From the ashes of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and pro-National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests that gripped the Northeast Indian state of Assam at the end of 2019 and early 2020, numerous political coalitions have emerged in light of upcoming state election.

A bunch of new Jatiyotabaadi (ethnonationalist) or subnationalist or regionalist political parties, such Raijor Dal and Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP), have been formed. But, all of them have similar discriminatory and anti-humanitarian roots, undemocratic distribution of leadership and vague or absurd understanding of how a society works (or should work).

Subnationalism is just small or ‘little’ nationalism – one that attaches itself to a limited geographical area in the context of a larger national territory, such as India. It is often dedicated to one cultural, linguistic, religious or racial identity. Besides Assamese subnationalism, Marathi subnationalism led by the Shiv Sena is another case-in-point. Despite functioning is a smaller area, more often than not, such smaller nationalism shows similar tendencies as their larger counterparts.

George Orwell in Notes on Nationalism aptly described nationalism and its nature:

“Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakeably certain of being in the right.”

The same can be said for subnationalists. ‘Patriotism’ is different from subnationalism. One is devotion to the lifestyle and culture of a kind or land, while the other, like Orwell says, is a lust for more power and prestige.  

The commonalities between nationalism and subnationalism are a cause for concern. We have seen how nationalism has destroyed certain European countries in the past and is doing so in the present. Though nationalists and subnationalists may oppose each other in basic functioning and agendas, there is a common line that they share, which divides people into pockets or asks them to sacrifice their consciousness.

In this regard, following are 13 points that show the similarity between the pan-Indian Hindutva nationalism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and various forms subnationalism, particularly Assamese subnationalism:

  1. Need for a cultural enemy: For the BJP, the treacherous are the Muslims, interchangeably used with the word ‘Pakistani’, and for the Assamese subnationalists, it is the ‘Bengalis’, interchangeably used with the word ‘Bangladeshis’.
  2. Sectarian understanding of state-formation: For the Hindutva nationalists, the 1947 partition on religious lines meant India is a Hindu country, and for subnationalists, the linguistic formation of states means that the primary citizens of that state are the ones who speak the dominant language. The underlying logic is the same.
  3. Selective view of in-migration: The Hindutva nationalists oppose the process of in-migration (except if Hindus are coming from Muslim-majority neighbours). Subnationalists don’t understand how migration works either, except for when it is about Assamese in Assam, Marathis in Maharashtra, so on and so forth. But they don’t show any resistance to out-flowing migration from their own geography (community). They rather cheer for them.
  4. Representation for the sake of it: Just like the BJP has Muslim leaders and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has a Muslim wing for token value or for image building, subnationalists have also appointed a small number representatives who don’t speak their language.
  5. Traditionalist and anti-women: The BJP and RSS haven’t produced many significant women leaders and have been very conservative and male-dominated in their outlook. The same is for Shiv Sena, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). There are very few women leaders who have taken significant and decision making roles in their politics.
  6. Need for validation of superiority: Hindus are the superior religion for the BJP and RSS whereas for the Assamese subnationalists, it is the Assamese speaking people. Whenever intellectuals or thinkers from other communities have spoken about their own linguistic heritage and its dying days, they have been silenced with harsh criticism. For instance, the recent decision by the Assam government to make Assamese compulsory in schools and the lack of resistance to that shows this supremacist tendency.
  7. Shifting loyalties: BJP leaders in the past have joined other parties and started speaking the secular tongue, contradictory to their otherwise ‘nationalistic’ stance. Likewise, former AASU leaders have joined BJP or formed coalition governments with them, completely ignoring their secular positioning. Ideologically, that shouldn’t have been possible.
  8. Seeking cultural homogeneity: Hindutva nationalism, along with its one-religion policy, also pushes for one language across the nation – Hindi. Subnationalist movements, like the Assam Movement (1979-85), pit public opinion against ethno-linguistic minorities, such as Bengali-speaking Muslims, and deploy disparaging slurs, such as ‘Miya’, to profile them. Thus, both seek to homogenise language and religion. Shiv Sena is another exemplar of linguistic-religious subnationalism.
  9. Narrative of constant victimhood: The Hindutva nationalists have continuously complained about being a victim to the Muslims and their apparent conspiracy to “overtake India.” The subnationalists blame everything on the ‘outsider’ – one who doesn’t speak their language or belongs to their culture. For example, the Assamese routinely complain that Biharis are taking their jobs and rendering them unemployed. Nowhere do they criticise the government run by the people speaking their language for not creating enough jobs. 
  10. Selective humanitarianism: By bringing a religiously-biased law like the CAA and aspiring for a nationwide NRC, the BJP showed that it cares about the well-being of only select non-Muslim communities. Assamese subnationalists, on the other hand, blatantly ignore the cruelty of building detention centres, which are mostly occupied by poor Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus. In the NRC, subnationalist groups filed fake objections based on surnames of those included.
  11. Rejection of reason and debate: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the flagbearer of Hindutva Nationalism, has not held any press conference in his entire tenure of more than six years. Those critiquing his policies or the Hindutva narratuve in general have been trolled, threatened, beaten and even arrested on trumped-up charges. Similarly, during the Assam Movement, Communists opposing the subnationalist narrative were physically assaulted by footsoldiers of ethnonationalist groups. Both nationalisms are intolerant to discourse.
  12. Majoritarian constituencies: Both nationalists and subnationalists cater to a select part of the population, often the majority. For the BJP, it is Hindus, for Assamese subnationalists, it is the Assamese-speaking people, and for Shiv Sena, it is the Hindu Marathis.
  13. Reluctance to acknowledge plurality: Hindutva nationalists want a Hindu India with uniform civil code, whereas subnationalists fail to acknowledge that states are amalgamation of a multitudes of cultures and languages. Framing one language or religion as representative of the entire geography is didactic.

Views expressed are the author’s own.