Friday, February 29, 2008

'Every Unsavoury Separatist is Gloating': Questions About Kosovo

Via Crooked Timber (and also 3QD), there is a learned critique by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in Indian Express, of the recent "engineering" of independence for Kosovo by western European powers and the U.S.

The key paragraph in the argument for our purposes (i.e., with South Asia in mind) might be the following:

In the 19th century, there was a memorable debate between John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton. John Stuart Mill had argued, in a text that was to become the bible for separatists all over, including Jinnah and Savarkar, that democracy functions best in a mono-ethnic societies. Lord Acton had replied that a consequence of this belief would be bloodletting and migration on an unprecedented scale; it was more important to secure liberal protections than link ethnicity to democracy. It was this link that Woodrow Wilson elevated to a simple-minded defence of self-determination. The result, as Mann demonstrated with great empirical rigour, was that European nation states, 150 years later, were far more ethnically homogenous than they were in the 19th century; most EU countries were more than 85 per cent mono-ethnic. (link)

In his Column in Indian Express, Mehta keeps his focus sharply on Kosovo's status within Europe, and also considers the seeming double standard as the Western powers disregard Russian objections to Kosovo's independence, on the one hand, while they go out of their way to accommodate China's (unconscionable) policy on Taiwan, on the other.

But there is obviously a question for South Asia here as well, and India in particular. Mehta briefly alludes to the history of nationalism in the Indian subcontinent when he invokes Jinnah and Savarkar, but his column raises questions for us as we think about the present too -- specifically the questions over the status of Kashmir and Assam (maybe also Manipur and Nagaland, not to mention Punjab in the 1980s).

The debate between Acton and Mill Mehta invokes isn't so much a "conservative" versus "liberal" debate -- John Stuart Mill is considered one of the architects of the philosophy of liberalism, but in this case his views come out as less "liberal" than Acton's. Mill supports thinking of nations as defined by race/ethnicity, but that approach can reinforce ethno-religious differences, rather than leading to an environment where different communities have equal status in a diverse nation. I tend to favor Acton's approach, except perhaps in cases where minority communities face imminent violence, or genocidal suppression.

(Incidentally, Mehta builds his arguments on an essay called "The Dark Side of Democracy" in New Left Review, by Michael Mann; for those who have subscriptions, you can find the article here.)



Blogger Falstaff said...

I have to say that in invoking the multi-ethnic debate Mehta seems to be overlooking the prior conditions behind it. Kosovo's independence is a 'testament' to the failure of Europe to remain multi-ethnic, yes, but it is primarily a consequence of that breakdown, more than it's a contributor to it. I agree that it would be preferable if we could build nations where different communities have equal status and can coexist, but where such nations don't exist, surely minorities have the right to self-determination and be allowed to secede from a nation where they are being suppressed / treated unfairly? Why should the right to succession only be available to those who face imminent violence or genocidal suppression? Why isn't being treated as second-rate citizens enough? It's not a question of disagreeing with Acton, it's a question of asking - what do we do when a multi-ethnic nation fails to form and particular minorities are being treated unfairly? Saying we should continue to work towards equality is fine, but it quickly becomes a convenient way for the majority to perpetuate its oppression. If a majority of the minority community feels their interests aren't being safeguarded (and it's hard to argue that's not true in Kosovo) then what is to be done? Ideally the reigning government would try and convince the minority not to secede (through better representation, not through suppression), but if it failed to do so and they still wanted to break away then surely it makes sense to support their right to do so?

The analogy that comes to mind is divorce. A divorce is a 'testament' to the failure of a marriage, much in the way that Kosovo secession is a testament to the failure of a multi-ethnic society. But that doesn't mean a divorce is a bad thing, or that a trend towards more divorces isn't a positive thing. That marriages are failing is unfortunate, yes, but that people are able to get out of them and escape the oppression involved is to be welcomed.

Of course, Mehta's points about Western double standards and the concentration of global power in US hands are well taken. But personally, it's the US policy on Taiwan I object to, not its policy on Kosovo.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Ruchira Paul said...

Manoj Joshi's recent article in Mail Today is a cautionary tale about similar centrifrugal forces at work in India. And yes, Joshi mentions Flanders, Kosovo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan, a book about highly improbale (but still possible) events.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Mitesh Patel said...

Great Job Guys !! Thanks.

12:27 AM  

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