Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India

Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India

by Ashutosh Varshney

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What kinds of civic ties between different ethnic communities can contain, or even prevent, ethnic violence? This book draws on new research on Hindu-Muslim conflict in India to address this important question. Ashutosh Varshney examines three pairs of Indian cities—one city in each pair with a history of communal violence, the other with a history of relative communal harmony—to discern why violence between Hindus and Muslims occurs in some situations but not others. His findings will be of strong interest to scholars, politicians, and policymakers of South Asia, but the implications of his study have theoretical and practical relevance for a broad range of multiethnic societies in other areas of the world as well.

The book focuses on the networks of civic engagement that bring Hindu and Muslim urban communities together. Strong associational forms of civic engagement, such as integrated business organizations, trade unions, political parties, and professional associations, are able to control outbreaks of ethnic violence, Varshney shows. Vigorous and communally integrated associational life can serve as an agent of peace by restraining those, including powerful politicians, who would polarize Hindus and Muslims along communal lines.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300127942
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Ashutosh Varshney is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and Director of the Brown-India Initiative at Brown University.

Read an Excerpt

Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life

Hindus and Muslims in India
By Ashutosh Varshney

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-08530-3

Chapter One


In this book I seek to establish an integral link between the structure of civil society on one hand and ethnic, or communal, violence on the other. To be more precise, the focus is on the intercommunal, not intracommunal, networks of civic life, which bring different communities together. These networks can, in turn, be broken down into two parts: associational and quotidian. I call the first associational forms of civic engagement and the second, everyday forms of civic engagement. Business associations, professional organizations, reading clubs, film clubs, sports clubs, festival organizations, trade unions, and cadre-based political parties are some of the examples of the former. Everyday forms of engagement consist of such simple, routine interactions of life as Hindu and Muslim families visiting each other, eating together often enough, jointly participating in festivals, and allowing their children to play together in the neighborhood. Both forms of engagement, if robust, promote peace; contrariwise, their absence or weakness opens up space for communal violence. Of the two, the associational forms turn out to besturdier than everyday engagement, especially when people are confronted with the attempts by politicians to polarize ethnic communities. Vigorous associational life, if intercommunal, acts as a serious constraint on the polarizing strategies of political elites.

Although some of the key terms used above-"civil society," "civic life," "ethnic," "communal"-are discussed in great detail in the next chapter, let me briefly specify what I mean by them. Since scholars and activists do not use these terms in the same way, a clarification of how I have understood and deployed them will help pre-empt speaking across different conceptual registers.

By "civil society," or "civic life," I mean the part of our life that exists between the state on one hand and families on the other, that allows people to come together for a whole variety of public activities, and that is relatively independent of the state. Civil society is not a non-political but a non-state space of collective life. Moreover, in its non-state functions, it can cover both social and political activities. Soccer leagues, playing-card societies, and philately clubs may be social, not political; but trade unions and political parties are primarily the latter, not the former, though in the process of playing their political roles, they may also provide social platforms for people to come together. Both types of organizations are parts of civil society, so long as they are independent of the state.

A special note may be taken here of the double role of political parties. They constitute an important component of civil society in a multiparty democracy but not in a one-party system. In the latter, political parties become an appendage of the state, losing their civic functions. Since India is a multiparty democracy, its political parties are part of the nation's civil society, along with its unions, business associations, reading clubs, film clubs, NGOs, and so on.

What about the terms "ethnicity" and "communalism"? There are two distinct ways in which the term "ethnic" is used. In its narrower sense, "ethnic" means "racial" or "linguistic." This is the sense in which the term is widely understood in popular discourse, both in India and elsewhere. For example, for politics and conflict based on religious groupings, such as Hindus and Muslims, the principal subjects of this study, Indian scholars as well as bureaucrats and politicians since the British days have used the term "communal," not "ethnic," reserving the latter primarily for linguistically or racially distinct groups.

There is, however, a second sense in which ethnic groups are defined in the social sciences. This usage is broader in its implications. As Horowitz argues, all conflicts based on ascriptive group identities-race, language, religion, tribe, or caste-can be called ethnic. In this umbrella usage, ethnic conflicts range from (1) the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland and Hindu-Muslim conflict in India to (2) black-white conflict in the United States and South Africa, (3) Tamil-Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka, and (4) Shia-Sunni troubles in Pakistan. In the narrower construction of term, (1) is religious, (2) racial, (3) linguistic, and (4) sectarian. The term "ethnic" often in the past would have been reserved for the second and, at best, third conflicts, but not extended to the first and the fourth.

Exponents of the broader usage disagree with such distinctions. They argue that the form ethnic conflict takes-religious, linguistic, racial, tribal-does not seem to alter its intensity, longevity, passion, or relative intractability. Their emphasis on the ascriptive and cultural core of the conflict, imagined or real, and they distinguish it primarily from the largely non-ascriptive and economic core of class conflict. Ethnic conflict may have an economic basis, but that is not its defining feature. Irrespective of internal class differentiation, race, language, sect, or religion can define the politics of an ethnic group. Contrariwise, class conflict tends on the whole to be economic, but if the class to which one is born is also the class in which one is locked until death, and this happens to be true for large numbers of people, then class conflict does acquire ascriptive overtones. Following Horowitz, it is now well understood that the latter characteristics apply not to ethnic systems in general but to ranked ethnic systems, such as the United States of America during the period of slavery, South Africa during apartheid, and India with its caste system. Ranked ethnic systems merge ethnicity and class; unranked ethnic systems do not.

The larger meaning, one might add, is also increasingly becoming the standard meaning in the social sciences, even if that is not yet true of politics and activism. will use the term "ethnic" in this broader sense. In other words, I may distinguish between communal, linguistic, sectarian, tribal and caste categories, but I will not differentiate communal from ethnic. Ethnicity is simply the larger set to which religion, race, language, and sect belong as subsets in this definition.

Thus far, scholars have worked either on civil society or on ethnic conflict, but no systematic attempt has yet been made to connect the two. For all practical purposes, the role of civic networks has not yet been appreciated in the literature on ethnic conflict. How my argument linking the two emerged, therefore, requires some explanation. I start with a puzzle often encountered in the field of ethnicity and nationalism, and how I sought to resolve it.


Sooner or later, scholars of ethnic conflict are struck by a puzzling empirical regularity in their field. Despite ethnic diversity, some places-regions, nations, towns, or villages-manage to remain peaceful, whereas others experience enduring patterns of violence. Similarly, some societies, after maintaining a veritable record of ethnic peace, explode in ways that surprise the observer and very often the scholar as well. Variations across time and space constitute an unresolved puzzle in the field of ethnicity and nationalism.

How does one account for such variations? With isolated exceptions, uncovering commonalities across the many cases of violence has been the standard research strategy. This strategy will continue to enlighten us, but it can only give us the building blocks of a theory, not a theory of ethnic conflict. The logic underlying this proposition is simple, often misunderstood, and worth restating. Suppose that on the basis of commonalities we find that interethnic economic rivalry (a), polarized party politics (b), and segregated neighborhoods (c) explain ethnic violence (X). Can we, however, be sure that our judgments are right? What if (a), (b), and (c) also exist in peaceful cases (Y)? In that case, either violence is caused by the intensity of (a), (b), and (c) in (X); or, there is an underlying and deeper context that makes (a), (b), and (c) conflictual in one case but not in the other; or, there is yet another factor (d), which differentiates peace from violence. It will, however, be a factor that we did not discover precisely because peaceful cases were not studied with the conflictual ones.

In short, until we study ethnic peace, we will not be able to have a good theory of ethnic conflict. Placing variance at the heart of new research is likely to provide by far the biggest advances in our understanding of ethnicity and ethnic conflict. Despite rising violence, many communities in the world still manage their interethnic tensions without taking violent steps.

The argument about the necessity of studying variance leads to another important methodological question: At what level must variance itself be studied? What should our unit of analysis be-nations, states, regions, towns, or villages? What methodologists call a large-n analysis can help us identify the spatial trends and allow us to choose the level at which variance is to be analyzed. The project, therefore, went through all reported Hindu-Muslim riots in the country between 1950 and 1995. The detailed results are presented in Chapter 4. For purposes of identifying larger trends, two results were crucial.

First, the share of villages in communal rioting turned out to be remarkably small. Between 1950 and 1995, rural India, where two-thirds of Indians still live, accounted for less than 4 percent of the deaths in communal violence. Hindu-Muslim violence is primarily an urban phenomenon. Second, within urban India, too, Hindu-Muslim riots are highly locally concentrated. Eight cities-Arguments Ahmedabad, Bombay, Aligarh, Hyderabad, Meerut, Baroda, Calcutta, and Delhi-account for a hugely disproportionate share of communal violence in the country: a little more than 49 percent of all urban deaths (and 45.5 percent of all deaths) in Hindu-Muslim violence (table 1.1). As a group, however, these eight cities represent a mere 18 percent of India's urban population (and about 5 percent of the country's total population, both urban and rural). Eighty-two percent of the urban population (95 percent of the total population) has not been "riot-prone."

Consider another way of understanding the role of local concentrations. Two cities alone in the state of Gujarat-Ahmedabad and Vadodara-account for nearly 80 percent of the total deaths in the state; 88 percent of all deaths in Maharashtra took place in the six worst towns of the state, leaving many more towns untouched; and 80 percent of all deaths in the state of Andhra Pradesh occurred in the city of Hyderabad. All these states had many more cities that were peaceful than were violent, and state-level aggregate data on deaths were simply artifacts of riots in a handful of cities. Given such high local concentrations in urban India, the large-n analysis clearly establishes the "town or city" as the unit of analysis. India's Hindu-Muslim violence is city-specific. State (and national) politics provides the context within which the local mechanisms linked with violence are activated. In order to understand the causes of communal violence, we must investigate these local mechanisms.

Following this reasoning, the project selected six cities-three from the list of eight riot-prone cities and three peaceful-and arranged them in three pairs. Thus, each pair had a city where communal violence is endemic and a city where it is rare or entirely absent. To ensure that we did not compare "apples and oranges," roughly similar Hindu-Muslim percentages in the city populations constituted the minimum control in each pair. The first pair-Aligarh and Calicut-was based on population percentages only. The second pair-Hyderabad and Lucknow-added two controls to population percentages: previous Muslim rule and reasonable cultural similarities. The third pair-Ahmedabad and Surat-was the most tightly controlled. The first two pairs came from the north and the south. The third came from the same state, Gujarat, sharing history, language, and culture but not endemic communal violence. All of these cities, at this point, have a population of more than 500,000, and the biggest, Hyderabad, is a metropolis of more than 4.2 million people.

Why was similarity in demographic proportions chosen as the minimum control in each pair? Both in India's popular political discourse and in theories about Muslim political behavior, the size of the community is considered to be highly significant. Many politicians, especially those belonging to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have argued that the demographic distribution of Muslims makes them critical to electoral outcomes in India. Muslims constitute more than 20 percent of the electorate in 197 of 545 parliamentary constituencies in the country. In a first-past-the-post system, wherein 30-35 percent of the vote is often enough to win a seat in multicornered contests, these percentages make the Muslims electorally highly significant. The higher the numbers of Muslims in a given constituency, argue politicians of the BJP, the greater the inclination of centrist political parties to pander to their sectional-communal demands, and the lower the incentive, therefore, for Muslims to build bridges with the Hindus. Thus, according to this argument, "Muslim appeasement," based on the significance of numbers in a democracy, is the cause of communal conflicts in India.

That Muslim demography has political consequences is, however, not an argument confined to the Hindu nationalist BJP. Leading Muslim politicians also make a demographic claim, though they reverse the causation in the argument. The higher the numbers of Muslims in a town, they argue, the greater the political threat felt by the leaders of the Hindu community, who react with hostility to legitimate Muslim anxieties about politics and identity. An unjustified, even self-serving, opposition on the part of Hindu leaders, they argue, is the source of communal hostilities. Thus, both extremes of the political spectrum heavily rely on demography for their explanations.

These popular arguments are, to some extent, shared by social scientists as well. Rudolph and Rudolph, for example, argue that when a town or constituency has a Muslim majority or plurality, Muslims typically favor confessional parties, not the centrist, intercommunal parties. Muslims support centrist parties when their share of the population or electorate is small in a town or constituency. Smaller numbers make it rational to seek the security of a large, powerful mainstream party.

Can one find cases-cities or constituencies-where similar demographic distributions lead to very different forms of political behavior? Selecting from a larger sample of such cases, this study seeks to do precisely that. As described above, it compares three pairs of cities where a rough similarity in demographic proportions coexists with variance in political outcomes: peace or violence.


What accounts for the difference between communal peace and violence? Though not anticipated when the project began, the pre-existing local networks of civic engagement between the two communities stand out as the single most important proximate cause. Where such networks of engagement exist, tensions and conflicts were regulated and managed; where they are missing, communal identities led to endemic and ghastly violence. As already stated, these networks can be broken down into two parts: associational forms of engagement and everyday forms of engagement. The former ties are formed in organizational settings; the latter require no organization. Both forms of engagement, if intercommunal, promote peace, but the capacity of the associational forms to withstand national-level "exogenous shocks"-such as India's partition in 1947 or the demolition of the Baburi mosque in December 1992 in full public gaze by Hindu militants-is substantially higher.

The Mechanisms

What are the mechanisms that link civic networks and ethnic conflict? And why is associational engagement a sturdier bulwark of peace than everyday engagement?


Excerpted from Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life by Ashutosh Varshney Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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