India experienced four different kinds of nationalisms. The major Indian nationalism was territorial, anti-colonial and led to the creation of a nation-state through a national movement.
Its territorial boundaries were defined partly by the colonial conquest and administration and partly by the strong dynastic states that ruled of the territory from time to time (Maurya, Gupta and Mughal Empire).
It acquired not only one but three distinct high-cultures during the colonial period.
There was an Islamic high-culture inherited from the Mughal times and sustained by Urdu that flourished in the pockets of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. There was of course a high Brahmanic culture that had thrived in the past sometimes with official protection and sometimes despite it.
Along with these a new high-culture, engendered by English language and sustained by modern education, also developed initially in the three Presidencies (Madras, Bengal and Bombay), and later in the provinces of U.P. and Punjab. Although the dividing lines along these cultures were always fuzzy and never very sharp, the national movement that developed from the late 19lh century onwards had a different time trying to reconcile them.
It was partly for these constraints that Indian National movement remained, throughout its life, linguistically and culturally remarkably plural. Since cultural unity was the hallmark of all nationalist projects, Indian national movement evolved the unique slogan of ‘unity in diversity’ and remained committed to both. Paradoxically the plural and no coercive elements of the Indian national movement became its greatest strength and weakness at the same time.
The focus on cultural and linguistic plurality enabled the movement to maximize mobilization, but it also rendered Indian nationalism somewhat handicapped when confronted with a rival nationalism. So, Indian first nationalism inherited an administrative unity form the alien rulers, strove to create a political unity and generally refrained from imposing a cultural and linguistic unity.
When the new nation-state took over after the successful culmination of the national movement in 1947, it went about its task of creating cultures compositeness and economic integration.
The second major nationalism was a rival to Indian nationalism. This led to the creation of Pakistan. Pakistani nationalism was based on the famous two-nation theory, which implied that Indian Muslims were not a part of an Indian nation but were a nation in them. The claim that Muslims in India were a nation was nothing short of an invented tradition.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of this nationalism, declared that Indian Muslims always existed as a nation, but they did not realize this till the early decades of the 20th century! He launched a movement that led to the creation of an independent nation-state of Pakistan. This nationalism, compared to its Indian counterpart, suffered from two disadvantages and enjoyed two distinct advantages.
The third category is the new state of Bangladesh fulfilled the nationalist principle but remained vulnerable to irredentist possibilities because of the neighboring area (West Bengal, now a part of India and originally part of a full province along with the new nation-state of Bangladesh). The two areas, West Bengal and Bangladesh have shared history and other similarities. Though irredentism has not occurred here, there has been a transfer of population from Bangladesh to India at an alarmingly high rate.
The fourth category is that of aspirant nationalism – forces for Khalistan in Punjab, Azad Kashmir in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the Tamil demand for a separate state in Sri Lanka. These and probably more may be called potential nationalisms. If successful in some distant future, and that is yet to be seen, these would be called breakaway nationalisms.
The experience of potential nationalisms (or nationalisms which are not likely to ever culminate in the formation of new nation-states) is not specific to India but is a world phenomenon. The world today is replete with potential nationalisms to such an extent that by one estimate, for every single actual nation, there are at least ten potential ones.