Nation and Nationalism in South Asia

T Oommen. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

The nationalism of South Asia analysed in this chapter could be referred to as anti-colonial, geographical, linguistic, religious, secular, territorial and Third World, and derivatively South Asia has different types of nations. To complicate matters, the six South Asian countries which I subject to analysis vary enormously in terms of their size, socio-cultural features, developmental levels, type of political system and the like, which impinge on the process of nation formation and the crystallization of nationalism in them.

Religious and linguistic identities directly shape the national fabric and nationalism in South Asia as elsewhere. Even in this context the variations between the South Asian countries are substantial. An examination of the data presented in Table 36.1 reveals that all six South Asian states have one dominant religion but none is mono-religious. It may be noted here that all the countries of South Asia, except India, have enclosed their dominant religion as their state/national religion.

The situation with regard to language is more complex. In India and Pakistan, only 40 and 48 per cent respectively speak the most numerically dominant language. While India has 24 official languages, in Pakistan only Urdu, the mother tongue of less than 8 per cent of its citizens, is recognized as the official language, because of its attributed association with Islam in the subcontinent. Except India, only Sri Lanka has recognized a second official language.

By recognizing only one religion as the state/national religion and only one language as official, four out of six South Asian states have adopted the collectivistic-ethnic idea of nation wherein the fusion of citizenship and nationality is the ideal. If one were to go by available empirical evidence, this does not augur well for the full flowering of democracy. Sri Lanka by recognizing two languages as official languages opted for a bi-national state and India by recognizing 24 languages as official has opted for a multinational state. Thus the notions of citizenship and nationality are conceptually differentiated. The merit of this arrangement is that common citizenship becomes an instrument of equality and the recognition of different nationalities (linguistic groups) provides the anchorage for secular identity, that is, an identity neutral to religious affiliations.

While the Sri Lankan and Indian model approximates the individualistic-civic idea on nation, it goes beyond it in that the nation is not conceived as a collective of sovereign individuals but as a collective of culturally distinct units having reciprocal and interdependent economic and political involvement. This model provides for the legitimacy of collective/group rights within sovereign states. Such an arrangement is conducive for the co-existence of political federalism and cultural pluralism (cf. Greenfeld and Chirot 1994: 79-130).

Conceptualizing Nation and Nationalism

Broadly speaking, one can identify seven ways in which nation has been defined in the Indian subcontinent. These are: (1) ancient civilizational entity; (2) composite culture; (3) political entity; (4) religious entity; (5) geographical/territorial entity with a specific cultural ethos; (6) a collection of linguistic entities; and (7) unity of great and little nations. The first three of these are specifically pre-partition conceptualizations. The fourth initiated the impulse of partition, achieved that objective and has continued to provide a source of legitimacy to Pakistan and Bangladesh. The fifth, sixth and seventh conceptualizations largely belong to the post-partition period. However, it is important to note that these conceptualizations did not always surface in the order in which they are listed; some of these co-existed and competed for legitimacy.

Radhakumud Mookerji (1914) had asserted the essential unity of India based on natural geography, an ancient pan-Indian Hindu culture, economic self-sufficiency and the interdependence of its constituent regions. Further, he had alluded to the ‘national’ consciousness, which had become a ‘settled habit of thought’ since ancient times. In the same vein, a quarter of a century later Beni Prasad (1941) referred to India’s ‘geographical wholeness’ and her ‘urge to political unification in defiance of vast distances and immense difficulties of transport and communication.’

If geography had been the basis of constituting nations, there would have been only a handful of them in the world and quite a few would not have emerged at all. The reference to Hindu culture as the element that provides the essential unity implies (a) that the time-referent is prior to Muslim and British intrusion/intervention, (b) and that the contributions of the Muslims and the British are largely ignored and/or they are treated as aliens, (c) that they ‘disturbed’ the unity of India that was provided by Hindu culture, and (d) that religion is a necessary element in the conceptualization of nation and national identity. The reference to the ‘urge for political unification’ implies that a nation is a united political entity, comprising of one dominant religious collectivity.

The two writers, Mookerji and Prasad, are mistaking civilizations for nations although the former is a much broader entity compared to the latter. Generally speaking, several nations and/or states co-exist within a civilizational region. Second, ‘natural geography’ or religion are both not necessary conditions for a nation to emerge and exist. Third, a nation is essentially a cultural entity and it is not natural for a nation to establish its own state, as is widely believed.

Those who describe India as a composite culture emphasize the fusion of Hinduism and Islam, as against the distinctiveness of Hindu culture. This fusion, a product of conflict and synthesis, although an ancient tendency, is believed to have intensified with the Muslim conquest. ‘As soon as the first waves of conquest, plunder and desecration had spent themselves, there began the operation of the forces, inherent in human nature, which interknit contacts into conational wholes and transform plurality into community’ (Prasad 1941: 8). Tarachand (1963) graphically described the efforts of Kabir, the saint-poet, to fuse Hinduism and Islam; Humayun Kabir (1955) referred to Emperor Akbar’s effort at creating a syncretic religion as the first conscious attempt to establish a ‘secular state.’

The Muslim ‘conquest’ provides the salient point in Indian history to those describing India as a composite culture. In contrast, those who describe India as an ancient Hindu culture and civilization consider the Aryan ‘advent’ as marking the beginning of Indian history. For both, pre-Aryan culture either did not exist, or if it did, it was a ‘low culture’ contributing nothing to ‘Indian culture.’ Thus, this conceptualization ignores the pre- and non-Aryan peoples (the Dravidians, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) who together constitute nearly 50 per cent of the population of India. If Hinduism provides the essential content of Indian nationalism, as per the first mode of conceptualizing India, according to the second mode it is the fusion of Hinduism and Islam that provides content to Indian nationalism.

In retrospect it would seem that the very characterization of Indian culture as composite was a political project intended to avert the partition of India. Despite the nobility of intention, the project failed and in the process another conceptualization, namely, the ‘two-nation theory,’ got wide currency. Compositeness implies assimilation and fusion, and hence is the very antithesis of pluralism, which instead is the celebration of diversity in order to facilitate the co-existence of cultures, in spite of their distinctiveness. The ‘synthetic’ view had its predictable consequences; the Indian ‘nation’ came to be viewed as a political entity; state and nation became interchangeable. In characterizing the Indian ‘nation’ as a fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures the reference was to a civilizational entity, a vast continent inhabited by one-quarter of humanity.

During the colonial era the nationalist expectancy was visualized primarily in political terms. The ‘nation’-to-be was conceived as a community of would-be citizens; the thrust of the anti-colonial struggle was to transform subjects into citizens. But as the dismantling of colonialism became imminent, this disjuncture between state and nation should have been squarely recognized and an appropriate reorientation in conceptualization should have been effected. But this was not to be. Consequently, in the post-partition subcontinent state and nation became synonymous notions.

Even Indian Marxists, who conceptualize India as a multinational state, do not maintain a clear distinction between state and nation. For A. R. Desai a nation is an entity consisting of economic, political and cultural elements. Almost everything, from the development of agriculture, to religious reforms, to the emancipation of women is viewed as the expression of ‘nationalism’ (see Desai 1948: 382-7). While the existence of nationalities, that is, linguistic collectivities, is recognized, some of them are seen as ‘dormant,’ others ‘wakened’ and yet others moving from the dormant to the wakened stage (1948: 387-90). Such a characterization of the Indian ‘nation’ and ‘nationality’ is problematic because it postulates a hierarchy among Indian nationalities.

Although the ‘two-nation’ theory was the one to gain wide currency, in fact three religious communities (Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) had explicitly invoked religion as the basis of nation, admittedly for different reasons. In 1940, M. A. Jinnah, the then president of the Muslim League observed: ‘The history of 1,200 years has failed to achieve unity and has witnessed, during the ages, India always divided into Hindu India and Muslim India’ (1960: 161). Basing himself on this view he asserted that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations and demanded a separate ‘homeland’ for the Muslim ‘nation.’ The fact that the majority of Indian Muslims were converts from Hindu castes and tribes did not improve the standing of the neo-convert Muslims in the Hindu social structure (1960: 230). Viewed in this perspective, the movement for Pakistan was aimed at equality for Muslims in the subcontinent and indeed it overshot its target!

Those invoking Hinduism as the basis of the Indian nation were more explicit in their advocacy. The statements of Golwalkar were the clearest and sharpest in this regard. For him the basic divide was between believers in the religions of Indian origin—Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism—and believers in religions that had originated outside India, like Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and the Baha’i faith. Those professing religions of Indian origin were insiders and nationals while all others were outsiders and aliens, expected to reconcile themselves to a subordinate position or agree to be assimilated. He held:

The non-Hindu people in Hindustan must learn to either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture … may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges not even citizen rights. In this country, Hindus alone are national, and Muslims and others, if not actually anti-national, are at least outside the body of the nation. (Golwalkar 1939: 55-6)

There are several difficulties with this position. Let me list just three. First, there is no Hindu language; Hindus are drawn from several speech communities. Second, the notion of a Hindu race is a howler. Third, this position is utterly undemocratic.

For both Jinnah and Golwalkar national reconstruction meant reappropriation of an appropriate past. For the Hindus this meant ancient Indian culture and civilization, with the Gupta Age being regarded as the golden age of India and Chandra Gupta Maurya as the ideal emperor. For the Muslims the golden age was the medieval period when they had been the rulers of India. Both the Hindus and the Muslims had to invent and construct tradition and history.

The third religious collectivity in India that defines itself as a nation is the Sikhs. The demand for a separate Sikh ‘nation’ was first articulated in 1946, but a majority of the Sikhs preferred to stay with India. Sikh demands were not feasible because in the Indian Punjab, where they are concentrated, the Sikhs constituted a mere 33 per cent. In spite of the fact that the Hindu-Sikh interaction was intense and included intermarriages, an essential wedge existed between them. The popular belief that the Hindu-Sikh divide is recent, and is the handiwork of a handful of crafty politicians, militants and terrorists, is not exactly correct. Khushwant Singh, an acknowledged ‘secularist,’ writes: ‘The only chance of survival of the Sikhs as a separate community is to create a state in which they form a compact group, where the teaching of Gurumukhi and the Sikh religion is compulsory, and where there is an atmosphere of respect for the traditions of their Khalsa forefathers’ (1966: 305; the reference to ‘a state’ is not to a sovereign state but to a province within a federal set-up).

The untenability of conceptualizing India (which at the time included the Pakistan and Bangladesh of today) as a nation by invoking religion was understood by a few, for example, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya (see Pandey 1990:212) and Lala Lajpat Rai (see Nagar 1977: 175). But Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi articulated it with greater clarity:

If the Hindus believe that only Hindus should people India, they are living in dreamland. The Hindus, the Mohammedans, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen … In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India. (1938: 49)

If religion is not a necessary element in nation formation, what are the essential attributes of a nation? All available facts and experiences suggest that the two most critical elements in nation formation are territory and language. These could be ancestral or adopted. Thus if a people have a common homeland and if they have and/or adopt a common language they could become a nation. Such an effort was made and is being pursued in India.

The Indian practice clearly indicates that all major linguistic collectivities with a territorial base are deemed to be culturally distinct entities, that is, nations/nationalities, although these terms are not acceptable to most. The Indian National Congress endorsed the idea of creating administrative units based on linguistic homogeneity as early as 1921. In 1928 the Jawaharlal Nehru Report acknowledged the desirability of creating linguistic provinces. Although as Prime Minister Nehru accepted the principle underlying linguistic provinces on 27 November 1947 in the Constituent Assembly, the mobilization by linguistic collectivities was perceived as a threat to the ‘nation’ (that is, to the state) and was labelled as chauvinist, parochial and ‘anti-national.’ But after this initial resistance and ambivalence, the States Re-organization Commission was appointed in 1955. The Commission did by and large uphold the principle of a language-based administrative reorganization of India, which in effect is a vindication of the definition of nation as a linguistic collectivity with a territorial base. The Indian experience also demonstrates that if nations are conceded a certain level of politico-administrative autonomy within a federal setup they may not demand separate sovereign states; the coterminality between nation and state is not axiomatic. In fact, most Indian nations have renounced the idea of having their own sovereign states.

There has been a tendency among some authors to refer to tribal and linguistic collectivities as sub-nations or ‘little’ nations. In this strand of thinking, the ‘little nations’ and their nationalism are juxtaposed to the great Indian nation and its nationalism. Thus ‘great nationalism,’ according to Guha, emerged in the colonial context as the ideology of the pan-Indian big bourgeoisie which was eager to capture an appropriate share of the growing market in India. The big bourgeoisie perceived an Indian state more conducive to meeting its aspirations and establishing the hegemony of Indian capitalism. On the other hand, the ‘little nationalism’ emerged as the ideology of the regional small bourgeoisie, the regional middle classes, who feared competition not only from the middle classes of other regions but also from the pan-Indian big bourgeoisie. Thus, the ideology of little nationalism is oriented to the exclusive control of regional markets by the respective middle classes (see Guha 1979: 455-8; 1982: 2-12).

N. K. Bose (1941:188-94) discussed what he terms sub-national movements among tribes, which are, according to him, typically characteristic of economically backward communities in new nations, initiated by the emerging elite to subserve their interests and aspirations. Roy Burman (1971: 25-33) goes a step further and distinguishes between proto-national and sub-national movements among tribes. Proto-national movements emerge when tribes experience a transformation from ‘tribalism’ to nationalism; it transcends tribalism. In contrast, sub-nationalism is initiated by an accul-turated tribal elite to cope with the disparities of development. In sub-nationalism the ultimate sanction is the coercive power of the community; in proto-nationalism it is primarily the moral consensus of the community which is the motive force.

All the authors who refer to sub- or little nationalism endorse the view that India is a nation but what they mean by nationalism varies according to individual perceptions. For Guha, the battle between the two nationalisms—great and little—is motivated by economic considerations. However, no nation or nationalism can emerge and exist exclusively on this basis. In contrast, proto-nationalism is trans-tribal whereas sub-nationalism is intra-tribal, both being anchored in the problematic of identity; the first in transcending and the second in reinforcing it. But there are several movements which are inter-tribal (for example, the Jharkhand movement) and geared simultaneously to economic development, political autonomy and cultural identity. Bose’s contention that sub-nationalism is a characteristic feature of backward groups and a mere manifestation of manipulations by an elite is too rash an evaluation.

The fact is that several nations are vivisected across South Asian states: the Tamils between India and Sri Lanka, the Bengalis between India and Bangladesh, the Nagas between India and Myanmar (Burma), the Punjabis and the Kashmiris between India and Pakistan. While these collectivities have a common nationality, their citizenship differs.

Having briefly reviewed the different modes of conceptualizing the ‘nation’ in South Asia, it is necessary to indicate which of these conceptualizations are proximate, if not entirely isomorphic, with its social reality. While there has existed and perhaps there continues to exist a South Asian civilization, the territory that this civilization encapsulates now hosts several states. The frame of reference of those who refer to India as a civilizational entity is the Indian subcontinent. Admittedly, independent India constitutes only a part of this civilizational region. One cannot and should not substitute the part, even if it is a substantial and significant part, for the whole. Further, the effort to equate South Asian civilization with Hindu civilization is unsustainable because it ignores the nativity of non-Hindu groups and underestimates their contribution to this civilization.

However, language and tribe have been accepted as the bases to constitute administrative units, thereby investing them with a degree of legitimacy. This in effect means that linguistic and/or tribal collectivities with a firm territorial base are implicitly recognized as ‘nations.’ But, some of the linguistic collectivities and tribes which are viable ‘nations’ are denied the possibility of maintaining their cultural identity because of state policy and the hegemonic tendencies of the bigger nations.

The utility of a concept depends on its ability to come to grips with the empirical reality it intends to capture. A meaningful conceptualization of nation and national identity in South Asia should combine several elements identified in the different modes of conceptualizations that I have listed. First, South Asia is home to a long and enduring civilization, which was earlier referred to as the Indian civilization. Second, this civilizational region now hosts several states and some of these states are divided into administrative units with a certain level of cultural specificity and political autonomy. Third, the states have jurisdiction over clearly demarcated territories; disputes, if there are any, will have to be settled satisfactorily on the basis of agreed principles. In turn, some of these states (India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) should be viewed as collectives of linguistic groups, quite a few of which are large and firmly anchored to specific territories. The people of these linguistic collectivities cognise the territory to which they are attached as their ancestral homelands. That is, they are nations—products of fusion between territory and culture (see Oommen 1997). Even though nations, most of them, do not aspire to become sovereign states, they are state-renouncing nations. They only insist on having a certain level of administrative and fiscal autonomy. In the final analysis, South Asian states should be viewed as collectives of nations co-existing within federal states.

I find support for this mode of conceptualizing in the articulations of a statesman and of a scholar. I will let them speak in their own words.

It is fascinating to find how the Bengalis, the Marathas, the Gujarathis, the Tamils, the Andhras, the Oriyas, the Assamese, the Canarese, the Malayalis, the Sindhis, the Punjabis, the Pathans, the Kashmiris, the Rajputs and the great central block comprising the Hindustani-speaking people, have retained their peculiar characteristics for hundreds of years, have still more or less the same virtues and failings of which old tradition or record tells us and yet have been throughout these ages distinctly Indian, with the same national heritage and the same set of moral and mental qualities. (Nehru 1961: 61)

In the same vein, Mukerji (1958: 268-9) had written:

Cultural symbiosis is the outstanding feature of India’s cultural reconstruction. It is to be clearly noticed in the specific culture patterns of the Arya Bhumi and the Anarya Pradesh of Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. We submit that these symbiotic patterns are the true significance of the terms ‘nationalities’ in India. Our nationalism in the political sense may be the gift of industrial capitalism … but the student of Indian history with the proper approach will find the meaning of nationalism in every case in the formation of cultural patterns.

It should be underlined here that to uphold this conceptualization one needs to distinguish between citizenship and nationality. The former alludes to membership in a politico-legal entity, that is, the state and the entitlements thereof. The latter refers to membership in a cultural entity, that is, nation, and the identity that it implies (Oommen 1997). South Asia’s polities include different religious communities and a multiplicity of castes, none of which can legitimately lay an exclusive claim to the whole or specific parts of the territory as both these socio-cultural categories are territorially intermingled. The persisting effort to define some of these religious communities as ‘outsiders’ to the soil and others as ‘insiders’ is to perpetuate falsehood and distort history. Similarly, the tendency to perpetuate the age-old discrimination and oppression based on caste and tribe is to undermine the cardinal principles of democratic citizenship.

New Nationalisms in South Asia

The postcolonial nationalisms of South Asia, which I designate as New Nationalisms, may be categorized into two: state-centred and state-renouncing (cf. Tilly 1993). In turn, state-centred nationalism has two sub-types: state-seeking and state-sponsored. One variety of state-centred nationalism conflates state and nation and views sovereignty of the state as the critical marker of nationalism: like one variety of old nationalism, it is also state-seeking. But there is a critical difference between the old and the new variety of state-seeking nationalism. The old variety of state-seeking nationalism was a struggle to wrest the state from an external colonial power; it was a confrontation between the colonial state and an aspired national state. Understandably there was near-universal participation and consensus regarding the goal of that struggle. But the enemy of the new state-seeking nationalism is not an external but an internal agent.

Although the internal colonizer is often perceived as a hegemon, the ‘colonized’ are sharply divided about the solution; while one section insists on secession from the state to which it is presently attached and the creation of a new sovereign state, another section argues for the acquisition of a certain level of autonomy within a federal polity. Both are asking for group rights but the quantum and the quality of these rights vary. In general parlance, the secessionists are called ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘extremists,’ although they are acute nationalists in their perception. Those who opt for autonomy within the federal framework are usually viewed as moderates, the autonomists. However, most of the time secessionists reconcile to become autonomists.

The Tamil-speaking Dravidian Hindus in free India saw Hindi-speaking Aryan Hindus as a hegemon in the 1960s and 1970s, but with the accommodation of Tamil nationalist parties in the federal government, abandoned the state-seeking goal of their movement. Today the ‘Tamil national movement’ only seeks the protection of ‘Tamil interests’ in India; from the demand for national self-determination they moved to assertion of their collective rights in the form of adequate representation in power sharing and maintenance of cultural identity. The Naga and Mizo national movements are divided in their goals. While some factions in both movements are secessionists, others are autonomists; both insist on collective rights. This is also true of the Sikh-led Khalistan movement, although the secessionists are reduced in strength and the autonomists have gained substantially in recent times.

Tamil Hindu nationalists of Sri Lanka perceive Singhla-Buddhists as a hegemon, but while one faction is secessionist and insists on a sovereign state for Tamils others opt for different degrees of autonomy within a federal set-up. The three minority nations of Pakistan—Sindh, Baluchistan and Pashtunistan—view the Punjab as an internal colonizer; in fact, they think Pakistan has become ‘Punjabistan.’ But the secessionists are particularly vociferous in Sindh. The grand old man of Sindhi nationalism, G. M. Syed, is candid. He maintains: ‘Sindh has always been there, Pakistan is a passing show. Sindh is a fact, Pakistan is a fiction. Sindhis are a nation, but Muslims are not a nation. Sindhi language is 2000 years old. Urdu is only 250 years old … The Sindhis have long been fooled in the name of Islam’ (quoted in Malkani 1984: 134). However, while some of the state-seeking new nationalists of South Asia are willing to shed their secessionist orientation, and a minority among them even abandon their nationalist orientation and become assimilationists, the majority aspire to be autonomists; they only insist on certain collective rights within a federal polity. This is in utter contrast to the state-seeking nationalism of the colonial times wherein there could not have been any compromise on the goal of a national sovereign state.

The second variety of state-centred new nationalism is state-sponsored; it seeks to mobilize the resources of one sovereign state against its ‘enemy’ state. Inter-state rivalry is the fodder on which this variety of nationalism is fed, wherein states are defined and cognised as nations and nationalism is nurtured through the hatred towards an external and despised other. Understandably, chauvinism and jingoism are likely manifestations of this variety of nationalism. If intra-state tension is the feature of state-seeking new nationalism, interstate conflict is the necessary accompaniment of state-sponsored new nationalism. However, in so far as the states in conflict are not socio-culturally homogeneous and have populations that share the same characteristics—religion, language, physical features—the conflicts have serious intrastate consequences. This is the situation of South Asia and this is the context in which collective rights become relevant. But in order to render collective rights of minorities irrelevant, assimilationist nationalism is put on the agenda—Islamic nationalism in Pakistan and Bangladesh, Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka and Hindu nationalism in India are examples of this. This often prompts secessionist nationalism.

In South Asia inter-state rivalry has been at its peak between India and Pakistan. There have been two wars and a war-like situation, the Kargil conflict in 1997. Nuclearization is viewed by both states as a project of national security; questioning excessive expenditure for defence purposes is instantly labelled anti-national; the soldiers killed in conflicts become martyrs; the usually uncared-for defence personnel instantly become charismatic objects; even tax evaders may contribute ‘liberally’ for the National Defence Fund and can become ‘nationalists.’ Amidst this heightened national temperature, the Muslims in India and Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan become objects of suspicion; they are required to prove their loyalty to the respective nations/states. This puts enormous strain on these minority populations and on their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression, a test to which members of the majority community are scarcely subjected. Not only the collective rights of these religious minorities (for example, congregational worship, pilgrimages, religious processions, are occasionally in jeopardy) but markers of their collective identity (dress pattern, food habits, hairstyles) may also become ‘security risks.’ State-sponsored nationalism endangers the collective rights of those minorities who share cultural characteristics of the majority of the ‘enemy state.’

Of the two varieties of state-renouncing nationalism, one manifests in the demand for establishing coterminality between political-administrative units and cultural boundaries in multinational federal polities. Inter-nation equality along with preservation of cultural identity are the goals of this variety of state-renouncing nationalism. However, while renouncing sovereign states, these nations invariably insist on their ‘provincial’ states. The movement for linguistic reorganization of India in place of the artificial administrative units set up by the British is an example of this kind of nationalism. Most of the large linguistic collectivities in India and Pakistan have their own ‘states’ if they have their own homeland. In the case of Sri Lanka, the goal of autonomists among Tamils is precisely this while secessionists demand an exclusive sovereign state for Tamils. Even in the case of Bangladesh, which is predominantly populated by Bengali Muslims, the non-Bengalis insist on cultural autonomy. The Chakma leader, Manabendra Narayan Larma, articulated the demand for cultural identity of Chakmas, who are predominantly Buddhists and inhabit the Chittagong Hill Tract, thus: ‘Under no definition or logic a Chakma can be a Bengalee or a Bengalee can be a Chakma … As citizens of Bangladesh we are all Bangladeshis but we also have a separate ethnic identity, which unfortunately the Awami League leaders do not want to understand’ (quoted in Hussain 1986: 201).

While the major linguistic groups (that is, nations) in India and Pakistan have their own provincial states, this is not true of the tribal communities or the subaltern nations. If the demand for their provincial states is conceded, it is to tone down their demand for sovereign states. But such subaltern nations invariably have their homelands on inter-state borders and hence command considerable political clout and striking power.

Thus, the numerically smaller Nagas (1.2 million) and Mizos (0.7 million) of India have their own separate provincial states but the demand by larger encysted tribes of central India for separate provincial states is not yet conceded. In fact, some of the central Indian tribes are much larger in size: Santals, 6 million; Bhils, 6 million; Gonds, 3 million; and Oraons, 2 million. Subaltern nations such as Santals and Bhils are denied their collective rights to protect and preserve their cultural identity as their legitimate demand for provincial states is not conceded. To deny them collective rights, be it in South Asia or elsewhere, may be designated as culturocide (Oommen 1990a: 43-66), the systematic liquidation of cultural groups.

One of the contentions in multinational federal polities is the relative importance to be assigned to the central government and provincial governments. Those who argue for a strong centre see themselves as ‘nationalists,’ and those who prefer strong provincial governments are dubbed as ‘regionalists’ who uphold parochial interests. But it is often forgotten that what are designated as ‘regions’ are ‘nations’ in a multinational polity and the ‘regionalists’ are arguing for their national collective rights. Conversely, those who prefer a central government with limited but crucial areas of operation (defence, foreign policy, fiscal policy, etc.) and substantial decentralization of political authority to provincial governments define themselves as ‘democrats’ and dub those who insist on a strong centre as ‘authoritarians.’ These varying perceptions are rooted in the underlying conceptual differences between them: the ‘nationalists’ consider the federal polity as the ‘nation’ and the ‘regionalists’ view the regions as nations. The former indirectly deny collective rights and the latter directly endorse collective rights.

The second type of state-renouncing nationalism surfaces in the context of ethnification and minoritization. Ethnicity is a product of dissociation between culture and territory (see Oommen 1997).Ethnies are constrained to renounce exclusive states for themselves because they are territorially dispersed; they lack a spatial anchorage.

Ethnies are of several backgrounds—refugees and exiles who flee to freedom or safety and immigrants who seek better pastures. Once in the new habitat, often a search for roots begins; they become aware of the need to maintain their cultural specificities, particularly religion and language. This search becomes acute if they are persecuted and discriminated against at the point of arrival and/or the conditions for nurturing cultural specificities become adverse.

The Sindhi Hindus who left their ancestral homeland are dispersed all over urban India. Their vociferous demand for according constitutional recognition to the Sindhi language persisted for two decades till it was conceded in 1967. This collective cultural right is about the only device to maintain this diasporic nationalism, although third generation Sindhi migrants have practically forgotten the language (see Daswani 1996). That is, constitutional protection of cultural rights is no guarantee for sustenance of national identity. The story is exactly the opposite in the case of Mohajirs, the Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to Pakistan from northern India. Through their political alignment with the largest and the most powerful nationality of Pakistan, the Punjabis, and due to its presumed linkage with Islam in the Indian subcontinent, Urdu became the official language of Pakistan. This facilitated not only the preservation of the cultural identity of Urdu speakers but also their domination. Yet they remain an ethnie in Pakistan, which is evident from the fact that these immigrants were initially labelled as Pahangirs or Hindustanies, a clear connotation of their outsider status. To escape this stigmatization they adopted the label ‘Muhajir,’ invoking its association with the prophetic tradition of hijrat (Ahmed 1988: 33-4). That is, dominant status in itself will not ‘nationalize’ a group if it is territorially dispersed. Even the Muhajir claim as the ‘fifth nationality’ of Pakistan (the other four being Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi and Pushtoon) is not conceded by the Pakistani state or mainstream society.

The case of ‘Bihari Muslims,’ the Hindi-speaking Muslims from North India, in Bangladesh is a third case of ethnie in South Asia. As the Urdu-speaking Muslims, the Bihari Muslims too thought that their Muslim-ness was a sufficient condition to comfortably graft them on to the Eastern wing of Pakistan. Although their deterritorialization was a disability right from the beginning, their religion provided a partial compensation. But with the transformation of East Pakistan into Bangladesh, linguistic identity gained salience and the intensity of the Bihari Muslims’ ethnification increased. Not only were they uprooted from their ancestral homeland in India but they are also being uprooted from their adopted homeland (Bangladesh). This clearly points to the need to uphold collective rights in the case of minority ethnic collectivities.

Finally, we come to those who continue to live in their ancestral homeland but underwent instant minoritization due to the redrawing of state boundaries. Consequent to the division of territory and immigration of population, those Muslims who remained in India and those Sikhs and Hindus who remained in Pakistan became minorities instantly. It is important to note here that, in so far as the dislocation happened within the national territory, not only was there no ethnification but there was no minoritization either. For example, although the Punjabi Muslims and Punjabi Sikhs exchanged their residence, as long as they remained within Punjab, Indian or Pakistan, they could retain their nationality and dominance. Thus, those Sikhs who came from the Pakistan-Punjab and remained in the Indian-Punjab were not culturally uprooted like the Sikhs who went to other parts of India, where they became refugees, outsiders and ethnies. Similarly, the Hindu Bengalis from East Pakistan who settled down in West Bengal did not face the kind of cultural stigmatization as did those Bengalis who settled outside Bengal. Once again, if the settlers become a majority in their adopted homeland, as in the case of Bengalis in Tripura in India, they can shed their minority and ethnic status and become nationals.


I must conclude this chapter by indicating the domain assumptions and the rationale which inform the arguments presented. The assumptions are: (1) even in the most homogeneous societies class distinctions emerge and persist and are perhaps unavoidable. In contrast, discrimination, oppression and exploitation based on race, language, religion, gender and so on are avoidable. (2) The dignified co-existence of a plurality of nations within a federal state is possible and even desirable. (3) A democratic polity can be constituted only if the people participate in the decision-making process, for which their mother tongue should be fostered. In a multilingual state this can be achieved only by constituting language-based administrative units to effect substantial decentralization of the decision-making process. (4) A nation does not necessarily aspire to a sovereign state of its own.

Now for the rationale. Although a wide variety of factors provides the bases for constituting polities, the most frequent ones are race, religion and language, or often a combination of these factors. While races or physical types and geographical spaces were originally closely linked, conquests, colonization and immigration have drastically changed the situation. Today, a large number of polities are multiracial. Similarly, notwithstanding the fact that particular religions had their origin in specific parts of the world due to conquest, proselytization and immigration, the original association between religion and territory has become irrelevant except as a symbolic association.

Generally speaking, there is a close association between language and territory. When groups migrate and settle in new linguistic regions they may have to learn the language of the new habitat, whereas they need not change their religion and, of course, they cannot change their race. That is, the reshuffling of populations does not go counter to the need for developing a common language, an imperative for communication.

This, however, does not imply that each linguistic group (nation) should have an exclusive sovereign state for itself. One can visualize several substantial linguistic groups co-existing within the territory of a state.

I have identified seven different conceptualizations of nation and nationalism in twentieth-century South Asia. Arguing that the utility of a concept depends on its appropriateness to capture the complex empirical reality, it has been suggested that South Asian states can best be conceptualized as collectives of nations coexisting within politically federal states. After identifying different types of new nationalisms in South Asia it is demonstrated that secession of minority nations from a multinational state is often a response to assimilation advocated by the majority nation with hegemonic tendencies. To cope with the situation an adequate level of political and cultural autonomy should be bestowed on national minorities. In the case of ethnic minorities, as they are territorially dispersed, there is only limited possibility of conceding political autonomy but it is possible to provide cultural rights to protect their identity. In the cases of both national and ethnic minorities conceding collective rights is often an adequate substitute for a sovereign state.