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My department is hosting a conference this September and I thought I would participate in it. The following is my paper-proposal for the conference. 

Today, we live in a multicultural world – a global village – where people from different countries interact with each other despite being miles apart. As analysts in favor of globalization heralded the emergence of a global community in the 1990s, they predicted the gradual dilution of national boundaries due to the erosion of ethnic and national identities. However, events of the past two decades have proved otherwise. In most parts of the world, ethnic-nationalism has been on the rise, leading to intense conflicts and civil wars. In order to study the causes for such conflicts, one must understand the difference between ethnic and national identities, and how they hold between them the seeds for future conflicts.

On the one hand, an ethnic identity revolves around belonging to a homogeneous community with a common social background whose members’ share the same language, culture and religion. Kinship may be present in the form of a belief in the community’s mutual ancestry, but it is not absolutely necessary. Bonding between members occurs through shared ideas, beliefs, rituals and sacrifices. There is always a sense of community-consciousness (ethnic nationalism in this case) among the people of the same ethnic group. This ethnic-nationalism is emphasized through various community-centered activities, fostering a closely knit group of people.

On the other hand, nations are created in two ways – either they arise naturally or they are created on the basis of ‘imagined communities’. In the first case, the nation revolves around a core group of people who claim to be different from others – in other words, they are members of an ethnic group who demand self-determination. The nation that they create is exclusive to them – only those belonging to that ethnic group being a citizen of that nation. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece etc were formed on this basis. These were countries which broke away from large multi-ethnic empires because of ethnic-nationalism.

Most nations, however, are ‘imagined’, i.e. they are artificial creations. For example, the USA was created when the thirteen colonies rebelled against the British. They had no inherent unity through ethnic-nationalism, but it was the common enemy that brought them together in order to form a union. Similarly, former European colonies are nations whose borders were artificially drawn by their imperialist masters in order to facilitate the administrative process. Ethnic groups living in these places had no say in the drawing of these borders at all. Thus, one finds a mixture of ethnic groups in almost every country in the Middle East, Africa and South and South-East Asia because national borders were retained from the colonial times without revising them taking into consideration the geographic spread of different ethnic communities. Some communities are hence forcibly joined together into a union (for example, in Lebanon and Iraq) while other communities are divided because of these colonial borders (like the Kurds).

Thus, we see that the ethnic identity can either overlap with the national identity or can be at odds with it. For example, an ethnic Estonian has the same ethnic and national identity. The nation here comprises solely of one ethnic group, and an Estonian does not feel alienated from the socio-political system. However, the Basques of Spain face the opposite situation. Their ethnic sensibilities do not agree with the national culture of other Spaniards. They have to learn a language that is foreign to their own and have a particular lifestyle imposed upon them by the majority ethnic group. This leads to a crisis of identity – should the Basque individual place more importance on his Basque identity or his Spanish identity? In other words, which is more dominant in a multi-ethnic country – the national or the ethnic identity?

In such nations, where one ethnic group dominates over the others, there always exist strong undercurrents of ethnic tensions. As long as the dominant group’s hold on the polity of the nation is strong, the other ethnic groups stay low and the status quo is maintained. The moment central authority weakens a wave of ethnic nationalism batters the nation till it disintegrates and breaks up into many smaller nations that have more homogeneous populations. The Russian Empire (1918), Austria-Hungary (1919), Czechoslovakia (1938 and 1993), Yugoslavia (1991), the USSR (1991), Serbia (1996 and 1998), Sudan (2011) and Mali (2012) are cases in point. Ethnic-nationalism played a crucial role in the break-up of these states.

Like the above countries, India is a nation with a diverse population consisting of numerous races, ethnic groups, castes, languages, religions and cultures. Uniting all these groups (for example, under a common language) has been quite a difficult task for the Centre. Even though there have been no separatist movements yet, there is a strong sense of regionalism coupled with ethnic-nationalism, which cannot be dismissed easily. The rise of regional political parties on the national stage have made politics based on “coalition compulsions” inevitable. This precarious situation has led to very unstable governments in the past as regional parties gained the power to pull the rug from under the ruling party’s feet in order to force in fresh elections. As we now head closer to the next Lok Sabha elections, neither the Congress Party nor the Bharatiya Janata Party seem strong enough to win even a plurality of seats on their own, thus enabling the regional parties to become powerful enough to make or break governments with greater impunity than in the past. The 2014 elections may thus bring in a strange situation in India – the national parties would have to cede enough ground to the regional parties without encouraging outright regionalism and separatism. Although the chances of secession of any state from the union are negligible because of the presence of a strong military, regionalism can lead to instability, breakdown of law and order and perhaps even anarchy.

What can be done in order to solve this potential problem? We must first realize that ‘Unity in Diversity’ is a sham and all it does is to ignore the issue of ethnic nationalism. We must also give a lot of importance to the study of ethnicity in India and its role in fostering regionalism. Separatist forms of ethnic-nationalism can be averted by giving more autonomy to the states or through other political reforms. At the end of the day, we must ensure that the Indian nation does not go the way of the dodo (or Yugoslavia).