Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Watching Ethnic Politics and Social Unrest Unfold in India

From the aftermath of the Arab Spring across the Middle East and presidential elections in the United States to the effects of economic crisis on democracies in Europe, no one can claim that 2012 has been an uninteresting year for students of democratic politics. India’s story has been equally interesting, albeit in a rather ominous way. Earlier this year, parts of a northeastern state in India called Assam erupted in violence, with Muslim villagers clashing with Bodo tribes, who happen to be Hindu, Christian and animist. The Bodo tribes argue that too many of the Muslim villagers are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants taking away local jobs and resources, while Muslim villagers blame the Bodo for discriminating against Muslims, and for seeking to marginalize them. What started as isolated violence quickly ballooned into large-scale mayhem.

One of the many disturbing images of violence in Assam making the internet rounds
While the Indian government has sought to clamp down on the violence, ethnic tensions have flared up elsewhere in the country. More disturbingly, a variety of political actors around the country have sought to capitalize on fear for various strategic reasons – such as recruitment, political power, and monetary support. In a preliminary report, India’s cyber-security agency blamed a group called the Popular Front of India (PFI) of fomenting mass panic in the city of Bangalore in South India. The PFI is a Muslim organization that purports to speak for oppressed minorities (they officially advocate for the rights of all minorities and not just Muslims) in India. The cybersecurity agency claims that the PFI sent bulk SMSs to Indians of Northeastern descent living in Bangalore, warning them that Muslims would seek revenge on them for the ethnic violence in Assam if they did not leave Bangalore. The result was mass panic, as approximately 30,000 northeasterners in Bangalore tried to leave the city at the same time.

The city of Mumbai has been another epicenter of unrest, as a rally protesting the unrest in Assam organized by local Muslim leaders also turned violent, resulting in two deaths and almost 60 injured, the majority of whom were policemen trying to contain the crowd.

Azad Maidan Riots in Mumbai, August 2012; Source: Indian Express
Since the violence, powerful Hindu groups in Mumbai have been organizing their own rallies and used it to criticize the government, Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, immigrants from other parts of the country, and anyone else that rouses the crowd. Implicit amongst the criticisms is the idea that Muslims are to blame for the violence. 

Ethnic politics is not a new phenomenon, both here and elsewhere. But what is especially interesting to me is the role ethnic politics plays in India. On the one hand, eminent scholars like Christophe Jaffrelot see a silver lining – that the rise of ethnic parties in India has made India’s democracy more inclusive by enfranchising lower class and caste voters in India. On the other hand, many have lamented the fact that the use of this kind of politics to gain votes and power will lead to greater societal fragmentation in the future. The argument is that as people become used to supporting only the group they identify with, India's politics will become increasingly antagonistic.

One might argue all aforementioned groups have benefited from the current bout of unrest. The PFI gets to say to Muslims everywhere (especially to their potential recruits and donors) that the PFI has been right all along – Muslims are indeed at risk in India. The Shiv Sena and MNS (the powerful Hindu groups in Mumbai, Maharashtra) get to say the same thing to Hindus – that they have a legitimate reason to be afraid, especially from immigrants and Muslims. Even the ruling government in Delhi has someone to blame – as usual, they blame Pakistan for fomenting unrest in India. Indeed, ethnic unrest is quite lucrative.

Perhaps one could argue that ethnic politics follows the law of diminishing marginal returns. That is to say, that a small amount of ethnic politics is beneficial - it allows for previously oppressed groups to have a say and reap the benefits of democracy. However, there comes a critical point, beyond which further ethnic politicization has in fact a detrimental effect on society. Watching social unrest unfold in India, I am certainly intrigued by the potential accuracy of such an argument.

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