The Role of Civil Society in Ethnic Conflict Resolution


M.B. Nisal

Horowitz argues, all conflict based on ascriptive group identities - race, language, religion, tribe or caste- can be called ethnic. In this umbrella usage, ethnic conflict range from 1) The Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland and Hindu-Muslim conflict in India to 2) black-white conflict in the United States and South Africa, 3) Tamil-Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka, and 4) Shia-Sunni dispute in Pakistan.


The form ethnic conflict takes-religious, linguistic, racial, tribal- does not seem to alter its intensity, longevity, passion or relative intractability. Their emphasis is on the ascriptive and cultural core of the conflict, imagined or real, and can be distinguished from the largely non-ascriptive and economic core of class conflict. Ethnic conflict may have an economic basis, but that is not its defining feature. Irrespective of internal class differentiation, race, language, sect or religion, we can define the politics of ethnic group. So communal and ethnic mean the same.


Despite ethnic diversity, some places- regions, nations, towns or villages-manage to remain peaceful whereas others experience enduring patterns of violence. Similarly, some societies, after maintaining a veritable record of ethnic peace, explode in ways that surprise the observers and very often the scholars as well. Variations across time and space constitute an unresolved puzzle in the field of ethnicity and nationalism.


Until we study ethnic peace, we will not be able to have a good theory of ethnic conflict. Despite rising violence, many communities in the world still manage their interethnic tensions without taking violent steps.


The data shows that, the share of villages in communal rioting is remarkably small. Between 1950 and 1995, rural India, where two-thirds of Indians still live, accounted for less than 4 percent of the deaths in communal violence. Hindu -Muslim violence is primarily an urban phenomenon. Second, within urban India too, Hindu-Muslim riots are highly locally concentrated. Eight cities - Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Aligarh, Hyderabad, Meerut, Baroda, Kolkata and Delhi - account for a disproportionate share of communal violence in the country - a little more than 49 percent of all urban deaths (and 45.5 percent of all deaths) are due to Hindu-Muslim violence.


India's most Riot - prone Cities (1950-1995)

Cities Deaths (1950-95)

Mumbai Ahmedabad

Hyderabad Meerut

Aligarh Baroda

Delhi Kolkata

1,137 1,119







These cities experienced a minimum of 50 deaths

in 10 riots over a period 5 years.


As a group, however, these eight cities represent a mere 18 percent of India's urban population (and about 5 percent of the country's population, both urban and rural) - 82 percent of the urban population (95 percent of the total population) has not been "riot-prone "

Now let us distinguish between ethnic identity, ethnic conflict and ethnic violence. In any ethnically plural society that allows free expression of political demands, some ethnic conflict is more or less inevitable. Indeed, such conflict may be inherent in all pluralistic political system, authoritarian or democratic. Compared to authoritarian systems, a democratic polity is simply more likely to witness an open expression of such conflicts. The former 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 conflict also runs the risk, though not the certainty of an eventual outburst of a pent-up frustration when an authoratarian system begins to liberalise or lose its legitimacy. Contrariwise, ethnic conflicts are a regular feature of ethnically plural democracies if different ethnic groups exist and the freedom to organise themselves is available.

The real issue is whether the ethnic conflict is violent or is waged using the institutionalised channels of the polity as non-violent mobilisation. If ethnic protest takes an institutionlized form in parliaments, assemblies, in bureaucracies, or on the street, it is conflict all right, but not violent. Such conflict must be distinguished from a situation in which protest takes violent forms, rioting breaks out on the street and in the neighbourhoods, and in its most extreme form, pogroms are initiated against some ethnic groups with full connivance of state authorities. Given how different these outcomes are, explanations of institutionalized conflict may not be the same as those for ethnic violence and rioting. Further explanations of rioting may also be different from those for pogroms and civil wars. Ethnic peace should for all practical purposes, be conceptualised as an institutionalized channeling and resolution of ethnic conflicts. The world might well be a happier place if we could eliminate ethnic and national conflicts from our midst, but a post-ethnic, post-national era does not seem to be in the offing. At least our short to medium-run expectations should be better aligned with our realities.


A roughly similar point can be made about the relationship between ethnic identity and ethnic violence. Ethnic identities by themselves do not produce violence, they may co-exist with peace. It is sometimes argued that if ethnic identities could only give way to economic identities, conflicts would be less violent and "civilised". Indeed, "modernisation" in 1950s and 1960s was widely expected to lead to class and occupational differences between human beings, overriding ethnic differences that were deemed relics of a bygone era. Why should economic conflicts be less violent than ethnic conflicts ? The underlying intuition is simply that identities tend to be indivisible, whereas a fight over resources is amenable to flexible sharing. If a deal can be struck, splitting shares into a 60-40 or 65-35 arrangement, a peaceful resolution of a conflict is possible. Such bargaining, it is argued, is not possible with respect to ethnicity. With the clear exception of those born of intermarriages, Christians cannot be turned into half-jews and a white person cannot be made half-black. The degree of freedom being so much lower, clashes based on ethnic identities resist compromise, arouse passion instead of reason, and generate violence.

Is there a way out? Lijphart argues that, in order to be successful and preempt ethnic conflict, democracy in a plural society requires elite compromise. A plural society is defined as one in which the various ethnic groups are segmented and have little criss-crossing. Elite compromise can best be assured by a political system that works on intergroup consensus, not intergroup competition. A consensual democracy of this kind can be called consociational. It has features, such as, a grand coalition of ethnic leaders in government, a mutual veto given to each group proportionately in decision-making, positions, and segmental autonomy with respect to matters such as education, language and personal laws. The examples are Austria, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland.

To summarise, conflict is not necessarily violent. It can take an institutionalised form if ethnic demands for higher political representation, affirmative action, or personal laws are pursued in assemblies, elections, bureaucratic corridors, and non-violent movements and protests.

Civil society intervenes at the point where conflict turns into violence. Civil links, if they exist between ethnic groups also resolve the unanswered puzzle of instrumentalism, namely, why, even though political elites may try to use ethnicity for political purposes and wish to cleave societies along ethnic lines, they are unable to do so everywhere. In fact, they may not find such efforts sensible at all, and may instead put together winning coalitions in non-ethnic ways.

The concept of civil society, though highly popular and much revered in recent years, remains intensely contested. Accordingly, to the conventional notions prevalent in the social sciences, "Civil society" refers to the space in a given society that exists between the family level and the state level. According to Gellner, civil society is not only modern but also based on strictly voluntary, not ethnic or religious associations between the family and the state.

Informal associations or activities help in forming civil society. The sites of civic interactions range from generally predictable to highly particular and culturally specific. The predictable sites are neighbourhood or village commons, the playground, the halls for entertainment and community functions. Group interaction is not confined to them, however, and may also mark some culturally specific sites, the festival venues where people not only participate in a religious activity but also build connections for secular purposes such as politics, the sidewalks where those returning from work habitually walk together and talk, not simply about the weather but also about organizational structures in the workplace, markets, films, festivals, and politics. The village river or pond is the place where women not only wash clothes and exchange views about families but also discuss school teachers, landlords and village politics. The milk collection centres where men and women pour milk each morning are sites where people talk about children, relatives, local government, cultural trends and national politics.

What is crucial to the notion of civil society is that families and individuals connect with others beyond their homes and talk about matters of public relevance without the interference or sponsorship of the state. Whether such engagement takes place in association or in the traditional sites of social get-togetherness depends on the degree of urbanization and economic development. Cities tend to have formal associations, but villages do with informal sites and meetings. In villages in our country-India-less that 4 percent of all deaths and roughly 10 percent of all Hindu-Muslim riots took place during 1950-1995. Peace was maintained not because of associations but because of everyday civil engagement between Hindus and Muslims. In cities, however, such everyday engagement was not enough, and associations were required.

When villages become towns, towns turn into cities, and cities are transformed into metropolises, people begin to travel long distances for work, face to face contact is typically not possible beyond neighbourhoods, and associations become necessary not only for civil peace but also for many economic, social and political aims and interactions. We should not look for associations, where the need for them is not pressing or where access to them is difficult for some groups. We should, instead, look at the alternative civil sites that perform the same role as the more standard civil organisations do. One more observation is that inter-ethnic or inter-communal engagement makes for peace, not intra-ethnic or intra-communal. Inter-communal engagement leads to the formation of what might be called an institutionalised peace system. Engagement, if all intra-communal, is often associated with institutionalised riot system.

On the whole, two links can be specified between civic life and ethnic conflict. Firstly, prior and sustained contact between members of different communities allows communication between them to moderate tensions and preempt violence; when tensions arise owing to an exogenous shock, say a riot in the nearby city, distant violence repeated in press or shown on T.V., rumours planted by politicians or groups in the city, a provocative act of communal mischief by police or some youths. In cities of thick interaction between different communities, peace committees at time of tensions emerge from below in various neighbourhoods. The local administration does not have to impose such committees on the entire city from above. The former is a better peace protector than the latter.


Secondly, in cities those have associational integration as well as everyday integration; the foundations of peace become stronger. Without a nexus between politicians and criminals, big riots and killings are highly improbable.

Civil links across communities have a remarkable local or regional variation. They differ from place to place depending on how different communities are distributed in local business, middle-class occupations, parties, and labour markets. The result is, when the same organisation is able to create tensions and violence in one city or region, it is unable to do so in another city or region, when civic engagement crosses communal lines.

One might wish to ask whether these points are India-specific or can be applied elsewhere also. Ethnic violence tends to be highly locally or regionally concentrated. A countrywide breakdown of the ethnic relations is rare. We tend to form exaggerated impressions of the destructive power of ethnicity because violence is what attracts popular attention, especially the attention of media. The quiet continuation of routine life may be important for research but it is not news; and hence is unimportant for the media. In contrast, large riots or major acts of violence make "good copy" and are widely repeated. In the process, we end up getting the impression that ethnic violence is normal and ethnic peace is rare in the world, whereas the reality is the other way round.

If we systematically investigate the links between civil society and ethnic conflict, we can achieve better understanding of violence in general as well as of its local or regional variation.