Four years ago, I visited Munster and Osnabruck, two historic cities in the German state of Westphalia, to participate in a conference on ‘Paths to Peace through inter-religious dialogue. The conference was hosted by the Community of Sant’Egidio, an organisation inspired by Pope Francis and his vision of a united humanity transcending its religious, racial, national and political diversities. I participate in the conferences of the Community of Sant’Egidio in different parts of Europe each year, but this one in Westphalia had aroused special interest in me.

The name of this German state has a permanent place in world history: this is where the treaty for the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, giving rise to the concept of a modern nation-state, in which each state has exclusive sovereignty over its well-defined territory. The treaty put an end to the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants, which killed nearly 80 million people. In Germany, a third of the population perished. The treaty also ended the century-long struggle between the monarchical appetite of the Holy Roman emperors and the aspirations of the empire’s German princes for autonomy. The Holy Roman Empire, powerless and a pale shadow of its former self, was ultimately dissolved in 1806.

More significantly, for the entire world, the Peace of Westphalia laid the foundation of modern international relations, especially with regard to the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. The Westphalian system provides the legal basis for the United Nations’ recognition of all modern nation-states.

Obsolete Concept

The visit to Germany revived many questions in my mind about the limitations of the concept of a sovereign nation-state. Hasn’t the notion of a nation having absolute sovereignty over a territory, with fixed and inflexible boundaries, become a major hurdle to international unity, fraternity, solidarity and cooperation? Hasn’t the concept of exclusive sovereignty given rise, at least in some countries, to aggressive nationalism, which has become a threat to humanity? If national governments do not become subservient to effective global governance mechanisms on the basis of the norms of global democracy, how can there be durable peace, progress and welfare for all the people in the world?

Another question. Does national sovereignty have the same salience now that digital technologies have shrunk the world into a global village, enabling people across national boundaries to have conversations and interact in multiple ways 24x7? How can national identities have the same rigidities at a time when mobility has helped millions of people migrate to foreign lands and, thus, either change their identities or have multiple identities? Since our world is bound to get more hyper-connected in the future – despite attempts by national governments to erect digital firewalls – should we not rethink the notions of exclusive sovereignty and territoriality?

There is an additional question for countries like India and China belonging to Asian civilisations, which are far older and richer in wisdom than the European civilisation. Why have we allowed our post-1947 Indian/Pakistani states or the post-1949 Chinese state to be shaped by the Westphalian system, and not by the sagacity of our age-old culture? Why have we gotten into this “hamari ek inch bhi zameen nahin denge” mindset? We deploy huge armies equipped with expensive killing machines, and sometimes fight deadly and fruitless wars over boundaries that were drawn arbitrarily (or for their own strategic purposes) by our colonial masters. Instead, should we not, guided by our own shared social, cultural and linguistic histories, adopt innovative concepts like “shared sovereignty” in disputed areas and enable their populations to live peacefully?

A pile photo of soldiers celebrating the success of Operation Vijay in 1999. Credit: DD/Twitter

The artificiality of imposing the Westphalian framework on the Indian subcontinent, and creating modern nation-states with rigid boundaries, has caused unending problems between Afghanistan and Pakistan, between Pakistan and India, between India and China, between India and Bangladesh, and also between Bangladesh and Myanmar. This artificiality and incongruity is clear, for example, even from the etymology of words like rashtra, desh, stan, khand, nadu and mulk. Not only are these words not rigidly defined, but they also have fungible meanings. And it is precisely because they were not rigidly defined that they created room for voluntary associations, unhindered social osmosis and liminal identities.

For example, there is no contradiction in our imagination of India as a rashtra that has a state that calls itself Maharashtra. We have a state named Rajasthan, but also a neighbouring post-Partition nation which chose Pakistan as its name. Bharat Khand is one of the ancient names of India, but now a state in India is called Uttarakhand. Similarly, the word desh never had an exclusive connotation in our history. The area that was once known as Vanga Desh today has Bangladesh in it as a separate nation, but it also includes the Indian Bengal. The Urdu word mulk stands for country. But it is quite common for a migrant worker in Mumbai, when asked “Where is your mulk?”, to reply, “My mulk is UP.” Had Indian nationalism evolved organically, and had our freedom struggle not taken a wrong turn resulting in India getting partitioned in 1947 by an act passed by the British parliament, it is quite likely that ours would have been a united nation comprising multiple sub-nations, some with a very high degree of autonomy, but all living harmoniously.

Uncomfortable Questions

Today we Indians have become chained to the Westphalian system of the nation-state without even being aware of it. Therefore, questioning this system sounds offensive to our pride in our national identity. And those questioning it run the risk of being maligned as “anti-nationals”. Doing so may hurt the nationalist sentiments of people in our neighbouring countries as well. But unless we summon the courage to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions, we will not know what a nation really is and how it should relate to the wider human family.

A major reason for our fear or reluctance to question the concept of the modern nation-state, especially in the context of the Indian subcontinent, is that we have allowed our religious identity to become a marker of our national identity. The first culprit was the poisonous Two-Nations theory propounded by the Muslim League, which led to India’s Partition and the creation of Pakistan as an “Islamic Republic”. The equally toxic theory of India as a “Hindu Rashtra” had gripped the minds of some Hindus even during the freedom struggle. But their number and power has grown considerably now after they have attained parliamentary majority. If they go unchecked and undefeated, and if we allow India’s secular nationalism and social fabric to be destroyed, here is a forewarning: communal politics could plunge India into a fratricidal civil war of the kind that Catholics and Protestants fought in Europe.

The two-nations theory propounded by the Muslim League made religious identity a marker of Pakistan's national identity. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Religion and nationalism are two emotion-charged belief systems in which most people show the greatest unwillingness and stiffest resistance to face questions that they think unsettle their most cherished identity. This is not surprising. After all, human history shows that nothing inspires and impels believers to make the highest self-sacrifice than loyalty to their religion and nationalism. Yet, history also shows that some of the deadliest wars and horrendous acts of violence have been perpetrated by people driven by religious fanaticism and nationalistic zeal. Such narrow-minded fervor has not only created divisions in the human family, but it has also justified deaths and destruction inflicted on those regarded as “others” and “enemies”.

Destructive Notions

To call attention to the destructive role of religion and politics is not to argue that their role in human evolution has been only negative. On the contrary, an objective study of history shows that when their original purpose is positively understood, both religion and nationalism have assisted in humanity’s spiritual, cultural, social and material development. Yet, it is only by questioning and correcting their negatives that we can enhance and enrich their positives.

The corrective process could begin by recognising that the idea of exclusive nationalism, with the fetish of territorial ownership attached to it, is alien to India. For the longest period in its history of over 5,000 years, India has been a civilisational nation, not a nation-state of the western kind. Our civilisation itself was always inclusive and integrative, and had many self-governing states within its geography. The boundaries of these states were not fixed, but fluid. Indeed, they had frontiers, not boundaries. And in many areas, states had shared sovereignty – and not exclusive and absolute sovereignty – much like the gaonthan areas or village commons, which were owned by none but responsibly used by all. Even today there are numerous examples of neighbouring villages sharing village commons without any dispute, or with local and democratic dispute-resolution mechanisms.

Even our freedom movement was never enamoured by the western notion of exclusive nationalism. Rather, it had a very strong humanist and internationalist orientation and urged dispute resolution through dialogue and peaceful means. The greatest proponent of the inseparable link between a Gram (Village) and Vishwa Gram (Global Village) was Mahatma Gandhi himself. His philosophical portrait of life in a future globalised, inter-connected, egalitarian and harmonious world did not resemble a “pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom”. Rather, it would be an “oceanic circle” consisting of “ever-widening, never-ascending circles” with the individual at the centre and extending to the family, the neighbourhood, the village, the nation, and all the way up to the whole world and the universe. “The outermost circumference,” he averred, “will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.” The picture he sketched was one in which “the last is equal to the first or, in other words, no one is to be the first and none the last”.

Internationalists First

The best articulation of India’s humanity-first nationalism can be found in Gandhi’s speech at the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in March-April 1947. “The message of Asia is not to be learnt through the western spectacles or by imitating the atom bomb,” he said, and added, “I must confess to you that I would not like to live in this world if it was not to be one world.” Not many people know that the Mahatma was in favour of a permanent solution to the Kashmir issue by making it a confederal (that is, shared) link between India and Pakistan.

The best articulation of India’s humanity-first nationalism can be found in Gandhi’s words. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Rabindranath Tagore was no less emphatic in cautioning us about the perils of aggressive nationalism. His must-read essay Nationalism in India, written in 1917, was prophetic about the horrors of the two world wars caused by competitive European nationalisms. He wrote: “Nationalism is a cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over the world of the present age…When this idea of the Nation tries to pass off the cult of collective selfishness as a moral duty, it attacks the very vitals of humanity…Where the spirit of the Western nationalism prevails, the whole people is being taught from boyhood to foster hatreds and ambitions by all kinds of means – by the manufacture of half-truths and untruths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other races, and the culture of unfavourable sentiments towards them…”

Harsh words by Gurudev. But they are words of wisdom and warning.

Over 370 years after the signing of the Westphalian Treaty, there is now mounting evidence that our narrow national identities are undermining global cooperation for global welfare. Let us look at the international community’s failure to join ranks and pool all its cooperative resources for tackling five major global challenges. One of these challenges – the public health crisis and the resultant economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic – is so urgent that it is staring us in our face right now. The other four are of longer standing – the problem of global poverty and inequality; regional disputes and conflicts that have remained unresolved for a long time, and can harm the global community if they flare up; the catastrophic threat of climate change to the planet and the planetary population; and the equally cataclysmic danger posed by the stockpile of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

No single nation can adequately address any of these problems on its own. Global challenges require effective global cooperation. Yet, nations, especially big and powerful nations (America, China, India and others), have so far failed to fully rise to the call of humanity to tackle these challenges by maximising their collaborative efforts. Why is this so? A major reason is their refusal to place the needs and imperatives of the larger humanity above their own narrow national interests. This is especially paradoxical in the 21st century. On the one hand, as mentioned earlier, the human family was never so globalised in the past as it has become today, thanks to the revolutionary advances in technology, global trade and unprecedented movement of people all around the world. Yet, on the other hand, people and leaders do not generally identify themselves as global citizens, preferring their nationalism, rather than their humanism, to define their highest identity. This dichotomy can also be seen in India. We often congratulate ourselves by saying that our ancient culture has given the mantra of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam to the world. But when we are confronted with real-world issues, our stand is India First, Humanity Next.

Surely, the time has come to put nationalism within the cage of internationalism. Here, briefly, are five ideas on how this can be done. First, religion must be delinked from a nation’s self-identity, and all nations must grant equal rights and privileges to their citizens without any discrimination on religious, racial or other grounds. Second, the United Nations and its affiliates must be strengthened to perform the duty of effective and democratic global governance. For this, the UN system, especially the UN Security Council, must be reformed and democratised. The UN should also encourage nations to move away from exclusive sovereignty to shared sovereignty and allow multiple identities to their citizens. Third, nations must be prohibited, with the threat of suspension from the UN, from using military force to settle their territorial and other disputes. Simultaneously, all major countries must be asked to drastically curtail their military spending, and eliminate their arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. Fourth, there is an urgent need to strengthen the voice of the common people in all countries on how global affairs should be conducted for the common good of the entire humanity. This task should not be left only to presidents, prime ministers, diplomats and bureaucrats. Fifth, let’s be under no illusion that all this can be accomplished easily.

Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at