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Indian Nation-State Becomes A Prison House For Minorities

  0 comments   |     by Jaspal Singh Sidhu

 At the outset, we must confront a bitter fact that it was a ‘transfer of power’ in 1947 which Indian rulers celebrated as ‘Freedom’ and ‘Independence’. If we use a terse coinage, it was a ‘systematic transfer of power’ between the colonial elite (Britisher) and the post-colonial elite (Congress). That is why, the pre-1947 imperial state has been continuing to operate, however, stealthily even as post-colonial India as it flaunts to have the largest democracy in the world. The recent history shows that the Indian state easily turned into a ‘military state’ whenever there was a political expediency of controlling a domestic rage arising out of people’s dissents. In fact, the old colonial state is still operative at the administrative level. Its operation can be seen in enforcement of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) of 1860 and several other archaic laws still on the statute. The atrocious act of 124A- was framed by the Britishers to dub activities of the Indians –the Raj’s subjects– fighting for freedom as ‘seditious’ as to supress them with iron hand. The same act is in frequent use today. The Public Safety Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and other ‘black laws’, applicable in free India till date have drawn their legitimacy from the British laws. Ironically, viceroy Lord Linlithgow had promulgated Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance to control ‘Indian subjects’ up in revolt in 1940s which was reshaped as AFSPA in 1950s.The draconian law was slapped on the people of Manipur and those living in some other parts of north-east around 60 years ago and remains in force there till date. Under AFSPA, the army is enjoying near absolute authority in Jammu and Kashmir. Punjab, particularly the Sikhs, too have experienced its squeeze in 1980s.

Far-reaching impact of Colonialism: The colonial era completely changed rather metamorphosed the face of the earth by imposing Western style of precepts and practice on natives. Consequently, the natives’ cultures were supressed and their way of life and histories were reframed under the alien style of governance. The Indian sub-continent, too, experienced two major developments following its colonization by the British Empire (the Raj) in 19thcentury. First, the Raj imparted a geographical unity to India that had never been achieved even under historically known big empires of Ashoka, Gupta and Akbar. Thus, the Raj provided a ‘geographical area’ to the ‘Idea of India’.

Secondly, the Raj implanted the Western-style nation-state and governance in the Indian sub-continent, beginning with setting up an Imperial Legislative Council through an Act of 1892 to provide ‘self-rule’ in phases through elections to civil bodies and provincial bodies with ‘partial to larger participation of locals’. Most of Congress and League leaders involved in the struggle for Independence were English educated or had studied in Europe. They had grasped the Western political system and modernization as ‘panacea for all Indian ills’.

With West nationalism in mind, Nehru was not for devolution of political power from the Centre to the provincial governments. He had also rejected the Cabinet Mission of 1946 which had brought a ‘confederation sort of vision’ for free India. As a result, the subcontinent was partitioned on religious lines into India and Pakistan. Ironically, both countries became ‘nations’ overnight. Both states embarked on the path of ‘nation-building’ which involved the homogenizing of the natives linguistically and culturally into a ‘nation’ yoked to the state.

Developments of 1947 were a watershed in the history of the Indian subcontinent since its natives got severed from their past and the old feudal style of governance completely. The British empire had already built up public institutions, albeit, partially, which facilitated India’s switch-over to a democratic-set up based on universal sufferance and capitalistic mode of economy. The Indian rulers, however, kept their umbilical chord attached to the outgoing Raj by adopting Westminster’s undiluted model for the Indian Constitution picking up 250 of the 395 articles ‘word by word’ from the British Government of India Act passed by the Baldwin cabinet in 1935.

Then, the Congress elite arranged the study of election systems of England, Canada, USA and Ireland and went for the ‘first-past-the post’ system over the ‘proportional representation’ one as the former always ensured better manipulation from the top. Surely, this electoral system paid rich dividends as the Congress which ruled the country continuously for three decades with 30 to 35 per cent polled vote-share. Recently BJP Prime Minister Nerendra Modi’s win with 31 percent votes in May 2014 Lok Sabha polls was hailed as ‘resounding victory’.

The constitution, callled ‘sambidhan’, in Hindi, meaning guaranteeing equality to everybody—was hailed as a ‘sacred document of Indian unity and governance’ implying that those not subscribing to the constitution are ‘anti-India’ or ‘anti-national’. Ironically, the constitution does not provide due ‘safeguards’ to the minorities. That is why, the Sikh members on the constituent assembly- which too was not of representative character- refused affix their signatures as an act of their disapproval. Besides that, the constitution, under section 25 has clubbed the Sikhs with other Hindu sects thereby denying them their separate and exclusive socio-religious existence in India.

Euphoria of Independence could not conceal such ugly realities of the ‘nation-state’ model of governance for a long time. Indian minorities, people of north-west, north-east and deep south soon became restless as they were deprived of rights, even those enshrined in the constitution. When their helplessness took the shape of an open dissent, the Indian state began showing its carnivorous teeth. Side by side, Indian rulers embarked on the campaign of centralizing the power at New Delhi asserting the state’s ‘legitimacy and monopoly over the use of violence against the people under various pretexts like maintaining ‘law and order’ or normalcy.

Rise of ‘nationalism’ in second half of 19th century which helped building a ‘freedom movement’ in India, took altogether different turn in post-colonial era. It came handy to the New Delhi rulers for using ‘nationalism’ as an instrument for whipping up people’s sentiments against the projected external enemies like Pakistan and effected ‘political territorialisation’ of India. That process also witnessed ‘geo-bodification’ of India. Military and para-military forces along with Indian map, flag and ‘Bande maatrum’- a ‘national prayer’- were trumpeted as strong symbols of India’s territorial unity assiduously raised to a ‘holy status’.

Internally, the ‘nationalism’ is being injected with a dose of ‘jingoism and ultra-ism’ as and when it suited to the political expediency arising out of the imposition of the majority community’s ethos and traditions. Already, for enforcing the nation-building project the Indian history and culture are being reinterpreted and mythicised to give the ‘idea of India’ a concrete shape of ‘Indian nation’. To the chagrin of minorities, the nation-building process backed by the state has practically been following the dictum of ‘Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan.’ This course of developments pushed minorities and those people living at the country’s periphery into an unresolvable predicament. It could be summed up in their oft-repeated cries that they have been reduced to ‘second-class citizens’.

Concept of Nation-State–a pestering wound:

Putting in simple words: the modern State is a system of governance with sovereign powers applicable to certain geographical area and the people inhibiting there and it acquires the people’s allegiance as a prior condition for its citizenship. But nation-state is more than fixity of boundaries as it seeks to homogenize the diversity and populations with distinctions into a bigger ethno-religious and cultural identity. It purges out or suppresses those social and religious identities which affect the state’s ability to remain united and, thus, it is exclusivist political process. (Istvan Hont)

Underscoring the devastating impact of the nation-state dispensation, E.J Hobsbawm writes in his book, Nations and Nationalism since 1780 that in Europe there were as many as 400 identities before 1780 but after 1880, when nation-state came into existence, only 17 identities were left. The nation-state in India too is out to smother the minorities with distinct religious-cultural identity and destroying diverse and pluralistic landscape.

During freedom struggle itself, the Congress began weaving nationalism around the Hindu majority. It is evident from the concept of nationalism elaborated by Nehru was more emotional and of romantic variety. In his book ‘The Discovery of India’ Nehru says that the India sub-continent has ‘something unique’ about its antiquity … having “tremendous impress of oneness’…. making its inhabitants ‘throughout the ages distinctively Indian, with the same national heritage and same set of moral and mental qualities…. a dream of unity has occupied the mind of Indians since the dawn of civilization”. Such patriotic imagery of Nehru left a little space for pluralism and diversity which alienated the largest Muslim minority leading to an avoidable consequence—the Partition. (Perry Anderson)

Stating tersely: World over, the Modern nation-state governance based on universal suffrage, invariably, divides the population into the majority and minority segments. It is well-known fact that only those politicians could come in and stay in power who have a bigger vote-bank. Herein begins the pampering, nursing, nurturing and consolidation of the majority vote-bank through some concrete and populist measures. In the process, the minorities with lesser headcount (votes) get relegated to the position of second rate citizens. It is a tried practice in India that to earn goodwill of the majority, the politicians even ask the minorities either to prove their loyalty and patriotism or face punitive action from the state.

Independence Era and the Sikhs: Focussing on the Sikhs: The Sikhs were the biggest victims of the Partition as they suffered huge casualties besides losing large tracts of fertile land in canal colonies and got in lieu in east Punjab an undeveloped and lesser acreage of land as compared to what they left in west Punjab. The Sikhs lost Guru Nanak’s birth place, Nanakana Sahib and other historical Sikh shrines located across the border in Pakistan.

The Sikh leaders were given a promise that “the Congress will help them to arrange east Punjab as CULTURAL HOME to the Sikhs….” (Kumar). Soon after Independence, the Congress leaders showed their real colour and began cold-shouldering the Sikh leaders who had joined the Indian union. The Sikh leaders, latter, felt robbed and cheated.

After one year, the same Sikh leaders approached Mountbatten (first Governor General of free India) in 1948 and beseeched him to prevail upon Nehru and Patel to keep their pledges with the Sikhs. Mountbatten himself was full of foreboding on the future of the Sikhs and penned down in February 1948: “The Sikhs as part of Pakistan would have retained a measure of political identity. But as part of Hindustan, they feared economic absorption by the Hindus; also religious absorption. In short, they feared, probably correctly, virtual extinction as a political force and survival only a rapidly dwindling religious sect of Hinduism”. (Kumar)

Running from pillar to post for some political rectification, Sikh leaders launched an agitation for Punjabi speaking state. But the 19-year- long period of the Sikh agitation for a Punjabi suba saw denial of mother tongue by a section of non-Sikh Punjabis and main opposition from the Congress party and leaders of Arya Samaj. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri conceded Punjabi suba only when he thought that India could ill-afford a restive Sikh population in the border area as the country was on the brink of a war with Pakistan in 1965. Even new Punjab state, created in 1966, was robbed off river waters, Chandigarh capital and a large expanse of Punjabi speaking areas.

Nehru’s ‘nation-state’ project coupled with mirage of socialism and planned development had an implicit requirement of a strong centre and centralized economy. Centralized Indian polity reached its pinnacle during the Indira Gandhi regime. From 1970 to1974, nineteen provincial governments were removed, Emergency was clamped in 1975 and Tamil Nadu government was toppled simply for not implementing the New Delhi directive of censuring the press and to jail the anti-Emergency activists. The Akalis opposed the centralized polity and launched an agitation (morcha) against Emergency.

At this critical juncture the Akalis dished out the Anandpur Sahib resolution, their political agenda, seeking the provincial autonomy through a constitutional re-look on centre-state relations. The resolution, later, became the basis of the Akali Dal agitation began in August 1982.Courting of more than three lakh arrests by the Sikh volunteers during their peaceful ‘satyagrah’ a protest mode used by Gandhi himself to win freedom, did not result in the settlement of the Akali demands. Ruling Congress, rather, used the Akali protest as an opportunity to polarize and politicize the Hindu majority around twin goals – for consolidating vote-bank and for strengthening concept of ‘nation-state’ around the whirlpool ‘unity and integrity’. Giving a deliberate tilt to the Anandpur Sahib resolution as a “separatist and seditious’’ document, the New Delhi Establishment camouflaged its autocratic act of shedding away the shibboleth of constitutional democracy and transforming the ‘secular democratic state’ into a majoritarian rule.

This was the politics behind the military attack on the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the Sikh Vatican, in June 1984 and effecting of an organized massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and other places following assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984.Political dissent of the Sikhs rooted in their sense of distinct historical and cultural identity, thus, came into direct conflict with Indian state upholding the ‘majoritarian model of patriotism and nationalism’. Iron hand tactics unleashed by the State were symptomatic of a political design and strategy which a noted young historian Ananya Vajpeyi describes as: “a sort of second and ‘shadow nation’ came into action against the Sikhs “functioning as a MILITARY STATE rather than an electoral democracy”.

Referring to recurring and perennial violence against minorities in nation-states, eminent sociologist Shiv Visvanathan has documented 14 major massacres of later half of 20th century involving the killings of at least 60 million people—more loss of lives than that of two world wars put together.

Unearthing finer nuances of ‘nation-states’ functioning, eminent political analyst Michael Mann says, “(Empirically) Nation-state requires ethnic cleansing. Liberal democracies have also committed cleansing—amounting to Genocide… wherever democracy triumphed, it has often tinged with ethnic cleansing as liberal democracies (find it) easy to play it out. And homogeneity and stability of these democracies was creation of violence”.

During pre-Independence period, the Sikh leaders failed to realize what the fate awaiting their tiny minority in the coming western-style democracy in which power-structure is based on the headcount. Eminent Punjabi writer Prof Puran Singh warned the Sikh leaders that an election system which places donkey and horse on the same pedestal could not benefit the Sikhs. And in free India, too, Sikh intellectuals failed to comprehend the depredations of a ‘nation-state’ regime where a majority invariably rules and even project the minorities as ‘enemies of the nation’ deserve to be supressed.

Ironically, the Sikhs never tire of repeating that they are ‘distinct people’ a ‘separate political entity’ and go to the extent of saying a ‘nation without a state’ conveniently forgetting that ‘India is being built up as a ‘nation-state’ based on majority’s culture and ethos’. Facing such predicament, the Sikhs were easily branded ‘enemies’ of India and Indians and they were treated as ‘non-citizens’, even as ‘unpeople’ during the November 84 genocide.

Leave aside their claims to the contrary, the Sikhs have been politically marginalized, and their plight tends to become more acute and complex as ‘majoritarian rule has come to stay’.

As things stand today, the saner words of Rabindranath Tagore will never be taken note of that: “Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles”.

And mainstream politicians will never bother about Tagore who had asserted: “Even though from childhood I had been taught that idolatry of the Nation is better than reverence for God and humanity. I believe I have overgrown that teaching and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them the country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Nations have extracted heavy price which human history never paid before. While this model has begun losing its viability in Europe where it had grown up with the rise of Scots, Basques, Catalonians, Quebecois and Kurds, the Hindutva forces in India are up in arms to raise ‘Hindu Rashtra’ an Indian version of Islamic Pakistan. It is recipe for violence in near future. Against this background, the minorities and deprived people are left with no choice but to come together to thwart the onslaught of Hindutva forces.


1.‘The Indian Ideology’ ,2012, Three Essays Collective, authored by Perry Anderson

2.’The Sikh Unrest and Indian State’ , Ajanta Publishers, 1997, authored by Ram Narayan Kumar

Jaspal Singh Sidhu: Retired as Special Correspondent with UNI, New Delhi and have been writing columns on socio-economic and political affairs in India. He can be reached at :

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