Ethnic Separatism

Ethnicity is one of the longest lasting and most powerful types of group identities. But it is also always changing and adapting to new circumstances. Thousands of ethnic groups exist, defined by ancestry, location of homelands, language, religion, and numerous other cultural traits.

Ethnic Separatism Ethnic Separatism

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    One of the features of ethnicity resulting from knowing that your cultural group is unique and important is a feeling of pride in your history (ethnic heritage) and status as a political entity (ethnic nation). Ethnic nationalism is the result of an ethnic group making tangible efforts to assert its importance and rights. Ethnic nationalism may become a project promoted by governments when it serves the interest of the state; or, it may become a threat to the state for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is ethnic separatism. Keep reading for a definition of ethnic separatism, some examples, and more.

    Ethnic Separatism Definition

    Ethnic groups may actively seek to separate themselves and often their lands from the broader population and territory of a country. This is nothing new: without this process, many of the countries in the world would not exist!

    Ethnic Separatism: the process whereby an ethnic group (nation) dissatisfied with any combination of social, economic, and political conditions in the country in which it is located undertakes moves toward greater autonomy from the central government of a state, or even secession.

    Ethnic Separatism Examples

    There are hundreds of active and dormant ethnic separatist movements in the world, mostly in Europe, Asia, and Africa. While some of these employ violent tactics such as armed confrontations with their country's military, or terrorism against civilians, the majority are peaceful and seek greater autonomy or independence through the ballot box.


    Brussels, the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium, is also often called the "capital of the European Union." But not everything is so unified on the home front. Belgium has evolved one of the most complex devolutionary schemes in Europe to fend off the threat of ethnic separatism.

    Ethnic separatism, Belgium map divided by flemish, french, and german community regions , StudySmarterFig. 1 - Belgium is comprised of the Flemish Community (orange), French community (red), German-speaking community (green), and Brussels-Capital Region (red/orange)

    Belgium's north, bordering the Netherlands, is known as Flanders and is home to the Dutch-speaking Flemish people. In the south bordering France is the French-speaking Wallonia region, home to the Walloons. In the east is a German-speaking minority.

    The Flemish Movement is an umbrella term for various Flemish political parties that have supported everything from greater autonomy for Flanders to secession and either the formation of a sovereign Flemish state or unification with the Netherlands. As an example of how devolutionary strategies can misfire for a federal state, in the 21st century, the greater autonomy that has been progressively granted to Belgian ethnic nations seems to have resulted in greater feelings of ethnic separatism and less interest in remaining a unified country.

    Months-long stand-stills resulting from failures to form coalition governments have led many to suggest that the wisest forward course for Belgium is partition.


    India has a federal system. State governments have a high degree of autonomy, similar to US, Brazilian, or Mexican states. As a parliamentary democracy since independence in 1947, India has pursued devolutionary strategies to allow minority groups numbering in the millions to have a political voice, yet it has still faced numerous violent separatist movements as well as other insurgencies. However it is important to understand what does and does not constitute ethnic separatism in India, and how much it is still a factor (the answer appears to be: it is fading in importance).

    Separatism and Insurgency

    In a Hindu-dominated country where Muslims, Christians, and members of traditional religions may be relegated to low status in the caste system (officially banned but widespread in practice), it is not surprising that a fair amount of separatism has had ethnoreligious motives.

    In Punjab, the 20th-century project to establish an independent Khalistan for the Sikhs had ethnic and religious motivations, but it appears to have largely died out. In Kashmir, there is a tug of war between Pakistan and India and between Hindus and Muslims, but the conflict is not ethnic separatism per se, even though a new country called Kashmir has been suggested as a possible solution. Finally, the long-running communist insurgency of the Naxalites, which has claimed thousands of deaths, is based on socio-economic considerations connected to the oppression suffered by low-caste Indians; it is not ethnic separatism either.

    Ethnic Separatism in Northeast India

    The one region in India where ethnic separatism has been alive and well since independence, though now ebbing rapidly, are the "seven sisters" hill states of the North East Region (NER: Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram, Tripura, and Sikkim), and the Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh. All but Sikkim have had multiple episodes of violent insurgency generated by the numerous "hill tribes" or ethnic nations that inhabit the area. Not in any particular order, here is a list of factors that have contributed to the region's ills:

    • Ethnic diversity and lack of common ethnic connection to the rest of India. There are over 220 ethnic groups in the NER.

    • Cross-border ethnic and political connections to surrounding countries.

    • Many ethnic nations were once independent states (e.g., Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia nations of Meghalaya; Meghalaya itself was split from Assam in the 1970s).

    • Minority faiths (i.e., non-Hindu religions), including Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and many traditional religions.

    • Geographical isolation from the rest of India due to the 14-mile-wide "Chicken's Neck" (Siliguri Corridor) connecting West Bengal to Assam.

    • Neglect and racist or other unfair treatment by the rest of India and the federal government.

    • Human rights violations committed by the federal government against local people in the name of fighting "terrorism" and the multiple threats of separatism in general; this includes the limiting of fundamental, constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

    • Indian military presence in disputed and conflictive border regions near China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

    Ethnic separatism, map NER India, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The North East Region is separated from the rest of the country by the "Chicken's Neck" corridor in northern West Bengal state.

    The physical geography of the region lends itself to easy movement in and out of weak bordering states like Bangladesh and particularly Myanmar, which has also meant a steady supply of narcotics that can be used by guerrilla movements for funding. Thick rainforests in the area provide cover to rebels.

    In general, the region's unrest is similar to that found in other highly ethnically diverse countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo where ethnic nationalism may be more meaningful and important than allegiance to a state. For a contrasting case of a federal system where ethnic nationalist sentiment does not manifest itself in separatism, see the US example, below.

    Ethnic Separatism and Devolution

    Ethnic separatism can be both a cause and an effect of devolutionary strategies.

    How does this work? Well, imagine you are a member of an ethnic nation that has been marginalized and discriminated against for a very long time. You feel closer connections to your own ethnic nation than to the country in which it is located: your cultural identity isn't really tied up with the country you are a citizen of; you feel little to no allegiance to the state.

    The central government, realizing it could lose territory (which inevitably means resources, income, and perhaps valuable, strategic locations), grants your ethnic nation increased autonomy. The state is seeking stability, perhaps avoiding war, and maybe even trying to stave off an irredentist claim by a neighboring country that is run by the ethnic nation you are a member of.

    Devolution can backfire, particularly if ethnic nationalist movements see it as part of a continuum toward eventual independence or unification with a neighbor. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this debacle: democratic states as economically advanced as Belgium, Canada, and Spain periodically threaten to split apart despite pursuing devolutionary strategies guaranteeing high degrees of autonomy. Meanwhile, the heavy hand of totalitarianism that suppressed ethnic nationalism, once lifted, as we saw in the former Yugoslavia and USSR, left a panorama of ethnic nations scrambling to reassert themselves and their territorial claims, often at the expense of others doing the same.

    Ethnic Separatism in the USA

    While the US has a federal system with many powers devolved to the states, it has no significant active ethnic separatist movements in the 48 contiguous states or Alaska. "Aztlan" was at one point a Chicano separatist movement that sought, via the Raza Unida party, to secede from the US and restore the mythic homeland of the Aztecs. It floundered in the 1970s. Other secession movements based on ethnicity have included the Lakotah Nation, championed by some American Indian Movement members but with little support among the autonomous tribal governments themselves. Yet another attempt was the Republic of New Afrika, a movement among Black radical activists to create an independent Black nation in the US South.

    The federal government has had close to zero tolerance for separatism involving moves toward secession, so all serious ethnic separatist moves have been stamped out before reaching levels seen in many other countries. However, two cases of US territory where separatism is a more lasting and serious issue do exist.


    The Hawaii sovereignty movement consists of around ten separate movements and political parties among native Hawaiians to restore Hawaii to its pre-1898 status as a sovereign state. The Kingdom of Hawaii was undermined and controlled by the US government in the 1890s, then the islands were annexed to the US. Since then, native Hawaiians have been swamped demographically and economically by immigrants from the US mainland and from Asia, losing access and rights to traditional and sacred lands, and in many ways becoming second-class citizens

    Ethnic separatism, Hawaiian flag, StudySmarterFig. 3 - the Kanaka Maoli flag, one of several flags associated with the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

    Puerto Rico

    This Caribbean island became a colony of Spain in 1493 and then of the US in 1898. In all that time, it has never been a sovereign state, while several independence movements and figures have come and gone. Now the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, in free association with the US, has referendums every few years on whether to:

    1) maintain the status quo;

    2) try to achieve statehood as the 51st state; or

    3) secede and become an independent country.

    Neither of the two latter options have won majorities, however.

    Moves toward independence can be characterized in part as ethnic separatism because Puerto Ricans, who call themselves Boricuas, are an ethnic nation resulting from the melding of Indigenous peoples with Europeans and Africans who ended up on the island through slavery or voluntarily. However, Puerto Rican nationalism also has strong elements of economic self-determination due to the fact that the standard of living in the territory is well below that of US states.

    Political parties in Puerto Rico are dominated by the New Progressive Party with nearly 40% of the vote; included in their platform is the desire to become a US state. As this would be a Hispanic-majority state, however, others see this as a strategy that cannot come to fruition because they predict that such a state would become a Democrat stronghold (anticipating this, Republicans would block any such move toward statehood). Meanwhile, the Popular Democratic Party wishes to keep things the same in Puerto Rico, and they garner about a third of the vote. Of Puerto Rico's minor parties, the Puerto Rican Independence Party receives the support of less than 7% of the electorate.

    Ethnic Separatism - Key takeaways

    • Ethnic separatism is an ethnic nationalist phenomenon whereby ethnic nations seek either autonomy or to break away from the states that govern them and form sovereign states or join neighboring states.
    • Ethnic separatism is widespread in the world.
    • Ethnic separatism is often addressed by devolutionary strategies in countries like India and Belgium, though these don't necessarily stop it.
    • The US has little ethnic separatist activity, except in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.


    1. Fig. 1: Belgium communities ( by Ssolbergj ( licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ethnic Separatism

    What is ethnic separatism? 

    Ethnic separatism is the political process of an ethnic nation breaking away or attempting to break away from a state, to gain grater autonomy, form its own state, or join a neighboring state. 

    What is an example of ethnic separatism? 

    An example of ethnic separatism is the Flemish Movement in Flanders, northern Belgium. 

    How does ethnic separatism cause devolution? 

    The threat of losing territory and resources galvanizes a state to pursue ways to grant more rights and power to ethnic separatist regions so as to avoid war and more fully integrate citizens into the democratic process.

    Are there any separatist movement in India? 

    Most ethnic separatism in India is quiescent, but has historically been a major factor in the eight states of the North East Region among dozens of separatist groups representing hundreds of ethnic nations. 

    Why did Belgium split into 3 regions? 

    Belgium split into Dutch-, French-, and German-speaking regions as a devolutionary strategy to stave off partition or secession and allow people more autonomy to govern themselves. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which is the true statement related to ethnic separatism in India's North East Region (NER)?

    The following are unsuccessful ethnic separatist movements in the US:

    The three communities of Belgium are:

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