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Samarpan Samajdar asked: What are the implications of ethnic sub-nationalism on bilateral relations in South Asia?

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  • Ashok K. Behuria replies: Most states in South Asia are multi-ethnic/cultural ones. The peculiar history of the region ensured large scale migration across different subregions of South Asia over time, resulting in ethnic, cultural and linguistic overlaps by default when the modern states were constituted as a byproduct of both colonial politics and anti-colonial struggles in the mid-twentieth century. Thus, there are Punjabi and Urdu/Hindustani speaking linguistic population spread between India and Pakistan; Bangla speaking population between India and Bangladesh and Tamil speaking between India and Sri Lanka. Similar linkages exist as far as religion, culture and ethnicities are concerned.

    These overlaps, in normal circumstances, would have enabled lasting positive linkages among states, however, the specificity of exclusivist nation-building exercises undertaken in different countries precluded such a possibility. Ethnic (or sub-nationalist) overlaps, in fact, emerged as points of concern/friction between states affecting relations between them adversely. 

    Such so-called sub-national groups/identities--and especially those with a perceived sense of marginalisation/persecution, both because of the reflexively majoritarian impulses of evolving democratic systems, and their inability to assimilate themselves in the state-nationalist identities being spawned by different states, due to their own sense of indulgence in their separateness (which they thought disallowed their legitimate right to grow and sustain themselves)--have asserted themselves as centrifugal forces provoking security interventions (in most cases in an excessive manner) because of the dis-integrationist threats they pose to different states. In many cases, due to the ethno-linguistic-religious overlaps, such threats have developed spontaneous cross-border linkages, impairing inter-state relations.

    It is a fact that the states of South Asia are not mono-national states like the ones in Europe in the 18th century that inspired the post-colonial Westphalian state systems in the region. The zeal, on the part of the political elites to build states as nation-states, in some cases, disregarding the diversity of the societies they represent, has led to such assertions by many groups who have either not been able to mainstream themselves or have not been mainstreamed well by the ruling elites in those countries.

    Posted on 30 June 2021

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.