(Re)building Nations: A Few Speculations on Roads Not Taken In Asia

Shi Cheng Lim – Singapore

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

(Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken)

This brief essay—extended note, really—proffers a corollary to George Santayana’s remark: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The corollary: to speculate on roads not taken is to explore how our future might avoid the mistakes of our past.

It is a commonplace that a nation is a notion, and it had better be imagined well, lest we get what Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children represents as the miscegenation that created Pakistan and India in 1947. A nation is also a notion that waits intently for its moment in history, lest the opportunity go to waste, as mourned for the Philippines of 1898 by a writer who is part of the select company of authors that deserved but never got a Nobel Prize in Literature: Nick Joaquin (1907-2004). He wrote poignantly of the missed opportunities for new nationhood during the period from 1898 to 1901 when Spanish colonialism was superseded in his country by American neo-colonialism. While Joaquin raises a self-harrowing question about what failed to happen, Rushdie dwells obsessively on what went wrong in what did happen.

One could write entire books on the topic of the roads not taken by history. Here the aim is more modest: what can we imagine happening differently that might enhance our understanding of the fate of new nationhood in the aftermath of modern colonialisms in Asia? I’ve room for two examples. Joaquin broods over the tragic failure of Filipino leadership to grasp independence while the Americans were busy dismantling Spanish control over the Philippines; Rushdie’s treatment of the Partition as the root cause of miscegenation leads to two speculative questions: what if Partition had been done differently? What if it had not been done at all? The two cases exemplify the willingness of the fictionist to walk a road that historians would not wish to tread, and I read them not in a vacuum but through the refractive index of a Singapore that has just commemorated fifty years of trying to realize its own fiction of nation; every process of nation-(re)building traces a path in the palimpsest of continual beginnings: 1898, 1947, 1965, and so on.

First Joaquin. The time 1898; the context: the Spanish-American war. Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain provokes American intervention in the Caribbean, which is echoed at the opposite end of the globe by another intervention, which brings over three centuries of Spanish rule to an abrupt end in the Philippines. Joaquin turns and returns to this point in history for the failure of a dream, and the recession into an indefinite future of a political emancipation that still remains an incomplete project for the Philippines, where successive exploitative regimes have kept the idea of nation from fuller self-actualization.

Joaquin picks on a specific person at a specific moment in the history of his people in a poem titled “Stanzas in memory of General Emilio Aguinaldo,” which was retitled “El Camino Real” in a later and longer version. The first title identifies the man of missed opportunity; the second names the road where the opportunity was missed. Aguinaldo was one of three “accidental heroes,” as Joaquin calls them, of the Filipino struggle for independence. The leader of a militant underground resistance movement known as the Katipunan, he had led a failed attack on the Spanish in 1896, was exiled in 1897 to Hong Kong, and returned in 1898 when the Americans attacked the Spanish. He led the war of independence against US forces, but was tricked and trapped in 1901; conceding, in captivity, his allegiance to the United States, and thus dousing the hope of independence for his people for the next half century.

Joaquin’s poem has the protagonist musing over his defeat. One of his essays from A Question of Heroes (1977) summarizes the point: “Aguinaldo had been given three chances. One was the chance to take Manila by storm before the Americans could land an army […] Another was the chance to stick to his lines […] so that they [the Americans] would be forced to follow the Filipinos into Manila”, and preceding these was the chance he had to make an alliance with the Spaniards well before they worked out a similar alliance against him with the Americans.  For Joaquin, Aguinaldo (like the two other failed heroes of Filipino history, Jose Rizal and Andrés Bonifacio) did not live up to the supreme need of the moment when his destiny called him to a choice that would determine the future of Filipinos. “A single act of Aguinaldo could have startled us into a nation,” laments Joaquin. In its revised form, Joaquin’s poem shifts focus from the man to the literal road not taken, El Camino Real, on which, if Aguinaldo’s forces had marched with gumption, in 1898, they might have taken and held Manila, which was occupied instead by the American troops, which led to Aguinaldo’s downfall three years later. Joaquin’s lament echoes down the years of Filipino nationhood: not just an opportunity lost, but a loss that condemned nationhood to a long deferral.

Turning to Rushdie, we note that the protagonist of Midnight’s Children, like his author, was born in 1947: the year in which the British finally assented to the indigenous demand for independence. At one stroke, they created three nations:  Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka. The creation of a border separating Pakistan from India on the west, and West and East Bengal on the east, was an act of violence in the realm of cartography that produced on the ground a bitter cost in death, displacement and suffering for several million people. The nation was thus badly imagined, blighting relations between Pakistan and India ever since 1947.

What might be the speculative alternatives to what did happen? Here, alas, I’m forced to allude to a mass of detail that the reader has to know or find out: (1) What if Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All-India Muslim League, had not argued successfully with the British for a border that would divide a secular India from an Islamic Pakistan? What if India had been given independence as an undivided nation? Jinnah argued that a Muslim minority, however large, would never get equal treatment in a predominantly Hindu India. M. K. Gandhi acceded reluctantly to this insistence (and was assassinated by a Hindu radical for that reason). Why did the British reject the alternative? Would the fate of an undivided India have been worse than the histories of modern Pakistan and India?  The questions remain open to speculation. When ethnicity or religion provide impetus for divisiveness, nation (re)building has to look hard for ways in which difference might be balanced within commonalty without leading to oppression.

There are many sub-questions to this line of speculation about the Partition of British India: What if Sir Cyril Radcliffe (the Englishman who drew the lines on a map that would separate one nation from another) had been better informed about the need for cartography to correspond more closely with the realities of culture and geography on the ground? That is, what if the Partition had been less benighted in conception and execution? Staying with Partition, what if the enormously influential leader M. K. Gandhi had not supported Partition—would the subsequent violence for the two nations have been less or more? And what if Gandhi had escaped assassination, and remained alive into the 1950s? The book has yet to be written that might engage with such possibilities.

Let me turn to a second line of speculation that arises from Rushdie’s fiction: the manner in which the Indian republic was constituted: by cajoling, persuading, bribing, and coercing an assortment of princely states (also granted independence by the British in 1947) to join the Indian republic, rather than remain independent or join Pakistan. This Herculean task was accomplished almost singlehandedly by one of the leaders of the Indian Congress, Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950). His two main coups in this respect were the forced assimilation of the kingdom of Hyderabad into the Indian republic, and his persuasion of the Hindu prince who ruled over a predominantly Muslim-populated kingdom of Kashmir to sign up on the Indian rather that the Pakistani side of new nationhood. The speculative question comes in here: what if a plebiscite had been held in Kashmir in 1947? The Muslim majority might well have chosen to join Pakistan. Might the history of the two nations have turned out less fractious thereafter?

Such speculative questions may look like self-indulgence, but what they indulge is not futile or pointless if what went wrong in a particular act of imagining might lead future acts of imagining to choose alternative directions, forewarned as much by fictive speculation as by history.

Rajeev Patke is the Director of the Humanities Division and Professor of Humanities at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. Professor Patke studied at Oriel College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1976, went to Yale University on a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1985, and then joined the faculty at the National University of Singapore in 1988.