Ethno-nationalism: theory and practice

Exclusionary theories of sovereignty and self-determination have never matched their practice. Rather, they are animated more by the fear and hatred of the ‘Other.’

October 28, 2009 02:16 am | Updated 02:21 am IST

In the beginning it was Indian nationalism, an idea that took birth from the very forces in opposition to which it was mobilised: the European powers, principally England, that rapaciously colonised this land, and their more progressive ideological aspect, European Enlightenment, integral and causally linked to this colonial rapacity and cruelty to which, when necessary, it also provided rationalisations.

It is true that some ideologues of Indian nationalism maintain that the idea of an Indian nation, indeed the reality of a complexly structured and administered Indian state, goes back deep into history, to historical figures like Mauryan king Ashoka, if not to pre-historic figures of myth and legend like Ramachandra of Ayodhya. Gandhiji evoked Ramarajya as the ideal state for which a free India should aspire. While such nationalist mythology had its uses in the mobilisation of the anti-colonial struggle, in independent India the nationalist discourse has followed a far more complex path, especially in Assam and other borderlands in its neighbourhood where nationalism as an idea, and theory and practice, has sometimes been mobilised to advance what received ideas of nationalism in mainstream political thinking would consider distortions.

For instance, the very term ‘nation’ which, in much of the rest of the country, stands for the Indian nation state, the structure inherited from the British even if in a substantially curtailed form and zealously guarded by the post-1947 Indian state, has a rather different meaning and connotation in Assam where the expression, ‘Assamese nation’ ( asomiya jati), exists in an ambivalent relation with ‘Indian nation.’ Jati, in Assamese, stands for ‘nation’ while its cognate, jat, is used to denote caste (and in some contexts, ‘nationality’) though standard Assamese dictionaries define the two terms to mean both ‘nation’ and ‘caste.’ The collection of several jatis, representing the numerous nationalities of India, constitutes the mahajati, the greater Indian nation, that is merely a sum of its parts without which it would be less than nothing.

Two of the most famous and popular songs of Assamese lyricist and singer Bhupen Hazarika, whose central metaphors are the river Brahmaputra and Bohag Bihu, the mid-April spring festival, both having profound spiritual and nationalist resonances for the Assamese, have contributed to an ideological construct of what Professor Sanjib Baruah in his book, India against Itself (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), terms ‘Assamese national imagination’ correlating ‘Assamese nationalism’ and ‘Indian nationalism,’ whose bottom line is that one cannot exist without the other. However, this idealised interdependent correlation between Mother Assam and Mother India has other nuances, affirming or challenging the ‘Indian’ identity at different points of time, reflecting the constant tensions, inevitable in the unequal relationship between the Indian state and its component parts that animate this relationship.

These tensions are not new, nor even unique to Assam and the borderlands of northeast. The assertion of distinct, even unique, regional identities by a people that have a continuous record of history and literature going further back in time to those of ‘Aryavarta’ was viewed in the early years of independence as not much different from separatism with the potential to become secessionist. Regional assertions were seen as reflecting merely ‘fissiparous tendencies,’ one of the greatest challenges facing the strong, centralised unitary state that the early leaders of independent India wanted to craft. Only this explains the resistance to the popular and democratic demand for the linguistic reorganisation of India, despite the fact that the Congress structured itself on a linguistic basis.

The reorganisation of States on a linguistic basis took the edge off strident regional assertions. However, regionalism has since taken other, more complicated, forms — some deriving and, in turn, contributing to other ideological and theoretical formulations. In Assam and its environs, regionalism as an idea almost inevitably evolved into demands for political autonomy and, in course of time, more militant forms of nationalist assertion.

The reasons for such evolution are rooted in both geography and history. Historical factors like late entry into British India through a prolonged incremental process involving both conquest and annexation (1826-95), and the realities of geographical isolation from the rest of India have influenced this trajectory. However, this too is a pan-Indian phenomenon, subdued in some cases, strident in some others, of which the Dravidian movements are not the only instance.

The debate in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly in the early 1980s on the character of the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam brought in the concept of ‘little nationalism’ and ‘great nationalism,’ the ‘little nationalism’ of Assam seen in the context of the anti-foreigner agitation as turning ‘chauvinist.’ The unspoken sub-text of this reading was that ‘great nationalism’ of India would by definition not turn chauvinist, a formulation with which few ‘little nationalists’ or, for that matter, ‘great nationalists’ would agree.

Contributing to and, in turn, further amplifying this formulation was the reading that ‘little nationalisms’ were really little more than ‘sub-nationalism’ or, in a more learned language, part of a ‘sub-nationalist narrative’ that was only reclaiming the history of a people that had been subsumed by the ‘great nationalist narrative.’ The ‘sub-nationalist narrative’ evolved in due course as assertions of ‘ethnic identity,’ the reclaimed history now serving a political end. This is now being situated within a framework of ‘ethno-nationalism’ that is bound to evolve into ‘ethno-nationalist’ narratives.

These terms have evolved, or been created, to explain the past and provide a theoretical framework for future action, that is to mobilise popular discontent and press political demands. The demands vary greatly, from the modest and attainable through negotiations to those that are perhaps not even intended to be attained but are nevertheless pressed to advance other objectives. The attainable objectives include greater autonomy, modification of the existing identities of caste or tribe, protective discrimination, re-denomination of nomenclatures of historically recognised communities, creation of exclusive political spaces, extension of constitutional provisions like the Sixth Schedule applicable at present only to the tribal people inhabiting and indigenous to the two Hill districts of Assam, demands from some non-tribal communities for recognition as a tribe… one can go on. All such demands for varying degrees of autonomy, expansion of the existing territorial and political space, and reclassification of denomination and nomenclature can be, and in some cases are being, negotiated within the framework of the Indian state and the Constitution. One such instance is the compromise made on the demand during the agitation for the creation of Bodoland that the Bodo Kachari of Karbi Anglong be recognised as a Scheduled Tribe. Karbi political opinion was utterly opposed to the demand. Similarly, there is resistance from the existing tribal communities to extending what are perceived as privileges to non-tribal communities.

However, such compromise seems impossible in instances of sovereignty assertion, based on the ‘inalienable right of a people for self-determination,’ which in practice exclude the ‘Other.’ No wonder, the three major sovereignty movements based in Nagaland, Manipur and Assam are all split, some into several factions. That they are split has, however, not in the least mitigated the passion for, or virulence of, the sovereignty assertion. The splits reflect the reality of divisions within the people these structures claim to represent, the inherent flaws of such exclusionary nationalist assertions that by definition cannot be inclusive of all people in that territorial space, as well as efforts of the state to control the virulence, canalise the passion.

The dilemma facing these movements is that such exclusionary theories of sovereignty and self-determination have never matched their practice. Rather, these are animated more by the fear and hatred of the ‘Other,’ especially those that are part of the territorial and political space they claim as their own, than by any genuine democratic commitment to the theory and practice of self-determination. In essence, these movements of ethno-nationalism are no different from Hindutva movements that too are animated by fear and hatred of the ‘Other.’ Hence, too, the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing that is as much an integral part of such ethno-nationalist assertion as of the Hindutva movements.

However, while the murderous manifestations of Hindutva assertion are rightly condemned, corresponding manifestations of other exclusionary tribal or ‘ethnic’ nationalism do not evoke the same kind of sharp criticism.

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