Is NKRI undisputable? Only when we decolonise the notion

Hariati Sinaga
16 min readNov 20, 2018


A decolonial feminist intervention to NKRI

Indonesians often hear this imperative statement, “NKRI adalah harga mati.”, literary translated as, NKRI is non-negotiable or undisputed. NKRI, an abbreviation for Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia, is translated as The Archipelagic State of The Indonesian Republic. The term NKRI for Indonesians means a unity of the people across the archipelago, embracing groups from different religions and ethnicities. The statement has pluralism as its gist. It goes in line with the national spirit of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which means unity in diversity. Indonesia’s founding fathers believe that the motto could hold the people in the Republic together. Thus, Indonesians are internalised with this statement.

However, the internalisation of the statement goes as far as theory. What does it mean for promoting and sustaining NKRI in reality? I argue here that since its independence Indonesia has (still) searched for what the spirit means in reality for the people. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt what Indonesians are taught on paper about the meaning of celebrating and sustaining unity in diversity. In reality, however, we actually do not have a blueprint on how to sustain and celebrate unity in diversity in our own terms. This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why Indonesia has always been drawn to structurally promote certain identities (e.g. ethnicity and/or religion) over the others, and, hence, has been failing to practice unity in diversity.


After gaining its independence, Indonesia was led by Sukarno under Guided Democracy. Guided Democracy practically means a democracy dominated by the personality of Sukarno (Ricklefs 1993). During his ruling regime, Sukarno employed skills and strategies of manipulating symbols and people. For the Indonesians, he offered something to believe in and hope for. Such strategies are not surprising especially after the revolution fights. Those who seek positions in power came to Sukarno. At least, this was what the military and PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia/ Indonesia Communist Party) did at the time. In the end, however, Sukarno could not sustain the balance of power between the military and PKI as the 1965/1966 mass killings of PKI members was followed by Suharto, the then military general, coming into power.

The Suharto regime, as it is widely known, was an authoritarian regime. Suharto set Pancasila as the basis for Indonesia’s democracy, which was realized in the efforts of maintaining national harmony. The implementation of these efforts, however, mean the highly centralistic system of government apparatus, as well as repression against political rights (e.g. freedom of speech, freedom of organizing). These were for the sake of “nationalism spirit” of harmony.

The fall of Suharto gave birth to Reformasi era, which features the twin process of democratization and decentralization. One of consequences, as pointed out by a large body of academic scholarship, is the growing numbers of sectarian movements, many of which are based on Islam as religious identity. While many Indonesian Muslims remain moderate, it is inevitable that the increasing sectarian movements allow for the increase in conservative expressions of Islam in Indonesia. The latter also provides a fertile ground for Muslim fundamentalist groups. Given that the majority of Indonesia’s populations are Muslims, this development often comes at the expense of other religious minorities in the country.

Meanwhile, it has also become more apparent that those who call themselves as nationalists also often deploy policies and measures that lead to conflicts and displacements of local and indigenous people. In the name of nationalism, or national development, or national agenda, lands and the resources of local people, including indigenous tribes, are taken.

Indonesia will hold presidential election next year, and those who will be running for the President and Vice President race have already made known this year. Jokowi, who runs the incumbent government, has chosen Ma’aruf Amin as his running mate, while Prabowo has decided Sandiaga Uno. Progressives, who in the past election had casted their votes for Jokowi, criticized Jokowi’s decision to choose Ma’aruf as his running mate. Ma’aruf Amin, leading the MUI (Indonesia Ulema Council), has a griming track record of repressing the minorities in Indonesia. Many believe that Jokowi’s decision is shaped by the rising sectarian movements, which has just shown its incredible influence in the recent Jakarta gubernatorial election.

Regardless, both nationalists and religious fundamentalist and conservative groups do not show the overall picture of how to run a nation-state that comprises of diverse groups of ethnics, racial, gender, religious minorities, sexual minorities. In the case of religious fundamentalist and conservative groups, this intention is quite clear. Fundamentalist groups actually attempt to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. Whereas conservative groups do not intend to do so, rather a mix of national and religious values with more dominant Islamic influences. Meanwhile, as mentioned, nationalist agenda or national development are often discourses incorporated by nationalist groups to perpetuate state violence against local people and indigenous groups.

A literary translation of “NKRI harga mati”. Funny because it is incorrect translation, but has ironically has some truths. Source:

Here, I will not focus on the religious fundamentalist and conservative groups. Rather, I focus on the question why the search to maintain nationalism even cannot uphold the spirit of unity of diversity. Scholars of political science often reduce the explanations that ground on “power tends to corrupt”. These arguments range from claims on political contract, clienteleism, and patrimonial links between state and business actors. I am particularly interested in a decolonial feminist intervention in understanding this issue. This will give us nuance, especially in the logical operation of sovereign state and how it is actually inherently conflictual with the spirit of unity of diversity.

First, I would like to draw our attention to the relatively new emergence of the sovereign state. The emergence of the sovereign state can be traced to its European origin in the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia. According to Loïc Bisson (2017), the Westphalian myth of the emergence of the sovereign state has three consequences in the field of International Relations (IR). Two of them are relevant for my discussion here. First, it assumes that the emergence of sovereign state was a result of European exceptionalism. As Bisson argues, this assumption ignores the interdependence of Europe, Middle East, and Asia, as well as the imperialist conquest of the Americas prior to 1648, and how these relations very much shape the rise of sovereignty in Europe. Second, the field of IR has proposed to export modern states from Europe to the rest of the world. This, on one hand, was done throughout the colonization with the implementation of Westphalian-state-like structures in the colonies. On the other, it did so throughout decolonization with the need for postcolonial countries to reinforce the Westphalian character of their state as an effort to compete with the colonial/imperial powers. Bisson contends that while the myth of the birth of sovereign state is criticized, the consequences are not. And this opens my intervention in this piece.

The last wave of decolonization in Asia and Africa in the 20thcentury was followed by the birth of the sovereign states in these continents. As discussed above, it becomes clear that the foundation of sovereign states in these continents replicates that of European origin. This poses several problems, which I will discuss in the following.

I will firstly refer to Oliver Jütersonke and Moncef Kartas’ (2015) argument on the state as urban myth. Through this provocative argument, the authors contend that the modern (functional as well as legal) notion of statehood did not develop despite colonialism but it is rather a constitutive part of the process itself. Particularly speaking of the case in the Global South, Jütersonke and Kartas argue that the states emerging out of the decolonization process inherited and continued to maintain the forms of indirect rule established in the 19thcentury. The argument of state as urban myth essentially refers to the state as a social construct that only resonates with a small urban elite. This is evident when analyzing the “decentralised despotism” in the colonial and postcolonial worlds. The “decentralised despotism” of the colony featured ethnically defined structures of authority on the local level supervised by white officials at the centre. While postcolonial leaders, who then maintained the legacy of this system, attempted to reform it, these reform processes were inherently urban-centered. As a result, most of people in the global South continue to be subjects, and not citizens.

Not only the notion of statehood that deserves to be rethought, but also the notion of sovereignty. John Hobson (2015) provides a non-Eurocentric reading of sovereignty and its relationship to modern globalisation. Hobson’s analysis allows us a more complex picture, which goes beyond binary thinking (zero-sum approach) of sovereignty and globalisation. He contends that under globalization state sovereignty has been enhanced in the West (a notion he calls as Western hyper-sovereignty), but significantly diminished and compromised in the East (a notion he calls Eastern conditional-sovereignty). Applying this argument to the case of NKRI, it explains many policy measures taken by the state both in the past and in the present perceived favourable for Western countries (e.g. the states and business actors).

Also crucial in my intervention is the process of (racial) homogenization of society’s members. According to Anibal Quijano (2000), this process is imagined from a Eurocentric perspective as one characteristic and condition of modern-nation states. Speaking particularly during the European conquest of the Americas, Quijano argues that homogenization was achieved not by means of the fundamental democratisation of social and political relations, but by the exclusion of a significant part of the population, one that since the 16thcentury had been racially classified and marginalized from citizenship and democracy. Given these original conditions, as Quijano argues, democracy and nation-states could not be stable and firmly constituted. This historical analysis has important implication for my intervention here when discussing NKRI in the contemporary world. It is mentioned above that the conquest of the Americas partly shapes the rise of sovereignty in Europe. This means that the racial homogenization in the Americas resulting from European colonization of America plays a role in the rise of the sovereignty in Europe. Quijano even argues that this historical movement had already began even before the conquest of the America, namely, through internal colonization of people with same identities who inhabited the same territories as the colonizers. Here, Quijano refers to the expulsion of Muslims and Jews in Spain, at the time perceived as undesirable foreigners.

As a result, the replication of European nation-states into postcolonial societies would partly imply the process of homogenization. This rings a bell to us Indonesians. Sukarno, as one of Indonesia’s founding fathers, came up with Pancasila and Nasakom as paradigm expected to hold the unity of diversity. Pancasila has until now become Indonesia’s ideology. Nasakom, an abbreviation for Nasionalisme, Agama, Komunisme (nationalism, religion, communism), was put forward in order to represent the diverse philosophical thoughts of Indonesians. However, politically speaking, Nasakom was a reasonable choice for Sukarno who were at the time supported by political parties with these three political platforms (i.e. nationalist, Islamic, and communist parties). As we learn from the history of this country, Nasakom became a two-edge sword for Sukarno administration, especially during the Cold War. The 1965/66 mass killings, which took the lives of communist (and alleged communist) members, was under the influence of some Western countries in order to prevent the spread of communism. While this marks a dark history of communism in Indonesia, we also ought to remember that Nasakom had already brought victims, even before the 1965/1966 communist purge. Here, I refer to indigenous societies, along with their indigenous beliefs were by default excluded in Nasakom. The element of Agama, or religion, in Nasakom systematically refers to the officially recognized religions in Indonesia. This was then intensified when Sukarno passed a regulation later crystalized in Article 156a of Indonesia’s Criminal Code. The Article, which has until now been often referred to in case of blasphemy law suit, was originally attributed to the demands made by Islamic organisations to Sukarno at the time in order to prohibit indigenous beliefs. It makes even more interesting that the Article 156 of the Criminal Code is actually a legacy of Dutch colonial law, which at the time was used to suppressed anti-colonial movements.

Apart from the problem of the process of homogenization, the replication of European nation-states in the postcolonial states also draws our attention to, and, subsequently, question the anti-colonialist projects and the notion of nationalism. As Alina Sajed (2017) argues the absence of pluralist visions of the anti-colonialist projects indicates the failure of the anti-colonialists to dislodge the colonial logic of modernity. This absence of pluralist visions is implied through the replication of the nation-states by the formerly colonised world[1]. This replication of European nation-states bear the lack of socio-political imaginary that offers alternative to the racialized and gendered logic of colonial modernity. Here, as Sajed points out, decolonial perspectives allow us to see how modernity and nationalism are rooted in the logic of coloniality, and, hence, help us make sense the inherent violence of the statist project.

It is also important to bring into conversation with decolonial feminist approach how nationalism is imagined within the gender binary. This does not mean an attempt to uphold the gender binary. Rather, it seeks to show how a decolonial feminist approach helps us making sense how nationalism is imagined as a specific gendered logic of colonial modernity. Here, I would like to refer to Joane Nagel’s (1998) argument on masculinity and nationalism. Nagel carefully weaves her analyses in the historical and modern connection between manhood and nationhood. The connection, as Nagel argues, can be explained through: (1) the construction of patriotic manhood and exalted motherhood as icons of nationalist ideology; (2) gendered “places” for men and women in national politics; (3) the domination of masculine interests and ideology in nationalist movement; (3) the interplay between masculine microcultures and nationalist ideology; (4) sexualized militarism, including the construction of over-sexed and under-sexed “enemy” men (rapists and wimps) and promiscuous “enemy” women (sluts and whores). Nagel’s analysis does not specify the colonial/imperial context through which masculinity and nationalism are connected with each other. However, we need to bear in mind that heteronormative patriarchy is part of the Western imperialism. This system of cultural values is in part sustained through a lengthy and complex process of assigning certain attributes or qualities to each gender within the gender binary. Recalling that the concept of nation-state was originally born in the European context, it is safe to argue that nationalism, which literary means a loyal feeling to a nation, inherently carries these assigned qualities as a part of heteronormative system. In short, nationalism as a masculinist project is an inevitable consequence of the establishment of nation-states, which has its origin in Europe. Western imperialism and colonialism, thus, affects the colonized world in two ways. First, it shapes gender system in the colonized world. Second, following the wave of decolonization, the adoption of European nation-states by formerly colonized societies simultaneously implies imagining nationalism as a masculinist project.

In Indonesia’s case, nationalism as a masculinist project is articulated in several ways. First and the most obvious one is that the birth of NKRI, which is a replication of European nation-state, inherently bears nationalism as a masculinist project. Second, intertwining with nationalism as a masculinist project inherent in European nation-state is the shift of anti-colonial movement in Dutch East Indies (the term for Indonesia during Dutch colonialism). Here, I have to point out an important historical moment in Indonesia’s history, which is still celebrated up until today, namely, the 1928 Youth Pledge. The Youth Pledge was declared during Youth Congress II, on October 28, 1928. The Pledge was an important momentum through which the youths from several youth groups in the Indies proclaimed their solidarity. The 1928 Youth Pledge marks the shift of the character of the anti-colonial movement from localised to a more united anti-colonial movements. Apart from this, the 1928 Youth Pledge also shows the shift from the kind of anti-colonial movement that uses physical forces to the kind of movement largely driven by intellectual groups. It is clear that in the latter form of anti-colonial movement, those who played important role were coming from a more educated background. This reminds me of Benedict Anderson’s (1991) argument on nation as imagined community. According to Anderson, an essential element that supports nation as imagined community is nationalism. Speaking particularly of Indonesia, Anderson argues that, apart from print-language, the colonial school-systems play important role in promoting colonial nationalism, and, thus, in the making of Indonesia as an imagined community. People, especially the youths, from different parts of the Indies were going to the schools, which subsequently helped nurture the sense of solidarity between the youths/students. As women in the Indies at the time had lack of access to the colonial-administered schools, it comes as no surprise that these educated youths were mainly men. The 1928 Youth Pledge, is literary translated as Sumpah Pemuda in Indonesian. Pemuda is an Indonesian word for a young man. Although the declaration text of the Youth Pledge also mentions pemudi, an Indonesian word for a young woman, and, therefore, women seem to be included in the Pledge, we ought to remember the fact that there were only 10 women out of total 750 youths who participated in the Youth Congress II. Issues facing women, or particularly young women, were not discussed in the Congress.

The cover of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Interesting coincidence with nationalism as a masculinist project (or perhaps not).

Surely, the Youth Congress II inspired these young women to hold their own congress, the Women’s Congress. Two months after Youth Congress II, the first All-Indonesia Women’s Congress was held in Yogyakarta. The Women’s Congress discussed women’s struggles and women’s rights, as well as the commitment of women to participate in the anti-colonial movement. It is worth mentioning that the solidarity was not fully expressed in the Congress as divisive issues appeared, particularly on the second and the third days of the Congress. Nonetheless, the Women’s Congress is perceived as an important hallmark, not only for the anti-colonial movement, but also for the women’s movement in Indonesia., Elizabeth Martyn (2005) rejects the idea that the roots of women’s movement in Indonesia lie on the anti-colonial warriors. Giving a nod to Benedict Anderson’s argument, she argues that the roots rather lie with a new class of educated women who from early 20thcentury started to analyse their societies in terms of unequal status and treatment of women. This women’s movement as well as the women who were in part of it are often the national references for Ibu Bangsa, Indonesian words for mother of the nation. Whenever there is a topic on Ibu Bangsa, discussions or analyses focus on the women’s movement, the Women’s Congress, as well as the women who played key roles in the movement or the Congress and in the anti-colonial movement. There has recently been a wave of critics against the historiography of Indonesia’s anti-colonial movement and nation-building. Critics argue that the historiography has marginalized the roles of women as Ibu Bangsa. While the critics are justified and, thus, there is an urgency to mainstream the role of women in the historiography of Indonesia’s anti-colonial movement and nation-building, it also brings me back to Nagel’s analysis on the connection between nationalism and masculinity. For example, the term Ibu Bangsa, is a case in point for exalted motherhood in nationalist ideology. Using Nagel’s lenses, we could make sense our mainstream history on anti-colonial movement and nation-building as construction of patriotic manhood. It is not only the fact that there is an overwhelming prevalence of men involved in the anti-colonial movement and nation-building, but also the fact that we only know the term “founding fathers” in Indonesia’s historiography. Where are the women? Nagel’s argument help us making sense the gendered “places” of women’s involvement in the historiography of Indonesia’s anti-colonial movement and nation-building, namely, Ibu Bangsa, the mother of the nation. That also may explain the marginal and marginalized roles of women in the historiography of Indonesia’s anti-colonial and nation-building.


So far I have argued that the anti-colonial nationalist movement is a masculinist project. Based on Nagel’s argument on nationalism as a masculinist project as well as the understanding that European imperialism as a hetero patriarchal project, the adoption of European nation-states by the former colonies in Asia and Africa implies the subscription to the inherent logic of nationalism as a masculinist project. Yet, we could also go further to understand why the anti-colonial nationalist movement is a masculinist project. Here, I would like to refer to the notion of “colonial gaze”, which is understood as the ways the colonisers or the imperialists imagine and set the realities of the colonized so as to justify and maintain the colonial or imperial power. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) serves as one of key analyses on colonial gaze. The colonial gaze portrays the colonized, among others, as barbaric, uncivilized, and feminine. One implication of this is the stereotype of emasculated Asian man. Building on this argument, we could understand the anti-colonial nationalist project as a project to reconcile this colonial gaze. This means countering the colonial narrative, including the colonial gaze. In view of this, anti-colonial nationalist movement as a masculinist project serves as an attempt to challenge the colonial gaze.

If we understand the nation-state as: (1) originated in European context, which features process of homogenization; (2) the anti-colonial nationalist project having lack of pluralist visions; (3) and all these hamper the realization of unity of diversity in NKRI; in what way could we understand that nationalism as a masculinist project serves as a challenge to maintaining unity of diversity? First, as mentioned above, countering the colonial gaze as a feminine object means subscribing to a narrative of nationalism as a masculinist project. This, however, remains within the gender binary. This lack of pluralist understanding is not representative to the societies in Indonesia, some of which have gender diversity as their cultural identities. Second, nationalism as a masculinist project also means that the nationalist strategies are prone to toxic masculinity. This perhaps explains why the nationalist groups too often resort to physical violence in extending their agenda.


Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities. London: Verso

Bisson, L. (2017) “From Mythification to Eurocentrism: The Academic Colour Line”, E-International Relations Students

Hobson, J. (2015) “Decolonising Sovereignty: Globalisation and the Return of Hyper-Sovereignty”, in: R. Schuett and P. M. R. Stirk (Eds.), The Concept of the State in International Relations: Philosophy, Sovereignty, Cosmpolitanism, Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, pp.135–162

Jütersonke, O. and Kartas, M. (2015) “The State as Urban Myth: Governance without Government in the Global South”, in: R. Schuett and P. M. R. Stirk (Eds.), The Concept of the State in International Relations: Philosophy, Sovereignty, Cosmpolitanism, Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, pp.108–134

Martyn, E. (2005) The Women’s Movement in Post-colonial Indonesia: Gender and Nation in A New Democracy, New York: Routledge

Nagel, J. (1998) “Masculinity and nationalism: gender and sexuality in the making of nations”, in: Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 21(2), pp. 242–269

Quijano, A. (2000) “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America” in: Nepantla1, No.3, pp. 533–580

Ricklefs, M. C. (1993) A History of Modern Indonesia since c. 1300, London: Palgrave

Sajed, A. (2017) “Peripheral modernity and anti-colonial nationalism in Java: economies of race and gender in the constitution of Indonesian national teleology”, in: Third World Quarterly, Vol. 38(2), pp.

[1]Here, I have to quickly note the difference between the postcolonial and the decolonial approaches. While the former deals with rethinking modernity from the point of view of colonized, the latter implies unthinking modernity.