Conflict and Peace in Multhiethnic Settings

Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in IndiaDecisive factors for ethnic conflict and peace
Both texts attempt to reveal the underlying reasons for ethnic conflict and peace in various regions, or cities, within the same state. While Varshney finds the explanatory variable in the civic society networks (associational as well as everyday forms of engagement), Katunarić and Banovac observe that whether an area becomes conflict ridden or a “peace enclave / cradle” is, on the one hand, a matter of tradition (or “peace culture”), but on the other hand, a matter of good luck.
However, Varshney himself admits that his “argument ... would be more applicable to riots than to pogroms or civil wars. A theory of civil wars or pogroms would have to be analytically distinguished from one that deals with the more common form of ethnic violence: riots.” (p. 11) Also, he explains there is a difference between a village, where informal engagement is sufficient for keeping peace, and a city, whose anonymity requires the existence of intercomunal associational forms of engagement. (p. 10) In addition, he points out that the existence of civic society and intercommunal networks is conditioned by Gandhi’s “mass politics that emerged in the 1920s all over India”. (p. 18)

Ethnic groups
Varshney defines them in a broader sense – based on race, language, religion, tribe, or caste. Ethnic conflicts in that sense cover religious, racial, linguistic, and sectarian conflicts. Furthermore, he distinguishes so called ranked and unranked ethnic systems, where the former merges ethnicity and class. (p. 4-5)

Ethnic conflict 
Varshney points out that a distinction needs to be made between ethnic violence and ethnic conflict, as “ethnic conflicts are a regular feature of ethnically plural democracies, for if different ethnic groups exist and the freedom to organize is available, there are likely to be conflicts over resources, identity, patronage, and policies.” (p. 25) Therefore, he argues that ethnic violence should be “visualized as an absence of violence, not as an absence of conflict.” (p. 25) He maintains that “[e]thnic conflicts, although grounded in ascriptive group identities, are not always about identities”, and “when they are about resources, bargains are possible”. (p. 26)

Inadequate theories of ethnic conflict 
Varshney analyses the existing traditions of inquiry into ethnic conflicts and explains why they are inadequate, and unable to explain interregional differences in ethnic violence.
  • Essentialism (or Primordialism – Katunarić and Banovac) 
The basic tenet is that “ethnic conflicts today can be traced back to older animosities between groups”. (Varshney p. 27) Differences of race, religion, or culture – i.e. ethnicity – are inherent in human beings. Essentialism does not explain the differences between regions and even time periods regarding ethnic violence and peace.
  • Instrumentalism 
It presumes “the purely instrumental use of ethnic identity for political or economic purposes by the elite”. (p. 27) Elites may choose to create cleavages at one place and keep peace at another. However, this “conception of ethnicity cannot explain why ethnic identities are mobilized by leaders at all.” (p. 30) If ethnicity is purely instrumental, why would it be worth dying for?
  • Constructivism (and Postmodernism) 
The uniting idea for these two approaches is “[t]hat the formation of ethnic or national identities is a modern phenomenon”, because “identities in pre-modern times tended to be face-to-face and operated on a small scale. Ordinary people rarely interacted beyond their local environments.” With modernity, identities and communities became wider and more institutionalized. (p. 31)
While postmodernists believe that any knowledge or narrative (and group categories as well) is constructed under the influence of powerful elites, unpostmodern constructivists think that it is not a one-way process and sometimes categories and narratives have to be constructed to fit the existing realities better. “The real issue is not what happened but how it was used, or fictitiously produced, given the availability of a narrative of antagonism. It is impossible, say postmodernists, to establish the truth about what happened, about the cause and effect, in ethnic conflict and violence.” On the other hand, “[u]npostmodern constructivists do not believe that facts are impossible to establish or that the insertion of trivial incidents into available prisms of interpretation in many situations is not enough to suggest that it can be done everywhere and at all times. Whether facts can be established is an empirical question, not a theoretical one.” (p. 33)
  • Institutionalism 
The central idea is that “there are clearly identifiable connections between ethnic conflict and peace, on the one hand, and political institutions, on the other.” (p. 35) However, it cannot explain variations within a country where the functioning system is the same.

Varshney reproaches all these theories because “although in principle these traditions would distinguish between ethnic identity and ethnic violence, in practice they often do not.” (p. 38)
  • Modernisation theory 
Katunarić and Banovac mention this theory, “with the subsets of developmental, constructionist, instrumental, situationist, and similar theories”. Ethnic conflicts and violence are explained as “products of the transformation of a predominantly agrarian community into an industrial community”. (p. 182) A variant of this theory is “the ethnic competition model”, “which explains the likelihood of conflicts as a consequence of equal opportunities provided by modernization. (p. 182-3)

Theories of ethnic peace 
  • The holistic peace and the peace culture model 
Peace (or conflict) is considered to be a part of certain cultures – thus reminding of primordialism.
  • The ethnic conflict resolution 
Basic tenets of this model are: community relations, principled negotiation, human needs, projected identity, cultural miscommunications, and conflict transformation.

Civil society 
Varshney questions Gellner’s view that “[c]ivil society ... is not only modern but also based on strictly voluntary, not ethnic or religious, associations between the family and the state.” (p. 42) He demonstrates that ethnic associations can also fulfil “modern” functions, and that even informal associations can do that, especially in the developing world. (p. 44)
What plays an important role in ethnic conflict and peace is 1) prior and sustained contact between members of different communities, and 2) associational as well as everyday integration. (p. 46-47)

Peace enclaves/cradles vs conflict areas 
Katunarić and Banovac conclude that (p. 194-197) their research did not prove the modernization theory. Their findings showed the following differences:
  1. peace enclaves/cradles enjoyed greater political autonomy from the national centres and, which enabled them to better manage their interests and local policies. 
  2. in peace enclaves/cradles, “the political power and local administrations closely co-operated with civil society, such as informal networks, initiatives and opinion ..., in their common effort to preserve peace.” 
  3. in peace enclaves/cradles, the participation of actors belonging to different ethnic groups in shared institutions was greater. 
  4. “[a]ctors in the conflict areas are more likely to express primordial assumptions” 
  5. “[a]ctors in the conflict area see others as specific, i.e., ... as culturally different from the group they belong” 
  6. “[a]ctors in the peace enclaves/cradles are more prone to seeing others ... as basically similar to their own group”

My comments 
It seems to me that this search for explanations of ethnic violence or conflict always arrives at the same conclusion: it is a matter of chance. Be it in former Yugoslavia, where some areas remained spared by the fighting parties, or in India, where civil society in some cities received better foundations at the beginning of the 20th century than in others. Furthermore, luck is also associated with particular personalities. Varshney mentions that riots do not find a fertile ground where politics is not connected with criminals. Admittedly, it can be a system matter, but I believe that individuals play an important role. On the other hands, as Katunarić and Banovac observe, such personalities might easily be removed if the powerful elites (i.e. warlords) wish to. Still, if they manage to persists, they might carry out a great deal – by keeping things from getting worse, at the very least – as was the case of the journalists in Sarajevo.

Referred texts

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