A permanent basis of unity: Civic Nationalism

An orchestra of different languages, a platter of varied flavors, a celebration of different cultures, and a temple of many faiths. A land where a myriad of religions, cultures, and beliefs flourished in peace and harmony. A meeting ground for people of diverse races, rather than a country with framed political units and suffocating boundaries. India is a place whose culture and way of life the Greeks, Arabs, Afghans, Portuguese, Persians, Mongols, and other foreign invaders embraced, and overtime were left ‘Indianized’ while also influencing India’s culture. How can there be a national identity that caters to and includes all diverse groups? Some may argue that national citizenship promotes unity and collective action, but when nationalism is politically motivated, it becomes separatist and aggressive and acts as a dividing instead of a unifying force. In order to uphold the ideals of humanism, we should transcend such rigidities and adopt civic nationalism, a nationalism of institutions and constitutions rather than one of identity where individuals are able to look past innate differences and help engender peace, harmony, and justice.

Since the diverse land of India did not have an established national identity, her response to British colonialism had to draw on Western concepts of political nationalism, but in that process, it absorbed the rigidity of those concepts and embraced the aggressive and illogical outcomes that ensued. The renowned scholar Rabindranath Tagore describes Western nationalism as “organized self-interest” that “teaches that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity” (2) (Nationalism, pg.26 and 127). The danger of such nationalism when at its extreme is that patriots neglect morality and follow the collective nationalist opinion unreflectively, blinded by passion. An example of this is the Swadeshi movement and anti-colonial boycott that tended into xenophobia where the burning of British cloth symbolized hatred for the foreigner. This movement was dominated by middle and upper-class citizens who could afford to boycott foreign goods. However, in this process, they disregarded the fact that the lower-income Indians made their living by selling foreign goods. Indians in the blind passion for their country were rejecting British goods, and overlooking the immediate impact on the less fortunate in their community. This highlights the coercive nature of politically motivated nationalism, where a patriot puts the desires and goals of his nation before other nations, losing his own sense of morality and conscience.

Ultimately, many similar political movements ensued during India’s freedom struggle giving a new meaning to Indian nationalism. One major impact of political nationalism in India was the partition, where the nation was divided not on the question of geography, but on the question of whether religion should be the determinant of nationhood or not. Those including Mohammed Ali Jinnah believed that religion should determine nationhood and hence advocated the formation of Pakistan. Whereas, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and several others believed the opposite and strove to create a secular India. They formed the Indian constitution that enshrines civic nationalism, where immutable things you acquire by birth such as ethnicity, religion, and language have no impact on your rights as an Indian national citizen. However, the current ruling establishment in India, the BJP under Narendra Modi has an alternative view of Indian national citizenship, one that is anchored not so much in diversity, pluralism, and cooperation, but rather a nationalism of identity. They are attempting to move the Indian Civic nationalism of the constitution in the direction of ethnoreligious nationalism by spreading the cultural ideology of ‘Hindutva’, which takes the all-encompassing and accepting religion of Hinduism and ties it to a political identity.

Consequently, such nationalism has threatened the assimilative ability of Indian civilization. For example, the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by India’s parliament in 2019 offers amnesty to only non-muslim illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. Excluding one community is a sustained assault on the basic underpinnings of what Indian civic nationalism is all about. This bill led to large-scale protests across the country and global retaliation. Interestingly, a large number of protesters in India were university students from all over India and abroad. Students from North East Students’ Association argued that “this bill seeks to fundamentally alter the idea of India and Indian citizenship through inclusion and exclusion based on one’s religious identity.” Furthermore, a student from Hyderabad University explains that “social media is why [they] are so aware these days as [they] receive information from various places” (NDTV) and are hence encouraged to voice their opinions. As the youth of India begin to identify as ‘global citizens’ through increasing awareness and education about global issues, they are empowered to act towards issues in their countries. The United Nations condemned the Indian Citizenship Act for being “fundamentally discriminatory in nature” (UN) as it violates India’s human rights commitments. A Times article also addressed this bill as Modi’s “biggest effort to change the religious and social makeup of India in line with Hindu Nationalist beliefs” (Times). Here, Indian citizens along with the support from people all over the world are voicing their opinions against the state for the ideals of humanity. Sectarianism and xenophobia lie at the heart of nationalist politics, hence it is imperative for nations to find a permanent basis of unity socially and not politically.

Here some may object that political influence on nationalism can lead to harmony as prosperity, a prime example of which is the Singaporean national identity. Living in Singapore for 18 years, I have witnessed the strength of diversity. It took several races and language groups coming together to build the country from scratch into a leading economy. The diverse groups present in Singapore can integrate harmoniously because of the sheer strength in each group, but more importantly because of their ability to connect to one another at a humanitarian level, as encouraged by the government. The division of Malaysia and Singapore was on similar grounds as that of Pakistan and India. Singapore believed that all races should be treated equally, whereas Malaysia believed that Malaysians should maintain political dominance. The former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew preached during separation “This is not a Malay Nation. This is not a Chinese Nation. This is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have a place in Singapore. Language, culture, religion” (1). These values were embedded in the Singaporean constitution, four official languages were established with English as a required mother tongue language to break down the language barrier between groups. What makes Singapore distinct from India is that the Singaporean government is a major proponent of unity and civic nationalism, whereas, in India, the constitution and values of unity are ignored for power and political advantage.

In this increasingly globalized world, we must think beyond the ideas of world leadership, global domination, and conventional international relations and focus on cooperative relationships that spread the ideals of humanitarianism and equality. Singapore teaches us to honor and celebrate religion and culture, without the need for it to be associated with a political identity. Similarly, Indian identity should relate to citizenship and land rather than the exclusionary and bigotry doctrine of Hindutva. Indian identity should stem from the constitution and not from Hindu scriptures, as only then can it coexist in harmony with other identities around the world. To manage diversity in the multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic society and polity that India is, India needs to move away from an identity that is linked to primordial aspects of our birth such as religion, caste, and color and instead celebrates civic nationalism as opposed to politically motivated nationalism. India must look back at her past and attempt to spark a revival of her old sense of nationhood, and bring back a sense of community not restricted by rational definitions or boundaries, but one that needed to be felt and experienced.


(1) “In Full: PM Lee on Race, Multiracialism and Singapore’s Place in the World.” TODAYonline.

(2) Tagore, Sir Rabindranath. Nationalism. Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1921.



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