Practice  Question – What is ethno-nationalism? Examine the critical factors responsible for tribal discontent in India. [UPSC 2019]

Approach – Introduction, Define Ethno-nationalism, How is ethno-nationalism expressed in India, List and analyse the factors for tribal discontent in India, Give examples,, Conclusion. 



Are nations formed or is humanity inherently blessed with nations? In other words, are nations a contingency or are they an integral part of human condition? Understandably most nationalists (nationalist ideologues, writers, poets or practitioners of nationalist politics) have tended to look upon nations as given and somewhat perennial. These nations, according to nationalist perception, only needed to be aroused from their deep slumber by the agent called nationalism.

Perhaps the earliest attempt to define a nation was made in 1882 by Ernest Renan, a French scholar. He defined nation, as a human collectively brought together by will, consciousness and collective memory (and also common forgetfulness, or a collective amnesia). He called the nation as an exercise in everyday plebiscite. The strength of Renan’s definition lay in providing a voluntaristic (as against naturalistic) component to the understanding of nation.

Joseph Stalin offered a much sharper and comprehensive understanding of nations. Nation, according to Stalin, was a human collectivity sharing a common territory, language, economic life and a psychological make-up. His complete definition in his own words: ‘A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of the a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.’

Ernest Gellner: ‘Nationalism is political principle that holds that national and political units should be congruent.’Gellner is probably the only one who has begun his enquiry by first defining nationalism and then having moved on to nation. His definition of nationalism covers, at one stroke, national sentiment, thinking, consciousness, ideology and movement.

Indian Nationalism

Indian Nationalist Movement, as you are aware, was a grand and prolonged struggle launched against British imperialism. Nationalism was the main ideology and the instrument with whose help this struggle was launched. In the context of the Indian Nationalist Movement, Indian nationalism represented two major ideas: anti-imperialism and national unity. In other words, any person, movement or organisation that practised and upheld these two ideas, could be considered a nationalist.

Indian nationalism was territorial rather than ethnic or religious. This meant that the claim to Indianness was put forward on the basis of territory and nor religion. Anyone who lived on the India soil was considered a member of the national community. It was not so much the common culture or a common language (as elucidated by Stalin’s definition) that went into the making of the national community, but rather the common economic exploitation under British imperialism.



Ethno-nationalism is a kind of sub-nationalism based upon ethnic identity of the ethnic groups. It is as vertical division of nationalism and excludes all those people from it who do not belong to same ethnic group. That is, it is an exclusive form of nationalism involving just one ethnic group. For instance, Muslims throughout the world constitute the nation. But they are further divided in two major ethnic groups (Shia and Sunni).

In short, ethno-nationalism is the nationalism of ethnic groups such as Muslim, Kurds, Latvians, Tamils etc., who define their nation in exclusive terms, mainly on the basis of
common descent, race, culture, history and language. Here, the word, ‘common descent’ is the most important because merely by adoption of language and culture on one can be included in that particular ethnic group.

Ethno-nationalism transcends the boundaries of state, religion sect and class. It seeks to fragment established nationalities and communities and create new ones using ethnic
indicators. The symbolic and cultural aspects of ethnicity are important in themselves and often get politicised for the promotion of collective interests. Most ethno-national conflicts are for a larger share of economic resources and products and for a greater part in decision-making processes. According to Joseph Rothschild, “politicised ethnicity has become the most keen and potent edge of intrastate and interstate conflict and it asserts itself today dialectically as the leading legitimator or delegitimating or political authority.”

It any particular ethnic group feels that its collective interests cannot be promoted outside the territories of the existing state, then it demands secession from the state. In this case, the principle of self-determination is claimed by the ethnic group wishing to secede. After decades of subordination, several nationalities in USSR found that they could not
any more reconcile their interests with the once mighty Union and seceded as soon as the political centre became fragile. However, in case of Yugoslavia, the principle of self-determination was taken to an extreme, Slovenian and Croatia sought and attained violent separation from a perceived Serb dominated Yugoslavia on this principle. Pakistan which aimed to establish a homeland for Muslim in South Asia, today has smaller population of Muslim than India, and in 1971 itself, a large portion of Bangla Muslims had seceded from Pakistan. 

Ethnic cleansing is the most dreaded dimension of ethno-national conflict. It is a ‘cleaning operation’ carried out by one ethnic group of the other ethnic groups. In this type ethnic conflict, the indigenous ethnic group launches a genocide and/or expulsion of the foreigners (those who not originally belong to that state) Bosnia Herzegovina, for instance, which declared its independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, late in December  1991, will go in history for the magnitude of its human tragedy. Ethnic Serbs in Bosnia not only captured two-thirds of Bosnia territory, they also started an ethnic cleansing programme that caused death, destitution and the forced eviction of a large number of Bosnian Muslims.



Civic nationalism also known as liberal nationalism, is a form of nationalism identified by political philosophers who believe in an inclusive form of nationalism that adheres to traditional liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights. Civic nationalists often defend the value of national identity by saying that individuals need a national identity in order to lead meaningful, autonomous lives and that democratic polities need national identity in order to function properly. Civic nationalism is frequently contrasted with ethnic nationalism. Civic nationhood is a political identity built around shared citizenship within the state. Thus, a “civic nation” is defined by not language or culture but political institutions and liberal principles, which its citizens pledge to uphold. Membership in the civic nation is open to anyone who shares those values.

Civic nationalism lies within the traditions of rationalism and liberalism, but as a form of nationalism it is contrasted with ethnic nationalism. Ernest Renan is often thought to be an early civic nationalist. Philosopher Hans Kohn was one of the first to differentiate civic nationalism from ethnic nationalism in his 1944 publication The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in Its Origins and Background.  Membership of the civic nation is considered voluntary, as in Renan’s classical definition in “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” of the nation as a “daily referendum” characterized by the “will to live together”. Civic-national ideals influenced the development of representative democracy in countries such as the United States and France.  Civic nationalism shares elements of the Swiss concept of Willensnation, which is German for “nation by will”, coined by Carl Hilty, understood as shared experience and dedication by citizens.

Unlike the centralisation tendency exhibited in ethnic-nationalism, civic nationalism emphasises on local autonomy. Civic nationalists accept some restrictions on national sovereignty to agree on multilateral rules on global public goods. This is also the case in global environmental damage or international spread of crime, and restrictions on cross-border tax-dodging. Notably, this ultimately helps the national interest. Lately, there is accusations on Civic Nationalism as nations are becoming more conservative by exhibiting signs of Xenophobia and anti-immigrant stance. 

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