Interpretations of ethnic and cultural nationalism in South Asia have been marked by a tension between “primordialist” and “modernist” approaches. In keeping with the more influential general works on ethnicity and nationalism (Gellner 1983; Anderson 1983; Horowitz 1985; Tambiah 1989), modernist interpretations now generally prevail in scholarly accounts. These works usually trace the roots of ethnic and cultural nationalism to the social and religious reform movements of the nineteenth century, which are seen as indigenous responses to the impact of colonial rule. The emphasis given to particular aspects of colonialism varies, but includes cultural influences, such as Western education; economic factors, including changes in class structure; and political changes, such as the extension of representative government. These modernist interpretations, however, are not entirely unchallenged within scholarship, and primordialist views, which draw more direct links between ethnic nationalism and precolonial identities, remain strong in political, journalistic, and popular forums.

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