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Yogendra Yadav: India is a State-Nation, Not a Nation-State

India has created a new model to democratically deal with deep diversities. It accepts that political boundaries do not and need not coincide with cultural boundaries

Published: Aug 16, 2013 07:24:34 AM IST
Updated: Aug 13, 2013 12:35:01 PM IST
Yogendra Yadav: India is a State-Nation, Not a Nation-State

Yogendra Yadav
Yogendra Yadav is a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi. His interests include democratic theory, election studies, survey research. In 2009, the International Political Science Association awarded him the first Global South Solidarity Award.

The arrival of Narendra Modi at the centrestage of national politics has renewed an old debate about the idea of India. Underlying the various issues and controversies associated with Modi is a fundamental question: What kind of a nation are we? What does the Indianness of India consist of? How do we sustain a national political community across deep social and cultural diversities? Whose country is it anyway? This debate takes us back to the ghost of John Strachey, a British colonial administrator who wrote a primer in 1888 called India. The “first and the most essential thing to learn about India”, he advised his colonial masters, is that “there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious…. That men of the Punjab, Bengal, the North Western Provinces, and Madras, should ever feel they belong to one great nation is impossible.”

This bald characterisation has continued to haunt Indians. It does so because Strachey was right in one sense. If nationhood requires people living within a given political boundary to have one language, one faith, one culture and one race, then claiming nationhood for India required stretching credulity. This is how the early nationalists responded to the colonial insinuation: They invoked the essential unity of the people of India, but struggled to explain how that essence fitted all the areas that fell within the boundaries of colonial India. The one thing they found hardest to wish away was religious diversity and divisions. The dilemma has persisted in post-colonial India.

It was natural for some Indian nationalists to try the other option. Instead of stretching the interpretation, they wanted to bend the reality itself by trying to forge a unity that would conform to received standards. This is how the politics of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan was born.  Guru Golwalkar, the iconic ideologue of the RSS, saw the challenge of nation building as requiring five unities: Geographical, racial, religious, cultural and linguistic. This project involved creating a uniform national community in the light of the cultural self-image of the dominant community. Thus their politics focussed on Hindi as the national language, Hindutva as the national way of life and the north Indian Hindi-speaking region as the heartland.
This vision of nationhood is more European than Indian. It draws upon a model of the nation-state that emerged in Europe. Europe’s civilisational unease with diversities has had a long history. Nineteenth century nation-states were an attempt to settle this unease by matching the cultural boundaries of a nation with the political boundaries of a state. If there was a mismatch, the nation-state model tried either to shift the political boundaries—by creating new countries or merging existing states—or to alter the cultural boundaries by means of cultural integration, assimilation, coercion and even ethnic cleansing. 

Yogendra Yadav: India is a State-Nation, Not a Nation-State
Image: Getty Images
Tableaux representing different states at the Republic Day parade. India’s cultural policy recognises and supports more than one cultural identity

This was, of course, not the vision shared by the mainstream of India’s national movement. If there was one thing Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru shared, it was their rejection of the idea that India’s unity requires uniformity. Although they continued to use the dominant expression ‘nation-state’ for their vision of India, they laid the foundation for a different approach that saw ‘unity in diversity’. The Indian Constitution and the post-independence politics has built an institutional edifice for recognition of diversity.

India’s ‘asymmetrical’ federalism recognises the unique situation of various states. The cultural policy of the state recognises and supports more than one cultural identity. The co-existence of Indian identity with other regional and religious identities is taken for granted. Political parties that raise regional and ethnic issues are not thrown out; they are brought within the pale of legitimate democratic negotiation of power. Quietly, but surely, India has created a new model of how to deal democratically with deep diversities. This model is best described as that of a ‘state-nation’. State-nation accepts that political boundaries do not and need not coincide with cultural boundaries and that a political community can be imagined across deep diversities.

India’s experience with diversities is not without its problems. The continuing alienation in Kashmir, and the ongoing slow-burning insurgencies in Nagaland and Manipur serve as a reminder of the failures of this experiment. But these are best seen as failures to implement the model of state-nation in its true spirit rather than the failures of this model itself. In any case, the disintegration of the former USSR and Yugoslavia serves to remind us that we cannot take our continued existence as a political unit for granted. The civil war in Sri Lanka and the slow disintegration of Pakistan serve as a reminder of what India could have faced if it followed the European-style nation-state.

It is time we turned to Narendra Modi and spoke through him to the spirit of John Strachey: Thank God, India is not Europe and we don’t live in the 19th century!

(This story appears in the 23 August, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Kaushal

    Fine debate on nation state. Awesome.

    on Apr 3, 2016
  • Ashok Arora

    on yadav\'s article this is aimed at breaking the nation INDIA into diversities and not allowing INDIA to emerge as a strong nation state capable of surviving economically

    on Feb 7, 2014
    • Vishnu Karthik

      No it isn\'t.. he speaks the truth India is one country but it is made out of several nations. I am from South India so obviously my language,ethnicity and culture is VERY different from someone who is from punjab or west Bengal only thing which unites as one is the Indian citizenship. Paranoid people like you only make things worse,just accept that we\'re all different and we all have right to protect our national identity.

      on Sep 27, 2014
      • Danish

        Very True. But the main question still remains unanswered from an Indian context: 1. Why should we be willing to die for state- mulit nation? 2. Why should we need to strongly identify with such a state? And the most important, is it not but natural for a multi-nation state like India to finally devolve into the claw of separatism based on dominant European notion of nation state at one point of time if ethnic issues will keep on being raised as once happened in Tamilnadu. Will then their advocates will be treated as a traitor or a rehabilator? Anyways, our extremist freedom fighters are still considered as terrorist in British records.

        on Dec 10, 2014
  • Sunil

    Typical language of divisive mentality. He needs to see the same civilizational tract, traditions and culture is through out...from Himalayas to the sagar in south ! Yogendra Yadav is sold out and/or confused ignorant soul.

    on Jan 7, 2014
  • Ashok Arora

    very unfortunate to debate that whether TNDTA is a nation state or not i may tell those (YOGINDER YADAV) who see nothing common between the Punjab, Bengal, the North Western Provinces, and madras please remember the days of KARGIL WAR when blood camps were seen across 3500 kms length

    on Dec 17, 2013
    • Vishnu Karthik

      There is no such thing as a \"madras\"! in case you have forgotten south india is made of 5 states Andhra pradesh,Tamil nadu,Telegana,kerela and karnataka.

      on Sep 27, 2014
  • Senbaganathan

    Indian geography and eco is comparable to european nations, as linguistics region, this is good article well analysed

    on Aug 27, 2013
  • Sgh

    You crazy bro? If we werent Indians, we wouldnt still be here together in 2013, 67 years on. Did you feel Punjabi on 26/11? Did you feel Tamil during Kargil? Did you feel Marathi when Pakis shelled our border? India is India. Some will try to divide us, but India will live forever. No thanks to scum, like yourself. If there were more people like you in 1947, India wouldnt exist. BTW once you old people die, we will start marrying more often inter-state, inter-caste and inter-religion (its already happening). Its hard to hate Northies when your mom\'s from Bihar, and hard to hate Southies when dad\'s from Kerala. I know the very thought of an in-law that doesnt speak your \"glorious\" language disgusts you, thats why I beg you to hurry up and croak, old chap.

    on Aug 20, 2013
    • Senthil Kumar

      Dear Anonymous Sgh (or sleepyhead), When you talk about the Kargil, why didn\'t you feel Tamil while the issue of fishermen shot dead by the Srilankan army? Why didn\'t you feel a Nagalandian/Manipurian when Irom Sharmila is fasting for past 12 years to curb the AFSPA? Why you didn\'t feel a Kashmiri when the Kashmir Muslim girls are raped by our own army and killed with the shame name of supporters of terrorism (again AFSPA)? I would like to curb the ideology of Indianism for sure.

      on Jan 7, 2014
      • Ashok Arora

        a crime is a crime let the state deal it under law, that is no justification for disintegrating INDIA, i am not sure ur ideas are spontaneous or PAID

        on Feb 9, 2014
  • Ishant

    Mr Yadav, deep in your heart, you have some sort of sadness. You are thinking too much about India\'s nationalism. India has always been a nation, Alexander set out on his conquest, it was to conquer INDIA, not Sapta-Sindhu(Punjab), Columbus wanted to discover the route to INDIA not Gujarat, Vasco Da Gama wrote about INDIA not Kerala. Fa-Hien and Hieun-Tsang wrote about India not Bihar or Delhi. Europeans call their companies, East INDIA company, not Delhi or Calcutta company.

    on Aug 20, 2013
  • Vamanan

    This chap had divided India even before it existed! He holds the same idea of India as a British colonial administrator. That speaks much for him.

    on Aug 19, 2013
    • Senthil

      If talking truth, there was no India exist (even you go to Ramayana or Mahabharatha period, there was no mention of India) and there won\'t be an India in future if you people are blindly believing that we are all united. The \"Unity in diversity\" concept sucks.

      on Jan 7, 2014
      • Kapil

        Senthil, not really. In Ramayan and Mahabharta (and till many years after the war), there used to be one Chakravarti Raja (ruler of the world) based in India. The other kings were like Governors of a province.

        on Apr 5, 2014
  • Anjali Prasad

    Thank you for this article- it is really very timely and expresses very well the mystery of the unity in diversity that is India. I think that this diversity has always existed - and our mythological stories such as the Ramayana were written in order to unite the people of this vast land of cultural, political and religious, liguistic variations. Rama\'s journey( under the ruse of banishment ) from Ayodhya in the north to Rameshwaram in the south, Panchwati in the west and small kingdoms on the gangetic plains in the east, were maybe- an attempt by the then author to unite the nation under one umbrella while recognizing, respecting, and learning from all the different cultures Rama encountered along the way. When I think about all the invasions India has endured -by people of different races and religions (Mongols from the east, Persians from the west (now the middle east ) the slave dynasty whose roots are in Africa, the Mughals the British and other Europeans in the most recent past - we are really a giant cauldron of racial and DNA mess -strangely enough this diversity has been absorbed by the majority of the residents in such a way that we see all and each other -as Indians. I hope we never break up like Russia or Europe - and I feel too that only Mr Modi can keep this country intact and untied. I hope we are right. Because what we need is a strict disciplinarian as our leader - intellectually enlightened and who places the nation above his own petty greed.

    on Aug 17, 2013
  • Aditi Pant

    I wonder whether Modi will be able to govern the whole state-nation in the manner he has governed Gujrat? Probably the only thing uniting the whole state-nation right now is the disgust occasioned by the series of scams we have suffered as politicians who do not understand democracy nor governance and who are concerned only with \" perpetuate their illegal activitites.

    on Aug 16, 2013
  • Rakesh

    That is why we do not need any Central services like IAS in the country, but it is mutually beneficial for the rulers and the IAS.....

    on Aug 16, 2013
  • Tushar Jambhekar

    We are still very much a Union of States. Apaprt from linguistic differences, there are differences across the states with regards to business practices, taxation as well as social welfare policies and their implementation. The number of coalition led governments at the centre signify that commom agenda for a nation and regional needs just dont match up. Regional successes of a government or a leader only suggests that there are best practices which can be a foundation for implementation in other regions and possibly taken on a national scale.

    on Aug 16, 2013
  • Varun

    Maybe we should call this nation as the \'United\' States of India...

    on Aug 16, 2013