Nationalism assumes that it brings about the uniting of communities on a substantial scale and, for the first time, in a new mode. The loyalty of citizens is to a new structure, namely, the nation-state. The single unitary purpose is the construction of the nation, that is of citizens forging a single national identity, for instance, when the Indian anti-colonial national movement struggled to establish a state consisting of free citizens equal in status and liberated from colonial control. It is difficult to envisage a condition of free and equal citizenship after millennia of subjecthood. Attempts were made to assist the change, as in the writing of the Constitution, adult franchise and the crucial direction given to the economy, but it seems now that they were not done with sufficient insistence.

The recognised concept was that of the unitary, integrated nationalism that was a single identity linking the territory together with its people, as does the state with its citizens. The single identity indicates a unitary nationalism focusing on all the citizens as a unity. In the Indian case, the initial uniting nationalism was anti-colonialism. But concepts can and often do sprout variant forms. In this case, and by contrast, there emerged a different category that admits divergent identities in the same society as units of a nationalist polity.

This other kind of nationalism confronts multiple identities, sometimes even in competition; and this context of multiform, segregated nationalism is more complicated. The community with the largest numbers adhering to the single chosen identity is given the highest ranking. It therefore demarcates not only the identity of a particular majority nationalism but also claims for it the highest status and privileges of citizenship. The majoritarianism required for multiform segregated nationalism is inherently opposed to democracy and secularism. The two kinds of nationalism have to be viewed as distinctly different and with distinctly different agendas, often contradictory.

In India, the divergence between the two has its own history. There was the single, unitary anti-colonial nationalism generally dated to the late 19th century, which had its own path and continued to be viewed as the sole form of nationalism. It supported a secular democratic programme for independent India. This perspective continued into the period of Independence and the establishment of the nation-state. Meanwhile, from the 1920s onwards, there arose a different nationalism for which the identity was religion. Its appeal was to members of the majority community – Hindus; alternately, the other exclusive nationalism was addressed to members of the largest of the minority communities – Muslims.

The organisations that supported this kind of nationalism qualified by religious identity were less anti-colonial, if at all, and instead increasingly antagonistic towards each other. The Hindus were larger in number and the Muslims were the largest of the minority religious groups. These two religion-based nationalisms were founded on the colonial construction of India which was said to consist of two nations – the Hindu and the Muslim. The trajectory of unitary nationalism was just the one nation-state. Multiple religious nationalisms were tied to creating more than one nation-state. In India it was initially two – India and Pakistan – and ultimately a third – Bangladesh.

The agenda of the integrated anti-colonial nationalism was the ideological movement for Independence. What kind of society was it intending to build? At Independence, when the polity mutated from kingdoms and the colony of earlier times into a single independent nation-state, unitary nationalism required the necessary presence of democracy and secularism qualifying the nation-state. As a citizen, every person was to have equal status and equal rights. There was to be no discrimination on any grounds. Inevitably, democracy and secularism were recognised as implicit in the functioning of the nation-state and became essential to the rights of the citizen. These rights had never existed before. Societies of the past did not give every person the right to be legally equal or to have a free status. The caste rules of the Dharma-shastras, for instance, underlined and imprinted inequality, and thus the absence of such freedom. Islam too spoke of the equality of all in the eyes of Allah but the laws of Sharia introduced inequality among people living in the same society.

Where a nation-state comes into existence, the people cease to be subjects of a ruler or a kingdom and become citizens of the state. The two are quite different. This is a foundational change but not always recognised or fully observed. Democracy is adopted as the model polity. This implies that governing the state is dependent on the wishes of the people who are represented in various state bodies. Power lies not only with those that govern but is distributed among different agencies that represent the citizens – the judiciary, the legislature, the executive. The rules of government cannot be the arbitrary wishes of the rulers, since governance requires constitutional authority. Citizens elect their representatives who ideally debate the issues and take decisions reflective of the wishes of those who elected them. The rules and intentions of the functioning of the state are fenced within the Constitution which thereby should become the source of power and authority.

These are changes that call for foundational adjustments. Where such adjustments are not made, there we can say that either the required change is genuinely not understood or that there is a conscious effort to subvert it. Citizens at every level have to be aware of such adjustments being made, and if they are lacking, then the lack has to be explained. Hence the emphasis on citizens’ rights and freedoms and the need for public discussions of these.

If we as Indians had understood this in 1947, we would have given more attention to these essentials and perhaps less to the redefining of religious identities. Instead, we went back to the narrow confines of battling over the pre-eminence of religious identities – a battle that continues even in the changed context of the present. The major thrust of 1947 was seen more as smoothening religious confrontations rather than with laying the foundations of the nation-state.

Excerpted with permission from Our History, Their History, Whose History?, Romila Thapar, Seagull Books.