The great black American ideologue W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”. I hold that the problem of the twenty first century is the problem of minorities. Let me first clarify what Du Bois had in mind in making his famous statement. He was universalist in his outlook, not tribalist or narrowly nationalist. By the colored he had in mind not only black Americans or black Africans but also the colored peoples of Afro-Asia and of the rest of the world. His prescience was shown by the end of the century. The US was a short way away from having its first black President, the decolonization of the coloured peoples of the world was virtually completed by the mid ‘seventies, China has emerged as a great power, and India is in the process of doing so. The colored peoples of the earth have arisen.
That was part of the process of the wretched of the earth arising. Actually the not-so-wretched of the earth also keep arising, so that we are witnessing a revolutionary process that is going on right across the globe. At this point I must make a clarification of my use of the word “revolution” which the Marxists in particular would regard as illegitimate. Their conception of revolution – or rather the Marxist-Leninist conception – is that after the masses overthrow the bourgeois regime the Marxist-Leninist vanguard Party takes over to complete the revolution. That has led to dystopia practically everywhere it has been tried out. But a revolutionary process has been going on without mass revolution, of which there have been very few in history. For instance, we cannot deny the term “revolutionary” to the enormous changes effected by the feminist movement, but there was no mass revolution behind that. Sri Lanka experienced revolutionary changes during the last century without a mass revolution, and at present we are talking about the January 8 Revolution, quite rightly I think because the entrenching of democracy has to be seen as part of an ongoing revolutionary process.
There are, in my view, two major causative factors behind the continuing global revolutionary process. One is education. Every government of the third world gave importance to the spread of mass education after gaining independence. The consequence is that the aspirations towards a better life by ascending the socio-economic ladder has been widening. Those aspirations start with literacy and primary education and keep widening as the people ascend to the higher levels of education. The second causative factor is the human ability to create wealth. In the traditional society wealth was limited and the best that could be done was to create a low-level equilibrium by meeting the basic needs of the people and not much more than that while the ruling classes and groups enjoyed the surplus. The human ability to create wealth came with the modern industrial society, and with that came widening opportunities for ascent up the socio-economic ladder. Those are the two major factors behind the revolutionary process that are relevant to the problem of minorities in the contemporary world.
So the colored peoples of the earth arose in the course of the last century and ended the overt domination of the colored by the whites which began in the sixteenth century. That was the result of the revolutionary processes that I have outlined above. But the world is far, far indeed from Utopia. The major reason is that the domination and oppression of the colored by the white has been replaced by the domination and oppression of the colored by the colored. That is why today so many of the colored want to emigrate to the white West. In Sri Lanka it is not only the minorities but a substantial proportion of the Sinhalese who want to get the hell out of the Island Paradise and Go West. The truth is that the proclivity to domination and oppression does not recognize the color line. Both colored and whites can behave like utter bastards, but for the time being the Western whites are less prone to do so.
What has gone wrong? Power passed from the hands of the whites to the colored, which was an entirely beneficent process. But it passed into the hands of the colored elites, which could turn out to be a maleficent process because elites can abuse power. More precisely the problem was that power passed into the hands of the colored elites in the form of the nation state, and the problem there was that the nation state inevitably tends to privilege the majority ethnic group. The nation state is a relatively new state formation, just about a couple of centuries old though in some countries it existed in incipient form for centuries. The reason why it tends to privilege the majority ethnic group is that it is based on the concept that on the principle of self-determination a nation is entitled to have its own state, and the nation in practice means the majority ethnic group which usually has the power to lord it over the minorities.
The exceptionally high degree of unity forged by the Western nation states was a major factor behind their exceptionally high achievement levels, which enabled them to dominate the rest of the globe. Understandably after 1945 decolonization took place through the establishment of nation states in Afro-Asia. Practically all of them were multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, so that all of them had to face the problem of creating unity in diversity and a sense of national identity. It was a process that sometimes took centuries for completion in the West. France for instance has forged a high sense of national unity but as late as the French Revolution of 1789 less than half the French people were French-speaking. On the whole the Afro-Asian countries have been failing in achieving the degree of unity characteristic of the Western countries.
The main reason for this failure is the refusal or inability to give fair and equal treatment to the ethnic minorities. What are the implications of that fact? First of all we must take count of the fact that there are very few countries in the world that are ethnically homogeneous, with ethnic minorities that are too minuscule to pose any serious problems. According to one count there are only four such countries, according to another just twelve. Furthermore in many countries the minorities are quite substantial in number, as in Sri Lanka, with the potential to threaten their unity. Taking count of the enormous Muslim minority in India, it appears that the minorities in the world have to be counted by the hundred million. Next we must take into account the revolutionary process that is going on right across the globe, which I have outlined earlier in this article. As education widens and economic opportunities increase, more and more of the ethnic minorities will be demanding the good things of life. It has to be expected that dissatisfied minorities can come to constitute a disruptive and even revolutionary force in the course of this century.
What should be done about the problem of the minorities? It is a huge subject on which I have to be very brief in the concluding part of this article. In principle oppressed minorities should be allowed their own nation states provided they have a legitimate claim to a homeland, meaning a territory to which they are indigenous. But on that principle there will be hundreds of nation states. That is evidently one of the reasons why the international community has refused to recognize the so-called principle of the right of self-determination. Perhaps in a few cases, where everything else has failed and majoritarian oppression is intolerable, the international community should explicitly support and actively promote the setting up of new nation states.
As I have pointed out there is an in-built propensity in the nation state to privilege the dominant ethnic majority. On grounds of equity therefore, bearing in mind the rights of minorities by the hundred million, the proper place for the nation state is in the dustbin of history. But that consummation is not in the offing, and besides in the present phase of history the nation state has its use as a bulwark for small nations against bullying and oppression by the big ones. Perhaps the best that can be done under the circumstances is for the international community to become much more active in promoting the legitimate interests of minorities within the framework of the nation state. That will entail a serious erosion of the sovereignty of nation states – a welcome development surely considering that the racist nation state has been, as in Sri Lanka, an abomination. The starting point in giving the minorities their due should be recognition by the international community that the problem of the twenty first century is the problem of minorities. (Izeth Hussain)
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