Social Scientist. v 26, no. 302-303 (July-August 1998) p. 70.


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BOOK REVIEW

Debate On Nation Formation

T.K. Oommen, Citizenship, Nationality and Ethnicity: Reconciling Competing Identities, Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, UK, 1997, pp viii+270.

The owl of Minerva which brings wisdom, only flies out at dusk, said the philosopher Hegel. Historian Eric Hobsbawm has applied the maxim to the burgeoning of serious literature on nationalism as a social and political doctrine. Growing scholarly interest, he has argued, is indication that the phenomenon of nationalism, so fundamental to an understanding of modern history, is now perhaps fading in terms of its influence on social and political life.

Hobsbawm's is a diagnosis that would appear intuitively, to fly in the face of reason. It seemed for long that the mosaic of nation-states that emerged from the Second World War and the subsequent process of decolonisation, would remain immutable and stable. Subsequent events have confounded this early optimism. Arguably, the defining attributes of current global political realities are the contentious clash of ethnicities and the conflicting perceptions of who and what constitute a nation. The 19th century liberal ideologue, Walter Bagehot, had characterised "nation-building" as the distinctive feature of the times he lived in, though simultaneously he also preferred a rather transparent admission of ignorance about what constitutes a nation: "We know what it is when you do not ask us, but we cannot very quickly explain or define it".

That state of ignorance has lost its beguiling comfort. Political campaigns are today crafted exclusively on the claims of various sectional interests to the attentions of the state. The state is in turn, in most parts of the world, in fiscally straitened circumstances, unable to reasonably respond to the various demands that are placed on it. In consequence, the unique claim to legitimacy of the state in complex postcolonial societies - its supposed ability to play the fair and neutral arbiter in all matters involving the potential for conflict between ethnic and cultural



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