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Colonialism and Patterns of Ethnic Conflict in Contemporary India Open Access

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Why does ethnic violence in multi-ethnic states revolve around one ethnic identity rather than another? Why, for example, do some conflicts revolve around religion whereas others revolve around language? What, in short, explains patterns of ethnic conflict in multi-ethnic societies? This is an important question for understanding ethnic bloodshed in a variety of plural states in Europe, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. I examine these questions through an investigation of India, one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Using a mixed-methods research design that combines a quantitative analysis of 589 Indian districts with 15 months of archival work and elite interviews conducted in six case studies, I argue that the legacies of British colonial rule are the major determinant of contemporary patterns of ethnic conflict. Three-fifths of India was directly-ruled by British administrators (British provinces) while the rest of the country remained under the control of native kings who exercised large amounts of internal autonomy (princely states). In the provinces, British administrators understood caste as the central organizing principle of Indian society, and they created ethnic policies which benefited high castes, discriminated against low castes and tribals, and protected religious minorities. Native kings, on the other hand, did the opposite: they emphasized religion as the bedrock of princely society, and therefore embraced policies that benefited co-religionists, discriminated against non-coreligionists, and protected low castes and tribals. These sharply discordant policies led to the creation of disparate and durable 'fault lines' of ethnic conflict: former British provinces experience more contemporary caste and tribal conflict whereas former princely states experience more religious conflict. Bifurcated colonial rule in India embedded master narratives of conflict in specific regions, reinforced them through local institutions, and ultimately engendered commonsensical understandings of how ethnic conflict is legitimately organized. Furthermore, because the new Indian government failed to reform many of the vestiges of its colonial past, the transition to independence in the mid-20th century did not disrupt these patterns of violence. Most of the ethnic conflicts which plague the country today are therefore best understood as legacies of colonialism. This system of bifurcated rule in India became a model for later British colonial expansion into parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, and this project therefore has major implications for understanding the historical roots of ethnic conflict in a number of multi-ethnic states around the world.

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