Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab

By Harnik Deol | Go to book overview

2


The contradictory unity of the Indian state

India's complex and variegated social structure comprises large and distinctive religious, linguistic, regional, tribal and caste groups. It is natural for these diverse ethnic groups to assert their cultural identity. The three principal bases of identity assertions perceived as threats to the Indian nation are language, region and religion. Although the identities anchored to the first two are accepted as legitimate, as evidenced by the creation of administrative units based on them, religious identity assertions, particularly in conjunction with a geographical region, are regarded as posing a grave threat to India's political integrity. The Sikh demands for a separate state and the Muslim claims for autonomy in Kashmir are examples of two breakaway movements in India that have religious and territorial bases. However, current events in India reveal that the gravest threat to India's integrity is, in fact, posed by the extremist activities of the majority Hindu population.

As a prelude to the consideration of the emergence of the Sikh ethnonationalist movement in the Indian Punjab, this chapter will examine the emergence of the radical Hindu political parties in the national politics of India. Close attention will be paid to the manner in which Hindu parties use religious symbolism in order to gain political power. The historical and sociological contexts of politics in India, and the political implications of Hinduism and the pattern of its interaction with politics will also be considered. Given the vast territorial, cultural and historical complexity of India, it would be misleading to examine the emergence of Hindu nationalism as a single phenomenon.

The aim is not to explain the phenomenon of religious nationalism in its full social and historical complexity. The discussion will hinge on those themes that are relevant to understanding the emergence of religious nationalism among the Sikhs of the Indian Punjab. In this manner, it is hoped to link the emergence of Sikh ethno-nationalism with the more general processes at work in Indian society. This chapter seeks to address the central question: why do religious identity assertions pose a grave threat to the Indian nationstate?

Religion remains deeply entrenched in the personal and social lives of all Indians. There is no indication of a decline in religion in everyday life. The

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