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  • David Harrop

The Proximity of Ethnicity and Politics in Defining Nationalism

Ethnicity as a foundation for nationalism is very much a product of colonialism, with ethnicity being defined by Kanchan Chandra as ‘identity based on traits believed to be associated with descent.’ The politics of ethnicity thus relates closely to the politics of nationalisms when defined as being the feeling of a loyalty to a nation often stemming from a cultural inheritance, excluding those without such shared belonging - therefore, ethno-nationalism seeks to preserve the primacy of ethnicity in politics, with a lingering presence into modernity. The emergence of Enlightenment thought within political structures ran parallel to the period of European imperialism and colonialism, where identity was based on ‘othering’ peoples by enhancing differences in culture and ethnicity, a post-colonial critical analysis of these surviving political structures can identify how the proximity between politics and ethnicity has become the lodestone of the nation state even in the modern day. This essay will demonstrate the close proximity of ethnicity and politics through an analysis of the nationalisms of Nazi Germany, the Hindutva ideology in India, the emergence of Negritude and the nationalism of the Kurdish people.

Firstly, German Jews were forfeit for the ethno-homogeneity of the Greater German Reich from 1933-45; excluded, persecuted and eventually exterminated due to the politically institutionalised entrenchment and incitement of ethnic difference. It can be argued that the apathy towards the plight of German Jews was shared not just by a willing German people, but also by the rest of Europe as evidenced by the unwillingness of 30 of the 32 participants at the Evian conference in 1938 to increase their quotas for Jewish refugees facing increasing persecution in Germany. This widespread, tacit or open, anti-Semitism was fuel on the fire for an ethnic national identity; the emigration of many Jews from Bolshevik Russia in the 1920s created a wave of anti-communist sentiment across Europe, with these refugees being associated with the brutality and anti-capitalist policies of their homeland. Such underlying resentments were exploited in the pervasive Realpolitik of nationalism, seen explicitly with the rise of fascistic political parties led by demagogues such as Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini. Ethnic difference was used by such figures to scapegoat minority groups, blame being used as a gateway to power and a mandate for radical action. Hitler himself continually referred to Jews not even as enemies, but as vermin or a pestilence, using language of purification and extermination as opposed to murder or genocide. This highlights the inflamed levels of ethnic difference whereby those deemed un-German were dehumanised, described both as a threat to political stability as well as to the soul of the German people, plaguing the nation with their ethnic non-uniformity. This process of ‘othering’ minority groups with different cultural traditions put them outside the redefined German nation state, no longer simply based upon language, but also on genetics and ancestry. Ethnicity had been amalgamated within mainstream politics, with the Nazi party gaining a plurality of votes in all subsequent elections from 1932 onwards. The ratification of their ethno-nationalism through the democratic process conveys the complicity of the German people in the anti-Semitic policies that were to define German politics until 1945, ultimately leading to genocide. Therefore, an analysis of German nationalism evidences the close proximity of ethnicity and politics.

Furthermore, the example of the prevalence of the Hindutva ideology in Indian politics proves its proximity to ethnicity in the context of nationalism. However, it could be argued that Prime Minister Modi, despite his appeal to Hindutva ideologues through rhetoric, does not act in alignment with Hindu ethno-nationalist ideology, for instance he condemned the gau rakshaks in 2019. However, with the 2020 state elections being seen as a referendum on Modi’s premiership, with his emphasis on valance politics, the resounding success the BJP (Modi’s party) received in key areas like Bihar could legitimise a further radicalisation of ethnically motivated policies, with a resurgence of the Hindu nationalist agenda. For instance, the debate over illegal immigration, many of whom are Muslim, became highly charged in the run up to the 2019 general election, with the then BJP President Amit Shah referring to the Muslim refugees as termites. This indicates an affiliation within mainstream Indian politics to ethno-nationalism, with the conflation between Hindu and India seeping into political discourse. By defining Indian national identity along religious and cultural lines, ethnic tension is being sparked at governmental levels, with the political battle lines drawn further sowing discord in Indian society as the BJP’s continued hegemony serves to dominate religious and ethnic minorities in non-legal terms. Also, it has been debated as to whether the Indian government has used the perceived ethnic differences and tensions in order to fan the flames of unrest and discredit their opposition. Moreover, it has been suggested that the nature of ethnic identity contributes to outright ethnic conflict, perhaps explaining the rise in militia-based violence seen since the 1980s, perpetrated by groups such as Bajrang Dal operating out of Uttar Pradesh with roughly two thousand local branches culminating in monthly attacks in 2014 in opposition to the so-called ‘Love Jihad’, a Pakistani fifth column using the local Muslim population to corrupt Hindu culture. This demonstrates how violence can be a conduit for delineating and exacerbating ethnic differences in the name of nationalism, often with the tacit condonement of politicians who share allegiance to the same interpretation of nationhood along ethnic lines. Therefore, the infusion of the Hindutva ideology into contemporary India represents the near proximity between ethnicity and politics in defining nationalism, but not to the same extent as seen in Nazi Germany.

Additionally, the rise of the negritude movement across the 20th century French Empire and postcolonial France demonstrates the proximity between ethnicity and politics in defining nationalism. Negritude can be interpreted as a movement that fought against the cultural hegemony imposed upon their distinctly black identities by the colonial superstructures of education and political assimilation, more than just a nativist anti-racism movement. This represented a clear definition between French and African ethnicity in an attempt to preserve indigenous culture through nationalist decolonisation. Radical attempts to further define an ethno-nationalist African state, for instance by rooting negritude in biological identity that provided the foundations of African socialism, with the movement becoming a form of dialectical identities that would map the future and past of the ethno-state. This ethnicization and racialisation of an anti-colonial narrative was criticised vociferously because Negritude was thus perceived as an inversion of the mischaracterisations of colonialism. However, a more surrealist interpretation of Negritude does not root nationalism purely in biology, but on cultural identity as such rigid definitions of the nation in blood and flesh are simply a reflection of Hitler’s ideology in an African context. Therefore, a surrealist and abstract definition of Negritude would see decolonisation driven by a shared cultural nationalism, rooted in the ethnic identity colonial Africa, as blood is as divisive as it is unifying in defining a people. The differing strands and interpretations of the umbrella Negritude movement represents the differing proximities ethnicity and politics can have with relation to nationalism, largely due to the context of the emerging nationalism. More rigid views on the formation of the nation state, such as Senghor’s biological rooting, emerged from a more collaborative background, whereas the nationalisms of men like Césaire and Diagne were formed from places of political power, with Diagne being the first black African to serve in the French Assembly in 1914, and Césaire serving as mayor of Forte-de-France. These nationalisms evolved to give greater weight to ethnic identity as opposed to biological origin, perhaps due to the effects of colonial public office yielding a greater emphasis on cooperation and working within the colonialist framework, whereas Senghor’s ontological interpretation of Negritude perhaps being used to facilitate his ascendency to the leadership of Senegalese nationalism, rallying nativist resentment toward French colonial rule. Therefore, ontological nationalism worked outside of the colonial framework, producing a greater variation in viewpoints on the Negritude movement as a whole. Thus, the differing strands of Negritude ideology provide clear evidence of the very close proximity of ethnicity as well as biological and ontological identity to politics when defining nationalism, with similarities to the influence of Hindutva in postcolonial politics.

Finally, the rise Euroscepticism in Britain evidences the proximity of ethnicity and politics defining nationalism. As a socio-cultural form of nationalism from European integration, the aim of a British Eurosceptic is to preserve a distinct political, ethnic and legal identity. Symbols such as the Royal Family and Parliamentary sovereignty have served to isolate Britain from a federalist European state, and thus acted as a boundary for integration, this in turn fuelled Eurosceptic support, raising questions about the compatibility between British and European cultures within a state. These cultural symbols act as icons for an inherited sense of British identity and ethnicity, through tradition and custom which evolved largely outside continental influence This exemplifies how the changing political winds were helping to shape ethnic identity by redefining what it meant to be British with the rise of popular Euroscepticism marking Britain out as distinctly non-European. Hence, British ethnic identity was being shaped by the influx of Eurosceptic belief into mainstream politics, as opposed to the previous study of Germany where a definition of ethnicity influenced the political trend toward anti-Semitism. Furthermore, the political lodestone of the British nation state, Parliament, has been used by Eurosceptics to prevent the erosion of British sovereignty and nationalism, as prophesised by Enoch Powell in 1976. This demonstrates how British political institutions have historically helped to define British nationalism, and when put into the context of an anti-European form, nationalism takes on the form of a distinct ethnic identity through the process of ‘othering’ alien or foreign political institutions and interests. This underlying sentiment had been brewing perhaps since the first proposals for economic integration were made in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the then deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison dismissing potential British membership with the remark that ‘the Durham miners will never wear it.’ The ultimate expression of this popular Euroscepticism was the vote to leave the European Union in the 2016 national referendum, by a margin of 52% to 48%. Political attitudes towards European integration have often been dictated to by the needs of party unity, in the case of the Labour Party during negotiations over entry under Macmillan’s premiership, and Theresa May’s compromise approach in the Mansion House speech 2018. Thus, political factionalism has often directed the winds of Eurosceptic nationalism, the issue consuming party lines. Therefore, in the context of the rise of British Euroscepticism, there is a demonstrable proximity between ethnicity and politics in defining nationalism.

Overall, it is clear that there does exist a close proximity to ethnicity and politics defining nationalism, evidenced clearly by the analyses of Nazi Germany, the Hindutva ideology in India, the Negritude movement, and the rise of Euroscepticism in Britain. All share a common belief in the founding nationalism along ethnic or cultural lines, with politics often facilitating and encouraging such definition. The exclusive nature of ethnic identification has historically been the fuel for ethnic conflict. Whilst it is true that there is not a uniform proximity between ethnicity and politics- demonstrated by contrasting political natures of the ethno-state in Nazi Germany to the eurosceptically influenced British government when negotiating with the EU, on the whole there remains a close proximity between ethnicity and politics in defining nationalism.


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