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Lecture Series on Roots of Sectarian Conflict

Publisher: Cambridge University Press (June, 1991)

Publisher: Cambridge University Press (June, 1991)

New York: March 7, 2002

Atul Kohli Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University

Lecture is followed by question and answer session.

Robert Radtke
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. First of all let me introduce myself. My name is Robert Radtke. I am Vice President of Policy and Business Programs here at the Asia Society and it’s my pleasure to welcome you here tonight for the fifth and final lecture in a series entitled “Roots of Sectarian Conflict.” This is a series of programs the Asia Society cosponsored with The Center of Religious Inquiry of St. Bartholomew’s Church and we started on September 10, as it would have it, with Senator George Mitchell talking about the peace process in Northern Ireland, Dennis Ross who then spoke about the Middle East, and we have been honored to have three speakers here at the Asia Society focusing first on Indonesia with Sidney Jones, and Sri Lanka last week with E. Valentine Daniel. Tonight we are lucky to have Atul Kohli who will be speaking about India. Now without further ado, let me welcome Mr. Farooq Kathwari to the podium who will introduce tonight’s speaker. Thank you very much.

Farooq Kathwari
Good evening. I am very pleased to welcome all of you here on behalf of Asia Society and the Center for Religious Inquiry at St. Bartholomew’s Church. The subject of today’s discussion is that ethnic and communal violence in India is extremely important and relevant today. The communal violence in the Gujurat zstate of India last week raises many issues. We have recently had insightful articles and commentaries published in The New York Times on this subject. On February 25, 2002 Pankaj Mishra’s op-ed entitled, “Hinduism’s Political Resurgence” and March 6, 2002, Shashi Tharoor’s article entitled, “India’s Past Becomes a Weapon,” are very relevant for our discussion today.

Now we are very pleased today to have Professor Atul Kohli who has a distinguished background. Currently a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, he is the author of The State of Poverty in India and Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability and the editor of five volumes, The State and Development in the Third World, India’s Democracy, State Power and Social Forces: Domination and Transformation in the Third World, Community Conflict and the State in India, and The Success of India’s Democracy. His current research project is a comparative analysis of the politics of industrialization in South Korea, Brazil, India, and Nigeria. He is the editor of World Politics and has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Social Science Research Council, Ford Foundation, and Russell Sage Foundation. He received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. And before I welcome Professor Kohli, I will briefly like to give you the format of our program today. Professor Kohli will be talking for about 30 minutes and at that time we will open up for questions and his comments. Please welcome Professor Kohli.

Atul Kohli
Thank you very much. In the 30 or 35 minutes I will talk, I will focus on the two most recent instances of ethnic and communal violence in India that have dominated the news media, that is to say Kashmir and the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Gujarat. I will situate these conflictual situations in the broader political and historical contexts and suggest some general implications. Since the time is limited, many details and some nuances will get ignored in the main presentation, I will be happy to address related concerns in the question and answer period. Let me begin by making four general observations about ethnic and communal violence in India that in a sense are the main message of the talk. After that, I will talk more specifically about Kashmir and Gujarat and then conclude again with some general observations.

The first general observation--creating a functioning democracy in a setting of a poor multicultural democracy is a very difficult task, which very few countries have succeeded. For the most part, India has done an amazingly good job. Unfortunately, the Hindu-Muslim cleavage has proven to be fairly difficult to tackle even in India’s considerably successful democracy. The current tensions have to be viewed within this broader perspective. The second general point, while some instances of ethnic and communal violence in India are produced by, let’s call them “crazed fanatical true believers”, for the most part, conflict and violence is planned, purposive, and more often than not, violence is aimed at achieving political objectives. The third general point, the main political goal that ethnic and communal violence seeks to achieve is power and, of course, resources that come with power in a place like India.

The reason that the normal urge for greater power by groups and individuals turns violent is because political institutions don’t always work the way they are supposed to work. Thus, for example, sometimes people lose faith in the integrity of elections and take to streets. Or because political parties are weak, leaders seek to create quick majority coalitions by mobilizing around a motive and even explosive issues. Or because the police force does not work very well, mobilized groups kill each other and the state is unable to mediate and deal with the forces it has unleashed itself. The last general comment has to do with the prospects of conflict resolution. If the roots of the ethnic and communal violence in India are mainly political, they are also amenable to political solutions. Once conflict is at its advanced stage, resolution generally requires some combination of repression and accommodation. Repression requires the capacity by the government, especially in a democratic government, to exercise legitimate coercion, and accommodation in turn requires democratic sensibilities, especially among the top elite. Fortunately, India has both of these political resources. And thus, at least in principal, it ought to be possible to resolve most ethnic conflicts in India. Those are the four general points. Now let me focus much more specifically on what has been in the news lately, namely the conflicts of Kashmir and Gujarat in that order and then I will come back in the conclusion to address some general points.

First the problems in Kashmir. Kashmir is back in the headlines because of the developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But, of course, the conflict involving Muslim separatists of Kashmir and the Indian government is now more than a decade old. It is a very sad situation. The number of people killed is hard to determine but fair estimates suggest that nearly 50,000 may have died over the last 10-12 years and there is no early end in sight. Basic details of the conflict are probably known to all of you. In my comments on the situation, I also want to avoid getting too involved in who has the moral high ground in this conflict. In my assessment of the situation, this is a conflict without heroes. Indian government, Pakistani government, and Kashmir militants have all played nasty tricks with grave human consequences. Even outsiders like the United States and China have not always been very helpful.

The solution to conflict will come not from who is more right or wrong, but mainly at this stage from realpolitik considerations, whether you like it or not. I may not like it either, but that is what is going to happen. The sooner all the parties of the conflict recognize this, the sooner human suffering can be brought to an end. I will return to this point as I finish my remarks on Kashmir. Very briefly, the analysis of conflict as I see it. Kashmir, as most of you know, is India’s northern most state with the population of some 12 million people, about 60 percent Muslim. Muslims are concentrated in the valley around Srinagar as you can see on the map, Hindus are concentrated in the south around Jammu, and the Buddhists of Ladakh in the east in the mountains. While one can trace the origins of the conflict back to the creation of India and Pakistan, and media often does it, the fact is between 1950 and the mid 1980s, that is to say for as many as 35 years, there was very little militancy to speak of. Sheikh Abdullah, the old ruler of Kashmir, and the Nehru Gandhi family struck a working arrangement that underlined the old Kashmiri culture of Muslim elites and Hindu Pandit elites rather well. This gave Kashmiris considerable autonomy within the Indian federation and a sense to Kashmiri people, especially Muslims, that they were ruled by their own leaders. All this changed over the 1980s, and this is critical to understand why things have gone so out of control in the 1990s and today.