The centralisation imperative
The Indian Dominion in 1947 consisted largely of the colonial provinces carved out by the British East India Company that covered about 60% of British possessions. Similarly, slightly less than half the area of West Pakistan consisted of Dominion Territory. Each of the more than 500 culturally-coherent historical nations – distinct from territorially-defined Westphalian States – in the pre-colonial South Asian Subcontinent possessed its own unique history, spoke one of several hundred languages and dialects, was ruled by a stable political authority and often had its own coinage. The Kingdoms, Sultanates and Khanates were of varying sizes and governed by Maharajas, Rajas, Khans, Nawabs and Chieftains and their geographical areas faded into one another at their margins. A few expanded into empires – Mauryan, Marathi and Chola to name a few – by subduing weaker nations, which elbowed their way out to re-establish independence as the empires declined in the fullness of time
They were collectively parts of Bharat or Bharatham, the ancient cultural formation akin in some ways to Europe’s Christendom.
The Company’s mercenary forces imposed, step by violent step, control over several kingdoms in the South Asian Subcontinent, not over a non-existent political formation, “India”, that some historians who wrote history backwards have erroneously imagined to have existed in the 18th Century. The Company ruled over and arbitrarily divided, subdivided and in some instances amalgamated them, driven by administrative expedience and military exigencies, to form the three Presidencies of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras .
London terminated its suzerainty over the remaining historical nations, labelled “Princely States”, under the 1947 India Independence Act that laid the legal foundation for the Dominions of India and Pakistan. With effect from 15 August London abandoned its treaty obligations, established by the Company under Subsidiary Alliances that buttressed the Rulers’ thrones as well as turned them into vassals.
The Law declared the historical nations are fully sovereign; Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel confirmed the same in January 1948: “As you are all aware, on the lapse of Paramountcy every Indian State became a separate independent entity”; nevertheless “Iron Man” Patel vehemently opposed their right to re-establish their status quo ante as sovereign pollical formations in accordance with international law, a right recognized also under Lord Louis Mountbatten’s June 3rd Plan. His Plan however explicitly denied the historical nations, conquered and corralled into the three Presidencies, the same inalienable right so as to stabilize the new Dominions.
The State controlling elites in the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League had imbibed the Empire mindset while faithfully executing Indirect Rule on behalf of the colonialists. Their liberal-democracy rhetoric masked the authoritarian mentality, preserved by the colonial power’s “peaceful” regime change; Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s invitation to Lord Mountbatten to be the first Governor General of India further reinforced the mindset. The elites in both Dominions consolidated the new-found power on the colonialists’ authoritarian model, the only one they had experience of; their respective shares of the British Indian Army – renamed the Indian and Pakistan forces – too were steeped in the centralizing world view of colonial rule.
The Indian Dominion’s State-controlling elite followed in the footsteps of the Company to aggressively expand by absorbing the rest of the Hindu-majority kingdoms that constituted about 40% of British possessions .
The Nizam of the Sultanate of Hyderabad, a large, wealthy historical nation, was an exception. He deployed a small army to stake his claim under the 1947 Act as an independent sovereign, undermined by the Company. India’s north-centric elite, led by Nehru and Patel, deplored the Nizam for launching a “dangerous” “secessionist venture”. Though it is unclear what, if any, he was seceding from, they imposed a crippling economic blockade, alleged a communist threat to the Indian Dominion and unleashed their share of the former British Indian Army. The armed forces invaded the Sultanate in the September 1948 Operation Polo, sanitized as a “police action”, deposed the Nizam and annexed his territory to the British-designed unitary State at an estimated cost of about 30,000 lives.
The new Dominion of Pakistan similarly expanded with equal force to absorb the eight Muslim-majority kingdoms  and more than doubled West Pakistan’s territory Britain had ruled from New Delhi.
The largest, the Khanate of Kalat resisted; its ruler Mir Ahmad Yar Khan declared independence on 12 August 1947 in accordance with the June 3rd Plan and 1947 Act. While Governor-General Mohammad Ali Jinnah appeared ambivalent, the State-controlling elite led by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, also the Defence Minister, let loose their share of the British Indian Army in April 1948, violently overthrew the Khan and annexed his Khanate, now a part of Baluchistan province, to create a unitary State.
Most Rulers of historical nations in both Dominions had Perhaps found their reliance on the colonial State under terms of Subsidiary Alliances convenient since that averted raising their own army due to either financial constraints or uncertain loyalty of their own subjects or both. However, they paid dearly. At the end of British rule, they lacked the military power to enforce the right to independent Statehood, by defending their borders, and could not fend off the centralizing military juggernauts of the two Dominions that steam rolled over their respective possessions.
The vulnerable Rulers had little option but to cave in and sign the Instruments of Accession brusquely placed before them by Delhi or Karachi that legalized the forcible incorporation.
The State controlling elites of the two Dominions of India and Pakistan, under different subterfuges, pounced like starving hyenas on the independent Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir. Karachi (the Punjabi elite shifted the capital to Islamabad in 1963) claimed it rightfully belongs within Pakistan on account of its Muslim-majority population; New Delhi asserted the ruling Hindu Maharajah Hari Singh, whose great grandfather had bought the territory from the Company in 1846 for Rupees 7.5 million , is free to “re-join” India. Both Karachi and New Delhi brushed aside the Maharajah’s right to retain his independence under the 1947 Act; the former sent in an alleged tribal occupation force while the latter exploited the threat from Karachi to arm twist him into signing the Instrument of Accession. Together they tore Jammu-Kashmir apart and each dragged away their respective share.
The colonial regime centralised its rule under the 1833 Colebrooke-Cameron “Reforms” to create British Ceylon by integrating the three historical nations of Kotte, Kandy and Jaffna and the Vanni Chiefdom.
Thus, the alleged antiquity of political India, Pakistan and Ceylon is more fluff than fact. Instead, antiquity applies logically to the historical nations of Marathi, Kannada, Sindhi, Tamil, Sinhala, and so on.
The smell of Self-Rule in the air drew the elites of historical nations to take the first steps for laying the groundwork for the future re-structuring of the colonial unitary State. They examined what the political status of their respective historical nation would be after external de-colonisation, that is, the departure of the colonial power.
South Asian scholar Prof. Mohammad Abdus Sattar Kheiri presciently grasped the complexities of making sense of, and imposing order upon, the disorganised patchwork of historical nations dumped within an ahistorical colonial border. He sensed the impending political crises as debates raged over the future of the British South Asian Empire and suggested, to Clement Richard Attlee, M.P., Lord Privy Seal, on 22 August 1941, an organic, voluntary evolution of political structures as a way out:
“The only solution for [British] India would be to let every unit, that is, every so-called Native State and every one of the present provinces of the British India exercise the right of SELF-DETERMINATION to choose the form of government under which they will live. These units may then join into federations of two, three or more units. These federations of several units, if they like, may form a still bigger federation…Some of the original units will be bigger in area and population than some of the biggest States in Europe. These autonomous units may form something like a Commonwealth of India with the right of cessation. There should be no compulsion of any kind. In this way, the Muslim units may form a federation of their own or if they find it in their interest, and if the Hindus can inspire them with confidence, they may join the bigger federation. But the Muslims will never yield to compulsion”.
The State controlling Congress elite insisted that there cannot be another nation or nations within the supposed Indian nation. They urged the fledgling anti-colonial freedom movement must close ranks against British colonialism on the assurance that a territorial “linguistic reorganisation” to demarcate linguistic states – an euphemism for historical nations – based on the criterion of the language of their respective majority population could be taken up after independence. For good measure the Congress Party’s leadership crafted a strategically ambiguous Resolution accepting in principle “linguistic states” at its 1920 Nagpur Session.
However, Nehru’s take on the matter revealed the true intentions of the Party. In the 1930s he dismissed the growing national movements of historical nations by asserting, “scratch…a separatist in language” and he would be exposed as a reactionary “communalist”. One may surmise that the palpable intention of the Resolution was to placate the historical nations’ elites and effectively inveigle them to temporarily play down their nationhood and re-present their demand for State power in the idiom of “linguistic states” as a shorthand that obscured the reality of their nationhood.
However, the 1920 Resolution unintentionally sowed the seeds of political legitimacy for re-structuring the unitary State that were to unfold later in the 1950s.
The Metropolis-Satellite model  analysed the relations of dependence and exploitation between the colonisers (metropole) and the colonised (satellite), structured during the first stage of colonialism. The analysis also highlighted the coloniser’s construction of similar Centre-Periphery exploitative institutions and relations within each colony to centralise political control and accelerate the extraction and accumulation of wealth. It brought into sharp relief the indispensable need for internal de-colonisation, the dismantling of the coloniser’s extremely authoritarian domestic structures, if the former colony is to evolve into a democracy.
In British India B.R. Ambedkar championed “linguistic states”, perhaps instinctively sensing that the national-democratic content of the movement of the historical nations’ elites has to be accommodated to promote economic integration and political unity within a free India.
On the other hand, the Congress Party elite’s enthusiasm for federating the Dominion along “linguistic lines” understandably flagged after the British Crown transferred power in August 1947. The earlier momentum carried through to the formation of the December 1948 JVP Committee, composed of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya to “examine the issue afresh”. With State power firmly in the hands of the north-centric Congress elite, the Committee’s April 1949 Report unsurprisingly dismissed the “linguistic reorganization” of the unitary State while stating the issue “may be re-examined in the light of public demand.”
The southern elites probably subscribed to the aphorism, “tomorrows never come”. Revolutionary nationalist Amarajeevi Potti Sriramulu fasted for 56 days demanding State power for his Telugu-speaking historical nation. His death sparked widespread anger and public riots rippled across the south; within three days Nehru wisely conceded the Telugu-speaking Andhra state in 1953, carved out of the Tamil-dominated Madras Presidency.
The creation of Telugu-speaking Andhra was the first of many successful challenges to the violation of national linguistic rights by imposing the Hindi language.
The supreme sacrifice by Sriramulu kicked off internal de-colonisation and firmly set India on the path democracy. Despite the emergence of Andhra Pradesh, or perhaps because of it, the majority of the Indian Dominion’s State-controlling elite redoubled their efforts. The anti-federalist opposition in India to the resurgence of historical nations assumed hysterical proportions, backing the push led by Nehru and Patel to expand and further consolidate the unitary State. They decried the challenge from historical nations by almost universally alleging the force for internal de-colonisation is a “fissiparous” tendency, “linguistic separatism” and “irredentism”.
There cannot be two or more nations within the supposed Indian nation, said many; and that there is only one major “nation” while the other cultural groups are “minorities”. Of course, the historical nations were not amused by the north-centric elites’ new definition of them as “minorities” within the arbitrary border imposed at gunpoint by British colonialism.
Others painted doomsday scenarios of a swift and violent break up of India. Some alleged the nationalist non-State controlling elites are pliant tools in nefarious foreign hands to discredit the historical nations as anti-national forces.
However, the apparent damage limitation exercise of conceding Andhra Pradesh and strident anti-federalist campaigns to whip up a fear psychosis about the country’s imminent “disintegration” were of little avail. The dam had burst. Further demands for State power arose from historical nations in other parts of the country and the State controlling elite were compelled to concede power to 14 more states and 6 union territories under the 1956 States Reorganisation Act; the total now stands at 28 states and 8 union territories, and counting.
The three colonial Presidencies disappeared from the map, fracturing beyond repair both Mountbatten’s colonial “formula” for retaining the Presidencies and Patel’s dream of political colonial-style centralisation.
East Pakistan’s Bengali and West Pakistan’s Balochi and Sindhi historical nations forcefully articulated the demand for internal de-colonisation and federalism. The State-controlling West Pakistani elite dismissed the movement as “divisive” “provincialism”,  the equivalent of Nehru’s “communalism”.
The Tamil elite led by SJV Chelvanayakam’s 1949 Ilankai Tamil Arasuk Kachchi (ITAK), popularly known as the Federal Party (FP), too envisioned democratising Ceylon’s unitary State in the idiom of two linguistic states – Sinhalese and Tamil – for the two historical nations. Well before him the Sinhalese member of the State Council SWRD Bandaranaike had proposed a three-unit federal system for what he perceived as the Ceylon Tamil, Up-Country Sinhalese and Low-Country Sinhalese historical nations.
Ceylon’s State-controlling elite, led by DS Senanayake, echoed Nehru’s formulation at first by alleging “Tamil communalism”. But he appeared to accommodate the interests of Tamils and Muslims until he steered the 1947 Soulbury Constitution, with Article 29, though the State Council and established a secure grip on power. Thereafter the elite accelerated the further centralisation of power.
It is customary to credit Nehru for democratising the colonial unitary State by converting India into a (quasi) federal system of government. Despite his earlier reluctance to federate India, his grasp of the political reality was likely encouraged by the recent memory of Pakistan’s independence; his lucidity was probably sharpened by the awareness that the demand for State power by historical nations, if politically denied or militarily suppressed, would result in many more historical nations carving out their own independent States. He perhaps came to appreciate the wisdom of giving gracefully that which should not be held by force.
Moreover, the Hindi-speaking population, though the largest, was and still is a minority of under 40 per cent; our academic colleagues in New Delhi rarely tired of taking pride that “India is a land of minorities”. The lack of the Hindi-speakers’ demographic heft forced the State controlling elite on the back foot and shifted the balance of political power in favour of the multiple non-State controlling elites of historical nations. These are some important factors that, in our view, coerced the Congress leaders to reform India’s colonial unitary State.
India’s enviable profile as the world’s largest democracy and its economic de-centralisation were built largely by the unflagging drive of national movements mobilised by non-State controlling elites. The movements in Nagaland, Manipur, Kashmir and so on are continuing the democratising projects.
Anti-federalists who vociferously campaigned against the national movements are loathe to admit the movements’ historic role in democratising India’s unitary State. In fact, and going against the all too obvious evidence, the TDP, CPI(M), Samajwadi parties absurdly opposed the creation of the new state of Chhatisgarh carved out of Madhya Pradesh in July, 2000 .
The BJP’s “one nation, one law, one language” policy seeks to reverse the six-decade old restructuring of the State under the 1956 States Reorganisation Act. The Party is gambling on winning elections through the communalist mobilisation of Hindu voters; they lost the gamble in Karnataka state assembly elections last week.
The trajectory of the struggle for internal de-colonisation took a different and bloody turn in (West) Pakistan and Ceylon/Sri Lanka. In both, a single nationality, Punjabi and Sinhalese, constitute the majority; their respective political classes, entrenched in their overwhelming power and control of the armed forces, repressed national movements to defend the near monopoly of power.
The mainstream intelligentsia in both countries lack intellectuals of Ambedkar’s stature and integrity. Unsurprisingly they have been carried away by the anti-federalist jingoism and failed to course correct their political classes to compel them to reach a compromise with the non-State controlling elites of other nationalities by restructuring the unitary State.
Ethnic Studies specialists, steeped in Anglo-US sociology, usefully examined group dynamics. However, they largely failed to grasp the dimension of State power and mis-interpreted the power struggle over internal de-colonisation from a limited social-anthropological viewpoint as “ethnic conflicts” allegedly fuelled by ephemeral differences in “identities”. They muddied the waters by reducing battles over internal de-colonisation to little more than tribal antagonisms.
The dire consequences are confronting us today. Both Pakistan and Sri Lanka are sinking deeper into authoritarianism to repress the non-State controlling elites’ efforts to democratise the respective unitary State. Inevitably they are faced with economic stagnation, if not decline, and an increasingly militarised society.
- Dalrymple, William, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019)
- Menon, V.P., Integration of the Indian States. Hyderabad: Orient Longman Limited, 1956.
- Bangash, Yaqoob Khan. A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-1955. Oxford University Press, 2015,
- Constituent Assembly (Legislature) Debates, vol II, no. 16, 1950:582, 19/jan/50, PAK.
- Pirzada, Syed Sharifuddin, Evolution of Pakistan. Lahore: All Pakistan Legal Decisions, 1963. p. 87. Emphasis original.
- Frank, Andre Gunder: “The Development of Underdevelopment”. Monthly Review. Sept 1966.
- Constitutional Assembly Debates, Pakistan. vol. no.10, 1955, p.270.
- The Hindu, 10/aug/00, p.9.
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*Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is an independent researcher who read Political Economy for the Ph.D. degree at the University of Cambridge. He was Assistant Director, International Studies at the Marga Institute, Visiting Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of International Studies and has taught World History at Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. He is an award-winning filmmaker and may be reached at: email@example.com