Ethnic Conflict

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ETHNIC CONFLICT A defining force in India's modern history and politics, ethnic conflict was the principal cause behind the creation of India and Pakistan as independent nation-states. It has made and unmade governments, led to wars, and precipitated domestic strife in many parts of India. Ethnicity has also been an incubator of Indian democracy. Without ethnic mobilization—made possible because of segmented social diversity—democracy would not have expanded as rapidly as it did in India. The stability of post-independence India has depended largely on the balance between the demands of ethnic communities and the need to build a unified nation-state. While India is recognized as an independent nation-state, its borders remain in dispute, and its ethnic communities spill across into neighboring states. Even when boundaries are well defined, as between India and Sri Lanka, ethnic overlap tends to blur international boundaries, causing conflict.

Indian ethnic communities live on a scale of graded linguistic and cultural differences. Rajasthani, an Indo-Aryan language spoken mainly in the North Indian state of Rajasthan, changes every hundred miles whether one travels north or south, east or west. It absorbs local culture, words, and phrases as it gains distance from the original point and moves toward an area of the next proximate language. The Indian state of Bengal, parts of Assam, and Bihar, as well as what is today the nation of Bangladesh, share scores of dialects derived from Bengali. India's ethno-linguistic communities are for the most part concentrated in compact areas or regions. Thus Bengali is the dominant language in Bengal state, as is Marathi in Maharashtra and Gujarati in Gujarat, although many other linguistic communities reside in those states. This concentration, however, enables an aspiring ethnic community to demand political recognition in forms that range from provincial autonomy to national separation, although demands for separation have mostly been made by ethnic communities living on the borders of India. Officially, India's government recognizes fifteen regional state languages within its twenty-eight federal states and seven union territories.

There is no agreement among scholars about the distinctions between the languages and dialects of India. Linguistic scholars have suggested that there are 325 distinctive languages in India and thousands of dialects. To this linguistic diversity, we have to add several separate religions, as well as divisions of caste and locality. Each criterion divides Indian society differently. Together, all form the complex and layered identity of a modern Indian. The idea of ethnic identity then amalgamates linguistic, religious, and cultural attributes. Each ethnic composite possesses a geographic space, a distinctive history, and a singular perspective on its place within modern India. Some ethnic groups see themselves as targets of discrimination, while others are content with the autonomy and power they have managed to gain for themselves. Since religious and tribal manifestations of ethnic identities are discussed elsewhere in this encyclopedia, this article will focus on the broad cultural constructs that define ethnic identities. The objective here is to provide an overarching frame for understanding the causes of ethnic conflicts. It should be stressed that the story of India's ethnic politics is one of success as well as large failures; some ethnic communities have therefore chosen to integrate, while others have sought separation.

Historical Background

Scholars of ethnicity and nationalism disagree about how to define ethnic identity. Some view ethnic identities as primordial, given and immutable; others believe they are instrumental and are evoked in the service of other social and political objectives. To understand ethnic identity in the Indian context, however, one must view them as constructed identities, buffeted and shaped by historic and sociopolitical events.

Several historical events have shaped ethnic evolution. The rise and fall of empires, the Mughal and then the British, led to the crystallization of ethnic consciousness in several regions of the Indian subcontinent. Before the British arrived on the scene, India was ruled by several large and small kingdoms, each multiethnic and multireligious but with one or two linguistic groups that had gained dominance because of size and royal patronage. The British absorbed these kingdoms into their empire by 1857, but for the most part ignored the ways in which local communities defined themselves. British policies nevertheless had a profound impact on ethnic self-definition. The British believed that India had not existed as a historical country, and that the British themselves had fashioned it out of a welter of regions and kingdoms. The British would build an overarching state while tolerating social and cultural diversity within their empire. But the British disregarded ethnic overlap when drawing of the borders of their Indian empire. The partition of ethnically united Bengal in 1905 was clearly a British administrative and political convenience. British policies—like the introduction of a census and the recruitment into their colonial army along ethnic ("martial race") and religious lines—reinforced ethnic consciousness. The British colonialists based army recruitment on their belief that certain ethnic groups made better soldiers than others. The Punjabi-speaking Sikhs and the Marathas who spoke Marathi were viewed as hardy and soldierly; the Bengalis were regarded as soft and artistic, better suited to British civil service. These perceptions became part of ethnic folklore and endured beyond the British period into the political life of independent India.

The rise of India's nationalist movement and the way in which it came to be organized was another determining factor in the shaping of ethnic identity. It was, however, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party that systematically wedded ethnicity to Indian nationalism. Congress delineated its provincial organization not along the imperial map of the Raj, but along the lines of ethnic and linguistic distinctions. The nationalist era taught ethnic communities the value of mass mobilization against a central government. It is then not surprising that for independent India, management of "ethnic nationalism" and its incorporation into pan-Indian nationalism has been the single most important problem since 1947.

The Nature of Ethnic Conflict

Why have some ethnic groups in India long sought integration, while others have demanded separation? Several characteristics of ethnic demography and political economy can be offered as explanations. First, there is a correlation, though not a perfect fit, between ethnic "homeland" and ethnic identity. Possessing many of the features of a "nation," ethnic communities seek cultural and political autonomy. This characteristic compelled Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to agree in 1955 to a linguistic reorganization of the Indian federation, creating linguistically discrete provinces. Ethnicity thus became the principle on which India would henceforth create new or merge existing state-provinces. Since then, India has added many new states to its union through internal reorganization. The creation of three new states in 2000, carved out of Uttar Pradesh (Uttaranchal), Bihar (Jharkhand), and Madhya Pradesh (Chhattisgarh), are instances of the most recent efforts at appeasing ethnic demands. The extent of autonomy granted to state-provinces—on which the Constitution is ambivalent at best—has been a persistent source of domestic tension. Frequently, the success of one ethnic group has triggered demands for parallel recognition by other ethnic groups within the same state-province. The Sikh demand for a separate state triggered counterdemands by Punjabi Hindus and resulted in the creation of the state of Harayana, carved out of Punjab in 1966. The creation of Nagaland in 1963 triggered demands for separate provincial states all over the Northeast region, and led to the division of Assam into seven new states in 1972. Ethnic tensions are aggravated by the perception that the central leaders favor one ethnic group over another.

Ethnic groups can be divided into those forming the core and those residing on the geographical periphery of India. The former are part of the Indian heartland, the latter frequently share kinship and identity with fellow ethnics across the borders. Overlapping ethnic nationalities include the Indian Kashmiris and the Kashmiris across the Line of Control in Pakistan; the Tamils in India's state of Tamil Nadu and the Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka; the Bengalis in west Bengal and those in what is now Bangladesh; the Nagas on both sides of the India-Myanmar border; and the Nepalis on both sides of Indo-Nepal border. Frequently, ethnic communities on the border are poorly integrated into the Indian union. Pakistan would not have been able to foment insurgency in Kashmir had the Kashmiris been fully content to remain within the Indian Union. As most popular movements are prone to do, ethnic conflicts have a rhythm; they rise and fall. Ethnic communities are known to move from autonomy to separatist militancy, and then back to autonomy. The separatist movement in Punjab followed this rhythm between the 1970s and the 1990s.

Democratic expansion and economic growth have also contributed to ethnic tensions. Relatively better economic opportunities have led to mass migration from Bangladesh into India, particularly into the bordering state of Assam. The native Assamese have mobilized in protest against the new migrants and have accused the central government of deliberately ignoring their loss of jobs, overcrowding, and political shifts unfavorable to the native Assamese. Assamese leaders charge that India's central government, largely dominated by the Congress Party, sought the migrant vote and therefore ignored the Assamese demands. These suspicions led to several "sons of the soil" movements in Assam since the 1970s.

Economic growth since 1947 has affected different ethnic groups differently. Some have gained while others have been slower to benefit. The sense of relative deprivation among rival ethnic groups has frequently led to violence. The separatist movement among the Sikhs in Punjab was nurtured by the perception that the government in New Delhi did not give Sikhs all that they deserved, and that their state of Punjab had been cheated out of its fair share of industrial investment for development. Economic nationalism constitutes an important element in the Naga and Assamese separatist movements. The Nagas claim they do not belong in India, while the Assamese charge that India's central government has exploited Assam of its oil and other rich resources without making corresponding investments. Economic grievances are often combined with charges of mistreatment. Sikh anger flared up when Sikhs were searched and mistreated by the Harayana police during the Asiad games in 1983. By 1984 Punjab was in the grip of a violent insurgency. The Jharkhand Tribal movement and violence in Manipur and Assam also underline the importance of these grievances in the rise of ethnic protests.

Ethnic conflicts also arise because they are grist to the political mill of electoral campaigns. Political leaders appeal to pride, historic achievements, and current injustices—real and imagined—to win elections, to deny the same to opponents, and to gain office, position, and power. Indian politicians have become extremely adept at mobilizing ethnic mass support for all manner of political and personal objectives. The threat of mass disaffection, whipped up by ethnic leaders, works effectively against a central government unwilling to accede to ethnic demands. Ethnic leaders who command a large following in a particular province are not unlike feudal lords commanding loyalty from their "captive" fiefdoms based on myths of common origin, language, and religion. This is evidenced by the existence of a large number of regional and provincial political parties, which regularly win elections and form governments in India. A few examples are: the Akali Dal in Punjab, Telugu Desam in Andhra, Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) and All-Indian Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIDMK) in Tamil Nadu, and the Assam Gano Parishad in Assam. Similarly, ethnic leaders such as Lalo Prasad Yadav in Bihar, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra, Jayalalita in Tamil Nadu, and Prafulla Mohanta in Assam have prevailed because of their appeals to fellow ethnics. Mindful of the political advantage of ethnicity, political parties nominate individuals who enjoy high standing in their ethnic constituencies.

Excessive centralization and heavy-handed rule by central governments are usually behind the powerful surges of ethnic protests. A closer examination, however, suggests that centralization alone is rarely the sole reason for ethnic disaffection. More often than not, demographic pressures, as in Assam, a change in the distribution of power within an ethnic community, as in Punjab, or political competition among leaders and parties, witnessed almost everywhere else in India, can change the position of an ethnic group within India's polity, leading to conflict.

While fears of fragmentation propelled India's National Congress leaders to adopt a largely unitary Constitution in 1950, the pulls of electorates mobilized along ethnic lines have since forced India to cede greater autonomy to linguistic regions and ethnic communities. Ethnic communities have in turn regularly organized under the banners of ethnic parties. From 1950 to the mid-1970s, India enjoyed a period marked mostly by ethnic cooperation, but from about 1975 that spirit of compromise had all but vanished. From 1980 to 1990, India was jolted by violent ethnic conflicts, several serious enough to revive fears of disintegration. Since 1990, however, with economic reforms and the growth of prosperity, the balance has again tilted in favor of unity and accommodation.

The Management of Ethnic Conflict

During the last years of the British Raj and in the tragic year after partition in 1947, Hindu-Muslim-Sikh violence claimed the lives of more than a million people, and Indian leaders became extremely wary of separatist demands. The Constitution was therefore designed to balance the overriding need for unification against demands for autonomy. India was to be a secular federal democracy with a strong central government that had vast powers over its federal units, especially in the event of local or national emergency. India's Constitution did not define the criteria by which India's federal units were to be created. Originally, however, the federation was to be divided on the basis of administrative efficiency.

The first reaction to the administrative federation began in South India's Telugu-speaking Andhra with the demand for a linguistically defined Andhra province in 1952. Other large and numerically dominant ethno-linguistic groups soon followed, and by 1954, ethnic agitation had spread far and wide. In 1956 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's government finally agreed to reorganize the Indian federation along ethno-linguistic lines. Problems remained, however, in areas that could not be neatly divided into separable ethnic spaces, such as the provinces of Bombay and Punjab. Northern Bombay, with its Gujarati majority, emerged as Gujarat in 1958; the rest of that province, with Bombay as its capital, became Maharashtra state, with a Maratha-speaking majority. The stories of ethnic conflict in Kashmir, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Darjeeling (Nepalis demanding Gorkhaland), Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur are too long and complex to be told here. We may, however, examine a couple to understand how various conditions combined together to create ethnic conflict. The province of Punjab consisted of Sikhs and Hindus, who both spoke Punjabi but worshiped at separate temples. This religious distinctiveness was exploited by ethnic leaders in each community. The Nehru government refused the demand for a separate Sikh Punjabi Suba (province) on the grounds that in secular India, religion could not be the basis for federal division. The Shiromani Akali Dal Party, which represented Sikhs demanding autonomy, subsequently abandoned the religious argument and claimed an autonomous Punjab state on the basis of language alone. In 1965 Indira Gandhi, the third prime minister of India, proposed the creation of three new states out of India's existing Punjab: Harayana, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh. The national Parliament, in which the Congress Party commanded a majority, promptly obliged. In the new Punjab, the Sikhs were a majority, but that numerical advantage did not translate into political dominance, which the Akali Dal leaders most coveted, since a substantial segment of the Sikh community continued to vote for the Congress Party. The Congress Party's dominance in Punjab was based on putting together a winning alliance between Punjab's Hindus and Sikhs, including the poor, lower caste farmers, and urban Sikhs. However, by the late 1970s, the political economy of Punjab had changed dramatically. A whole new class of peasant proprietors had emerged to take power in the Akali Dal. Economic changes brought Congress's dominance to an end in Punjab, but Congress was unwilling to surrender Punjab to its rival, the Akali Dal.

The tensions between the two parties mounted to dangerous levels of violence. The Akalis led demonstrations and strikes, and passed their famous Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973, which demanded that Punjab be given autonomous jurisdiction over all subjects except foreign policy, defense, and currency. Changes in government at the center in 1977 temporarily defused the tensions, but they resurfaced in 1979, when the Congress Party and Indira Gandhi were reelected. The forces that had paralyzed Punjab previously—intensifying party competition, religious extremism, and tensions between the central government and the province—soon plunged the province into violence. This time the struggle revolved around Jairnal Singh Bhindranwale, an obscure Sikh preacher pushed into the limelight by Delhi's Congress leaders with the purpose of splitting the Akali Dal. Bhindranwale soon gained enough Sikh support to abandon his erstwhile Congress sponsors, demanding the creation of Khalistan (Land of the Pure), a separate Sikh state where Sikhs could live without fear of Hindu dominance. The armed confrontation between Delhi's government and Amritsar's Sikh insurgents led to several tragic events: the assault on the Golden Temple, the holiest of all Sikh shrines, in June 1984; the death of Bhindranwale and his followers as well as many troops; and the subsequent assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her own Sikh bodyguards on 31 October1984. Rajiv Gandhi, Indira's older son, succeeded his mother as prime minister, then signed an agreement with Sikh Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, the Akali leader who had been marginalized by the militants. But Longowal was assassinated within months of the agreement, and Punjab was again plunged into prolonged militancy. It was not until 1992 that elections could be held in Punjab, and gradually normal political activity returned peace to Punjab. The erosion of the Congress Party's dominance in Delhi, however, accounted for that turn of events, as the new ruling coalition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), incorporated Punjab's Akali Dal into its fold.

Ethnic conflicts in Kashmir and the Northeast region can be traced to many of the same factors: arbitrary centralization of power in Congress's quest for dominance; denial of political autonomy; and the rise of nativist, ethnic, and religious tensions in response to intensifying competition for economic and political opportunities. All were a result of modernization, uneven economic growth, and party competition. There are nevertheless important differences among them. Assam and the Northeast were poorly integrated, first into the British Raj, and later into independent India, and were populated by many hill tribes that had a distinctive culture from that of the plains of Assam. The first tribes to break with Assam and to demand autonomy were the Nagas. Once the Nagas were given a state, others with equally distinctive cultures and languages could no longer be denied. Between 1972 and 1987, the original province of Assam was divided into seven separate federal states. These measures brought temporary respite from ethnic violence in the Northeast region.

In the Northeast, as well as in Kashmir, there is an added element that has aggravated tensions and increased conflict: interference by neighboring states into what India regarded as its domestic affairs. Pakistan had tried repeatedly in the first four decades to infiltrate and rouse Kashmiri masses against India, but such efforts were not well received on the Indian side of the cease-fire line (now called the Line of Control). This situation changed after 1989, when the National Conference government of Farooq Abdullah collapsed and Kashmir was plunged deeper into turmoil and violence. Militant Kashmiris found ready help in terms of arms and money, training, and safe sanctuaries across the line in Pakistan and returned to attack Indian army troops in Kashmir. The nature of the struggle in Kashmir in the 1990s has, however, changed with the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The conflict in Kashmir is no longer just about Kashmiri independence or autonomy; it is caught up in the wider struggle between Islamic fundamentalists and the governments of Pakistan and India.

Naga separatism was similarly supported first by China. But such support is not in every instance provided by hostile governments. There are regional bazaars in arms where aspiring groups can purchase lethal weapons. Smuggling in drug, gold, arms, and contraband goods is yet another source of money to finance violent activities. In some instances it is difficult to draw the line between crime and an ethnic "cause." This is evident in the evolution of the United Front for Liberation of Assam (ULFA). By 1986 ULFA had established contacts with agents of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as with militants from the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). With roughly only an estimated 3,000 armed militants, ULFA created terror in the state, disrupting communications, hitting various economic targets, kidnapping prominent businessmen, and killing government officials. Its activities escalated, reaching unprecedented heights in 1990. As the former government of Assam lost control, the state was brought under President's rule from Delhi in November 1990, and ULFA was banned. Ethnic violence, from Kashmir and Punjab in the north and west, to Darjeeling in the east and Tamil Nadu in the south, has made it difficult to distinguish between political motivations and criminal purpose in any corner of troubled India.

The emergence of coalition governments and the demise of Congress Party dominance, and the relationship between ethnic nationalism and pan-Indian nationalism, have undergone a sea change. Coalition governments at the center brought direct and immediate access to national power and patronage for ethnic leaders and their cohorts. In fact, there are growing concerns in India's media and press over the perceived weakness of the central government and its inability to withstand local pressures and policy compromises that benefit only politically stronger regional leadership. Ethnic leaders have used newly found powers to make and break governments at the center. In 1999 the BJP government collapsed when Tamil Nadu's leader, Jayalalita, pulled her AIDMK Party from the ruling coalition. There are new tensions in Nagaland and Manipur as well as Assam. Violence has claimed thousands of lives in Kashmir, while Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat and Mumbai have become fairly routine. This suggests that, while power sharing between India's various nationalities is critical for internal peace, that alone will not eliminate ethnic conflict. An increasingly important condition for social harmony is justice and governance. In India today, poor governance and the maldistribution of resources and employment opportunities have become potent causes of ethnic disaffection.

Maya Chadda

See alsoAmritsar ; Assam ; Bengal ; Bihar ; Congress Party ; Ethnic Peace Accords ; Gujarat ; Insurgency and Terrorism ; Kashmir ; Manipur ; Mizoram ; Nagas and Nagaland ; Northeast States, The ; Paramilitary Forces and Internal Security ; Sikh Institutions and Parties


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