Sub-National Movements, Cultural Flow, the Modern State, and the Malleability of Political Space: From Rational Choice to Transcultural Perspective and Back Again

Subrata Mitra


Sub-national movements belong to the generic category of collective efforts to assert cultural nationalism in a territorial space that corresponds to an imaginary homeland. Typically, they question the fixed character of nations and central states as they strike out for their own living space. They draw their support from the affinity that their supporters feel with a particular language, religion, ethnicity, region or some deeply felt sense of collective grievance. Rising typically from a conflation of identity and material interests such movements gather force when the leading initiators succeed in attracting sympathisers from the imagined community corresponding to the cultural catchment. Central states contest the claims to legitimacy of such movements in the name of what sub-nationalists see as an outmoded nationalism, and resist their growth but eventually, when they cannot subdue them they start negotiation with the leadership of the sub-nationalist movement. Once sub-nationalists succeed in gaining power (through democratic elections or a negotiated transfer of power), a phase of banalisation of the original idea that had generated the movement in the first place sets in. In India, this phase has usually taken the form of the creation of new federal States where the leaders of the movement become office-holders of the new territorial unit.

This ‘rational politics of cultural nationalism’ hypothesis is partially challenged in contemporary Indian politics by the emergence of some new movements from within old sub-nationalist movements that have gone through a full life cycle from initiation to banalisation. The movement for a separate Telengana State which its proponents wish to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, one of the first sub-national movements of India, is the focus of this article. Based on this empirical exemplar, the article aims at a reappraisal of conventional models of sub-national movements in the light of counterfactuals such as the reappearance of a movement where conventional theory did not predict it, and to look for a new explanation which adds re-use of collective memory, the non-linearity of time, the dynamism of imagined communities, and cultural and conceptual ‘flow’ to the conventional arguments of politics driven by power and interests. Instead of predicting a ‘once-for-all’ state-formation, based on what the article calls the ‘illusion of permanence’, the revised model presented here is more circumspect about the future, which it conceptualises in terms of probabilities, contingent on a larger cluster of factors, compared to the conventional model of the rational politics of cultural nationalism.


Sub-national movements, rationality, cultural nationalism, Telengana, Memory, Anderson, Brancusi

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