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Ashutosh Varshney: On Dealing with Regional Identity

Ashutosh Varshney: On Dealing with Regional Identity

Ashutosh Varshney (L) and Pramit Pal Chaudhuri at Asia Society India Centre on Jan. 17, 2013. (Asia Society India Centre)

MUMBAI, January 17, 2013 — The identities present in a society and ways in which policies engage these identities have a large impact on the stability of countries.

Exploring this at a programme on Regional Identity and Federalism, Ashutosh Varshney, Director of Brown University's Brown-India Initiative, and Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor of the Hindustan Times and a former Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellow, joined us for a discussion in Mumbai.

Varshney described nation-states as countries like France, which thrive on unicity and have an overlap of territorial boundaries of state and cultural boundaries of nation. State-nations, on the other hand, create a sense of belonging with respect to the larger political community, while also placing institutional guarantees to safeguard politically salient diversities.

Varshney explained that a fundamental political question in India has been about how democracy and diversity should be combined. Further, with respect to federalism, combining democracy with geographically concentrated diversities is important. Because of their geographical concentration, language and tribe became the basis for federalism in India. He further said that it is conceptually flawed to think that a strong centre required weak states.

He also supported the claim that it is no longer possible to erase diversity where it is geographically concentrated, and said that federalism is one of the best ways to recognize regional identity. The task of state-nations to preserve diversity while trying to create loyalty towards the centre is challenging — but, alluding to surveys, Varshney showed that India's performance has been relatively strong. 85-90% of Indians say they are proud or very proud of their country (only Australia and the U.S. rank consistently higher on this front), and two-thirds of Indians consider themselves "only Indian" or "as Indian and regional." However, India still struggles with identities and loyalties, as evidenced by the four and a half insurgencies in India.

Exploring why India's state-nation experiment has substantially succeeded, Varshney offered that the way India was conceptualized during its freedom movement could have played a part. The Congress Party was initially a lawyers' club that felt it had to include masses to legitimize its claim to nationhood, thereby recognizing diversity. Alternatively, he said this success could be explained by the fact that Indian identities cross-cut, as opposed to places like Sri Lanka, where Tamils have cumulative identities of being geographically, linguistically and religiously distinct from Sinhalese.

Moving to other countries, Varshney noted that Indonesia faced anxiety about federalism after Suharto's fall. The government feared that autonomy would fuel secessionism and it struggled with how to decentralize power. It finally made districts very powerful, while provinces were only symbolically powerful. More districts were made subsequently, wherein districts have directly elected executives and legislatures.

In Sri Lanka, he said that the Tamils wanted their own federal polity, which they were never allowed. Nation-state policies were instead enforced, leading to a long civil war, and Sri Lanka is still grappling with the issue.

Pakistan, Varshney explained, tried nation-state policies pre-1971. A majority of its population then spoke Bengali, and Bengali-speaking East Pakistan comprised 52% of the country's population. Yet Urdu was imposed, contributing to the secession of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh. Varshney said that Pakistan is still finding its identity between a state-nation and a nation-state, contributing to its present fragility.

Read Pramit Pal Chaudhuri's blog post on the programme here.

Presented in partnership with:

Observer Research Foundation was Outreach Partner for this event. This programme was part of our Future of Asia series.

Video: Highlights from the program (20 min., 38 sec.)

 
January 17, 2013
by Komal Hiranandani