Nationalism In South Asia Research Paper

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Nationalism, which first developed in the West as a conscious political ideology, spread to other parts of the world in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It sustained political and social-cultural movements of great power in South Asia, i.e., the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The ethnic diversity of the region, the responses to colonial rule which subsumed and overlapped with reactions to the encounter with Western civilization, as well as the shifting definitions of national identity determined by the region’s history both under colonial rule and after decolonization, gave nationalism in the area a very distinctive and at times highly idiosyncratic character. The purpose of this research paper is to identify these diversities, explain their nature and origin, and trace the outlines of their history over time. It will also discuss the wide variety of approaches to the phenomenon which define and explain it in fundamentally different ways.

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1. Origin And Development Of Nationalism In South Asia

1.1 The Pan-Indian Scene In The Nineteenth Century

One major consequence of the British rule in India was the unification of the subcontinent under one centralized political and administrative authority, even though two-fifths of the territory remained under the rule of Indian princes who accepted British paramountcy but enjoyed autonomy in all internal matters. A second development, crucial to our understanding of nationalism in the region, was the growth of a class of people who assisted in the functioning of colonial rule as middle-or low-level functionaries or found new means of livelihood like law, modern medicine, journalism, or teaching in the new Western-style educational institutions. This ‘colonial middle class’ soon had a shared language in English and were participants in a common intellectual discourse, facilitated by the new print culture and the modern means of transport and communication. Their colonial experience and exposure through modern education to Western history and social-political ideas laid the intellectual basis for nationalism and also helped create a shared body of expectations and grievances, which were sharpened by the experience of racist discrimination (see Sarkar 1989).

A new upsurge in literary and intellectual creativity and movements of social reform, described by some as India’s nineteenth century Renaissance, laid the foundations of what may be described as protonationalist ideology in the first half of the nineteenth century (Majumdar1962–3). The researches of Western, especially British, Orientalists fed into these new concerns helping forge the belief in a great and unique past and thence the yearning for a comparable future glory. One essential component of this glorious future was to be a seat of honor in the comity of nations. The latter implied sovereignty, though clear articulation of such bold expectations was late in coming: In the last decade of the nineteenth century only a small group of militant nationalists began to think in such terms (Majumdar 1962–3). The educated Indians, a small portion of the total population, who began to share the newly emerging political consciousness accepted for the most part the fact of British rule as an enduring political reality which would persist for an indefinite period. The responses to this awareness ranged from enthusiastic faith in the redeeming and providential character of British rule, through hopeless resignation, to a desperate longing to try to end it: nationalist ideology could be and initially was, for the most part, strongly proempire.

1.2 The Dominant Strand In Indian Nationalism

All-India nationalist consciousness and ideology found an institutional and programmatic base in the Indian National Congress (INC) established in 1885. Initially blessed by the colonial government as a ‘safety valve’ for letting out any accumulated grievance against the ruler, the INC soon came to be suspect as a potentially seditious organization, despite its repeated avowal of loyalty to the empire at its annual meetings. But soon a militant wing did develop within the Congress and its most prominent leader, B. G. Tilak, declared in his journal, Kesari, that freedom was the birthright of humankind (Wolpert 1989). When the first political murders took place, the government believed that Tilak was the source of inspiration for these acts. Militancy found expression in a mass agitation when the government decided to partition the province of Bengal in 1905 hoping, inter alia, to weaken the political base of the nationalistic Bengali Hindu middle class whom they identified as highly ‘anti-British’ (Sarkar 1973). The consequent resentment also fed into the movement for violent action against the rulers which led to local and India-wide conspiracies during World War I and after. The conflict between the ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ induced a split in the Congress (1907) which weakened the organization for years to come (Argov 1967).

The advent of Gandhi, a world figure since his nonviolent campaign in South Africa against the regime’s racist policies, led to a transformation of nationalist agenda after the war. Gandhi, despite his pacifism, had cooperated with the war effort until 1918. But violent repressive actions in the Punjab in 1919 and the way the British-sponsored enquiry into these events tried to play these down were major factors in his decision to launch a nonviolent campaign of noncooperation: The aim was to win swaraj, i.e., self-rule (Brown 1972). A major section of Muslim opinion in India had been alienated by the way the Allies treated their religious head or khalifa, the Sultan of Turkey. The mass movement launched by Gandhi brought in these disgruntled Muslims who sought justice for the Khalifa (Hasan 1991). One strikingly new feature of this agitation, known as the Noncooperation-Khilafat Movement, was the technique of satyagraha or nonviolent struggle which had strong ethical overtones. For Gandhi, the struggle was not merely a campaign to achieve independence but an ‘experiment with truth,’ the moral purpose being for him at least as important as the political goal, if not more so (Gandhi 1948). Following a very violent action by the supporters of the movement, he suspended it in 1922. This brought to an end the Khilafat Movement as well, and with it the unity in a common struggle which brought the nationalists and militant Muslims together.

Gandhi led one more mass agitation, the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930–4) and in 1937, when the British granted a new constitution to India which conceded a fair measure of power to elected governments in the provinces, the INC gained a majority in most of the provinces, but had very limited support in the Muslim majority provinces. During World War II, India was declared a belligerent without consultation with the Indian political parties and the Congress ministries in the provinces resigned. A British mission led by Sir Stafford Cripps failed to secure the INC’s cooperation in the war effort. The Congress leadership, including Gandhi, who were planning to launch another mass agitation, were imprisoned in 1942 and a largely spontaneous mass movement, known by a slogan devised by Gandhi, ‘Quit India,’ erupted. Meanwhile, in 1940 the Muslim League, which eventually won the support of the majority of Muslims in India, launched a campaign for an autonomous Muslim homeland, Pakistan. The Congress leaders were released in 1945 at the end of the war and negotiations with all political parties led to transfer of power and the partition of India into two successor states, India and Pakistan in 1947 (Moore 1974, Mansergh 1970).

While the INC under Gandhian leadership provided a common platform for nationalists of many hues, Indian nationalism was never a seamless web. Firstly, within the Congress, from a very early stage there were the moderates and extremists, i.e., those who preferred the path of constitutional agitation leading to autonomy within the empire and the others who preferred a more militant program aiming at independence. Later, the ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ within the Congress represented these two different approaches, except that Gandhi, usually identified with the Right, preferred caution even though he led two nationwide agitations. ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ came to subsume a more basic ideological division: the former was in favor of moderate socioeconomic reforms, while the latter wanted a radical program of change undermining the existing status quo. The Congress developed a socialist wing in the 1930s and even the newly born Communist Party of India was allowed to function from within the Congress until 1942 when they opposed the Quit India movement (Majumdar 1962–3). The tension between the Congress Right and Left reached a breaking point when the youthful leader, Subhashchandra Bose, felt compelled to leave the party and form a separate organization, the Forward Bloc. Later he left India during the war and, with Japanese help, formed the Indian National Army (INA). The INA, which participated in the war against the British in the eastern theater of war made a tremendous impact on Indian nationalist consciousness. The British had to abandon the trial of INA prisoners of war in the face of such strong sentiments (Gordon 1990)

Secondly, while the Muslim support for the Congress dwindled especially after 1928 when an All Party Conference failed to secure agreement between the nationalists and Muslim parties seeking future safeguards for Muslims in independent India, sections of Muslims remained staunchly loyal to the nationalist cause within or outside the Congress (Hasan 1991).

Thirdly, India’s multiethnicity meant that modern political consciousness had more than one focus. ‘Nationalism’ often meant a strong sense of local cultural identity and a consequent pride in an imagined ethnic past. In many cases, pan-Indian nationalism could accommodate such ‘local nationalisms’ as an integral part of the larger identity. There was no conflict between a Bengali, Assamese, or Gujrati sense of past glory and present loyalty to the language-based culture and similar sentiments focused on Indianness and an Indian political identity (McCully 1940, Brass 1974). The Congress successfuly accommodated regional aspirations and managed interregional conflicts of aspiration both before and after the transfer of power. Only in specific historical circumstances, especially after the transfer of power, did such potentialities of tension and alienation reach unmanageable levels.

1.3 Muslim Nationalism And Foundation Of Pakistan

The INC and Indian nationalism failed in their effort to absorb one religion-based ethnic identity. In precolonial times, the Hindu–Muslim divide, so called, was a social rather than a political fact. Under the Muslim kings, Hindus always constituted a large if not the larger proportion of the ruling class. In the great rebellion of 1857, Hindu and Muslim soldiers, peasants, feudatories, and princes fought together with the ostensible purpose of restoring Mughal rule. In the colonial era, the rulers’ policy of securing alliances through the distribution of such resources as they controlled, especially education, jobs, and seats on representative bodies, were often based on an identification of the communities as basic political constituencies. This fact helped politicize community identities: In the case of Muslims this identity was seen to have a pan-Indian dimension. The cultural revival in nineteenth century India focused among other things on a romanticized vision of Islam’s past glory in and outside India (Pakistan Historical Society 1957–[1970]).

As Indian nationalism’s image of the past focused initially on Hindu achievements and often portrayed the rule of the medieval Muslim dynasts as an age of slavery for the Hindus, the political agenda of the Pakistan movement postulated the theory of two nations, ignoring the multiple components of both the Hindu and the Muslim communities in India, as also the absence of any pan-Indian consciousness in either community in the precolonial period. This two-nation theory was endorsed by some Hindu historians as well who treated the history of the Indo-Islamic era as a period of foreign rule (Hardy 1972, Page 1987, Majumdar 1962–3).

1.4 Nationalism In Postcolonial South Asia

In divided India, the power of nationalism in the Indian Union was manifest in the success in bringing all the princely states within the union’s boundaries into the union with the active support of the local populations and the very survival of the union for more than 50 years to date. The local aspirations, often manifested as centrifugal tendencies, have been successfully negotiated for the most part. In the Punjab, the aspirations of the Sikh community developed into a movement for independence, but a policy of severe repression and conciliation of more moderate elements has proved successful (Brass 1994). In the north-east, several local groups continue to fight for secession from India as do the Muslim separatists in Kashmir. But the forces of commitment to a united India appear to be stronger than centrifugal tendencies. A number of ethnic movements in different parts of India are concerned more with the formation of autonomous states within India than with dreams of independence (Baruah 1999).

In Pakistan, the ascendancy of the Punjab and the ruling elite’s refusal to accommodate the aspirations of the Bengalis in East Pakistan produced a nationalist movement first based on their linguistic-cultural identity. In 1971, the East Pakistan-based Awami League won an absolute majority in Parliament, but their demand for virtual autonomy was answered by massive repression. This led to a war of liberation, and Indian intervention contributed to defeat of the Pakistani army. The independent state of Bangladesh was thus born. Some saw in this event the inevitable triumph of ethnicity-based centrifugal tendencies, but perhaps the hamhanded policies of Pakistan’s military government were more to blame. The movements for autonomy or secession in Sindh, Baluchistan, and the North West have also perhaps more to do with cynical misrule than spontaneous ethnic aspirations (Khan 1985).

2. Differing Interpretations Of Nationalism In South Asia

There is no consensus on the nature and dynamics of nationalism in South Asia. The imperialist perception repeatedly emphasized the multiethnicity of South Asian society, implying that a nation state was not viable in the context of this ‘society of societies.’ In this view, nationalism was the false aspiration of a cynical elite in India who tried to mislead the masses, normally loyal to the imperial connection (Strachey 1888, Chirol 1910). Opposed to this was the nationalist self-perception as the upholders of the natural rights of the Indian people: They wrested India’s independence from the rulers through sustained struggle; a reluctant colonial power conceded it in slow stages in response to successive waves of mass agitation, unique in their allegiance to an ideology of nonviolence (Sitaramayya 1946–7). An organization originally confined to the elite gradually brought in the masses through successful propaganda by word and action. The imperialists, by contrast, projected the notion that they gradually trained up the Indian people in the art of self-government. The delay in handing over power was entirely due to the internal squabbles of Indian politics, especially the irreconcilable aspirations of Hindus and Muslims which eventually led to the partition of India (Coupland 1944).

More recent interpretations have strong resonances of these older views. A group of historians in Cambridge explained the dynamics of Indian politics in terms of collaboration with the Raj and competition between various indigenous groups for a share in the resources made available to the collaborators. The ‘have nots’ of such shares took to agitation and nationalism was the rhetoric of their frustrated aspirations intended to win support (Gallagher et al. 1973). The Marxists explain Indian nationalism as the agenda of the colonial bourgeoisie whose expectations remained unfulfilled under colonial rule. While they successfully secured the support of peasants and workers, their agenda both before and after independence denied the masses their legitimate rights (Dutt 1940). One version of this interpretation suggests that the class basis of the nationalist movement did expand over time, bringing in the vast majority of the Hindu population, but it excluded significant sections of the masses, especially those at the bottom rungs of Indian society (Pandey 1978).

The emphasis on ethnicity as a factor which will inevitably undermine national cohesion features prominently in the writings of some observers like Neville Maxwell, who saw in the emergence of Bangladesh the beginning of the process of disruption leading to the inevitable breakup of India and Pakistan along ethnic lines. Radical writers like Partha Chatterjee provide indirect support for this view in stating that the basic loyalty of the masses is to the communities who should be empowered. The state, in this view, is an institution superimposed by the dominant classes to exploit the underprivileged (Chatterjee 1993). This perception is a logical corollary of the thesis developed by the historians and social scientists associated with the publications entitled the Subaltern Studies. This thesis suggests that all studies of nationalism hitherto have focused on the elite groups denying the underprivileged their agency, their role as subjects in their own right. The notion that the elite leadership mobilized the ignorant populace is shown to be false: The masses interpreted the messsage of nationalism in their own light and participated in the action only when they felt it to be in their interest. And their primary loyalty was always to their community. This thesis has been criticized, among other things, on the ground that the idea of a pan-Indian nation did not come spontaneously to the masses: they learnt it from the nationalist leadership and their propaganda by word and action.

3. Open Questions And Prognosis For The Future

Some features of nationalism in South Asia are indeed unique. The Indian Union, the world’s largest democracy representing a population of which 40 percent are illiterate, is also the largest multiethnic state in the history of the world. The comparison with the USSR is invalid, because that state was successor to the Tsarist empire and hence did not represent any voluntary union. The Indian state, on the other hand, was the union of willing partners who voted for such a union through a Constituent Assembly. And the remarkable fact is that despite tensions the union has held together and representative democracy, a system unknown to the region’s political traditions, has survived for half a century. In Pakistan, the creation of a state based on the identity of faith was an innovation. That identity has not, however, been able to hold the state together and the democratic principle has also been violated repeatedly by the army. In Bangladesh, there is a persistent tension between the language-based Bengali identity and the emphasis on Islam preferred by significant groups in the country (Ziring 1992). In both countries, however, the electorate have repeatedly proved their allegiance to the imported ideal of representative democracy.

Crystal-gazing into the future of the South Asian states is not a very rewarding exercise. If there are threats to their survival and risks of breakup into smaller units, one needs to ask whether these arise from irreconcilable ethnicities or from the contingencies of bad government and the exploitation of particular groups by others. How far the problems of poverty and ignorance have inhibited the growth of national consciousness among the masses also needs to be analyzed. Another question which will have to be addressed is the implication of globalization for nationalist ideologies and the nation state itself.


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