of the Subcontinent prior to the arrival of the EIC (and it was a stretch that continued to expand up through the late eighteenth century), and it is true that the last Mughal emperor became a symbolic figurehead associated with nascent anti-colonialist “nationalism” during the Mutiny, but there are large parts of modern India (much of the Deccan, for example) where Mughal writ never ran (and where British influence took longer to be established). Political fragmentation and weakness (the Peacock Throne didn’t up and leave Delhi on its own!) were the norm prior to colonisation, and it was the centralising, organising activity of British colonialism that created an administrative unit out of a number of very different regions, cultures, languages and polities. Colonisation brought about administrative and political unification of a number of countries and states (which, I would hasten to add, are also not the same things), and also created the conditions for the forging of something closer to a shared identity. There are two ways to look at this question: either the British colonisers stayed too briefly in Africa and the Near East to achieve the same results that they did in India, or they did tremendous violence to the many more “real” places and polities out of which they created what became India and Pakistan. As the violent history after Partition suggests, war has a major role in building up nation-states as “real” states and inculcating shared national identity (which is why so many nationalists are typically very favourably disposed towards war, as they see it, to some extent correctly, as a glue for a variety of peoples who might otherwise see fewer and fewer reasons to remain in political union).