Competing Nationalisms: Secessionist Movements and the State

By Raju G. C. Thomas | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Competing Nationalisms: Secessionist Movements and the State


Raju G. C. Thomas, Harvard International Review


SOUTH ASIA IS HOME to several world religions, over 30 major languages, a thousand dialects, and innumerable castes and subcastes. During the colonial era, princes held nominal rule over more than 580 separate states in India, while a number of other provinces were directly governed by the British. Although only two movements for national independence have succeeded since the departure of the British in 1947--those of Pakistan and Bangladesh--South Asia has experienced countless separatist movements based on religious, linguistic, or ethnic lines, including campaigns for Dravidastan, Assam, Nagaland, Gurkhaland, Kashmir, Khalistan, Pashtunistan, Baluchistan, Sind-hudesh, and Tamil Eelam.

With such diverse national movements continuing to challenge state lines, South Asia faces the question: should the territorial integrity and sovereignty of existing states be maintained, regardless of the history and legitimacy of their origins, or should the state's various ethnic groups or "nationalities" be allowed the right of self-determination and secession?

The recognition of new states in South Asia may lead to consequences even more disastrous than the status quo, just as the recognition of new states in Europe led to the complete disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. First, recognition would generate new problems arising from new boundaries and new minorities. Second, the recognition of some states could cause a chain reaction elsewhere, leading to the disintegration of India and Pakistan, and to a lesser extent, Sri Lanka. Third, the level of inter-ethnic bloodshed and refugee flows would generate a humanitarian nightmare in South Asia surpassing that of Europe in the early 1990s.

Nation-states based on ethnic lines have rarely existed in South Asia. Instead, great multi-ethnic empires, like those of the Mauryans, Guptas, and Mughals, have arisen and disintegrated. The lesser empires and minor kingdoms that replaced them either comprised multiple ethnic groups or were ethnically pure, but rarely included all the members of the ethnic group within their boundaries. South Asia has no equivalent to Germany, Italy, or Japan, states formed by a group of people largely sharing the same race, language, culture, religion, and historical experience. Even Bangladesh, united by the Bengali language, is divided by religion. Bhutan, too, comes close to an ethnic nation but retains a significant Nepali minority.

Since the partition of British India in 1947, the nations that have formed in South Asia have not been ethnic nations but civic nations. The civic nation is based on a community of people who believe they compose a nation and who are willing to commit themselves to common political institutions and processes, regardless of cultural differences. India is the prime example of a civic nation, with Muslims, Sikhs, Bengalis, and other minorities owing allegiance to the country despite the fact that they may not speak Hindi or practice Hinduism. Pakistan, to a lesser extent, fits this broader conception of a nation because of the belief that all Muslims of the Indian subcontinent belonged in the Muslim state regardless of differences in race or language.

Although both India and Pakistan were formed as multi-ethnic nations, their founders espoused competing visions of nationhood. The state of Pakistan grew out of the vision of Muslim nationalist Mohammed Ali Jinnah, head of the All-India Muslim League between 1930 and 1947 and the the first president of Pakistan. Jinnah argued that there were two separate nations in the Indian subcontinent, a nation of Hindus and a nation of Muslims, and that the Muslims should have their own state, Pakistan. He argued that Muslims shared religious practices and were expected to obey common laws based on the Quran and the Shariat, the body of Islamic law. Hindus and Muslims could be distinguished often by dress or lifestyle, if not by race or language, and they often lived separately within India.

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