Nationalism is a concept conceived in the 19th century, according to which, states and principalities come together, often by use of threat or oppression, to form a larger institution with defined geographical limits, called a nation. In India, the idea of nationalism has always been confused with what could be called ‘sub-nationalism’. Sub-nationalism is a policy of asserting the interests of one’s own state/region/province, as separate from the interests of the nation and the common interest of all other states/regions/provinces.
Sub-nationalism in India is being used to overpower the feeling of ”we-ness” created long back during the freedom struggle, and is consequently considered as a component that urges people to search for an identity completely different from the one offered by a sovereign state.
Nationalism in India was born as a result of opposition to British despotism. In the early phase of the freedom struggle, Hindus and the Muslims revolted together against the foreign enslavement. The most sensational and effective political strategy by the Britishers was the ”Divide and Rule Policy”. It used the most wicked ploy to divide India into different sections.
But, before we criticize the Britishers for dividing India, it has to be understood that ‘India’ was never really one. Rather, it was a group of princely states which actually got an identity of oneness only after the British took over. This identity of oneness could not sustain the stark differences between the states that existed, as India has always been considered to be a “state-nation” which appreciates “multiple and reciprocal” socio-cultural selfhood and provides constitutional safeguards to accommodate various political ideologies and claims arising out of these identities.
Until independence, everyone had the common objective of attaining freedom from the Britishers, and it was pretty much a case of Bharat Mata ki Jai everywhere. A defining moment that instituted the idea of Sub-nationalism was the States Re-organisation Act of 1956, which led to the re-organization of states on a linguistic basis. It remains the single most extensive change in state boundaries since the independence of India in 1947. These key legislative reforms ensured that the national identity is not homogeneous.
Dr BR Ambedkar in his book, “Thoughts On Linguistic States”, says “A linguistic state with its regional language as its official language may easily develop into an independent nationality. The road between Independent Nationality and Independent State is very narrow. If this happens, India will cease to be Modern India; we have and will become Medieval India consisting of a variety of States indulging in rivalry and warfare.”
Re-organisation of states could have been based on administrative competence, capital availability, natural resources, etc, but not on the basis of language. It is just a medium of communication, and can’t form the basis for re-organisation. Upliftment of people is far more important than nurturing the idea of linguistic division.
Sub-nationalism in the present era has emerged as a political idea that has been growing in communities, societies, individuals, ethnic groups and in the people. It is a culture of hate that is being perpetrated in the name of nationalism, as politics is no more about nation-building but has become a game of power-grabbing.
Emerging most strongly from Karnataka is another example of how nationalism in India is being shaped into sub-nationalism. The difference of opinion is about a separate state flag demanded by the state government of Karnataka, in spite of having an unofficial state flag as a symbol of Kannadiga pride for the last half a decade. The idea of a separate flag is not restricted to Karnataka. A separate flag for Nagas is one amongst the 33 demands made by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM).
The other controversy is about the imposition of Hindi, most notably on the signboards at the metro stations in Bangalore, as it is a perception that the new settlers in the state are apathetic towards learning Kannada and insist that the others speak in Hindi.
Be it flags, or any other symbol, the people of India will devise creative ways of attaining their cultural freedom. The greater the differences between the states, the more severe is the attachment to their individual identity and principles and the desire to form an autonomous homeland where those values can easily be implemented.
This idea of sub-nationalism in a multi-ethnic state like India is threatening. It looks after internal frailty, liberates people from control, and promises greater personal freedom – but all at the cost of the nation. Sub-nationalism has made it too easy to name somebody an anti-national, if he is found to have differences with a homogenous ideology prevailing in a particular state. The sub-nationalist feeling in states like UP has also resulted in repeated lynchings, thrashings, and condemnation in the name of cow protection.
Sub-nationalism is just used as a weapon to haul fragmented groups of people with a strong cultural identity of their own and parade them around with an absurd idea of a separate homeland. This leads to a situation where people start believing the state without further verifying the state’s ‘facts’. One has to understand that nationalism isn’t limited to any one ethnic group, language, or a nation-state. Rather, it is a national identity which could coexist and co-operate fruitfully.
What is bad about sub-nationalism, apart from its inherent cumulative coercion, is that it inspires rivalry. What often starts as a populist measure for vote bank politics, leads to the strengthening of regionalism over nationalism. Even in its purest forms sub-nationalism kills the objective of a democratic state and gradually but firmly instils secessionist tendencies within the people. But, in India, the right to secede has not been guaranteed under the constitution, and precisely because it is not guaranteed by the constitution, it is essential that violations of the constitutional provisions and voices raised about such violations must be discussed.
With a pluralist democratic perspective, I strongly believe that actions like these – effectively forcing a personal identity different from the collective identity – compromises any feelings of unity. Any attempts to weaken the collective conscience, whether through an idea or through homogenization through languages or through undemocratic single-party domination, will all be fought and won against over time.
”While nationalism can unite people it must be noted that it unites people against other people.” – George Orwell.
Nationalism and patriotism are more often used as synonyms to show the relationship of an individual towards the nation. But, they connote different meanings. Firstly, patriotism is a feeling, nationalism is an ideology. Secondly, nationalism focuses on the ”State”, whereas patriotism focuses on the ”People”. A nationalist would give more importance to unity with respect to culture, language, or territory. Whereas a patriot would show his affection for the nation with more significance on morals and beliefs.
But the fact remains that in the wake of the changing ideologies, a very impressive piece, embedded with liberal values that bind everyone together, is the Constitution of India. Justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity, as it says. May our dream of a new tomorrow come true for us.
A version of this post was previously published here.