A tight hold on harmony

Ethnic Conflict in India
October 20, 2000

In the past few decades, "ethni-city" has come to denote a personal or group difference inherently causative of societal disharmony. This is unsurprising, given that countless examples of seeking to protect, promote or enlarge one's narrow geographic and cultural commonality with others has ended in (virtual) civil war, especially when attempted in multi-ethnic nation-states with limited resources.

India is a rare exception. A large, poor and over-populated country without a national language, but with any number of competing linguistic, religious, caste, clan and other groups, it remains a robust, working democracy. Conventional wisdom has it that this is because ethnic identities in India are heterogeneous and fluid rather than "primordial, cumulative or homogenising", and have had the luxury of operating within a Hindu culture inherently tolerant towards diversity.

Gurharpal Singh, however, is unhappy with this understanding of Indian democracy. He criticises the conventional wisdom as ahistorical; misunderstanding the importance of Hindu identity in the Congress Party's acceptance of partition, as well as the nature of Hinduism's "encapsulation" rather than tolerance of other traditions. Indeed, much of his work over the ten years, now collected in this book, is an effort to show India as a "de facto ethnic demo-racy", where Hinduism functions as a kind of meta-ethnicity. Look, argues Singh, to the failure of nation-building efforts among groups outside this tradition, especially in the country's geographically remote regions, and the persistence of their ethno-religious separatist movements.

Persistence, perhaps, but triumph, never. Yes, the "cost of sustaining an Indian leviathan is the permanent militarisation of the peripheral regions (punctuated with periods of hegemonic control), increasing uprisings and global exposure to the brutal realities of India's demo-cracy". However, as Singh shows via a detailed and intelligent case study of the rise, fall and aftermath of the struggle for Khalistan (an independent Sikh state), the Indian state's response has proven effective, if grossly overwrought. Indeed, the country's geographical size has increased rather than decreased since independence. Moreover, borders between Indian states have been reorganised peace-fully, and this process, perhaps surprisingly, has been rekindled recently by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, despite its hindutva philosophy. Of course, it remains to be seen whether such reorganisation will extend to Kashmir.

Apurba Kundu is lecturer in South Asian area studies, University of Bradford.

Ethnic Conflict in India: A Case-Study of Punjab

Author - Gurharpal Singh
ISBN - 0 333 72109 8
Publisher - Palgrave (formerly Macmillan Press)
Price - £45.00
Pages - 231

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