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  • India:Liberalism Vs. Nationalism
  • Ashutosh Varshney (bio)
Democracy and Discontent: India's Growing Crisis of Governability by Atul Kohli. Cambridge University Press, 1991. 420 pp.
The Politics of India Since Independence by Paul Brass. Cambridge University Press, 1990. 357 pp.

With the recent worldwide upsurge in nationalism, students of democracy must pay particular attention to the difficulties posed by religious and ethnic conflict. This is especially true with respect to India, where tensions between Hindus and Muslims caused the most agonizing event in twentieth-century Indian history: the partition of 1947, which displaced millions of people and killed tens of thousands of others, In the past decade, conflicting nationalisms have erupted anew with a fervor unmatched since 1947, challenging the integrity of India as a nation-state.

Conflicting nationalisms threaten political liberalism by creating what may be called a liberal paradox: Individuals and groups are free to organize in a liberal democracy, but can they be free to organize for something as radical as secession? If people in a secessionist part of the country are not allowed to secede in spite of their wishes, a fundamental tenet of liberalism is clearly violated—namely, that people have the right to choose their rulers. On the other hand, if secession is allowed, the principle that people are free to choose their government begins to undermine liberal democracy itself. At this point, liberalism and the right to self-determination raise deeply emotional questions: What takes precedence—a nation or a democracy? And what good is a liberal polity if it cannot even protect its own borders? Since human beings are not [End Page 147] only self-interested individuals (as liberal political theory assumes) but also people emotionally anchored in cultural or territorial communities, nationalism defines the limits of liberalism. In circumstances of rising nationalist ferment and conflict, liberalism has a limited capacity for dealing with emotions like loyalty, fear, and anxiety.

Liberal democracy has the best prospects when a relatively strong and stable nation-state has already been constructed or is beyond dispute. The stability of American democracy owes much to the Union victory over Southern secession in the Civil War of the 1860s. Sri Lanka, a shining example of Third World democracy through the 1960s, lost its luster when a confrontation between Tamil and Sinhala nationalisms tore the island apart in the 1980s. Democratic theorists have long been aware of the problem but have not discussed it fully. In his 1970 essay on "Transitions to Democracy," Dankwart Rustow described "national unity" as a prerequisite for democracy. "In order that rulers and policies may freely change," he wrote, "the boundaries must endure, the composition of the citizenry be continuous." In his latest work, Democracy and Its Critics, Robert Dahl also recognizes the tension between liberalism and nationalism:

Because subcultural conflicts threaten personal and group identities and ways of life, because such threats evoke deep and powerful emotions, and because the sacrifice of identities and ways of life cannot readily be settled by negotiation, disputes involving different subcultures often turn into violent, nonnegotiable conflicts. In a country where conflicts are persistently violent and nonnegotiable, polyarchy is unlikely to exist


With democracies and nationalism flourishing again, democratic theorists will have to analyze this paradox more fully in the future.

The effects of the liberal paradox are clearly demonstrated in India, which is both a democracy and a multiethnic, multireligious state. It now faces a religiously inspired secessionist movement in Punjab, an ethnic and religious insurrection in Jammu and Kashmir, and an ethnic rebellion in Assam, as well as a rising Hindu nationalism in the heartland that represents a backlash against these separatist movements. Compared to the Third World as a whole, the longevity of India's democracy despite all these problems is striking. Yet compared to the period under Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-64), the decline of India's democracy is equally remarkable. The first comparison is across countries, and is still a source of pride for Indians; the second comparison is across time, and it is a cause for concern.

Both Atul Kohli and Paul Brass address the decline of India's democracy. The "ungovernability" of India's democracy is the central question...


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