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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Are the states too strong?

In India,assertion by states doesn’t preclude,and in fact nurtures,national cohesion

Written by Ashutosh Varshney
May 24, 2012 2:16:54 am

In India,assertion by states doesn’t preclude,and in fact nurtures,national cohesion

Centre-state debates are back on the political agenda. Should state governments have power over the appointment of Lokayuktas? Is Delhi not free to form a National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC)? Can regional parties,such as the DMK,dictate India’s policy towards Sri Lanka? Should “state bosses” order cabinet ministers from their political parties to resign?

Many are asking if Delhi has become too weak. In some quarters,the question is even more starkly posed: is India becoming like the European Union,a congeries of nations with little central coordination or control?

Such concern is not new. India’s British rulers often said India was a geographical construct,not a nation. Mark Twain,one of America’s all-time literary giants,thought the same. After travelling in India for two and half months in 1896,he was filled with admiration for India,but also concluded that Indian unity was impossible: “India had… the first civilisation; she had the first accumulation of material wealth; she was populous with deep thinkers and subtle intellects; …It would seem as if she should have kept the lead,and should be today not the meek dependent of an alien master,but mistress of the world… in truth,there was never any possibility of such supremacy for her… Where there are eighty nations and several hundred governments,fighting and quarrelling must be the common business of life; unity of purpose and policy are impossible; …patriotism can have no healthy growth.”

Whether India can dominate the world,if only united,is worthy of reflection,but it need not detain us here. Whether India’s diversity cripples the evolution of national feeling and unity of purpose requires commentary,especially in light of current Indian controversies.

A recent book,Crafting State-Nations (Johns Hopkins University Press,2011),by Alfred Stepan (Columbia),Juan Linz (Yale),and Yogendra Yadav (CSDS),provides remarkably insightful guidance. It proposes a new concept,the state-nation,to capture the essence of the relationship between states and nationhood in India. It also puts India in comparative perspective,using materials from Spain,Canada and Belgium.

But we first need to ask: Is India a “nation-state” in the classical sense of the term?

Erasure of ethnic or cultural diversities is a key feature of nation-states,of which France is viewed as the best historical example. Scholars of French nationhood tell us that at the time of the French Revolution,more than 50 per cent Frenchmen did not speak French at all,and only 12-13 per cent spoke it correctly. Eventually,through public schools and conscription armies,which required force,peasants were turned into Frenchmen,and diversities of France were flattened.

What France could do in the 19th century simply cannot be done any more,for the norms about how to deal with minorities and internal cultural diversities have dramatically changed in the 20th and 21st centuries. Stepan,Linz and Yadav say that if states have strong territorially based diversity,they need to internalise the state-nation,not the nation-state,concept.

State-nation policies work on two levels: creation of a sense of belonging with respect to the larger political community,while simultaneously institutionally safeguarding politically salient diversities,such as language,religion and culturally sacred norms. Federalism is normally a necessary condition for the protection of territorially specific diversities. And having two or more political identities is not subversive to the nation. One can be a Bengali and an Indian,a Catalonian and a Spaniard,at the same time.

This new formulation of state-nation is more compelling than some of the previous debates about Indian nationhood. Promoted by Ashis Nandy,the metaphors of “melting pot” and “salad bowl” were widely used in the older discussion. It was argued that since the 1920s,two different versions of Indian nationhood have been in contestation: secular nationalist and Hindu nationalist. Secular nationalism guided the freedom movement. It talked of “unity in diversity”.

Hindu nationalists have historically disagreed with this narrative of Indian nationhood. A “salad bowl”,according to them,does not generate cohesion; a “melting pot” does. Hinduism is the centre of Indian nationhood,and all others must assimilate into the Hindu centre,or melt into the Hindu pot. Via ekya (assimilation),argued Savarkar,minorities will prove their loyalty to the nation.

Though Savarkar’s argument was about religious minorities,this view also had a regional dimension. Hindu nationalists were originally in favour of Hindi for all and political centralisation. By now,political experience has changed them. At the very least,they have accepted federalism as a convenient administrative device for running a continent-size polity.

The new concept of state-nation is,of course,against the “melting pot” concept of Indian nationhood. But it also disagrees with Nandy’s “salad bowl” view. A state-nation does not simply safeguard diversities; it also simultaneously nurtures a commitment to the larger Indian political community.

In India,I think,the institutions that have played a key role in generating all-India loyalties include,historically,the Congress party,the armed forces,the Indian administrative service (IAS),the IITs and IIMs,central high schools,the Supreme Court,and over the last two decades,the Election Commission. The hypothesis that Bollywood and cricket have enlarged the corpus of all-India loyalties also has enormous plausibility.

The IAS is rightly criticised for its red tape and for obstructing India’s economic progress. But from a nation-building perspective,another side of the IAS deserves fresh scrutiny. Since IAS officers are part of both Centre and states — they are selected by Delhi but assigned to a state cadre — they are in many ways an embodiment of the state-nation concept. Their incentives are structured in such a way that even when they serve states,Delhi is never far away from their consciousness.

A simultaneous pursuit of recognising diversity and building unity is not an easy political task. India’s record is not perfect,as secessionism in some states has clearly demonstrated. But surveys show that despite their diversities,more than 85 per cent of Indians are “very proud” or “proud” of India,a figure higher than it is for Switzerland and Germany,in the same league as Spain,Canada and Brazil,and only lower than the US and Australia. Moreover,only 12 per cent of Indians say that their identity is entirely regional; every two out of three Indians claim that their identity is national,or more national than regional,or equally regional and national.

What are the implications of this discussion for the current debates on Centre-state relations? First,like John Stuart Mill before him,Twain was wrong to believe that diversities precluded emergence of national feeling; despite diversities,Indian nationhood is quite strong,though it could,of course,be stronger. India’s increasingly nationalised urban middle class need not be concerned about rising state assertion. Second,Delhi needs to think whether its NCTC and Lokayukta proposals are about generating an all-India loyalty and uniformity,or about imposing Delhi’s view on states. Since evidence suggests that Indian nationhood has acquired substantial strength,it would make sense to put up with state desires rather than ride roughshod.

Accommodation of states is perhaps pragmatically necessary in an era of coalitions. It is also the right thing to do — on some questions,if not all.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and Social Sciences at Brown University,where he also directs the India Initiative,

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