Colonialism & Ethnic Conflict in India

A review of Colonialism and Patterns of Ethnic Conflict in Contemporary India, by Ajay Verghese.

This important dissertation asks why ethnic violence in multiethnic states tends to revolve around one salient identity, given the multiplicity of potential identity fault lines that theoretically could serve as the focus of conflict. Ajay Verghese examines ethnic conflict in India, determining that the legacies of British rule determine major differences in contemporary conflicts, and particularly whether they are organized mainly around caste/tribal cleavages or religious differences. In short, he finds that in those areas of the Raj that were under direct British control (constituting three-fifths of the Raj), contemporary conflict tends to be organized around caste/tribal issues, whereas religious conflict is more likely to arise in areas that were under indirect suzerainty, the princely states.

Chapter 1 develops Verghese’s hypothesis that this “bifurcated” colonialism, that in the provinces versus the princely states, instituted different, path-dependent processes in social organization and categorization, tending ethnic conflict in contemporary India toward differing identity bases. During the colonial era, “the British understood caste as the central organizing principle of society in the provinces,” such that the British “discriminated against low castes and tribals, but protected religious minorities. Princely rulers, on the other hand, discriminated against non-coreligionists, but protected low castes and tribals.” These “master narratives” became embedded into “local institutions and power structures,” and these patterns of conflict continued into the modern period as the “independent government in India…failed to reform its colonial past” (pp. 36–37). This chapter is historically rich and provides a valuable review of pertinent literature on the Raj. Verghese wisely notes that “there is no ‘correct’ interpretation of Indian history,” and so he is careful to “cite authors who have offered contrasting historical views” so that scholars may compare his arguments with those of others (p. 36, n. 3).

This well-crafted study uses a mixed-methods approach to evaluate Verghese’s hypothesis. Chapter 2 presents the results of a quantitative analysis of 589 Indian districts “to establish the broad patterns of ethnic conflict in contemporary India” (p. 23). This data is culled from a number of sources, including the Indian government and the Indian Human Development Survey. It is augmented, however, with a new dataset of ethnic conflict in contemporary India, developed by the author in conjunction with his dissertation advisor, Emmanuel Teitelbaum. The work on this dataset promises future fruition, to include quantitative investigation on British colonialism and Naxalism (p. 110, n. 3). The dependent variables, pertaining to caste/tribal or religious conflict, were drawn from the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System and the Varshney-Wilkinson dataset on Hindu-Muslim riots (p. 114). Within this dissertation, multiple regression models using the combined data demonstrates that “British rule is positively correlated with contemporary caste and tribal violence, even when controlling for a number of alternative explanations” (p. 110).

Correlation, of course, does not confirm causation. To explore causal mechanisms, the author undertakes process tracing of paired critical case studies: Jaipur and Ajmer, Rajasthan; Malabar and Travancore, Kerala; and Bastar and Hyderabad, both in what he terms the “Red Corridor,” areas affected by Naxalite ideologies and praxis. The results of these analyses are presented in Chapters 3 through 5. For these “controlled historical comparisons” (p. 132), Verghese makes use of both secondary sources and a series of interviews that included questions on the general state of caste and religious relations in the region, and whether or not relevant civil-society groups are active locally.

These paired analyses support Verghese’s hypothesis and provide significant support to causally link colonial patterns of governance with variation in contemporary ethnic conflict. For example, the process tracing of the paired cases of Jaipur (prone to religious-based conflict) and Ajmer (more prone to caste-based violence) indicates that “In Jaipur, the Muslim community was badly discriminated against, whereas low castes and tribals were protected. British administrators in Ajmer, however, protected the Muslim minority but instituted a host of policies that decimated the position of low castes and adivasis…These disparate sets of polities embedded different narratives of conflict in both districts, and post-colonial reform efforts have failed to change them. The origins of ethnic violence patterns in contemporary Rajasthan, therefore, lie in the colonial period” (p. 133). Similar support for his thesis is found even in what Verghese refers to as “deviant cases,” Bastar and Hyderabad.

Verghese provides very useful reviews of the relevant literature. His analysis “veers…closely toward the results of David Laitin’s study of ethnic cleavages and conflict in Africa” (p. 19). In terms of the genealogy of his work, Verghese situates his research particularly in the context of work on ethnic/communal conflict in India by Ashutosh Varshney, Steve Wilkinson, and Paul Brass. In keeping with typical dissertation style, Verghese takes great pains to differentiate his work from that of these scholars. He agrees with Kanchan Chandra that recent literature on conflict in India is “one of the most striking examples in recent years of the development of a cumulative research program in political science” (Chandra, Journal of Asian Studies 65 (1), pp. 207-209, quoted in Verghese, p. 9). He finds this literature, however, to suffer from two major deficits: a “lack of historical depth” and a “narrow focus on religious violence” (p. 11). While many scholars, and likely these authors, would disagree particularly with the former, Verghese argues that “this is not to say that the aforementioned scholars have not taken Indian history seriously—rather, they have not taken enough of it seriously” (p. 11). Verghese outlines the institutionalized-riot-systems approach of Brass, Varshney’s focus on intercommunal links in civil society, and Wilkinson’s electoral-incentives explanations in his introduction (pp. 9–16), finding each to be partial and therefore inadequate. He carries his critiques through his paired case studies (Chapters 3–5).

For example, Brass is critiqued for his emphasis on agents of communal violence, such as the RSS, while Verghese argues the implausibility of this explanation because communal violence predates the formation of such Hindutva groups (pp. 11–12, 150). Verghese similarly questions Wilkinson’s emphasis on the instrumental electoral advantages or disadvantages of communal violence, given that such violence predates the electoral politics of independent India (pp. 10–11, 150–151). With respect to Varshney, Verghese could find little evidence of the intercommunal networks crucial to Varshney’s analysis of Calicut, nor does he find such networks in Ajmer (pp. 222); he also questions Varshney’s data on communalal riots in Hyderabad (pp. 326–28). More broadly, he questions whether Varshney’s institutionalized peace systems can overcome Brass’s institutionalized riot systems (p. 16); and questions any explanation based on civil society networks given, as Pradeep Chibber argues, that “associational life in India is among the weakest in the world (Chibber, Democracy without Associations, 1999, cited in Verghese, 16). While not all will agree with these critiques, Verghese is lucid in his explication of them and provides robust citations and examples through which scholars can make their own assessments.

Verghese’s theory, and particularly the accuracy/relevance of his paired historical case studies, along with his critiques of Varshney, Wilkinson, and Brass, are likely to generate significant debate among historically minded social scientists of India. This is as it should be. The wonderful news, though, is that this dissertation merits such debate. It is a significant contribution to the literature on ethnic/communal conflict in India, but also offers much heuristic food for thought.

This dissertation will also be of great interest to those interested in conflict studies, ethnic relations, and the interrelationship of political science and history. Verghese has taken great pains to provide a glossary, maps, explication of terms, and other aids to allow scholars less familiar with India to understand the intricacies of his case studies. He has also been meticulous in explicating his methodology, which will be invaluable for those wishing to assess the generalizability of his theory or to conduct a meta-analysis of these findings along with those of other studies of ethnic conflict. Verghese indeed encourages such efforts through assessment of comparative implications for the study of Burma and Malaysia, offered in his concluding chapter.

Victoria L. Farmer
Department of Political Science and International Relations

Primary Sources

Author-conducted interviews

Dissertation Information

George Washington University. 2013. 410 pp. Primary Advisor: Emmanuel Teitelbaum.

Image: Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum, Kerala, India, 2012. Photograph by author.

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