Ethnic Conflict in the Indian Subcontinent: Assessing the Impact of Multiple Cleavages

Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterResearch Articles
AIA6.3.indb Research Article
Ethnic Conflict in the
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
Indian Subcontinent:
6(3) 229–253, 2019
The Author(s) 2019
Assessing the Impact of
Reprints and permissions:
Multiple Cleavages
DOI: 10.1177/2347797019886689
Soham Das1
As majoritarian electoral politics and religious conservatism are rising in the
major multi-ethnic South Asian countries, such as India and Pakistan, the events
of mob lynching, ethnic clashes and targeting non-plural and minority communi-
ties are becoming more frequent. This article analyses which cleavages of mar-
ginalisation make some ethnic groups prone to violent social movements vis-a-vis
others. Theoretically, through social constructivism and horizontal inequality, the
study argues that socioeconomic condition, religion and language are the three
broad cleavages that influence political behaviour of ethnic groups. Explicating
the theory about underlying versus facilitating conditions of ethnic–civil conflicts,
this article examines the prerequisites of ethnic conflicts. Thereafter, it evalu-
ates which single cleavages and combinations of the aforementioned cleavages
increase the probability of conflict occurrence in the Indian subcontinent. The
argument is empirically evaluated on a sample of 60 ethnic groups of the Indian
subcontinents over the period of 1947–2013. We find that groups affected by
reinforcing cleavages of religious and economic marginalisation, and religious,
economic and lingual marginalisation have engaged in active violence over the
period of our study. Additionally, the reinforcing cleavages of language and econ-
omy, and language and religion are associated with sporadic violence. Apart from
the combined effects, we find that the ethnic groups facing economic disadvan-
tage alone can also engage in violence.
Conflict, ethnic groups, political behaviour, marginalisation, horizontal inequality,
South Asia
1 School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson,
Corresponding author:
Soham Das, 800 W Campbell Rd, Green Hall 3.314. Richardson, TX 75080, USA.

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 6(3)
Terrorism and regional conflicts based on ethnic identities have become a source
of a persistent problem in various parts of the world. Militant organisations
functioning as units belonging to a common ethnic group threaten the lives of an
array of individuals in a region, including not only state officials of the particular
region but also other rival ethnic groups. More than one-third of terrorist
organisations in the world operate to advance the interests of ethnic groups, and
ethnic forms of terrorism are considered most prevalent in terms of a number of
attacks and casualties (Masters, 2008). Apart from common ethnic interests,
religious intolerance is also visible in various parts of the world. While the trend of
majoritarian politics is rising in every continent, the communal riots witnessed
globally are being triggered based on religious and socioeconomic interests among
the various warring parties. The Indian Subcontinent, too, is not an exception.
Due to its vast size and heterogeneous society and polity, India has been the
subject of various conflicts between subnational regions and the central
government (Malone & Mukherjee, 2010). India has a high rate of political
violence, and over 90 per cent of all events are riots and protests. The number of
demonstrations is highest in northern India, including the Jammu and Kashmir
region. The second most active conflict zone contributing to almost a third of
political violence in India is the so-called Red Corridor, which spans over a vast
territory in eastern, central and southern India. Political violence in that area is
connected to the ongoing Naxalite–Maoist insurgency led by the Communist
Party of India (Maoist). The third conflict zone—contributing to about a tenth of
the overall political violence in India is in northeast India, where several ethnic
groups including different tribes as well as migrants from other parts of India and
neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh, are engaged in a multi-layered
conflict between separatist groups and the Indian government (Summary of
Political Violence and Protests, 2018a).
Additionally, Pakistan has the second highest rate of political violence and
protests in South and Southeast Asia and it accounts for over 20 per cent of all
politically violent events in the region. Hundred and fourteen distinct non-state
actors operate in Pakistan. From 2010 to mid-2017, rebel ethnic groups were
involved in most events of political violence. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan
(TTP) were involved in over 80 per cent of politically violent events, resulting in
almost 17,000 fatalities. Baloch separatists were the second most active non-state
actors in Pakistan, involved in 336 events. Baloch Separatists and Lashkar-e-
Jabbar (LeJ) are active in Baluchistan, while the TTP, Afghani Taliban, Al Qaeda,
Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI) and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar are mostly active in Federally
Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Additionally, a
large majority of the activity in Sindh are riots and protests (Summary of Political
Violence and Protests, 2018b).
On the other hand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka too have been besieged with
violence and protests over the last couple of decades. Series of political coups and
the Chittagong Hill Tracts mobilisation perturbed the democratic stability of
Bangladesh in the 1970s, 1980s, as well as 1990s. Various events in 2013,

Das 231
including the February 2013 International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) verdict against
the Jamaat-e-Islami leader spurred widespread political instability across
Bangladesh, particularly sparking violence by Islamist groups. The instability
continued into January 2014, during which a general election was held, and
widespread election-related violence occurred (Summary of Political Violence
and Protests, 2018c). Sri Lanka too had been besieged with civil war since the
1980s until 2009 when the Tamil Eelam militants were finally defeated by the
Sinhalese government. However, the key cleavages of marginalisation against the
minority Tamils still loom large in this island state.
According to recent findings, 64 per cent of the civil wars have been fought
along ethnic lines in recent decades globally (Denny & Walter, 2014; Themner &
Wallensteen, 2012). Nevertheless, not all ethnic and religious groups are prone to
violence and secessionist movements. Many of these ethnic and religious groups
are integrated and cling to both their state and ethnic identity. Thus, the query
remains, why do some ethnic groups adopt violence to fight against the state? This
article examines this question and tries to explain which factors make some ethnic
groups more prone to violence vis-a-vis others. While doing so, it elaborates the
key idea of reinforcing versus cross-cutting cleavages of marginalisation that
might lead to adopting violent practices among members of an ethnic group.
Following ETH Zurich’s ethnic power relations dataset (Vogt et al., 2015) and
EPR Ethnic Dimensions dataset (Bormann, Cederman, & Vogt, 2017), this article
thereby tries to categorise the ethnic groups and the causal factors leading to the
use of violence by various ethnic groups of the Indian subcontinent.
Although there is debate among scholars about the most important causal
factors behind the onset of the civil conflict, the more nuanced task is to determine
how these factors exist in combination leading to the onset and severity of the
conflict. The ‘Minorities at Risk’ (MAR) survey shows that about 80 per cent of
the politically active ethnic groups in the 1990s were disadvantaged because of
historical or contemporary discrimination. Forty per cent of these groups (111 out
of 275) surveyed face discriminatory policies and practices harmful to their
material well-being (Harff & Gurr, 2004), but relatively few promote violent
conflict. This study combines prerequisites of ethnic conflict into three broad
cleavages—religion, culture and socioeconomic condition, thereby theoretically
arguing that these three broad cleavages of distinction and marginalisation
influence group behaviour. A combination of these stated cleavages develops a
continuum of peaceful to violent politics. The present literature has established
that individual cleavages are important by analysing the causality of one cleavage
at a time. The contribution of this article, however, is multifaceted. First, the
article studies the impact of multiple, simultaneous, cleavages rather than in
isolation. Cleavages are studied individually, in combinations of two and finally
all together; providing a unique contribution and addition to past work. Second, it
provides greater precision on the magnitude of the effect of cleavages, both
individually and in combination. Previous work has sometimes found connections
between cleavages and conflict but has not necessarily identified their relative and
absolute effects.

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 6(3)
Conflict and Cleavages: Theoretical Literature and the
Proposed Hypotheses

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