Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab

By Harnik Deol | Go to book overview

Introduction

South Asia today presents a mosaic of artificial administrative entities left behind by the British imperial power. In the half-century since independence, the stability of the post-colonial state in South Asia has been threatened by recurrent and violent conflict between the central authorities and a variety of ethnic minorities. The Muhajir uprising in Pakistan, Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka, tribal insurgency in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts, montagnard irredentism in Indian Kashmir and Sikh separatism in India present a congeries of contemporary breakaway movements in the Indian subcontinent.

India's complex social structure presents a kaleidoscopic cultural universe, a plethora of regional distinctions, a motley complex of traditions, and nearly 500 languages and dialects are spoken by nearly 900 million people (Van der Veer 1994:165). It is indeed remarkable that this broad cultural ensemble is subsumed under a central political authority, which is itself an artificial administrative entity. It is natural for these diverse ethnic groups to assert their cultural identity. The principal bases of identity assertion perceived as threats to the national state in India are religion, language and tribe. Soon after India's independence in 1947, the foremost controversy to push India to the brink of civil disorder was the linguistic issue. However, the carving of territorial units based on language resolved the language issue in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 1980s, it is assertions of religious identity, particularly in conjunction with territorial bases, that have afflicted the Indian national state. The Sikh demand for an independent state and the Muslim claims for autonomy in Kashmir are the two foremost movements for political secession in contemporary India that possess both religious and territorial bases. According to one survey, the destruction, in terms of the number of people who have lost their lives and the damage caused to public property, wrought by these conflicts is far worse than the destruction caused by the three IndoPakistan wars (The Tribune, 15 November 1995). These internal wars for political secession are the subject of this study, and the Sikh movement for sovereignty in India is the central example.

When considering the Sikh unrest, two important facts must be borne in mind. First, Punjab has progressively shrunk in size over the last half-century.

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