Politics of ethnonationalism

ETHNONATIONALISM IN INDIA — A Reader: Edited by Sanjib Barua; Oxford University Press, YMCA Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 995.

ETHNONATIONALISM IN INDIA — A Reader: Edited by Sanjib Barua; Oxford University Press, YMCA Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 995.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai

This work, a collection of essays, focusses on major sites of ethnonational politics

John Stuart Mill in his celebrated essay, Considerations on Representative Government, had advanced the view that democracy is “next to impossible” in multiethnic societies and completely impossible in linguistically divided countries. By this yardstick, Indian democracy is a prime candidate for collapse. Nevertheless, it has survived, even if not ideally, as a puzzle for all those who expected the doom, particularly because ethnic discontent and violence have been endemic since the inception of the Republic. The essays brought together in this collection seek to solve this puzzle.


Ethnonationalism has been a contentious concept, particularly among scholars who attribute primacy and privilege to mainstream nationalism. It was Walker Connors, a pioneer in this field of study, who brought about terminological clarity as well as popularity for the term. According to him, the concept “denotes both the loyalty to a nation deprived of its own state and the loyalty to an ethnic group embodied in a specific state, particularly where the latter is conceived as a nation state.” This dual allegiance is bound to generate considerable tension. In India, ethnic allegiance has been in conflict with mainstream nationalism, or the other way round, in many regions and the attempts to find a solution have not been successful. In this political context, the essays in this volume are particularly significant, apart from being academically salient.

In the political domain, ethnic nationalism and identity politics have become intertwined, blurring the distinction between ethnic identity and identity politics in popular perception. Consequently, primordial and ethnic identities are invoked in politics to such an extent that democratic principles tend to be replaced by caste and religion. The religious politics of Bharatiya Janata Party and the Akali Dal and the caste politics of the Bahujan Samaj Party are good examples. While the power of ethnonationalism is undeniable — because of the close linkages within the community and the sense of identity it creates — the politics of ethnicity-based identity is likely to be anti-democratic and anti-secular in a multi-cultural society like India.

Over the 63 years since Independence, the principle of federalism within the overall structure of a liberal, democratic and secular state has informed national consolidation. Over a period of time, however, several fissures developed within, mainly because Indian nationalism was not sufficiently inclusive and the aspirations of several ethnic groups remained unfulfilled. India, as Alfred Stephen describes in his article in this volume, is a “robust politically multicultural” nation. Whether the Indian state took adequate cognisance of this reality and recognised the “emotional depth of ethnonational identity” is doubtful. But tensions and violence have been endemic. If the massive deployment of troops has not been able to curb it, it is because the Indian elite took a modernist view of nation and nationalism, without addressing the overwhelming influence of ethnic identities and primordial loyalties.

Periodically these identities and loyalties surfaced in Indian polity, using different strategies and methods. Witness the Nagas and Mizos in the North East; the Sikhs in the Punjab; the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, and the tribes in Jharkhand. Unfortunately, the state responded to the aspirations of these marginalised groups by methods that relied more on force, and this led to greater alienation of these communities.

The essays are organised in six sections focussed on major sites of ethnonational politics. Most of them have drawn upon extensive research. Apart from an overview of the ethnic situation in India, there is a detailed coverage of the developments in Jammu and Kashmir, the northeastern States, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu.


In the opening essay, Kanti Bajpai provides an overview, even if rather sketchy, and comes up with a positive assessment of India's achievements in dealing with language, caste and religious issues. Paul Brass concurs with this view insofar as it relates to the language policy. Gurharpal Singh, on the other hand, has a different take. Contesting the “conventional wisdom”, he suggests an “alternative interpretation of the Indian state and its relationship with ethnicity.” He argues that the inability of the state to manage the ethnic problem has led to the loss of thousands of human lives.


The volume is rich in empirical data, but short on conceptual and theoretical formulations. This is perhaps understandable, given that this is still an emerging field. Most of the essays are descriptive rather than analytical. The exceptions are the ones by Arand Lijpart, Steven Ian Wilkinson, Atul Kohli, Gurharpal Singh and Narendra Subramanian. Lijpart and Wilkinson take opposite positions on consociational theory. The former argues that the incidence of ethnic violence in India was relatively low until the 1960s when Indian state followed a consociational policy and it rose thereafter as the polity became less consociational. Wilkinson, however, contends that the level of ethnic violence increased during the recent decades when India followed a more consociational policy. More relevant, perhaps, is the question whether India has ever followed a consociational policy successfully. Sanjib Barua, as the editor, has provided a short but lucid introduction to a useful ‘Reader' on a theme that requires considerable theoretical clarity to distinguish between ethnic and national identities.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 2:42:18 PM |

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