Posted by: Vikram | September 29, 2008

India: ‘Nation State’ or ‘State Nation’ ?

Over the summer, I finished reading a book titled Democracy and Diversity: India and the American Experience by a group of experts including the acclaimed Arend Lijphart. The book had some positive and lots of sobering points (esp. about the internal dynamics of the parties) about democracy in India. One of the papers, titled ‘Nation State’ or ‘State Nation’ (Linz, Stepan and Yadav), was a very interesting analysis of the concept of nation in India relative to the other nations such as France, US and Switzerland. Their conclusions are generally positive, which I will also discuss, elaborate and sometimes contest.

The authors start of by discussing France, which up until the nineteenth century, was a diverse polity with many different dialects of French spoken and a German minority, but

After the French Revolution …. many policies were devoted to creating a unitary nation state in France in which all French citizens had only one cultural and political identity … a package of incentives and disincentives to ensure that French increasingly became the only acceptable language in the state …. Throughout France, state schools at any given hour were famously teaching the same curriculum with identical syallabi by teachers who had been trained and certified by the same Ministry

The authors claim that had such a policy been adopted in India, it would have led to a destruction of both Indian democracy and ultimately the Indian nation. It is debatable however, whether such polices are not surreptitiously followed by the Union Government. Although many policies and symbols (including the national anthem) of the Indian state are pluralistic, there is a definite push to Hindi. Hindi (along with English) is the official language of the Union (not the national language). Even though, the de facto langauge used in Delhi is English, Hindi is definitely the first among equals as far as GoI is concerned. Add to this, the fact that students in CBSE and state boards in North India learn Sanskrit instead of a third Indian language 😡 , and the multicultural credentials of the Indian state start looking a bit shaky.

One of the key points emphasized in the paper is how diversity is handled politically in India. The linguistic states (an example of assymetrical federalism) are the first example of this. So much has been said about this, that I wont say more, except that the authors (and I) feel that it was a very good idea. The authors further point out that in India,

diversities are of course a product of developments over a long historical period, but they appear as ‘givens’ to political actors. …. what appear as essential divisions in any given society are no more than social cleavages that happen to be politically activated and mobilized at that moment.

This is actually not the only reason for the rise of multi-party coalitions in India. In fact, these ‘divisions’ were always present even before India became a nation. It took 45 – 50 years for them to take centre-stage, because of three reasons

1) the local parties took time to develop their support base (which they were also able to eventually serve better),

2) the sporadic but not easily forgotten authoritarian actions of the Union Government (example Kerala, Punjab, Kashmir, Mizoram) and

3) sometimes continous neglect (Bihar, UP) of the Union Government. These drove people away from the  Congress (and correspondingly the GoI) in the affected states. Another reason is the hierarchical, dynastic nature of Indian political parties but that is a matter for a different post.

The authors list 4 important patterns, they say are necessary for a ‘diverse polity to become a state nation’, I will list each one and then discuss how they (and I) think India fares.

1) Despite cultural identities among citizens of the polity there will be at the same time a high degree of positive identification with the state, and pride in being citizens of that state.

India generally fares very well in this area, except in Nagaland and the Kashmir valley. They quote the findings the results from a survey conducted by the CSDS in all Indian states, which indicated that 92 % of Tamil Nadu’ites, 89 % of Muslim , 92 % of Punjabis, 74 % of Mizos were ‘proud’ of being Indian. I wonder how the perceptions of a Mizo would change after an actual visit to our national capital 😐 . In Nagaland, only 43 % of the respondents identified as Indian and Naga, whereas 57 % of the respondents identified as Naga only. No survey could be conducted in the Kashmir valley, but a survey not based on a probabilistic sample indicated that about 80 % of the valley wants independence. A proper survey in Jammu and Ladakh indicated virtually no support for independence.

2) Citizens of the state will have multiple but complementary political identities and loyalties.

One evidence for this holding true, is the results of state and national elections in various states. Often, different parties are victorious in those, even if they are held close together. There are other evidences and counter claims that can be made, but I will not delve too much into them here.

3) There will be a high degree of trust in the most important constitutional, legal and administrative components of the state.

This was the real shocker, the surveys indicated a high degree of trust in India’s legal system (67 %), Parliament (53 %) and civil services (53 %) :-> , and relatively lower trust in political parties (39 %), central government (48 %) and police (36 %). This sounds almost unbelievable to me, personally the only institutions that I have 70 % faith in are the Supreme Court and some High Courts. I can say that I trust the state government of Maharashtra about 40 % but even thats stretching it. I trust Mumbai police a little bit but thats it. Why so many people would trust our civil services when the papers daily ring out news of the corruption thats so pervasive in each one of our instis is currently beyond me.

4) By world democratic standards, there will be a comparatively high degree of positive support for democracy, among all the diverse groups of citizens in the country

India fares very well in this area too, with 70 % of Indians (esp. Muslims and SCs and STs) indicating a support of democracy. Support for democracy runs very high across rural India and with high participation in campaigns and elections. I think this is only selectively true for urban India, whose residents start trumpeting Indian democracy or demonizing it without much thought depending on the situation. Setting aside the question as to whether reservations are good or not, why dharnas and candle-light vigils for anti-reservations only ? Why not some for how NEs are abused each and every day in the nation’s capital, I know there have been some but is it enough ? Where are these Rang De Basanti kids when the police gun down farmers ? Where are they when the Parliament okays legislation that will probably destroy the environment ? Why are they not out there demanding a more professional and better equipped police after the recent blasts ?

The paper really raised more questions than gave answers, a quick drive through India’s cities, a quick glance at its newspapers and a good look at its human development stats will raise doubts as to whether just being a state-nation is enough.


  1. I am always a Punjabi first! If you are gonna take a dig at me in the middle of the night with a sharp knife or something I am likely to go screaming at you in choicest and most juicy punjabi curses I can think of! I am an Indian next because I pay taxes to them and I have an Indian passport. I could acquire another nationality but I would still remain a Punjabi.

    You might find this interesting, but it is the Punjabi culture that forms the dominant perception of Indian culture in America. Punjabi food and music mostly represent Indian music here. And yes, I dont blame you for using those Punjabi slangs, they sound the most threatening anyway. 😉

    I think the future of India is in its looseness instead of trying to acquire a unitary personality. I enjoy the differences far more than anything else. As for me India remains a state of nations.

    Absolutely the differences rock, believe it or not it is one the things I miss most here.

  2. What happened in France is already happening here, not by force but due to the ubiquitous TV. It used to be said during the Raj that the language changed every 30 miles. Even in a small state like Punjab, there are significant tonal variations in various parts. But, all that will be a thing of the past as more and more people will speak the local language as spoken on TV. Similarly, Khari boli, a variant of Hindi is disappearing. After a couple of generations all regional languages will become almost standardised, as will Indian English.

    India is a prime example of the cliched ‘unity in diversity’. This diversity needs to be celebrated and enjoyed. I for one would be horrified if I found everyone wearing the same clothes and speaking the same language from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

    Thank you Sharmaji, I wish more of our English speaking elites would understand this, lest this country of dosas, pav bhaji, biryani and saarson ka saag etc. becomes a ‘Pizza nation’.

    Two million Nagas and four and a half million Kashmiri Muslims do have historical issues about being Indian. There is also the occasional problem that some students from the NE do face in Delhi…I have never understood though as to why similarly ‘chinki’ Gorkhas don’t face any such problems and integrate pretty easily.

    There are some important differences between the Gorkhas and the NE ppl (apart from the vast cultural differences within the NE itself). The Gorkhas typically work as laborers and domestics and in many cases are not citizens of India. The NE students are highly-educated and typically come to Delhi for university/post-grad studies or white-collar work and they are Indian citizens. Their expectations are different and meeting higher expectations should be the goal of a society instead of saying, hey look they settled for less, so should you.

    • “India is a prime example of the cliched ‘unity in diversity”

      Which is of course a cliched lie in&on itself.

  3. The idea of being an Indian before being a Punjabi, Malayali, Hindu Christian etc was to create a feeling of belonging to one Nation. I find many blogs talking with bitterness against other regions and religions…I wonder if it would have been better if India was not divided according to languages?
    Then we are also divided by religion, so it seems no matter how the states were divided, we’d remain divided 😦

    I dont see India as being ‘divided’ into states. India is a ‘Union of States’, as per the Constitution. So its really the states that unite to form the Union. Anyways, a country of 1 billion ppl needs to have some form of administrative decentralization, and language difference (not division) seem to be a totally appropriate way of doing this. As I have pointed out earlier, ‘regional’ parties rarely create trouble at the Centre these days, its mostly the ideological parties like CPI/BJP.

    It is true that GoI encourages the use of Hindi and most North Indians grow up believing Hindi is the National language.

    Absolutely, this is very true, it is important to note that India has no national language, only various official languages. 🙂

    The faith in Supreme Court and High Court is justified after verdicts against Modi and more recently against Raj Thakre. I think the only reason there is any trust in Civil servants is perhaps the questions were not asked properly 🙂
    About the police the less said the better.

    Right on, I am being to wonder how the poor and rural Indians actually view the civil services. See, we never had ‘civil services’ for the ppl before in the sub-continent, even today one of the important officials is called collector. Only after independence, his role has changed into more of an administrator not just a revenue recoverer. So maybe many Indians feel positively about the civil services bcoz they never had nething like it before. That of course, doesnt mean that the civil services are what they should be.

    @Odzer’s comment : People like us, and worse our children, who come come from multi regional families will yell out in English if startled, and I worry about which state of India do they belong to. They have been raised as ‘Indians first’, and until recently I was very proud of the fact, now I am worried.

    @Vinod Sharma Totally agree, diversity needs to be celebrated. We also need to develop a tourist style respect for other cultures and religions.
    About North East, Army or Police – nobody, NObody, should have unaccounted powers over any people. Remember Manorama case? Accountability from Judiciary and Army both is necessary. I think if a people are complaining we need to at least give them a real good chance to speak.
    Human rights violations in Kashmir should also be taken very seriously. I dread to think what would happen if a few yeas later, our politicians actually start saying it’s better to let Kashmir secede!

  4. India as a political entity has been a reality only after 1947. If you roll back a couple of centuries or still earlier, Bharatvarsha has been a vast cultural entity rather than a single entity.

    Politically, it was diverse and divided.

    Consequently, there was no concept of a pan-India identity. Identities were restricted to the kingdom, vocation, religion, caste and place of residence.

    Culturally, it was possible for Shankaracharya (born in Kerala) to travel around India (as we understand it today) and galvanise the people all over. It was possible fro him to set up the four Shankaracharya “Peethams”.

    There was no chance that any political personallity could have done this. Loyalties were narrow.

    They still are, perhaps understanbly due to the reasons I have mentioned in my post.

    An ancient civilisation took on the garb of a young nation and is experimenting with a way of life very different from its centuries old structure.

    I am not aware if there is any other country in the world which is as diverse and as complex as India.

    There isnt any, I have looked assiduously, you may be sure. 🙂

    I agree that states re-organisation on linguistic basis was the right thing to do. This has created space for each regional culture and language to grow.

    On the political canvas, except for the Congress which had an all India presence and Left and Akali Dal in a small way, most political dispensations have taken root only after Independence.

    We will remain a Union of States for some time to come and therein lies the beauty of a diverse India. The impact of education, TV and globalisation could mould this in a completely different shape in the next four – five decades fromnow. That is a completely different proposition.

  5. Vikram,

    I’m a bit late in saying this but this is a superb post.

    In fact, these ‘divisions’ were always present even before India became a nation. It took 45 – 50 years for them to take centre-stage, because of three reasons

    IMO, the fragmentation of India’s polity is actually a good thing. The concentration of power in a few hands would never be good and our small parties help spread the benefits of power around a bit—true federalism, if you will. It could, of course, be argued that most of these small parties are feudal set-ups with little intra-party democracy, which is true, but, it’s also true for the Congress (the BJP was, to some extent, an exception to this but that’s disappearing fast).

    Also, when people bemoan the ‘divisions’ in India and its politics what they don’t realize is that is the highly centralized system that is the exception as far as Indian is concerned. The centralization process was, of course, started by Gandhi (and he did a brilliant job of it) when he reorganized the Congress with an AICC/high command, 4 anna membership and all. However, this centralized model started becoming a caricature under Nehru (opposed linguistic states, did not abolish section 93 of the GoI Act which is now Sec 356 of out Constitution) and was so hardened by Mrs. Gandhi that the Congress snapped, pushing the country into a maelstrom of centrifugal forces.

  6. Great Post! Certainly Sudhir Kakar’s “Indian Identity” is relevant here as also is Sunil Khilnani’s “The Idea of India.” Also instructive to see how the early nationalists and thinkers — Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ambedkar, Patel — saw this issue.

  7. I am from U.P and for me I aman indian first. My state identity does not matter to me at all. However while working outside U.P. ,I was reminded of it all the time. We are looked down by almost all the nonhindi speaking states. Still it has not shaken OUR belief in our national identity. Why cant others think like that?

  8. I’m a Punjabi first and always a Punjabi. I will never consider myself as Indian. Who wants to be part of the Dravidian race like UP, Biharis and Tamil Hindus.

    • “Who wants to be part of the Dravidian race like UP, Biharis and Tamil Hindus.”

      How the hell are UP biharis Dravidians!? they speak an Indo-European language similar your peepeejabi! We Tamils have existed for thousands of years before your peepeejabi even came into existence, what makes you think WE Tamils want to be any part you insignificant people!?

  9. hi i’m from Jaipur ( Rajasthan ) and i’m proud of India. someone here commented that India is a state of nations. i disagree. the defining factor of a nation may be language, religion etc. but it in India the defining factor is values. even though from millenniums we Indians speak different language and practiced different deities in different ways but we still developed similar set of values like religious tolerance, family values, rationalism (which started diminishing after foreign invaders came to India). we are so diverse that we can create a dozen of countries but still “we choose” to remain united as we believed in the phrase ” united we stand, divided we fall”.
    We are just like a tree which has different branches in different directions, growing in their own ways. but still we all originated from the same seed and and get are energy from the same roots and gain solidarity from the same trunk,i.e, India.

  10. India is a political entity , an unintended gift of the British Raj which was down on its butt in the late 1940s, which is made up of a large Muslim minority and a majority of non-Muslims who are referred to as Hindus and whose linguistic , cultural and ethnic identities are so pronounced that their religious identities are left totally eclipsed. .

  11. From the comments appearing above it is clear that people from self-proclaimed great states doesn’t want to count themselves as Indian they want to be different from the other races. I don’t know where this type of development is taking us but for one thing I am sure it is not good for the Human Race.

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