Conflict Resolution : Theory and Practice

Devavrat N. Pathak


Conflict is both destroyer and creator

Conflict is both challenge and opportunity



The subject of conflict resolution has been developing in recent years as a part of peace research.


It is to be realised that conflicts may arise even in a peaceful society. Much depends, therefore, as to how we view conflicts.


The usual tendency would be to view conflicts as disturbance, something that produces disorder and would raise the issue of law and order. Such an angle may not lead to a proper and full understanding of conflict.


While not all conflicts are of the same nature or kind, conflicts are a warning, a signal, a symptom of something somewhere going wrong. It is a challenge to the status quo, which may often be taken or treated as absolutely normal. But what may appear as normal and peaceful for some may not be congenial or acceptable for many. Conflicts arise out of discontent or dissatisfaction with the status quo.


In short, conflicts should be viewed and analysed objectively so that their underlying reasons may surface before our eyes. Conflicts are to be taken as an expression of popular discontent that require our attention, an active and constructive response.


Prof. Laski once observed that people rebel not for the sake of pleasure of it but because they have complaints and legitimate grievances that have fallen on deaf ears.


Louis Kriesberg gives a good definition,

A conflict exists when two or more persons or groups manifest the belief that they have incompatible goals (Kriesberg, 1998). A conflict arises when members of one or more of the adversaries minimally combine four qualities: a sense of collective identity, a grievance, the belief that the other side is responsible for their grievance, and the conviction that they can affect the other side so as to lessen their grievance.

(Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 38, No.3, May 2001, p. 374)


Conflicts may arise out of injustice, inequity, ill treatment, deprivation or non-observance of certain well accepted norms of good governance. The best way to tackle a conflict is to diagnose it fully and properly and then to provide a constructive and positive answer to it.


Conflicts arise out of incompatibility or clash of interests. Interests lead to perceptions, right or wrong, and generate attitudes of hatred which, in turn, produce antagonistic behaviour. Incompatibility of interest, attitudes and behaviour are the three sides of conflictual triangle.















Conflicts are inevitable, but, they need not be necessarily violent. Our concern, firstly, should be to prevent conflict and, if that is not possible, to mitigate it, lessen its excess, manage it within reasonable limits, attempt to transform it and finally to resolve it.


The Chinese language has the same word for Challenge and Opportunity. A conflict is both; a challenge that is to be taken as an opportunity for a better imagined future. Taken positively, a conflict may pave the way for a better organization of society that may be an improvement upon the past. It is a blessing in disguise. Once the discontent underlying the conflict is removed, the resulting state of affairs may be more widely acceptable and therefore more peaceful.


Dealing with conflict can have several stages. First, the analytical approach that provides insight into the minds of the disputing parties. The second stage would involve proper management of the whole process of conflict. This involves efforts at moderating the conflict and not allowing it to get escalated. Thirdly, the parties to the conflict are to be brought together and persuaded by the third partythe mediating partyto face each other and explore ways and means of new approach to the conflict. This may be the most creative part of dealing with the conflict. What is required is to place before the disputing parties several hitherto unexplored avenues of compromise and/or understanding so that the common ground between them can emerge. They would be enabled to have a fresh look to themselves and their conflict. This is the real kernel of resolving conflict.


In other words, from the situation of zero-sum scenario they would be transposed into a win-win situation. Both the parties begin to view their lives, their dispute and the issues of conflict in a different light. Such an exercise opens out the rich possibility of conflict resolution.


The conflict resolution as a subject of study contains boundless potentiality for the future in the sense that it involves non-violent approach to conflict and holds out great promise of understanding through dialogue and negotiation.





Conflict may take place between individuals, within families, in the neighborhood or within and between states as well as between ethnic groups. All conflicts share certain common features and therefore over the time some common way of tackling them have evolved accepted and widely practised. They can be listed as follows:


1.   Need for patience allowing time for anger to subside.


2.   Meeting of the warring parties may be held on neutral territory (e.g. Tamil Tigers and the Government of Sri Lanka meeting in Thailand. Tashkant Agreement between India and Pakistan after the war in 1965).


This also presupposes mediation by the third parties.

3.   For arriving at full understanding both or all parties should be treated on equal footing and heard properly and fully. The underlying idea is that both the parties have legitimate grievances.

4.   The needs and values of both the parties must be defined so as to have proper understanding of both of them.

5.   The single most important requirement is to search and identify the common ground. This may provide a basis for arriving at an understanding.

6.   Conflict resolution requires innovative imagination, an invitation for a relentless search for solutions.

7.   Instead of the usual zerosum game the conflict resolution has to provide a win-win solution.

8.   By and large, conflicts involving violence rely on the selective memories of the past. It is non-violence that can provide a new vision for the future. It is the future that provides a new promise. Therefore there is a need to focus on the future. The best ideas for the future may be explored and put forward. Life could be understood backward but it is to be lived forward in future.


There are also occasions when a genuine grievance is not attended to. Justice delayed may mean justice denied. In such cases innovatively imagined vistas of future may open out options, not thought of earlier and thereby prove to be beneficial to the parties concerned.



For resolving conflict in a non-violent fashion you need to have an understanding of violence-types of violence and its deeper and extensive meaning. One can easily identify direct, actor or group-oriented violence resulting in injuries and death, war being its institutionalised form over a vast scale. But there is a more sinister, equally deadly violence, often invisible but no less dangerous in its sweep and cruelty that operates throughout the world as a system-oriented violence called structural violence. It operates through deprivation, denial of basic needs and inhuman treatment.


Both these types of violence get a free hand, legitimising its acceptability and prevalence, through cultural violence. It provides justification for violence and treats the practice of violence as normal.



Years ago Rabindranath Tagore said that Europe would be the first to accept non-violence since it has undergone the highest degree of violence in terms of hostilities and wars. Tagore has been vindicated to a large extent when we watch the growth and development of European Union. As early as 1975 the Helsinki Accords decided that henceforward boundaries of states shall not be changed through violence.


Many observers believe that conflict management is an important growth area for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE, before December 1994, Conference of Security and Co-operation in Europe, CSCE). As stated by a member of the European Commissions staff: The main role of the OSCE after Budapest (December 1994) will be conflict prevention, crisis management and peacekeeping, most probably in conjunction with other organizations.


Development of the OSCEs conflict management plans and capabilities occurs within the broader context of a search for a new security architecture for Europe.


Furthermore, it is widely held that conflict management presents a large, unexplored potential for OSCE cooperation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A growing corps of non-governmental actors, both individuals and organizations, is active in a wide range of non-violent conflict management activities across the OSCE region. They are ready to provide expert consultation to international organizations such as the OSCE. The value of such cooperation was recognized by the OSCE in the decisions reached at the 1994 OSCE Biannual Review Conference in Budapest: the participating States and CSCE institutions will provide opportunities for increased involvement of NGOs in CSCE activities. They will search for ways in which the CSCE can best make use of the work and information provided by NGOs.


At the meeting, three important areas of convergence between the CSCE and the NGO conflict management community were delineated. First, the two communities share the key objectives of preventing conflict, building civil society, and protecting human rights. Second, there is significant overlap in the approaches used, namely persuasion, dialogue and conciliation. Third, there is a potential useful complementarity of roles, in all phases of conflict management from the grass roots level to the political and governmental level.


Confidence Building

Effective communication and negotiations require some degree of trust between the parties. Confidence building measures aim to create that trust. One important confidence building strategy is the Gradual Reduction in Tensions (GRIT) approach. GRIT begins with one side making a verifiable., unilateral concession, and signaling its expectation that the other side will respond in kind. The concession should involve some cost, but should not affect safety and security interests. If the other side responds in kind, a series of unilateral initiatives may ensue. If not, nothing substantial has been lost. Third-parties can help the process along by verifying concessions or maintaining neutral zones.


Contact with Education

Education for mutual understanding (EMU) or multi-cultural education focuses on children and young adults, and seeks to produce generational changes in attitude. Such educational programs emphasize reason, imagination, critical thinking, openness and love of the truth. They introduce students to the languages, cultures, histories and religions of other societies in addition to their own.


Indias Record

Like Europe India also has a record of peaceful resolution of issues and problems in the course of more than fifty years. We may not have consciously adopted the technique of conflict resolution, but that, in no way, can belittle some examples of peaceful approach wherein sheer patience and faith in the political process have solved, the problems. The rise and growth of DMK in Tamil Nadu posed a formidable challenge to our democracy and constitution. They attacked our epics, burned the national flag and demanded separation, but soon they were overpowered by the sheer logic of our democratic process and those who came to scoff, remained to pray.


India was the first nation to have allowed the communists to contest elections and form governments in a democratic way. West Bengal and Kerala have been ruled by the leftists having come to power through free and fair elections. Could we not call these instances as the triumph of democracy and non-violence?


Equally notable are the instances when insurrections and terrorist activities such as the movement for Khalistan, Bodoland, Gurkhaland and violence in the North East were gradually overcome, not always through non-violence, but certainly, through the political process that only democracy could provide. Recent elections in Jammu and Kashmir and the adoption of new policies of dialogue and conciliation appear to open out possibilities of peaceful approach. Boli not Goli, Ballot not Bullet symbolise the change in the policies of combating terrorism.


There is hardly any need to mention that pursuing divisive policies so as to polarise communities runs counter to the philosophy of peaceful resolution of conflicts. Such policies rest upon the age- old imperialist policies of divide and rule. They are anti-people, unconstitutional, and stultifying the democratic process. As Justice J.S. Verma, former chairman of the Human Rights Commission has observed, Democracy must mean inclusive democracy, involving all sections of people including minorities in decision-making and governance, not mere rule by the majority.