Postcolonial Insecurities : India, Sri Lanka, and the Question of Nationhood

Author: Sankaran Krishna
University of Minnesota Press, 1999
Reviewed by Mohammed Ayub Khan, MMNS

Postcolonial nation building in South Asia has followed a bloody trajectory full of unfulfilled aspirations, subdued identity assertions, and conflicting notions of national authenticity and purity.   The exercise in postcolonial nation building in the region was never completed and its consequences continue to pose the challenge of insecurity to the states and to the peoples to this day. South Asian nations face a number of insurgencies which all challenge the statist models of nationality and sovereignty.  Sankaran Krishna in his ‘Postcolonial Insecurities: India, Sri Lanka, and the Question of Nationhood,’ offers a comprehensive analysis of the postcolonial anxieties by exploring the links between nation building, ethnic identity, and regional conflict through the prism of the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka and the self-confessionary hegemonic role played by India.

Krishna begins his account by analyzing the attempts by India’s founding fathers to create a national identity which detested and tried to suppress the regional, linguistic, and religious aspirations of the populace. The socialist leaning Nehru tried to and hoped that differences would vanish away through the introduction of scientific temper in the nation.  Hence, in the initial decades they concentrated in three areas:  science, planning, and national integration (p.15).  In this rigidly scientific determination of nation building there was no place for alternative histories. Any move to accommodate histories of the diverse regions and peripheries was considered subversive and detrimental to national integration. ‘Any attempt of imagining a community outside the claustrophobic embrace of the nation-state elicited the charge of an anti-national separatism or, at best, chauvinistic provincialism,’ writes Krishna (p.16). While couched in scientific and secular rhetoric the policies elicited a majoritarian flavour and were essentially north-Indian Hindu in nature.  Further south, Sri Lanka followed a similar policy where the state interpreted the history to legitimise the Sinhala/Buddhist majoritarian agenda against the Tamil minority.  The Tamils were viewed with suspicion due to their high representation in the bureaucracy and elsewhere in the society. The Sinhalese regarded that the new nation properly belongs to itself and the rest were supposed to know their place and behave accordingly (p.57).

The Tamils in Sri Lanka and India on the other hand invented their own versions of history and regarded the areas inhabited by them as their homeland. Despite Sinhalese attempts at suppressive domination they initially tried to be integrated within the state but failed due to the high handed attempts of the former. Resultantly, they went on a ‘reluctant transition from a politics of desired accommodation to violent secessionism.’ (p.66) The Indian state, despite its strong centralization orientation, adopted a conciliatory if consistently firm stand in dealing with its Tamil minority. It conceded to its demands against the imposition of Hindi as the national language.  The then ruling Congress party also gave the linguistic states a certain degree of freedom in their domains. While this cannot be considered full range autonomy it still went a long way in neutralizing any secessionist tendencies.

As Tamil separatism subsided in India it became even more militant in Sri Lanka as youth led militias like the LTTE replaced the older accommodating leadership and declared an all out confrontation with the state.  As the conflict continued unabated India, with its self-image, as a regional hegemon began flexing its political and military muscle in Sri Lanka. Part of the motivation behind this move by India was its own insecurity over regional aspirations in its own domains. This threat perception to the Indian state was unwarranted as the two Tamil movements had their own unique aspirations and was no potential of the two combining together and forming a unified Tamil country. Disregarding this fact the Indian state conducted a twin track policy in Sri Lanka of diplomacy and military coercion in which it simultaneously had dealings with both the Sri Lankan government as well as the LTTE.  India tried to replicate its success in the Bangladesh in 1971 by engaging with ethnicity in two pronged manner. It viewed ethnicity both as a danger to the nation as well as ethnicity as an opportunity for making the nation by presenting itself as a regional hegemon. However, this policy turned out to be a disaster which resulted in the humiliating defeat of its military forces in the country and further muddied the waters of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

The strength of this book lies in its coherent amalgamation of history with contemporary affairs in the region.  Even though it is not a literature review this book is informed about all existing literature on the topic and seamlessly integrates it in a narrative.  Krishna with his brilliant insights into South Asian nation building convincingly show that the nationalist agenda that seeks to align territory with identity has unleashed a spiral of regional, statist, and insurgent violence. His argument that South Asia should be reimagined as confederal spaces based on pluralistic ethos reinvents a debate long forgotten. This line of thinking has not really been analyzed ever since the nation states emerged in 1947 and Krishna should be congratulated for bringing it back in contemporary debate.

That being said, however, the book is not without its weakness. Its conclusion while innovative is not explicitly laid out and fails to describe its contours. For example, can Krishna’s vision of confederation be based on Cultural Zones as envisaged by Dr. Syed M. Latif in The Cultural Future of India  or is it a confederation based on economic zones? 

Even though Krishna is at pains to maintain scholarly balance in the book it is evident that he has a slight bias towards the Tamils. This becomes evident when he doesn’t address the fascistic nature of LTTE in adequate detail.

Krishna makes important and original contributions to the field of security studies. He critically analyzes not only insecurities felt by the minorities but also the majorities, the nation states, the regional hegemon, and smaller states.  This amalgamated conception provides a holistic view of security which is seldom seen in the literature.  His vision of new societies not bound by ethnicity and space but by pluralist ethos if accepted by a significant proportion of the societies might even lead to a future where the whole perception of security will be differently understood. If this happens then nation states will no longer feel threatened by ethnic aspirations as essentially subversive. Conversely, the ethnic communities will feel a sense of belonging within the confederal space without feeling asphyxiated by the tight embrace of the nation state.  Apart from this ideal view of confederal space Krishna’s account offers other examples of security as well. For example, the successful management of Dravidian aspirations by the Indian government by giving them more authority in their linguistic state and scaling back the pro-Hindi drive provides an excellent case of security management.  On the other hand the account of India’s belligerence in Sri Lanka  and the latter’s high handed handling of Tamil minority problem shows how not to handle security.  It also shows how minorities adopt varied approaches in handling security.


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