State Formation

views updated


STATE FORMATION From the dawn of its recorded history, an enduring feature of India's state formation has been the struggle for power between its settled cultures and invading forces. The geographical configuration of the Indian subcontinent also played its part in determining the patterns of invasion and settlement, whether by the "land nomads" from Central Asia, who entered northern India through the invasion corridor of the northwest, or by the "sea nomads" of Europe, who crossed the oceans and penetrated the Indian subcontinent from the coastal areas.

The earliest known population movement was by the Indo-Europeans (Aryans) from the steppe lands of Central Asia, who settled in the Indo-Gangetic Plain and established the North Indian linguistic and cultural tradition. However, the unique configuration of the Indian subcontinent also dictated that most invading forces from Central Asia encountered the barrier of the Hindu Kush Mountains before reaching the plains of northern India. The new waves of invasion that followed—by the Greeks, Kushans, Huns, Turkic and Mongol tribes—were launched as military expeditions that crossed the Indus to conquer the Punjab. Most of them lost their momentum by the time they reached the Gangetic Plain. Thus, while a few established ephemeral dynasties of considerable power, they were not able to change the mass of population or cultural core of the Gangetic region.

The other aspect of the territorial history of the Indian subcontinent is that of the geographical divide between continental and peninsular India. The political concept of India as an "empire state" was first developed during the time of the Mauryas (321–184 b.c.) and defined Bharat (India) as stretching from the northern Himalayas to Kanya Kumari (Cape Comorin) in the south. The ambition of all subsequent Indian rulers has been to achieve the territorial and political unification of the Indian subcontinent. Here again, geography has played a part; the Vindhya Mountains of the Deccan plateau have provided a formidable barrier to the imperial ambitions of the land-based powers of the north.

In the post-Mauryan period, the Indo-Gangetic Plain was subjected to extensive invasions, and periodic attempts at unification were interspersed with long periods of turmoil and conflict. The Gupta dynasty (4th century) was the last North Indian empire to rule from the Gangetic heartland. Their political collapse came in the wake of fresh invasions by Hun nomads in the fifth century.

Muslim rule followed much the same pattern of invasion and conquest, but the introduction of Islam as a new religion and culture proved a critical break in terms of its impact on state and society. The establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in a.d. 1206 changed the political landscape of northern India, the strategically placed capital of Delhi becoming the new seat of central power.

India's next imperial unification, under the Great Mughals, from Babur to Akbar (a.d. 1526–1605). Akbar's rule was renowned for its tolerance, and for his fostering of pluralism and a syncretism of Hindu-Muslim culture and civilization. The Mughal empire was also a warrior state, administered by a new class of military bureaucratic elites (mansabdars). The Northwest and the Northeast of the Indo-Gangetic belt became Muslim majority areas, the former by invaders who settled there, the latter mostly by Sufi conversions, while the Gangetic Plain retained its Hindu majority. Southern India developed a maritime tradition and a seafaring economy, in contrast to the landlocked economy of the North. The Dravidian culture consolidated its position as the region's major strand of South Indian civilization, and the post-Mughal repository of the Hindu cultural traditions of the North.

The "European epoch" of Indian history dawned as an age of maritime power, of western European authority based on the control of the seas. European expansion to South Asia by sea fundamentally altered the course of Indian history, presenting an entirely new set of challenges to the land-based powers of the North, the Mughals, Rajputs, Marathas, and Sikhs. Not only were the routes, methods of conquest, and patterns of settlement different, but the pressure from the sea had a relentlessness that invasions from land did not possess.

The British, who eventually marginalized all other European contenders (the French, the Dutch, and the Portuguese), penetrated inland from the sea through the two great river valleys: the South's Cauvery valley, and the Ganges valley of the North. Surmounting the Deccan barrier, and in the nineteenth century finally bringing together both continental and peninsular India, the British imperial Raj transformed itself from a sea-based maritime power to a continental empire.

The British Raj emulated and incorporated many of the features of the previous rulers, especially the Mughals, retaining elements of their military and bureaucratic administration. The role of intermediaries (merchants, traders, and moneylenders) and scribal elites, land revenue systems, and mercantile imperatives were common to both empires. Both were warrior states, and the role of the army drawn from the so-called martial races, was crucial for both. The British, however, had to propagate a new theory of martial races after the Great Mutiny of 1857, when Punjab and the tribal Northwest, instead of Bengal, became the new recruiting ground. The induction of Jat Sikhs, Rajputs, Punjabis, and Pathans into the British army changed the sociopolitical history of the Northwest. It has had immense consequences for the successor state of Pakistan, which inherited the strategic "real estate" of the Northwest and the so-called martial races tradition associated with it.

The Unification of British India

The most significant achievement of British colonial rule was the strategic unification of the Indian subcontinent. It constituted a significant break from the past, as the concept of strategic frontiers and boundaries was introduced to demarcate the sovereign limits of the British Empire. However, the demands of the greater British Empire added an extra dimension to imperial frontier making. The strategic and economic interests of imperial Britain and Tsarist Russia led to the "Great Game" in Central Asia between the two powers. The northwestern frontier became militarized, and Afghanistan emerged as a classic "buffer state."

The colonial enterprise was by no means a unilateral exercise. Interaction as well synthesis were integral to the encounter between India and Britain, whose ideologies and institutions had a profound impact on India. Ideas of nationalism and self-determination were crucial, giving an impetus to India's nationalist movement. Britain's industrial capitalism had its effect as well on the modernization and industrialization of the state. Railways were the great unifiers, both in the strategic and economic sense, helping to extend and consolidate British rule.

Decolonization was a critical juncture in the contemporary history of the Indian subcontinent. In the case of British India, the distinctiveness of the decolonization process lay in the dichotomy that developed between the secular Indian Nationalist Congress's demand for independence and the Indian Muslim League's demand for a Muslim homeland—Pakistan. In the stalemate that followed, the religious separatism of the minority Muslim community became the determinant factor in granting freedom from colonial rule.

In 1947 British power was "transferred" to the two dominions, India and Pakistan, the former as the primary successor state of British India, with Pakistan a secondary successor state. The price of independence was the partitioning of continental India on the basis of the communal majority principle of the "two nation" theory of the Muslim League, which asserted that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations.

Independence and Partition

British India's partition was both a turning point and a traumatic event in the history of South Asia, as it left many conflicts unresolved and many questions unanswered. One question that has intrigued historians is why independence became conditional on partition. The British policy of creating separate electoral rolls for Hindus and Muslims, which inaugurated modern Indian political communalism in 1909, provides part of the answer. Another part of the answer lies in the genesis of the Pakistan movement and the communal cleavages that developed between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League over the issue of power sharing and the principle of democratic rule. The notion of parity was an important consideration for the Muslim elite, as was also their concern that the electoral politics of "majoritarian" rule would translate in practice to a "Hindu Raj" in the guise of a "Congress Raj."

One of the paradoxes of the Pakistan demand was that the impetus came not from the Muslim-majority provinces but from a small section of the Muslim elite from the Muslim-minority provinces of North India. North India's Muslim elite were motivated by a complex mix of religious and economic reasons—not the least of which was their apprehension about loss of privilege, status, and economic power under a secular and democratic India. Partition triggered the exodus of these elite Muslims to the promised new state of Pakistan. The decline in status of this Indian Muslim diaspora, from the "creators" of Pakistan to that of refugees (muhajirs) in their chosen homeland, is one of the ironies of the Pakistan movement.

The answer to another question has also remained elusive: why did independence and partition give birth to only two nation states in the Indo-Gangetic region, not to many more? Fears of balkanization and the desire for strong centralized state(s) by India's and Pakistan's elites are said to have eliminated those options. The legal and political status of some six hundred autonomous princely states was for the most part resolved by integrating them into the two larger states, India and Pakistan—with the notable exception of the largest state, Jammu and Kashmir.

The application of the communal majority formula as the basis for creating a viable state produced the anomaly of a bifurcated Pakistan, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory. Geographically, the communal majority formula could be applied only to those regions where Muslims were in a majority, but the provinces of the Northwest, where the Muslims were an absolute majority (North-West Frontier province, Baluchistan, and Sind), constituted only 10 percent of the total Indian Muslim population. Therefore, the two large provinces in which Muslims constituted a bare majority—Punjab (54 percent) and Bengal (57 percent)—were carved up to create the new state of Pakistan.

The legacy of partition

At the time of partition, very little attention was paid to the geopolitical consequences and human dimensions of physically dividing the Indo-Gangetic belt. Once the partition became a reality, however, these traumatic and tragic factors began to impinge on the process of nation building of both fragmented states. The human costs of the partition, the killings and population exchanges that accompanied it, and the refugees and diasporas it created, left a bitter legacy. In effect, the partition produced a divided polity, a divided elite, a divided economy, and divided security.

The geographical aberration of the two wings of Pakistan being separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory created a logistical nightmare for the new state of Pakistan, which ultimately became untenable, both politically and economically, leading to the independence of East Pakistan in 1971, with the creation of Bangladesh, following the third Indo-Pak War. For the Indian state, the near detachment of its Northeast region, which is joined to the Indian mainland by a slender land corridor (the so-called chicken's neck), posed similar problems of marginalization for its inhabitants, which the state has not been able to overcome. The distancing of the northeastern region from the Indian heartland has added to the sense of alienation of the tribal Northeast states and to their depiction as India's "Far East."

The Making of India and Pakistan

In the immediate aftermath of partition, the imperatives of nation building focused on consolidating the state and constructing a central government. The task was relatively easier for the Indian state, which had inherited the mantle of the primary successor state to British India. Post-independent India had a political system and a bureaucratic structure that emphasized continuities with the past, and a national identity imparted to it by the long history of its nationalist movement. The Indian Congress central government in New Delhi stressed the civil base of its rule, underpinned by the ideology of secularism and parliamentary democracy. It soon federated along linguistic lines, seeking to safeguard the multiethnic character of its polity and to accommodate the wishes of the strongly vocal regional units that make up the Indian union. The fear of balkanization, however, made centralization a key requisite, and the Indian model of state making evolved as a federal union with centralized tendencies. In India, it was the political-bureaucratic elite that came to dominate the state structure, with the military kept out of the power equation. That situation has remained a constant in the Indian political system.

In the case of Pakistan, it was the military-bureaucratic nexus that became dominant, with Pakistan's political elite playing the subordinate role. Pakistan not only had to sustain the image of an "equal power" within the regional system, the external thrust of its foreign policy also pushed its elite toward building a military-bureaucratic state. That equation has also remained a constant in Pakistan's domestic and external politics, with its military entrenching itself within the body politic of the Pakistani state.

Regional rivals

The ideological divide created by the particular circumstances of their birth ensured that India and Pakistan emerged as regional rivals with very different domestic, security, and foreign policy objectives. India's preeminence within the subcontinent was offset by the effort of the smaller Pakistani state to achieve military parity, if necessary, by "borrowing power" from "great and powerful" allies abroad (the United States, China, and several Middle Eastern states). The role of external actors has been vital in maintaining, and reinforcing, the so-called bipolar structure of the South Asian system. The early outbreak of conflict over partition's "unfinished business" of Kashmir soon became internationalized as a symbol of the India-Pakistan adversarial relationship. On this was superimposed the cold war dynamics of the superpower competition, with India developing a "special relationship" with the Soviet Union to counterbalance Pakistan's military alliances with Western powers.


The dictates of geography, the unequal development of Pakistan's two wings, and elite conflict between the ruling West Pakistani elite and the East Bengali counterelite, all played their roles in sharpening the cleavage between the two wings of Pakistan, leading ultimately to the majority Bengali-state breaking free of Punjabi-Pathan–led Pakistan in 1971. From an international perspective, the birth of Bangladesh was the first instance of the successful culmination of a secessionist movement in the post–World War II period. The liberation of Bangladesh was the result of a conjunction of geography and Bengali linguistic and economic nationalism, supported by India's military intervention.

For South Asia, that second partitioning changed its geopolitical map, though not its political boundaries, since no territorial dispute was involved. The breaking up of Pakistan, however, did challenge the ideological basis of its two-nation theory, since Bengali linguistic nationalism took precedence over its Islamic identity.

Contemporary South Asia

The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 firmly established the centrality and dominance of India in South Asia. Not only is the Indian union now the largest state in South Asia, it is territorially and demographically larger than all the other six states combined. South Asia's geopolitical reality, moreover, is truly bilateral, since all its other states are contiguous to India, but none adjoin each other. The smaller states of South Asia are, therefore, sensitive to being overwhelmed by the enormous power of India.

On the other hand, the new geopolitical configuration has also exposed the vulnerability of the Indian state to its long, porous boundaries. The proliferation of armed secessionist conflicts in its border regions, and the ongoing "proxy war" between India and Pakistan over the disputed state of Kashmir, is an indication that an Indian hegemony is far from an undisputed fact in South Asia. Equally telling is the policy of nuclearization followed by India and Pakistan since 1998. This policy may have enhanced India's great power status, but it has also enabled the weaker Pakistani state to achieve semiparity with the stronger Indian state. But it has certainly not resolved the security dilemma of a fractured subcontinent.

The strongest challenge to the secular identity and pluralist ethos of the Indian state has come from a plethora of ethno-nationalist and subnationalist demands, many with secessionist tendencies. The Sikhs of Punjab, the Nagas and Assamese in the Northeast region, and the Kashmiri Muslims in the state of Jammu and Kashmir have all tested the federal structure of the Indian union. The most serious threat yet to the secular fabric of the Indian state is the rise of transnational religious fundamentalism as a force in the region. The communal passions it has aroused has revived the "Muslim question" in India, and by extension, rekindled a wider debate about minority rights in South Asia.

Post-1971 Pakistan, although more viable as a territorial entity and more cohesive as a political unit, is still beset by internal contradictions, not least of which is the problem of identity among a composite people. The centralization policies of the ruling elite have come into conflict with the demands for provincial autonomy by ethnic Pashtuns, Sindis, and Baluchis. The most striking predicament is that of the muhajirs, who are yet to gain their own ethnic and regional identity in the "new" Pakistan. The subordination of Pakistan's domestic politics to its external relations has continued, and the periodic resort to military rule has become the most persistent feature of the Pakistani state.

Pakistan's strategic location in the Northwest and the state's policies of Islamization and an external orientation toward the wider Muslim world have also raised questions about its post-1971 identity: whether it sees itself as part of South Asia, Southwest Asia, or Central Asia. The marrying of Pakistan's Kashmir and Afghanistan policies in the 1990s, and Pakistan's continuing involvement in post-Soviet Afghanistan have kept that question alive.

Bangladesh has charted a zigzag course, reflecting two competing influences on its elites: secular parliamentary democracy and Islamic ideology. The most compelling factor of Bangladesh's security is its geography, as it is surrounded on three sides by India. Conversely, Bangladesh's location at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal and the strategic position it occupies between the Indian mainland and India's Northeast have released new dynamics in Indo-Bangladesh relations. The use of Bangladesh as a sanctuary by separatist movements in India's Northeast has been an ongoing concern to New Delhi, as have boundary disputes arising from the indeterminate nature of their borders.

Boundary Conflicts

In contrast to the traditional natural frontiers that had developed through custom and usage, British India's colonial boundary making was the product of strategic and economic concerns, which led to the creation of an "outer frontier" that crystallized into the linear boundaries, the Durand Line in the Northwest and the McMahon Line in the Northeast. The partitioning of the subcontinent broke the strategic unity of that frontier, with Pakistan inheriting the northwestern frontier as its outer frontier, and India the northeastern Himalayan frontier. Partition also created a new set of boundaries, or "inner frontiers." Thus, apart from the logistics of maintaining their strategic frontiers, India and Pakistan have had to contend with the irredentist demands of tribal communities that were divided by the linear boundaries. The demand for Pakhtoonistan in the Northwest and the Naga demand for a homeland in the Northeast are but two examples of such transnational claims.

The outer frontier

Recent events have again reinforced the intrinsic importance of the outer frontier to the politics of the Indian subcontinent, with the reemergence of Afghanistan as a "gateway" state between South Asia, Southwest Asia, and Central Asia in the post-Soviet era. The "centrality" of Central Asia has started a new "Great Game" in the region, with its Northwest again being drawn into the calculations of great powers. For India, the destabilization of Afghanistan and Central Asia and the breaching of the Durand Line bring back memories of the Northwest as a corridor of invasion into the Indian heartland. For Pakistan, it represents opportunities to influence events in the wider Muslim world as the inheritor of the strategic "real estate" of the Northwest. The fault lines of religious fundamentalism and the nuclearization of India and Pakistan have further polarized the politics of the region. In that sense, the geopolitical patterns on the Indian subcontinent seem to have turned full circle, with the pressures again coming from the Northwest.

The inner frontier

As for the political borders that separate the modern South Asian system, what stands out most are the "unstable nation state boundaries" that are the legacies of the partition process. In recent years the changing nature of transborder conflicts has added a new dimension to the issue of boundary protection. The porous nature of the boundaries has produced the paradoxical situation of the larger Indian state fencing off its borders to stop armed incursions across the India-Pakistan border (which the Indian state characterizes as cross-border terrorism), and illegal immigrations across the Indo-Bangladesh border (which is threatening to alter the demographic composition of the Northeast region).

Border fencing as the latest phase in boundary making has posed a different set of questions about the security dynamics of the South Asian system. The scourge of cross-border terrorism—including narco-terrorism, arms running, and trafficking in humans—is a manifestation of this phenomenon. The construction of artificial barriers by the Indian state, at enormous cost, has been likened to the modern equivalent of a "Roman Wall" or the Great Wall of China. It is also reminiscent of the ideological divide of the Berlin Wall. The South Asian system has yet to make the transition to a secure regional system, as state formation on the subcontinent still seems hostage to partition's traumatic legacies.

Jayita Ray

See alsoFederalism and Center-State Relations ; Pakistan and India


Bayly, Christopher. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780–1830. New York: Longman, 1989.

Jalal, Ayesha. State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan'sPolitical Economy of Defence. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Lattimore, Owen. Studies in Frontier History: Collected Papers,1928–1934. London: Oxford, 1962.

Oomen, T. K. State and Society in India: Studies in NationBuilding. New Delhi: Sage, 1990.

Panikkar, K. M. Geographical Factors in Indian History. Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1959.

Phillips, C. H., and M. D. Wainwright, eds. The Partition ofIndia: Policies and Perspectives, 1935–1947. London: Allen & Unwin, 1970.

Sisson, Richard, and Leo Rose. War and Secession: Pakistan,India and the Creation of Bangladesh. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Wilson, J., and Dennis Dalton, eds. The States of South Asia: Problems of National Integration. London: C. Hurst, 1982.

About this article

State Formation

Updated About content Print Article