The premise of this series of articles is that India has several psychological, political and social ideas to offer to the rest of the modern world. Not only have we moulded many ideas in our own image, we have introduced new ways of living in the modern world. India's contribution could be particularly significant in one of the central ideas of the modern world - the nation-state.

A quick caveat, however. Our creative engagement with modernity is nothing special; we are not bearers of a manifest destiny. Modernity being a worldwide phenomenon, every society has had something to contribute to the modern world. If there is something unique to India, it is our sheer size and ancient history and our pioneering role in the anti-colonial struggle. Consequently, we have been able to steer an autonomous course as an independent nation and put our stamp on political affairs in a manner impossible for smaller or less fortunate countries. It is for these reasons our flawed democracy has something to offer to the rest of the world.

Universality, sometimes by force

In the modern era, the most important form of political organisation is the nation-state. The norms of most nation-states reflect a universal conception of human nature. In this account, all human beings are equal. Paradoxically, despite their colonial ventures around the world, European nation-states were the first prototypes for these norm. It helped that the citizens of each European country also mostly share the same language and religion; universality is easier to legitmise if everyone is recognisably like you.

But India is clearly not such a place. Here, nearly everyone is recognisably unlike you, in politically significant ways. And that raises the question - what happens when the prototype and the norm of the nation-state differ from each other?

Universality is easier to legitmise if everyone is recognisably like you. But India is clearly not such a place.

 •  The beginning of history

The nation-state is a formal system with a well-defined constitution, strict criteria for citizenship and most importantly, a monopoly over violence. This has one evident weakness - nation-states are structurally incapable of being flexible. In the formal system, deviance from the norm comes across as an existential threat. Inevitably, therefore, the nation-state performs poorly when it confronts an internally differentiated populace that does not agree on the basic rules. Faced with dissent from a subset of its population that disagrees with the rules, many nation-states have tended towards ruthlessness and systematic oppression - such as those of Jews in Europe and Tibetans in China.

A less violent choice is to assimilate the diverse population into a normative mean, like the American melting pot. But in this case too, the nation-state does not tolerate true difference; it merely coaxes the different groups towards a mean that they are willing to live with together, while the differences persist.

Is there an alternative to the nation-state that is more tolerant to differences? One alternative - albeit a ghastly one - that the world has tried is empire. Among other things, an empire is a hierarchical organisation of peoples with a centre (say London) and a periphery (say Delhi). An empire contains various peoples but it accords rights to its citizens according to the distance from the centre. In other words, while an empire accepts difference, it has no pretense of providing equality and autonomy. India itself has some of the elements of an empire and a nation-state - a centre-periphery relationship, most obviously with the North-East, and state-sponsored violence against 'suspect' minorities.

But what we are looking for is something else - a positive example of tolerance for differences. And it is in this regard that I think India has a useful contribution to make to modernity.

Nation and nation-state in India

India has two identities: one as a nation and the other as a nation-state and despite their similarities, the two are different along some important dimensions. For one, by their nature, nations engage with demands for autonomy far more creatively than nation-states. Second, unlike empires, the nation is a formation of equals: to use a term from Gandhi, it is a voluntary association of the governed. Its primary objective is to ensure the autonomy and freedom of its citizens. And perhaps because its citizens aspire to a dizzying array of outcomes, in India, as in no other large country in the world, the nation still has the potential to reign in the hegemony of the nation-state.

The nation is an organic system whose amorphous structure is constructed through geography and history rather than an abstract system of law. The geographical boundaries of the Indian nation have always been fluid though there is a natural boundary coinciding with those of South Asia. The Indian nation also has a genuine history. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka and the Mughal emperor Akbar are part of the history of the Indian nation but not that of the Indian nation-state.

A hundred years ago, we had a state but we didn't have a nation. The British justified their rule by its supposed capacity to bring the rule of law to an unruly collection of peoples. When the people rebelled, they were put down by force. In response to British statism, the Indian independence struggle claimed that India was a nation, not just a state and the British did not have the authority or the legitimacy to rule the Indian nation.

A central aspect of the nationalist argument was the historical continuity of India all the way back to the Indus valley civilisation. A national identity was crucial to sustain a mass political movement with the goal of achieving true swaraj. The nation's priority over our consciousness persists. Consider this: the major components of the nation-state, namely, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police and the army are all descendants of their colonial predecessors. Nevertheless, in our hearts we have rejected the colonial state in recounting the Indian nations 'authentic' history. We are far more likely to invoke Chandragupta than Curzon in our evocation of national identity. It is as if we rejected the history of the nation-state for the history of the nation.

Once independence was achieved, however, the goal of nationhood lost priority to the goal of establishing the nation-state. The Congress went from being the party of the nation to being the party of the nation-state. However, the nation did not disappear from the imagination. The 1975-77 Emergency was a decisive factor in the two conceptions of India. Indira Gandhi justified the emergency by alluding to threats to the nation-state, but the Indian people rejected her reasoning. Since then, the nation-state has always been tempered by ideas of nationhood. The emergence of regional and lower caste parties and the permanence of coalition governance points to a future where the nation will have further triumphed over the nation-state.

Of course, this picture of nationhood is not complete without pointing out its underbelly. The nation-state's hegemony over the nation has led to the worst violence. The Nazi state stripped Jews of their citizenship before transporting them to concentration camps. In the worst case, the bureaucratic violence of the nation-state can collude with the baser instincts of nationhood to perpetrate genocide. India is no stranger to this emotion. The Gujarat riots are the most chilling acts of violence precisely because of the clever combination of nation and nation-state in the acts of the Hindu right.

It is imperative, therefore, that progressive voices should not shy away from emotion and passion in favour of abstract ideals. We should not cede religion to fundamentalists, we should not let extremists define our national ideals. The nation is not an exclusive entity - for a particular race, religion or ethnicity. For India to emerge as a good prototype of nationhood, it has to be informed by good norms.

Autonomy and dialogue

What are the norms that should inform the Indian nation? I want to mention two normative principles that stand out in the articulations of nationhood in the preindependence period from Tagore to Aurobindo and Gandhi: the principle of autonomy and the principle of dialogue. The principle of autonomy says that the purpose of the nation is to enable the autonomous existence of its constituents, both individuals and other sub-units. To paraphrase Gandhi, the nation is the primary entity responsible for "the cultures of all the lands blowing through our house as freely as possible without blowing us off our feet."

The principle of dialogue says that the peoples of a nation have primacy over the rules governing the nation. According to this principle the nation is constantly renewed because of the dialogue between its constituents. For example, instead of imposing a strict division between religion and state, we can choose to keep the public space open for a free and respectful communication between religions. The Indian conception of secularism comes closer to this ideal than the western model of separation between Church and State.

The peoples of a nation have primacy over the rules governing the nation. According to this principle the nation is constantly renewed because of the dialogue between its constituents.

 •  The beginning of history

To conclude, one should recognise that the need for autonomy and for true dialogue is present in most human cultures. It is true that several western theorists have privileged the role of autonomy and dialogue as the foundation for a just society. The question is whether the largest political unit, the nation-states, nations and empires can adopt these principles. I have argued that nation-states and empires are ill-suited for this purpose. However, these three possibilities - nation-state, empire and nation - are not mutually exclusive. India, China, Russia, the United States and the EU have all three categories in their make-up. We have a choice: should the nation or the nation-state or the empire have the highest value in our political self-conception? In China and the United States it seems as if the nation-state has priority over the nation.

Unlike the American and Chinese examples, the Indian experiment with political unity leaves open the possibility that the nation will inform the nation-state. If the usual 'nation-state over nation' hegemony is reversed to become a 'nation and nation-state' relationship, some of the worst forms of formal violence will be curtailed.