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Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society: India and Beyond

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Ashutosh Varshney
University of Notre Dame


Scholars have worked either on civil society or on ethnic conflict, but no systematic attempt has yet been made to connect the two. In an attempt to explore the possible links, this article makes two interconnected arguments. First, interethnic and intraethnic 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 intraethnic lines and the interconnections with other communities are very weak (or do not exist), ethnic violence is then quite likely. Second, civic networks, both intra- and interethnic, can also be broken down into two other types: associational forms of engagement and everyday forms of engagement. This distinction is based on whether civic interaction is formal or not. Both forms of engagement, if robust, promote peace: contrariwise, their absence or weakness opens up space for ethnic violence. Of the two, however, the associational forms turn out to be sturdier than everyday engagement, especially when confronted with attempts by politicians to polarize the people along ethnic lines. Both arguments have significance for theories of ethnic conflict and social capital.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 2001

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1 This is not to say that community life within ethnic groups has not been studied as part of civil society. A striking recent example, though not the only one, is Walzer, Michael, What It Means to Be American? (New York: Marsilio, 1992).Google Scholar The view that ethnic (or religious) community life can be called civic is, of course, contested by many. The debate is summarized in Section I.

2 Varshney, Ashutosh, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India (New Haven: Yale University PressGoogle Scholar, forthcoming).

3 For an analysis of why, on the basis of a myth of common ancestry, ethnicity can take so many forms (language, race, religion, dress, diction), see Horowitz, Donald, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 4154.Google Scholar One might add that this definition, though by now widely accepted, is not without problems. If all ascriptive divisions can be the basis of ethnicity, can the landed gentry or women's groups be called ethnic? So long as we equate ascriptive identities with ethnic identities, there is no good answer to such questions.

4 Indeed, such conflict may be inherent in all pluralistic political systems, authoritarian or democratic. Compared with authoritarian systems, a democratic polity is simply more likely to witness an open expression of such conflicts. Authoritarian polities may lock disaffected ethnic groups into long periods of political silence, giving the appearance of a well-governed society, but a coercive containment of such conflicts also runs the risk of an eventual and accumulated outburst when an authoritarian system begins to liberalize or lose its legitimacy.

5 Inglehart, Ronald, Modernization and Postmodernization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).Google Scholar

6 For the early history of the idea, see Seligman, Adam, The Idea of Civil Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).Google Scholar

7 Habermas, Jurgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Burger, Thomas and Lawrence, Frederic (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989).Google Scholar For a debate built around the publication of the English translation, see Calhoun, Craig, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994).Google Scholar

8 See also Taylor, Charles, “Modes of Civil Society,Public Culture 4 (Fall 1990)Google Scholar; Walzer, Michael, “The Idea of Civil Society,Dissent 38 (Spring 1991)Google Scholar; and Cohen, Jean and Arato, Andrew, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992).Google Scholar

9 The debate generated by Putnam's work is finally leading to empirically based scholarship. See, alia, inter, Berman, Sheri, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,World Politics 49 (April 1997)Google Scholar; the special issue on social capital of American Behavioral Scientist 39 (April 1997); and Narayan, Deepa and Woolcock, Michael, “Social Capital: Implications for Development Theory, Research and Policy,World Bank Research Observer 15 (August 2000).Google Scholar

10 Gellner, Ernest, “The Importance of Being Modular,” in Hall, John, ed., Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995).Google Scholar This article is a good summary of a large number of Gellner's writings on civil society, written in both the reflective and the activist mode. Many of these writings, including some polemical essays, have been put together in Gellner, , Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals (New York: Penguin Press, 1994).Google Scholar

11 For a similar argument, see Shils, Edward, The Virtue of Civility (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1997).Google Scholar

12 For pioneering work on the modernist uses of ethnicity, see Rudolph, Lloyd and Rudolph, Susanne, The Modernity of Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967)Google Scholar; and Weiner, Myron, Sons of the Soil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).Google Scholar

13 See the brief but thoughtful discussion in Harry Boyte, “The Pragmatic Ends of Popular Politics,” in Calhoun (fn. 7).

14 Starting with Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondworth: Penguin Press, 1968)Google Scholar, many such historical works by now exist. For a quick review of how they relate to Habermas, see Mary Ryan, “Gender and Public Access: Women's Politics in Nineteenth Century America,” and Elly, Geoff, “Nations, Publics, and Political Cultures: Placing Habermas in the Nineteenth Century,” both in Calhoun (fn. 7).Google Scholar

15 Habermas, Jurgen, “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere,” in Calhoun (fn. 7).Google Scholar

16 Scott, James, Moral Economy of the Peasant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).Google Scholar

17 For an argument along these lines, see Putnam, Robert, “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,American Prospect 8 (Winter 1996)Google Scholar; and idem, “Bowling Alone,” Journal of Democracy 6 (January 1995).

18 Among the towering exceptions are Horowitz (fn. 3); Weiner (fn. 12); and Crawford Young, W., The Politics of Cultural Pluralism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976).Google Scholar

19 For an elaborate argument for the need for variance in social science research, see King, Gary, Keohane, Robert, and Verba, Sydney, Designing Social Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).Google Scholar For why discovering commonalities may matter even in a world where variance exists, see Rogowski, Ronald, Symposium on Designing Social Inquiry, American Political Science Review 89 (June 1995).Google Scholar

20 The data set was put together in collaboration with Steven I. Wilkinson of Duke University.

21 The cities, as Table 1 (column 4) shows, are Ahmedabad, Bombay, Aligarh, Hyderabad, Meerut, Baroda, Calcutta, and Delhi. The last two are not normally viewed as riot prone. But because they have had so many small riots and had some large ones in the 1950s, they are unable to escape the list of worst cities in a long-run perspective (1950–95). In a 1970–95 time series, however, Calcutta is unlikely to figure and Delhi may also disappear.

22 Rudolph, Lloyd and Rudolph, Susanne, In Pursuit of Lakshmi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 196.Google Scholar

23 Advani, L. K., leader of the BJP, interviewed in Sunday, July 22, 1990.Google Scholar

24 Syed Shahabuddin, a prominent Muslim leader, has often made this argument in lectures, discussions, and political speeches.

25 Rudolph and Rudolph (fn. 22), 195.

26 Srinivas, M. N., Remembered Village (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).Google Scholar

27 These connections can be proven social scientifically, not legally. The latter requires establishing individual culpability, not obvious links between politicians and gangs as groups.

28 Brass, Paul, Theft of an Idol (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).Google Scholar

29 In a democratic system, political parties would be part of civil society, for not all of them may be linked to the state. In one-party systems, however, parties, even when cadre-based, tend to become appendages of the state, losing their civil society functions. India is a multiparty democracy.

30 For a debate on why process tracing will not easily establish causality, see APSA-CP (Winter 1997).

31 Calicut also has a small Christian population.

32 Aaj, December 10, 1990; Amar Ujala, December 11,1990.

33 “For an Aligarh of Peace,” interview with District Magistrate Mishra, A.K., Frontline, December 22, 1990, 2223.Google Scholar

34 Author interviews with AMU vice-chancellor M. Naseem Farooqui, Delhi, July 15, 1994; several AMU professors, August 1994; and local journalists, August 1994. For a thoughtful review of all such reports appearing in local Hindi newspapers, see Singh, Namita, “Sampradayitka ka khabar ban jananahin, kahbron ka sampradayik ban jaana khatarnak hai,” Vartaman Sahitya, September 1991.Google Scholar

35 Author interviews in Trivandrum with Amitabh Kant, district collector, Calicut, 1991–94, July 20, 1995; Shankar Reddy, police commissioner, Calicut, 1991–94, July 22, 1995; Siby Matthews, police commissioner, Calicut, 1988–91, July 21, 1995; K. Jayakumar, collector, Calicut, July 21, 1995; Rajeevan, police commissioner, Calicut, 1986–88, July 21, 1995. Politicians of the Muslim League and BJP confirmed their participation in peace committees. The political leaders interviewed were Dr. Muneer, Muslim League member of Legislative Assembly since 1991, July 23, 1995; K. Sreedharan Pillai, president BJP, Calicut district BJP committee, Calicut, July 25, 1995.

36 Author interview, Sreedharan Pillai, president, BJP district committee, Calicut, July 25,1995.

37 Unless otherwise reported, the statistics here and below are from the survey conducted in Calicut and Aligarh. For the methodology, see the appendix.

38 Forty percent of the sample was older than sixty, which allowed us to gather recollections of the 1930s and 1940s.

39 It may be asked why people in Calicut join interreligious associations in such large numbers. Since violence and peace constitute the explanandum (the dependent variable) in this analysis and civic networks, the explanans (the independent variable), I only ask whether causality is correctly ascribed to civic networks or, alternatively, whether it constitutes a case of endogeneity. The question of why people join interreligious associations in Calicut but not in Aligarh is analytically different. To answer it requires a research design different from the one that investigates why violence or peace obtains in the two places, for the explanandum is violence in one case and associational membership in the other. That said, it is quite plausible to hypothesize that Calicut citizens have greater faith in the “rational-legal” functioning of the state, and therefore, instead of seeking to change the behavior of the state by capturing state power, they are confident they can exercise enough pressure on it through associations. It may also be that Calicut citizens identify less with caste and religion today than do the citizens of Aligarh, though historically there is no doubt that caste played an enormously important role in generating struggles for social justice there. For a recent account of the caste basis of such struggles, see Menon, Dileep, Caste, Community and the Nation: Malabar, 1900–1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).Google Scholar Finally, integrated civic networks conceivably achieve much more than prevention of communal riots. They may, for example, be related to the better provision of social services in Calicut (and Kerala), but such outcomes are not the main object of analysis in this paper. Only communal violence is.

40 Calicut has no industry except tiles. It is small in size, with nine factories and about twenty-five hundred workers in all.

41 These numbers and the information below are based on extensive interviews with the president and general secretary of the Kerala Federation of Trade Associations (Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi hereafter Samithi). The Samithi is a powerful all-state body, based in all towns of Kerala. The Samithi keeps records and statistics and has a professionally run office. It is rare to find a traders association run so professionally in North India.

42 Data supplied by the Samithi, Calicut branch, July 1995.

43 Author interview with V. Ramakrishna Erady, wholesale rice dealer, Calicut, July 25, 1995.

44 Author interview with Mohammed Sufiyan, former president, Vyapar Mandai, Aligarh, August 1995.

45 It pays to underreport how much labor an industrial unit employs, for under Indian law the small, informal sector does not have to pay pension and other benefits to its workers. Official statistics are thus entirely useless. Foucault's concept of “popular illegality,” as one keen observer puts it, has caught the fascination of Ahgarh's lock manufacturers. Mann, Elizabeth A., Boundaries and Identities: Muslims, Work and Status in Aligarh (Delhi and Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1992), 83.Google Scholar

46 Ibid., 101–2.

47 Ibid., 84–85.

48 Exact numbers of unionized members and their religious distribution are almost impossible to come by. Estimates based on the interviews are the best one can do. The description below is based on interviews with labor leaders in Calicut, especially a long and detailed interview with Sadiri Koya, M., state secretary, INTUC, August 4, 1993.Google Scholar

49 Menon (fn. 39), 145–49.

50 And the state of Kerala has “a library or a reading room within walking distance of every citizen.” K. A. Isaac, “Library Movement and Bibliographic Control in Kerala: An Overview” (Paper presented at the International Congress of Kerala Studies, Trivandrum, India, August 1994).

51 It may be suggested that this finding is close to being a tautology: a city is not riot prone because it is well integrated. This claim, however, would not be plausible for two reasons. First, a conventional explanation, which has long defined the common sense of the field, suggests that for peace, multieth nic societies require consociational arrangements. Consociationalism is an argument about segregation at the mass level and bargaining at the elite level, not integration at either level. My argument is very different. Second, religious fundamentalists have often fought violently to “purify” their communities of influences from other religions in society. Islamic fundamentalists have often sought to undermine Sufi Islam, which has traditionally combined the practice of Islam with the incorporation of neighboring influences. Communally integrated lives and belief systems have often been seen as a source of tension and conflict rather than peace. For the North American version of the debate, see Forbes, H. D., Ethnic Conflict (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).Google Scholar

52 It should, however, be pointed out that in Calicut and the neighboring areas, it is the left wing of the Congress Party, later splitting from the parent organization and becoming the Communist Party of India (CPI), that engaged in the most systematic association building.

53 Putnam, Robert, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).Google Scholar It should be noted, however, that since writing Making Democracy Work, Putnam has introduced the notions of bridging and nonbridging civic networks. Putnam acknowledges the distinction further in Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).Google Scholar

54 This reasoning also suggests a third way in which this research differs from Putnam's Making Democracy Work. In Putnam's formulation, the existence of social capital differentiates good governance from bad. The relationship between social capital and communal violence, however, yields a different formulation. If my argument is right, civic networks determine the presence or absence of riots, but they are politically constructed in the long run. Putnam's study appears to emphasize the independent role of social capital in both the short run and the long run.

55 For the U.S., see Lieberson, Stanley and Silverman, Arnold, “The Precipitants and Underlying Conditions of Race Riots,American Sociological Review 30 (December 1965)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and for Northern Ireland, see Poole, Michael, “Geographical Location of Political Violence in Northern Ireland,” in Darby, John, Dodge, Nicholas, and Hepburn, A. C., eds., Political Violence: Ireland in Comparative Perspective (Belfast: Appletree Press, 1990).Google Scholar

56 Darby, John, Intimidation and the Control of Conflict in Northern Ireland (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1986).Google Scholar

57 Horowitz, Donald, “Racial Violence in the United States,” in Glazer, Nathan and Young, Ken, eds., Ethnic Pluralism and Public Policy (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1983).Google Scholar

58 Lieberson and Silverman (fn. 55).

59 The Kerner Commission Report had an excellent chance to give us an explanation. It missed the chance because it studied the riot-afflicted cities only, not the peaceful ones.

60 Glazer, Nathan, We Are All Multiculturalists Now (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

61 Fearon, James and Laitin, David, “Explaining Interethnic Cooperation,American Political Science Review 90 (December 1996).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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