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10. Ethnic conflict, federalism, and democracy in India

S.D. Muni

S.D. Muni

India's ethnic spectrum
Potential for conflicts and their protraction
Simultaneous conflict formation and conflict containment
Dynamics of development
Democratic politics

India's ethnic spectrum

India has a highly complex and colourful social mosaic. Yet, although characterized by a vast spread of cultural diversity and heterogeneity, this mosaic is not chaotic. It has a clearly discernible pattern, wherein sociocultural diversity draws its strength and sustenance from India's composite culture and civilizational thrust. This culture has evolved over centuries, through a process of assimilation and amalgamation of the diverse cultural influxes coming with the hordes of invaders - the Aryans, the Sakas, the Huns, the Pathans, the Moghuls, and the Europeans. Thus, the evolved composite culture of India cannot be compared either with the melting-pot of American society or with the multinational state exemplified by the now defunct Soviet Union. India's socio-cultural mosaic is the true picture of "unity in diversity," like a bouquet of flowers or vegetables in a salad bowl, where every component, while retaining its specific identity, is a part of a larger whole.1

Upon this cultural diversity, within the ambit of civilizational unity, is based the reality of the multi-ethnic society of India. Several cultural markers - language, race, tribe, caste, religion, and region serve as identity axes for ethnic groups and their mobilization. In most of the ethnic groups, more than one of these cultural markers are pertinent for identification. In other words, India's ethno-communities have multilayered and multidimensional identities that impinge on each other in a non-stratified and dynamic manner. The identity composition of ethno-communities has been further complicated by the imposition of class distinctions, not only between one and another ethno-community, but also within each.2 Multilayered, non-stratified identity composition has enabled ethnic groups to assert and reshuffle their cultural markers to advance their perceived objectives.

Two other commonly accepted characteristics of the spectrum of ethnic diversity in India deserve attention. One is that there is no subordinate dominant pattern between the ethnic groups.3 Thus, the patterns of conflicts and contradictions between ethno-communities vary along scales of time and place. Secondly, the ethnic groups do not have territories marked out for them because the cultural markers identifying such groups do not coincide with territorial boundaries.4 Accordingly, people belonging to specific religions, tribes, castes, races, and languages are found scattered in various territorial regions. We shall see later that not even the reorganization of states in India on linguistic lines has been able to overcome this aspect.

Potential for conflicts and their protraction

Any diversity and heterogeneity is not conflict-producing per se, although it may carry a potential for conflict. India has witnessed ethnic conflicts in the process of its historical evolution, and the leadership of independent India was conscious that while India presents the picture of "unity and diversity," the possibility of conflict between the "unity" and the "diversity" could not be ruled out. Independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said:

While on the one hand, we the people of India are bound together by strong bonds of culture, common objectives, friendship and affection, on the other hand, unfortunately, there are inherent in India, separatist and disruptive tendencies... [which made India suffer in the past. In preserving its unity, India needed to]... fight communalism, provincialism, separatism, statism and casteism.5

On another occasion, he admitted that:

When we talk loudly of our nationalism, each person's idea of nationalism is his own brand of nationalism. It may be Assamese nationalism, it may be Bengali, it may be Gujrati, Uttar Pradesh, Punjabi or Madrasi. Each one has his own particular brand in mind. He may use the word nationalism of India but in his mind, he is thinking of that nationalism in terms of his own brand of it. When two brands of nationalism come into conflict, there is trouble.6

Even when such apprehensions have been expressed and real conflicts have been experienced, it is theoretically erroneous to assume, as has been done by many scholars and analysts, that transformation of a peacefully coexisting, collaborating and competing diversity into a conflictual one is inevitable and/or automatic. Social reality in India and elsewhere clearly reveals, on closer scrutiny, that the precipitation of ethnic conflict from a situation of ethnic diversity and heterogeneity is a rather complex process. Through this process, the boundaries of a given ethnic group are activated, resulting in the awareness and politicization of ethnic identities. Further, political mobilization for given goals leads to the building up of an ethnic movement which subsequently may or may not be transformed from one stage to another.

Underlining this aspect, Tambiah states:

Although the actors themselves... speak as if ethnic boundaries are clear-cut and defined for all time; and think of ethnic collectivities as self-reproducing bounded groups, it is also clear that from a dynamic and procedural perspective, there are many precedents of 'passing' and the change of identity, for incorporation and assimilation of new members and for changing the scales and criteria of collective identity.7

In the process of the "passing" of ethnic identities and politicization of ethnic groups, a number of "secular" or "non-ethnic" factors play a critical role. These include the state, pace, and pattern of economic development, political Úlites and forces, and outside subversion. Without these factors and the process of transformations in the ethnic groups, diversity would not assume conflictual dimensions. Emphasizing the role of political vested interests in precipitating ethnic conflicts, Gupta observes:

The manifestation of ethnicity in Indian politics is not so much an outcome of popular grassroots passions as it is a creation of vested political interests. The reason for stressing this is because it is often uncritically accepted that politicians at the secular centre are holding back the popular surge of communalism, for ethnicised politics is a natural inclination of the Indian people. On the other hand, I argue here that communal ideologies are hatched up at the perennially hot house top, then broadcast below, and only sometimes do they take root. On many other occasions, they languish as amorphous judgements, without concrete action prescriptions.8

Owing to the varying parameters of the process of identity transformations and the roles of external (non-ethnic) factors, ethnic conflicts and politics in India have "waxed and waned."9 Even some of the raging ethnic conflicts in India have shown inconsistencies in their ideological manifestations and intensity. The conflict in the Punjab, for instance, had a dominant linguistic thrust during the mid-1960s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s it was rekindled by the rivalry between competing Sikh sects, the Nirankaris and the Akalis. To this was added intra-group political rivalries amongst the Sikhs in the Punjab. Subsequently, it assumed both religious and economic dimensions in the form of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. At present, it is fast acquiring a Sikh fundamentalist character, with growing emphasis on the assertion of Sikh religious and cultural symbols to legitimize militancy and violence. Elements of the Punjab situation are also reflected in the Kashmir conflict, where the initial movement of the state's political and economic neglect has now clearly acquired overtones of Islamic religious assertion, to the extent of becoming fundamentalist. Accordingly, the earlier concept of Kashmir identity, or Kashmiriat, has been replaced by communal confrontation, wherein the Muslim militants have pushed Hindu Kashmiris out of the valley.

India also bears witness to the fact that the precipitation and intensification of ethnic conflicts by cultural diversity is not a unilinear or irreversible process. Ethnic conflicts have been resolved and reduced, but also re-created. The conflict arising out of the demand for the Tamil language and land during the early 1960s was resolved, although potential tension between Tamil and the declared (but not imposed) national language, Hindi, still exists. In the context of the Punjab conflict, the Rajiv-Longowal accord of 1985 was a major move to contain the conflict, although it proved futile. The initial thrust of ethnic conflict in Assam, which was directed against the influx of foreigners, experienced some respite in the mid-1980s, although now it has reemerged in violent form under the leadership of the Bodos and ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) groups. Similarly, some of the tribal insurgencies in the North-East have also been politically contained.

These varying patterns of conflict formation and containment (including resolution) are likely to persist in the future. For instance, a communal and fundamentalist conflict such as the clash between a temple (Hindu) and a mosque (Muslim) in Ayodhya seems to have lost its militancy and violent thrust after climaxing in 1990-91. At the same time there are signs of new conflict formations among some of the hitherto neglected tribes. The movements of Tribals in the Jharkand region (Bihar) and of Nepalis in Darjeeling and Sikkim over the language issue, have become sufficiently politicized and militant to create flashpoints.

Simultaneous conflict formation and conflict containment

The inconsistent and reversible processes of ethnic conflicts can be understood in the context of India's developmental dynamics, which have been releasing simultaneously the impulses of both conflict formation and containment. Both the alienation and integration of ethnic groups have been going on side by side, a process which Arun Bose describes as "Disintegration and Reintegration."10

Looking at the politics of ethnicity in South Asia with reference to developmental dynamics, either of the two trends can be emphasized. On the one hand, Asaf Husain presupposed that "successful national integration would cut across structures," while on the other hand, Paul Brass highlighted a "process of nationality formation rather than state-building."11 The reality is that both these views are tenable since one "does not preclude the bother."12 It is this dual character of social development which prompts David Washbrook to say that "the politics of ethnicity have been remarkably ineffective in directing the course of modern Indian history,"13 although many may seriously question this categorical assertion.

The fact that the sharpening of ethnic boundaries and conflicts in India has been on the rise cannot be disputed. Studies have shown an increase in communal riots, and the rise in the number of persons killed in these riots has become alarming since 1985, as can be seen from official data:14


Communal incidents

Persons killed

Persons injured

1955 75 24 475
1965 173 34 758
1975 205 33 890
1985 525 328 3,665

In 1985, rural areas which thus far had remained unaffected also accounted for 46 per cent of communal incidents. The momentum in communal violence has kept up in recent years. In 1989 there were 18 major riots, in which 1,174 persons were killed. The number of persons killed in 1986 was 418; 383 were killed in 1987, 223 in 1988, and 693 in 1990.15 One of the major factors behind the deterioration in the communal situation is the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and its corresponding majoritarian ethnic nationalism based on Hindutva. The temple-mosque conflict in Ayodhya was a concrete manifestation of this.16 Political vested interests have obviously played a decisive role in this development, which if allowed to go on unabated will worsen the situation and endanger India's unity and integrity.17

As for the persistent and festering ethnic conflicts in the Punjab, Kashmir, and Assam, we have already noted that they have intensified and the extent of violence has grown. Even the character of these insurgencies, in terms of their objectives, ideologies, leadership, and methods, is becoming more strident and uncompromising. The growing violent activities of Sikh militants in the Teral region of Uttar Pradesh have become a matter of serious concern. In addition to this, other potential ethnic conflicts such as in Jharkand and the Nepali/Gurkha communities are reportedly gathering political momentum.18 In the north-eastern tribal areas, the Naga National Council (NNC) has decided to take up arms and coordinate its activities with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). The tribal situation in Manipur, Tripura, and Mizoran is also moving fast towards the boil. 19

No less significant than this process of disintegration and conflict have been the forces of integration and mutual identification of diverse ethnic and cultural streams. We have noted earlier that the basis of the integrative process is India's composite culture, expressed in the form of secular national identity. Indian secularism did not evolve on the pattern of European secularism, which strove to detach the spiritual from the temporal. In India, all religions were accepted on an equal footing. The state gave equal rights to all religious and ethnic groups so that they could protect and promote their educational and cultural interests, by virtue of the Indian Constitution (arts. 2630). (An exception was made for scheduled castes and tribes, which were brought under the umbrella of "protective discrimination," according to Part X, arts. 30, 46, 244, 244A, and 335 of the Indian Constitution.) This secular identity was not an imposition by the state on society but a recognition of a deep-rooted social reality- that erosion of this identity would mean the disintegration of India along sectarian lines. Hence, firm constitutional provisions were made to preserve secular identity. In a way, they were necessary, owing to the trauma of India's partition.

To have a better appreciation of the dual process of integration and alienation of ethnic and national groups/identities - that is, the simultaneous occurrence of ethnic conflict formation and containment, we must look more closely at India's developmental dynamics, federalism, and democracy.

Dynamics of development

The significance of linkages between the dynamics of development and ethnic conflicts has been widely recognized. Reetz, in discussing the ethnic dilemma in Pakistan, observes that: ethnic and national group formation... could be separated from modern socioeconomic development trends of emerging capitalism. The growth of market relations at regional and national levels was the driving force behind the increasing articulation of both separate ethnic and common national interests. 20

This is equally relevant to the Indian situation, where the national and regional market developed much faster and more strongly than anywhere else in South Asia. The development of this market, backed by the growth of industry and commerce, brought diverse regional and ethnic interests together to interact, collaborate, and compete. As a result, regional and ethnic interests have developed stakes in expanding and strengthening the national market and linking it with the network of regional interests. Capital, technology, industry and commerce, and labour have moved from one region to another, cutting across and subordinating ethnic diversities. Diverse interest groups have come into being; industrialists, traders, transporters, and workers (trade unions). In the mixed economy of India, the process of development planning for target groups and regions has greatly helped various neglected and marginalized sections of society to join the national mainstream. Allocation of plan resources by the centre to the states has also bound them in a nexus of mutual bargaining and collaboration, notwithstanding the displeasure of the states over the amounts of resources transferred.

But these integrative pulls have not been without disintegrative implications. One of the common causes of the politicization of ethnicity and the formation of ethnic conflict is said to be the relative and perceived sense of economic deprivation by a given ethnic group. Tambiah, looking at national and international factors behind the cause of economic deprivation, says:

The present plethora of ethnic conflicts... coincides with an increasing sense of shrinking economic horizons and political battlement. Many things have gone awry with economic development: the declining terms of trade dictated by the industrialized internal bottlenecks; agricultural underemployment and migration to cities; increasing disparities of income among the expectant participants in the literacy explosion; the visible pauperisation of the urban underclass...21

All this has happened in the course of India's economic development. The most illustrative aspect of this development is the lopsided and uneven growth of the national market, prosperity, and income distribution, and the sensitization of underprivileged groups to their disadvantageous placement in the national division of labour. In some cases, bouts of prosperity have resulted in inflating expectations, which national resource generation and distribution mechanism have not been able to fulfill. In others, the slow pace of building prosperity has given rise to the sense of relative deprivation. Equally pertinent here is to note that corruption and family or "ethnic nepotism"22 have given impetus to alienation and conflict formation.

It is illustrative in this respect that economic maldevelopment has fuelled diverse ethnic insurgencies in India. Some recent studies on communal conflicts in North India show that the prosperity of Muslim artisans has given them confidence to free themselves from exploitation by Hindu traders and moneylenders, helping precipitate such conflicts. In the Punjab, it has been a problem of prosperity combined with unequal distribution of wealth resulting from the green revolution boom. The rich Punjabi farmers, in search of investing their surpluses for better returns, found it compelling to capture state power. Further marginalization of small and ladles peasants forced them into militancy for bare survival.23

By contrast, the situation in Kashmir, Assam, and the North-East has been one of economic neglect and discrimination in the perception of the affected masses. Even when national funds were allocated, they did not reach the targeted groups, because of the corruption of bureaucrats, politicians, and other mediators. In the absence of any serious attempt to correct these economic distortions, it may not be realistic to expect resolution of these raging ethnic conflicts.


In the debate on India's national integration and ethnic tensions, the nature and functioning of the federal power structure occupies an important place. The foundations of federalism were laid down on the grounds of concern for the unity and integrity of a culturally diverse nation. In view of historical experiences of disruptive and disintegrative sectarian forces and the political context of partition prevailing at the time of independence, the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution wanted to strengthen the Union against possible disintegrative pressures. Introducing the draft Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, Dr Ambedkar said:

though India was to be a federation, the federation was not the result of an agreement by the states to join in a federation. Not being a result of an agreement, no state has the right to secede from it. Though the country and the people may be divided into different states for convenience of administration, the country is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source... The Drafting Committee thought it was better to make [this] clear at the outset rather than leave it to speculation...24

Thus the perceived basis of structuring the federation was "administrative convenience." Unlike the American and the (erstwhile) Soviet constitutions, the states had no inherent, not even notional, right to secede from the Union or demand self-determination. In fact the Union in India was empowered to frustrate any such separatist or secessionist pressures if and when they arose.

With administrative convenience the avowed guiding principle for designing the federation, not much weight was given to the need for reflecting India's cultural design. No specific provisions for religious or cultural minorities were incorporated, except that they were given equal rights. The principle of "preventive discrimination," applied in the case of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, was designed more to undo their social and economic backwardness than to help them preserve and promote their cultural distinctiveness.

The Constitution's initial provisions and subsequent amendments provided for self-government under special administrative provisions for Jammu and Kashmir (Schedule IV, article 370) and to the tribal areas of North-East (Nagas, Mizos, Manipuri, Tripura, under articles 371 and 371A-I), but the Constituent Assembly refused to endorse proposals for constituting states on a linguistic basis. Nehru even went to the extent of threatening his resignation if that was to be done, as he apprehended that such a provision would endanger India's unity and integrity.25

Nehru was soon to revise his position on this vital issue under the force of circumstances when, in 1953, the linguistic basis of reorganizing states was accepted and Telugu-speaking Andhra emerged as the first such state. The Commission Constituted to Reorganise States in the Indian Federation nonetheless continued to emphasize that "it is the Union of India that is the basis of our nationality."26 Explaining the criterion of language as the basis for constituting a state, it said:

Linguistic homogeneity provides the only rational basis for reconstituting the state, for it reflects the social and cultural pattern of living obtaining in well defined regions of the country.

The congress leadership, including Nehru, which had earlier opposed the idea, conceded, saying that, being democrats, they had to respect people's wishes.

The process of linguistic reorganization of states initiated in 1953 has been carried forward under the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission since 1956 and was broadly completed by the end of the 1960s.27 This was a major development toward incorporating cultural identities into political and administrative units. The federal devolution of power strengthened this expression of cultural diversity.

The devolution of powers between the Union (or the centre) and the states was laid down in separate lists prepared for this purpose. Accordingly, the list of the states' "exclusive" powers includes: public order; police; education; local government; roads and transport; agriculture; land and land revenue; forests; fisheries; industry and trade (limited); state Public Service Commissions; and Courts (except the Supreme Court). The states can also make laws along with the centre (provided the two do not clash), on subjects included in a "Concurrent List." These subjects include: criminal laws and their administration; economic and social planning; commercial and industrial monopolies; shipping and navigation on the inland waterways; drugs; ports (limited); courts and civil procedures. The arrangement for distribution of powers between the Union and the states has remained generally stable.28

One of the controversial aspects of centre-state relations has been the allocation of economic resources by the Union to the states. Such allocation is carried out by the Planning Commission in the area of developmental expenditure and has led to complaint by the states that the resources provided are inadequate. The states also have their own power to raise revenues. The "Gadgil Plan," regarding financial relations between the Union and the states, was not acceptable to the Sarkaria Commission, which was appointed to review the whole gamut of centre-state relations in view of the state's growing unhappiness in this regard. The Commission reported in 1988, but successive Finance Commissions have gradually enlarged the scope of devolution of taxes to the states. (These later Commissions were appointed under articles 280-1 of the Constitution to decide the distribution of taxes between the Union and the states as well as grants-in-aid to the states out of the Consolidated Fund of India.) The Eighth Finance Commission raised the level of such tax revenues in favour of the states from 55 to 85 per cent.29

Such an elaborate structure of power devolution has combined with the linguistic basis of federal unity to facilitate the management of cultural diversity in India and help mitigate pulls toward separatism and disintegration. Centre-state relations, whether based on ethnicity or otherwise, have not been peaceful or tension-free, but the competition has tended to focus on securing resources and greater power. States of diverse languages and cultures have often joined together to enhance their bargaining power. In some cases the Indian federal structure even provides for such bargaining through bodies such as the Inter-State and National Development Councils. Examples of bargaining coalitions include that of four Southern Chief Ministers joining in 1983 to negotiate with the centre. Similarly, in 1987 a conclave of nine opposition parties held near Delhi under the leadership of the Andhra Telugu Desham leader, N.T. Rama Rao, demanded the restoration of "co-operative federalism enshrined in the Constitution."30

In 1992, the Sikkim Chief Minister and his regional party, the Sikkim Sangram Parishad, asked for membership in the North-East Council (of NorthEast States and Tribal Areas) for this same purpose.31 Some scholars have described the federal system in India as one of "coalition and administration," or one with a "high degree of collaborative partnership."32 In addition, both at the central and state levels, a consciously followed approach to preserve and promote the cultural specificities of diverse groups has helped such groups identify with the national mainstream.33 All this has contributed to the secularization of ethnicity and has thus helped strengthen integrative forces.

It is interesting to note that most of the ethnic conflicts are between one given ethnic group and the Union of India, as if there were no ethnic contradictions and incompatibilities between individual groups. As noted earlier, the issues involved in such conflicts are invariably mixed with questions of sharing economic resources and decision-making power.

The functioning of federalism has nevertheless also had undesirable implications for the ethnic scene in India. The linguistic reorganization of the states gave impetus to various groups of specific cultural markers and ethnic identities to seek political expression and legitimacy. This was because ethnic identity was provided a territory under the scheme of reorganization. The importance of ethnic territory in ethnic conflict is very crucial, as can be gathered from recent developments in the Punjab and Kashmir and earlier events in Assam. In the Punjab and Kashmir conflicts, along with the transformation of identities and issues, the territorial base of ethnicity is being perfected by driving out Punjabi-speaking Hindus from the Punjab and Kashmiri-speaking Hindus from Kashmir. The potential for conflict formation along ethnic identity lines has thus been encouraged.

This potential has been further sharpened because linguistic reorganization in a vast and diverse country like India cannot be perfectly precise. On the periphery of the newly formed linguistic states, unassimilated linguistic minorities continued to exist. Then many other linguistic groups continued to remain in the larger Hindi-speaking states without being accommodated in the new political arrangement. The dissatisfactions of some of the unrecognized minority linguistic groups also continue to simmer. Such problems exist with regard to the Konkan region of Maharasthra/Goa, Nepali-speaking groups of Darjeeling, Sikkim, and Assam, and Maithili and Avadhi language groups in Bihar.

The possibility of political movements and conflict formation arising out of these problems cannot be ruled out. There are already several political parties which are ethnicity-based, and they will very willingly build their strength by exploiting the linguistic frustrations of their constituencies. The Sarkaria Commission (1988) clearly hinted at weaknesses of the linguistic reorganization of states in this respect when it said:

Very often, the sub-national sentiment which is initially based on linguistic, religious or ethnic groupings, gains strength with a blend of economic issues, such as those relating to... economic backwardness. One of the most significant developments has been the rise of linguistic chauvinism, rearrangement of the boundaries of the States on linguistic basis... resulting in fissiparous tendencies.34

In a very significant way, federalism has fuelled ethnic conflict through the use of the Union's special provisions over the states. The use of article 356, which provides for imposition of presidential rule in a state in the "event of the failure of constitutional machinery," has been the subject of considerable controversy and debate in this regard. Political use of this provision has been extensive, particularly by the Congress-ruled centre. It can be employed to dismiss the state government of an opposition party or to manipulate political advantages for a ruling party or a particularly favoured political leader. In such manipulative machinations, the centre-appointed governor has played a decisive role, bringing the status and integrity of the governorship into considerable disrepute. The victimized party and leaders have sought to project this abuse of power as an instance of suppression of the political rights of the dominant ethnic group in the given state.

This has been an important factor behind the alienation of the Punjab, Kashmir, and Assam.35 Nagaland, where presidential rule was imposed in April 1992, is a recent example of the alleged misuse of article 356. In reaction, Nagaland's Chief Minister Vamuzo, who was ousted, said:

The 'imperial character' of the Delhi government has manifested itself in its most perverted and brutal forms in the north-eastern states. The latest act of perfidy by the Congress government has come at a time when, with the knowledge and approval of Delhi, I was engaged in an effort to persuade the underground insurgents in Nagaland to give up arms and join the political process. Obviously, such efforts were not to the liking of certain sections of the political leadership in the state who have a vested interest in a violent underground movement...

Let me, however, sound a note of warning. The entire North-East is in a state of turmoil. Frustration because of unemployment is driving the educated youth of this region to desperation. The sense of alienation due to the overbearing presence of the army is being compounded by the lack of opportunity. And the denial to the people of their right to govern themselves in accordance with the Constitution is creating situations that will ultimately convince the people of the entire North-East, from Arunachal to Mizoram, that they have no hope of a life of peace and dignity under the present dispensation. 36

While the abuse of some constitutional provisions by the centre against the states has tended to alienate the states-based ethnic leadership, the creation and use of other specific provisions at the local level by the army, state governments, or police have resulted in distancing the common people from the Union. (Such provisions include the Disturbed Areas Act, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 for the Eastern region and of 1983 for Punjab and Chandigarh, and the act relating to "Terrorist Affected Disturbed Areas.") As a consequence of their application, the social bases of ethnic conflicts have widened and deepened. The Sarkaria Commission blamed those in charge of the centre for this misuse and centralization of power in the Union, saying:

Those in power at the centre, have been obliged to use diverse strategies and tactics which were not always sound from [a] long-term [point of view] to maintain their control over state level forces. Many a time, the actions of the centre, its discriminatory approach towards some states, its lack of understanding of local problems, its abject insensitiveness (sic) and the blatant misuse of authority vis-Ó-vis the states, have all distanced it from the people. This in turn has, it is believed, reversed the process of national integration...37

Based on federal experience in India, it may not be out of place to assume that the structure of federalism and its inherent resilience can cope with the pressures of ethnicity and conflicts. It can even help resolve, or at least contain, some of these pressures, if the imperatives of federal devolution of power and obligations of mutual accommodation and adjustments are observed sincerely. The diffusion of Tamil militancy and separatism during the 1960s and instances of moderation of tribal insurgencies in the North-East and Assam during the 1980s may be recalled in this regard. Against this, politically motivated distortions and manipulation of federal powers and institutions can worsen ethnic conflicts.

Punjab and Kashmir are painful illustrations of this. In the case of Punjab, if the political expediency of appeasing Haryana had not hamstrung the centre (irrespective of the party in power), the Rajiv-Longowal Agreement of 1985 would have been implemented to ease the conflict there, if not completely resolve it. The statement of the dismissed Nagaland Chief Minister Vamuzo cited earlier is also relevant here.

In an important way, federal relations have been vitiated by the breakdown of the Congress Party's dominance of the centre and the states since the 1960s and the emergence of political incompatibility and competition between the party ruling at the centre and in the various states. As these incompatibilities have grown, demands for redefining and restructuring these relations have been most pronounced, because the forum consisting of a single party in power everywhere could not be utilized to sort out federal tensions.

Reacting to distortions in federal relations and the abuse of powers devolved under the constitutional arrangement, some scholars have called for restructuring Indian federalism.38 That may be neither practical nor offer a real panacea, because the structure so redefined may also be misused or manipulated for political purposes. The remedy lies in the evolution and strict observance of healthy guidelines and norms in the operational aspects of federalism, which have to become a reliable instrument for containing, moderating, and resolving ethnic conflicts.

Democratic politics

Dual impulses of ethnic integration and disintegration have been released by the democratic politics of India. Democracy as an ideology and system of governance centres around the individual; hence, it underplays the ethnic specificity and group feeling of individuals. It also prescribes and permits the pursuance of multiple interests by individuals, who accordingly associate in interest groups that cut across ethnic identities.39

Indian experience confirms this theoretical assumption. Adult franchise and Panchayati Raj institutions in India have brought people together to communicate and interact. This has given them a sense of sharing and access to decision-making power, however ineffective and fragile this access may be. Communication and consciousness of individual rights have bound them together in non-ethnic ties and prevented the state from acquiring a specific ethnic character or bias. Seth, in discussing the problems of ethnic movements and the role of the state in pluralistic societies, holds that:

The forces generated by democratic politics prevent the state from choosing a single cultural identity, even majoritarian, [as] the basis of nationhood.

Thus, the project of nation-building in a democratic polity becomes inseparable from building a civil society...40

Such "civil societies" do not host ethnic conflicts or movements in any negative sense of the term. Democracy is helpful in averting ethnic precipitation in other ways, too. Freedom of expression and powerful, sensitive national media not only promote a broader national consensus but also alert and forewarn the state and society when ethnic distortions and conflict formations become imminent.

There is, however, another side to democratic politics in India. Though democratic ideology focuses on the individual, political mobilization (electoral and otherwise) in a highly stratified, diverse, and clustered society like India, it has also taken place on a group basis. Accordingly, caste blocs have acted as basic and lasting "vote banks" in democratic elections.41 To some extent, the British legacy can be blamed for the communalization of Indian politics, because concepts like "communal representation" were introduced during the British period. But then, in independent India the reservation of elected seats and constituencies for specific caste groups (Schedule Castes and Tribes), though based on strong commitment to social justice and change, has been a persistent endorsement of politics based on social divisions. Political polarization on the Mandal Commission implementation and reservations for the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) were an outcome of this legacy. The political tallying of lower castes and ethnic loyalties has tended to encourage the upper castes and Hindu backlash emerging in the form of Hindutva politics.

The root cause of the growing recourse to caste and ethnic mobilization in India's democratic politics has been the erosion of ideology and viable socioeconomic programmes around which electoral and political mobilization ought to take place. This erosion became prominent in the mid-1960s, when even the Congress Party started feeling insecure about its capacity to maintain its dominance. Mobilization along communal, caste, religious, regional, and tribal lines sought to fill in the ideological vacuum. There followed a rise, both in number and political clout, of ethnic and region-based parties.42

The imperatives of federalism in India, particularly with linguistic states as a vital political category, have encouraged and strengthened regional parties.43 This has given impetus to the activation of ethnic identities and has contributed to the process of conflict formation along ethnic lines. There has also been a positive aspect, in the sense that no ethnic or regional party is capable of assuming power at the centre on its own. Parties have therefore endeavoured to form alliances and coalitions with national parties to evolve alternative and competing structures of power. Experiments like the Samyukt Vidhayak Dal of the 1960s, the Janata Party of the 1970s, and the National Front since the 1980s are examples. These experiments have tended to broaden and facilitate national consensus rather than hinder it.

The more dangerous aspect of India's emerging democratic politics has been political parties' ruthless and cynical use of communal and ethnic contradictions for short-term, narrow political gains. Monsters of ethnic separatism and conflict were created or encouraged out of such expediency. A typical example was the building up of San Bhindrawale by the Congress (particularly Mrs Indira Gandhi and her Sikh associates like Zail Singh and Buta Singh) to contain Akali challenges in the Punjab.44 The encouragement of Subhas Ghiesing of the Gurkha National Liberation Front in Darjeeling to weaken the CPM's hold over West Bengal falls into the same category.45 While Bhindrawale's shadow looms large on the Punjab ethnic conflict, Ghiesing threatens to provoke a Nepali ethnic explosion.

It is not only the Congress Party which has indulged in opportunistic political endeavours at the cost of national unity and ethnic peace. Unfortunately, other parties have not lagged behind. The Janata Dal's projection of the Mandal issue and the BHP's exploitation of the Ayodhya temple-mosque controversy may be recalled in this respect.

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