BELGIUM and THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY

By: Abdul Khalique Junejo.

Holding of general elections and subsequent formation of government, some times coalitions, is just a routine matter and a normal course of life in the countries of Western Europe. But not so in the case of Belgium, the country considered and called to be the ‘Capital of Europe’ since it provides headquarters for European Union and the NATO. The recently held general elections in this tiny country of about 10 millions people made bigger and eye-catching head-lines in the world media; not for any ‘Landside Victory’ but because of a split mandate, a mandate that threatens to split the country. For example the news paper carried the headlines; “Separatists claim victory in Belgian election”. These developments have generated extraordinary interest in this part of the world as many regions /peoples here are encountering the problems of similar nature.

Belgium, being situated between France and Holland, is a bi-lingual country comprising the French-speaking Wallonia people and Flemish-speaking Flanders. For many years the emphasis on the linguistic identity has been on the rise and recently quite vociferous voices have been heard for the dissolution of Belgium and creation of a separate country for the Flemish-speaking people of Dutch origin. New Flemish Alliance, the party advocating for separate country, has emerged as the largest party, not only among the Flanders but in the country as a whole. This has given an exceeding impetus to the demands for the parting of ways between the Flanders and the Wallonia.

Pakistan was created by conjoining of different peoples with their own distinct identity based on history, language and culture. After creation of the new country, these peoples (Bengalis, Sindhis, Balochs etc) started demanding recognition of their identity and asking for the promotion of their culture and language. In response the state-organs used the force of gun and the state-intellectuals used the force of pen to suppress such demands and, instead, promote and impose ‘single identity, single language and single culture’. This ‘strategy’ created strong reaction which manifested itself in the shape of mass movements for the ‘restoration’ of different identities.

One of these movements, Bengali, culminated in the ‘split’ of Pakistan and creation of a new country. Bangladesh while Sindhi and Baloch movements are getting fiercer by the time.

Opponents of these movements, including rulers and some intellectuals, ‘democrats’ and ‘peace activists’ have been forwarding different arguments; some of them just the repetition of old rhetoric and some new ‘inventions’. One such oft-repeated argument has been that “only feudals, reactionaries, anti-progress and anti-development people pursue the path of separate identity”. One of the ‘new-found’ reasoning is that “the world has progressed so fast and so far that the question of separate identity is a thing of the past, no more relevant in the current scenario”, and that “the borders separating different identities are vanishing”. In this regard the case of European Union is forwarded as a ready reference.

The case of Belgium provides proper answer to these arguments and should prove to be an eye-opener for the all concerned. Being one of the smallest, in area as well as population-wise, countries of not only Europe but the whole would, Belgium is one of the highly industrialized countries of Europe. The headquarters of the world’s biggest alliance, NATO, are situated here. And the most important, and the most relevant, of all is the point that Brussels, the capital of Belgium, provides for the seat of European Union which is exemplified as a model for ‘unification’, especially that of South Asia.

That despite all these qualities and qualifications, Belgium is experiencing the stresses and strains of separate identity, based on language, reminds us that human society’s progress is influenced by the forces of nature, and not by the wishes of certain human beings, and has to pass through some unavoidable steps and stages; the separate ‘national’ identity based on language and culture being one of these unavoidables. If followed with sincerity, this natural path of progress might lead to greater human unity. On the other hand artificial efforts made to by-pass this natural process may result in disunity and dissension, even disintegration as there are no short-cuts in the history. The disintegration of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia is sample testimony to the end-result of such man-made efforts to divert the course of history.

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