The historical roots of ethnic conflict in India


A vista view of Jaipur, which is demographically similar to Ajmer, a neighboring district. The different ways ethnic conflict have played out are rooted in the history of each locale, says Ajay Verghese.
Photo credit: 
Flickr user NeonMan

In the north Indian state of Rajasthan there are two neighboring districts named Jaipur and Ajmer, and if you traveled by bus from one to the other you would notice almost no difference between them. People in both cities speak the same language, have the same culture, and work in the same kinds of jobs. The demography of both regions is also extremely similar – both areas have roughly the same percentage of Hindus and Muslims, and members of high castes and low castes. Yet both of these cities responded very differently to a pair of events that occurred in the last several decades in India. 

In 1992 a mob of Hindu nationalists destroyed the Babri Mosque in the Indian city of Ayodhya. For years the Babri Mosque had attracted the ire of militant Hindu extremists, who believed that it had been built by Muslim invaders on the site of an ancient Hindu temple. The destruction of the mosque triggered massive Hindu-Muslim riots throughout India. In Jaipur, huge riots gripped the city and led to several deaths. In Ajmer, however, not a single individual was killed in religious rioting.

Flash forward a decade and a half. In 2008 the two cities became sites of another controversy, this time when huge clashes broke out over the Indian government's policy on reservations. In India, members of low castes and indigenous tribal groups are guaranteed a special number of reserved spots in higher education and government jobs, and controversy over the specific allotment in 2008 led to major protests in Rajasthan. This time, however, Ajmer was the city embroiled in serious violence whereas Jaipur remained peaceful.

In short: in Jaipur people fight over religion, and in Ajmer people fight over caste and tribal identities.

All individuals have multiple ethnic identities, and can presumably adopt different identities within different contexts. As the British historian Eric Hobsbawm once put it, someone named Mr. Patel could be an “Indian, a British citizen, a Hindu, a Gujarati-speaker, an ex-colonist from Kenya, [or] a member of a specific caste or kin-group...” Why is it, then, that people in Jaipur fight over religion whereas people in Ajmer fight about castes and tribes? Why do people choose one identity over another?

My research argues that the key factor driving patterns of ethnic conflict is history. The main reason why religion forms the foundation of ethnic conflict in Jaipur is because the state was controlled by a Hindu dynasty that brutally repressed Muslims. In Ajmer, on the other hand, British administrators who discriminated against low castes and tribal groups controlled the state. In Jaipur, this created religion as the main mode of ethnic identification, and everyone in the city today knows that religious identities are paramount. Right next door in Ajmer, however, a person's caste and tribal identity became salient, and everyone there today understands this fact. Historical legacies drive ethnic identification and, by extension, ethnic conflict.    

Determining why we see specific patterns of ethnic conflict is more than merely an academic exercise. First, not all forms of ethnic conflict are equal. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that conflict about language, for example, tends to be non-violent, but conflict about religion very often descends into bloodshed. Second, states have some ability to manipulate ethnic identity, so some policymakers are in the unfortunate position of having to actually prefer one kind of ethnic conflict to another. In India, any politician would prefer linguistic conflict because it will only lead to protests – but religious conflict will likely lead to rioting.

These facts should give pause to policymakers seeking to end ethnic bloodshed in any country around the world. Most major studies of ethnicity today assume that ethnic identities are fluid, constantly shifting, and easy to change. In many cases this may be true, but making this assumption with regards to conflict may end up being dangerous. Historical legacies in India have deeply embedded patterns of ethnic conflict in different regions. Those who wish to stop ethnic violence must first understand the history that lies behind it.


Ajay Verghese, a Shorenstein Postdoctoral Fellow, joins the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center during the 2012–13 academic year from The George Washington University, where he received his PhD in political science in August 2012. His research interests are broadly centered on ethnicity, conflict, and South Asia.