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Ethnic Conflict & India’s civil society

  • Categories
    Governance: Doing the rights things in the right way
  • Published
    19th Oct, 2022


  • Civic engagement between different ethnic communities serves to contain ethnic conflict. Civic organizations play a crucial role in times of ethnic tensions. They can be considered as an instrument for negotiation and facilitation of conflicts, influencing the local authorities or government policies, technical support, monitoring the situation, analysis, research etc. We shall be looking into the integral link between the structure of civic life in a multiethnic society. To illustrate these links, there are two interconnected arguments.

Role of civil society:

  • First, interethnic and interethnic networks of civic engagement play very different roles in ethnic conflict. Because they build bridges and manage tensions, interethnic networks are agents of peace, but if communities are organized only along interethnic lines and the interconnections with other communities are very weak or even nonexistent, then ethnic violence is quite likely.
  • Second, civic networks, both interethnic and interethnic, can also be broken down into two other types: organized and quotidian. Business associations, professional organizations, reading clubs, film clubs, sports clubs, NGOs, trade unions, and cadre-based political parties are examples of the former. Everyday forms of engagement consist of simple, routine interactions of life, such as whether families from different communities visit each other, eat together regularly, jointly participate in festivals, and allow their children to play together in the neighborhood. Both forms of engagement, if robust, promote peace.

Clarifying Concepts and Terms:

  • Before we delve further into the topic, we must first clarify the meaning of the term “ethnic’, “ethnic conflict” and “civil society” because there is a possibility that they may convey different meanings to different people.
  • “Ethnic” (Narrower Definition): “racial” or “linguistic” groups. This is the sense in which the term is widely understood in popular discourse, both in India and elsewhere.
  • Ethnic” (Broader Definition): It is more of an umbrella usage including, race, language, religion, tribe, or caste which can be called ethnic.
  • Ethnic group and movement: The term ‘ethnic’ is derived from the Greek word ‘ethno’ meaning ‘nation’. It was originally used to denote primitive tribes or societies that formed a nation on the basis of their simplistic forms of government and economy.
  • An ethnic group can be defined as a cultural group whose members either share some or all of the following features—a common language, region, religion, race, endogamy, customs, and beliefs.
  • “Ethnicity”: Ethnicity refers to the interrelationships between ethnic groups. It refers to the identification of a group based on a perceived cultural distinctiveness that makes the group into a “people.” The concept of ethnicity is purely cultural and is sociologically used to distinguish it from the race.
  • “Ethnic conflict”: In any ethnically plural society that allows free expression of political demands, some ethnic conflict is more or less inevitable, but it may not necessarily lead to violence. When there are different ethnic groups that are free to organize, there are likely to be conflicts over resources, identity, patronage, and policies.
  • “Civil society”: It refers to that space which:
    1. exists between the family, on the one hand, and the state, on the other,
    2. makes interconnections between individuals or families possible,
    3. is independent of the state.

Defining Civil Society:

  • Civil society can be understood as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business, and including the family and the private sphere. Civil society is used in the sense of:
    • the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or
    • individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government.
  • Sometimes the term civil society is used in the more general sense of "the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society".

Journey of Civil Society Organisations in India

  • In India, the growth of civil society can be traced largely through three main phases identified by Sahoo (2013) which deserve mention: the first one is the period of Nehru (1947-1964) characterized by a civil society that was controlled by the elites; second is the regime of Indira Gandhi (1967-1977) in which a mass-based civil society is said to have emerged; third is the Congress Government and Structural Adjustment Programme (1991-1997) characterized by a drastic rise of NGO activity in India followed by the professionalization of these NGOs.

Types Of Ethnic Movements or Ethnic Conflicts:

  • Intra-ethnic – In this, there is a different ethnic identity within an umbrella ethnic identity and the movement strives for the perceived separate benefits for its members. Eg: Shia-Sunni conflict.
  • Inter-ethnic – Ethnic identity of one group is seen as completely different from others. Eg: Assamese against migrants.
  • Ethnic group Vs State – Ethnic group sees their identity as different from the larger state Eg: the Naga movement.

Approaches to studying ethnic inter-relationship:

  • Ethnic relations can be broadly classified under two categories, namely the ‘consensus approach’ and the ‘conflict approach’.
    • Consensus Approach: The society is like the human body, and is a balanced system of institutions. Each unit or institution in society serves a function in maintaining that society. The consensus approach is based on Cultural Assimilation.
    • Conflict Approach: In contrast to the above-mentioned consensus approach, the conflict approach views ethnic groups as interest groups, which are in relation to inequality, competing for common goals which may lead to a total change in the social system.

Organized civic networks:

  • Organized civic networks, when inter-communal, not only do a better job of withstanding the exogenous communal shocks—like partitions, civil wars, and desecration of holy places; they also constrain local politicians in their strategic behavior. Politicians who seek to polarize Hindus and Muslims for the sake of electoral advantage can tear at the fabric of everyday engagement through the organized might of criminals and gangs.
  • Organized gangs readily disturbed neighborhood peace, often causing migration from communally heterogeneous to communally homogenous neighborhoods, as people moved away in search of physical safety. Without the involvement of organized gangs, large-scale rioting and tens and hundreds of killings are most unlikely, and without the protection afforded by politicians, such criminals cannot escape the clutches of law. Brass has rightly called this arrangement an institutionalized riot system.

Causes For Rise in Ethnic Movements or Ethnic Conflicts:

  • Economic factors and regional disparities.
  • Relative deprivation.
  • Vote bank politics.
  • Historical reasons like colonialism.
  • Internal colonialism is wherein the dominant community exploits the minority community.
  • External provocations like funding by enemy countries to boost conflicts.

Manifestations Of Ethnic Conflicts in India:

  • The challenge posed by ethnic groups in India have taken the form of (i) autonomy movements, (ii) secessionist movements, (iii) insurgency, and (iv) violent conflicts on the basis of identity markers such as language, religion, tribe, caste, etc.
  • In the Northeast region of India, ethnic conflicts have assumed secessionist and insurgent proportions.
  • Another inter-ethnic conflict that has persisted in urban Indian politics is the one between the locals and the migrants.
  • The Self-determination Movements like Khalistan Movement.

Tribal Ethnic Conflicts

  • Reactionary Movements – Tries to bring back the old traditions.
  • Conservative Movements – Maintain status quo.
  • Revolutionary Movements – Bring radical changes in tribal society.

Ethno Nationalism:

  • Ethno-nationalism is a kind of sub-nationalism based upon an ethnic identity of the ethnic groups.
  • In short, ethno-nationalism is the nationalism of ethnic groups such as Muslims, Kurds, Latvians, Tamils, etc., who define their nation in exclusive terms, mainly on the basis of
  • common descent, race, culture, history, and language.

Ethnic Cleansing:

  • Ethnic cleansing is the most dreaded dimension of ethno-national conflict.
  • In this type of ethnic conflict, the indigenous ethnic group launches a genocide and/or expulsion of the foreigners (those who do not originally belong to that state).

Ethnic Conflicts in India:

  • Over the years, from time to time, we have evidenced a great show of violence and hostility breaking out between ethnic groups. The question arises as to why people who have co-existed peacefully for decades, suddenly turn hostile towards one another. The manifest issues are mostly religion and language. We shall examine a few of these issues and analyze the latent causes behind this violence.

Language Conflict:

  • In the 1980s tension and conflict arose over the issue of language. The Government selected Hindi as the national language to create a national community by joining all the members of the different ethnic communities. This attempt at ‘unity in diversity’ had an adverse effect on the Indian population. We have evidences of violence in the South like Tamil Nadu, where severe riots took place over the Hindi issue.
  • According to the non-Hindi speakers, the language policy of the government meant an advantage for the Hindi speakers, who are perceived to dominate the economic institutions and have political authority.

Case of Assam:

  • Riots broke out in Assam in 1972, between the immigrant Bengali Hindus and the local Assamese population. These conflicts must be viewed within the economic and political structure of Assam.
  • There are three communities that dominate the different sections of the economic sphere of Assam.
    • Bengali Muslims, who are migrants from Bangladesh, who either serve in the tea gardens or manage their own land;
    • Marwaris, who monopolize trade; and
    • Bengali Hindus, who are migrants from West Bengal, and dominate the administrative services.
  • The Assamese were unable to avail the opportunities as they lacked in skills and contacts to take up the banking activities of the Marwaris. Secondly, they lacked the education to take up administrative jobs. Finally, they were unwilling to work in the estates at low wages.
  • After Independence, the Congress party that came to power in the State then was dominated by Assamese and there was a growing emergence of an Assamese middle class. This middle class with its interest in administrative services considered the Bengali Hindus an obstacle to their economic advancement. These facts materialized in the growing fear of economic domination amongst the Assamese middle class who wanted to prevent the growing economic strength of the Bengali Hindus. It resulted in the Assamese middle class reacting through an assertive regional identity in order to claim their due share in the economic development.

Religious Conflict:

  • The genesis of religious conflicts in India is often attributed to the advent of Muslims to this country. But this kind of theorization is erroneous, as communalism, as a socio-political form is a modern phenomenon. Tensions had prevailed between the Hindus and Muslims prior to the colonial rule, due to the expropriation or dispossession of power of the Hindus by the Muslims (Malabar). But these tensions were accentuated later with the British introduction of electoral policy and the imperialist divide-and-rule policy. This later materialized in the emergence of the Muslim League leading later to the formation of Pakistan. Let us look at some examples of ethnic conflict based directly on religion.

Common Features of Ethnic Conflicts:

  • Ethnic conflicts are a consequence of organized communal bodies. For the conflict to become a public issue, usually the organized bodies, which are backed by political parties, have to come to the fore. Thus, communal bodies become institutionalized.
  • Ethnic conflicts indicate that whatever be the manifest cause - language, region or religion - the latent cause is not rooted in cultural disparity. Conflicting economic and political interests form the basis of the latent cause. The tensions generally arise when a minority group feels deprived of an equal position in either the economic or political sphere as compared to the majority group, using the primary ties to motivate and activate their ethnic group against the dominant group.
  • The allegiance or the basis of group loyalty depends on the principle of mutual interest. For instance, during the 1972 Assam riots, the Bengali Muslims, who share cultural similarities with Bengali Hindus did not side with them, instead, they supported the Assamese in exchange for not being ousted from their land, by the politically active Assamese.

Solutions to the Problem of Ethnic Conflicts:

  • A coherent and effective response to ethnic conflicts has to keep in mind, the common as well as the unique factors, which account for clashes between groups of people. Some insist that so long as economic inequalities exist, such clashes are bound to persist. Since it is not easy to end economic disparities between people, ethnic conflicts will also not be easy to stop.
  • Before looking at the long-term solutions to these problems, certain immediate steps can be taken. The first step towards the sustenance of communal harmony is to identify the causes that flare up riots. These are:
    • Rumors
    • suspicion against the other community
    • building up sectarian feelings amongst people by religious heads, local political parties, and self-styled leaders.
  • To overcome these, it is important to induce encouragement in people to widen their perspectives, to keep an open mind, and to be tolerant towards others. This can be achieved by encouraging the members of the different communities to have a dialogue, with each other. This would help in understanding the other community and also reflect their own limitations and the possibility of overcoming them.
  • People favoring these measures also insist that cross-cultural participation must be more frequent, especially during festivities and ceremonies. The people in the riot-prone areas must be made to understand not to give ear to rumors unless it is followed with evidence. Because of the absence of direct communications, politicians, self-styled leaders and miscreants circulate rumors, which cannot be verified. This aggravates tensions.

Verifying, please be patient.

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