Ethnic Conflicts in South Asia: Cases of India And Sri Lanka

- P.R. Rajeswari


The phenomenon of ethnicity is an intrinsic component of the socio-political realities of multi-ethnic states in South Asia as well as in other parts of the world. Today, ethnicisation of politics and politicisation of ethnic communities have become very common and have diffused mutual tolerence, and have thus sharpened ethnic consciousness among various communities. At this juncture, the processes of socio-economic change, the ethnic dimensions of the power structure, and the policies, strategies as well as tactics adopted by various governments in response to the urges and aspirations of different ethnic groups provide a ground for a clear understanding of ethnicity, ethnic conflict and their dimensions.

The concept of ethnicity has also become a critical variable in the formation and reformation of states. Some scholars have argued that even the partition of colonial India into the two new states of India and Pakistan had its roots in the ethnic distinctiveness of the two nations.

What followed much after in the form of the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 signified yet another step in the furtherance of this ethnic secessionist movement. On the whole, the South Asian region had been experiencing ethnic conflicts of different magnitude.

A study on ethnic conflicts in South Asia would necessitate one to clarify certain basic concepts like ethnicity, ethnic conflicts and race. The word "ethnic" (adjective of ethnicity) has come into widespread usage in its modern sense only in the post-World War II period. The word "ethnic" has been derived from the Greek word "ethnos"1 and has been used differently by different scholars. Still, most of the scholars defined ethnicity taking a hint from the definition "groups in an exotic primitive culture".2

Connected to ethnicity, one always comes across another term—ethnic conflict. Ethnic conflict, in the recent years, has become the most collective form of collective violence in the world. It means violent conflict among groups who differ from one another on the basis of their religion, culture, physical features or language. There are also non-violent conflicts today, but which may turn into open conflicts and violence.

Many a time, an ethnic group is mistaken with race, but an ethnic group is much like race, without biology. Racism has a cultural element in it, since it is a socially constructed phenomenon; otherwise it is a combination of ideology and practice based on biological differences. But the concept of ethnicity is more explicitly cultural in character.

Historical Overview

Ethnic dissonance has its roots in the policies that had been pursued since the colonial and post-colonial days. During the colonial period, the empire-building was based on the imperative that required trans-border placement of ethnic groups. Even the geo-political map was drawn in a manner that left ethnic groups on both sides of the borders. This explained why internal ethnic turmoil crossed the border and acquired an international dimension. Ultimately what really happened was that the ill-perceived priorities and misdirected policies that suited the ruling elites made ethnic communities marginalised and politicised, and they reacted with demands ranging from share of resources, power and even territory, and hence virtual separation. Once such movements took shape, it was the state that was vulnerable.

Until the advent of Western powers, the migrants as well as invaders seemed to enrich the cultural diversities and get integrated into the age old civilisation of the Indian subcontinent. This old subcontinental civilisation thrust was not statist but encompassed within its fold the Kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan in the north, and Sri Lanka in the south. The unifying thread was its hierarchically structured social system along with a moral code and, at the same time, preserving plural identities therein. In the due course of time, these pluralities did acquire their own specificities and ethnic identities but without subverting from the core of the system. The Western colonial era (particularly the British) was more penetrative and intrusive in nature not only in terms of institutional structures but also of ideas and ideologies. The impact of such intrusion was more severe in British India and colonial Sri Lanka and even in these areas, the pattern of intervention varied. Such divergence in the colonial administration and intrusion was due to the imperial imperatives of political governance, economic exploitation and strategic dominance. Consequently, if the strategy of coping with multi-ethnic India was that of divide et impera, in the Sri Lankan context, it was through the cooption of the elites of both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities.3 These strategies, to a great extent, influenced the nationalist movements. The Indian nationalist movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi was more strident than the Constitution-oriented moderate ethos of the nationalist movement in Sri Lanka. While the Tamil-Sinhalese interaction during the colonial era was at best competitive, in India, Muslim-Hindu separatism and the Muslim affirmation under the leadership of Jinnah culminated in the partition of colonial India into the two new states of India and Pakistan.

Intertwined to this historical past was the ethnic mosaic of the South Asian states. The least populated state of Maldives had the maximum ethnic homogeneity and the most populated state of India had the maximum hetrogeneity. However, population was not what counted in the case of ethnicity, because the next populated state, Bangladesh, had greater ethnic homogeneity, in relative terms. It was neither size nor status but the group distinctiveness or the subjective criterion which was the critical factor in ethnic group identification.

Case of India

India and Sri Lanka have largely been on the amplification of racial conflict. There has been no uniform pattern in the upsurge or the tension of the racial conflicts. They have, nonetheless, shown heightening of the conflagration from time to time. India has been a case of composite culture, while Sri Lanka has not been into that frame.

First, one should analyse the fusion of several social forces in the case of India. India largely represents through the millennium a case of the amalgamation of various cultures and civilisations. The Indian society has absorbed several socio-cultural aspects which have eventually become the mainstay of its civilisation.

India's social structure has been a unique blend of diverse religions, cultures and ethnic groups. Historically, India has been a hospitable land to numerous immigrants and invaders from distant parts of Europe and Asia. The cultural patterns of these alien settlers have, over the centuries, been interwoven with the native culture to produce India's glorious cultural heritage.

The uniqueness of India's social structure lies in its unity amidst diversity. The population of India is socially diverse, combining elements of six main social types, viz. the Nagrito, the Proto-Australoid, the Mongoloid, the Mediterranean, the Western Brachycephalis, and the Nordic.4 All the great religions of the world, viz., Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc., are found here. There are 15 major literary languages, besides numerous other languages and dialects. Diversity is seen between various communities and groups in the pattern of rural and urban settlements, community life, cultural and social behaviour as also in the institutional framework.

The caste system, a system of hierarchical social organisation that was evolved and practised almost from the beginning of the early civilisation, forms the basic foundation of India's pluralistic social structure. The importance of caste is often a mystery to Westerners, who confuse it with class divisions. It is quite unbelievable that men and women can be born into unalterable sections of society starting from the highest (Brahmin) to the lowest (Shudra). As per one's caste, one is assigned a duty, where a Brahmin is to teach and officiate as a priest, a Kshatriya to fight, a Vaishya to create wealth and a Shudra to till the soil. There is also the "Achhut", the untouchable, who carries out the necessary, but polluting tasks of society.

A multitude of castes and sub-castes are found in different parts of India, under different names, and different status. What is significant about the caste system is that castes are found not only among the Hindus who are more rigid in preserving and practising this system, but this system also exists to some extent among the Indian Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Jews. To look at an example, caste is important for Sikhs for certain purposes like marriage. There are four major categories : ex-untouchable (sometimes called Mazhabis); artisan castes (Ramgarhias or carpenters); clerical and commercial castes (Khatris, Aroras, etc.,); and Jats. And it is very seldom that Hindu Jats and Sikh Jats enter into marriage. In the classical Hindu scheme of things, Jats had a relatively low status, belonging either to the third or fourth rung of the great Varna system.5

Looking at the religious front, India, being a secular country, does not have any state religion. The state of India allows freedom of faith, worship and religion. The amazing diversity and plurality of India is reflected in the number of religions and faiths practised by the Indian people, some of which were born on this land, while others were brought in by the successive political and cultural invasions and assimilated by the people of this country. Among the major religions in India, Hinduism is the largest, followed by Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Zorastrianism.

The Hindus, i.e., the followers of Hinduism, account for over 80 per cent of India's total population. The various divisions within the religion like Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras have been assigned strictly compartmentalised functions. However, with the passage of time, the caste distinctions have become loose, and with the growing social awakening, the lower caste people, who had been looked down upon by those belonging to the higher castes, are getting their rightful place in Hindu society.

The Muslims, the followers of Islam, form the second largest religous community in India, accounting for over 11 per cent of the total population. Next to Islam, it is Christianity, comprising about two and a half per cent of India's population. Sikhism takes the next position with a little less than 2 per cent of India's population. The Jains form about half a per cent of India's population and Buddhists constitute less than three quarters of one per cent of India's population. The Parsees also form a very small element in the religious plurality of India.

Despite these numerous social, cultural, religious and racial diversities, India still remains a largely unified society.India is a political entity, every part of which is governed under the same Constitution. But one has to agree to the fact that in India, political parties appeal to caste interests, or Hindu emotions, or Muslim rights, or state loyalties, and these are the primary sources of caste violence, communal conflict and provincial insurrection. Politics is caught up in the violence of opposing factions by which they are shaped and through which they prosper. In that situation, democracy itself is a spur to violence. When societies are divided, democracy adds depth to the sense of division.

South Asian society is excessively plural, its divisions deep and jagged, its democracy corrupted by the distortion of its virtues.6 A good example is majority rule, a basic tenet of democratic government.

It is, nevertheless, important that the problem of ethnicity in the case of India should be understood in the context of its socio-cultural milieu. Political considerations, of late, have had their own way in ushering in the era of ethnic conflicts in the Indian subcontinent. One can reflect briefly on some of the problems which emerged in the past four decades.

In regard to India, it could also be said that it is the most populated state in the South Asian region (population 930 million). One of the leading ethnographers, Schermerhorn, identified ten ethnic minorities: Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Jains, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Anglo-Indians, Parsees and Chinese.7 However, he omits other categories like linguistic minorities. His justification for doing so is that there are far too many linguistic groups and because of their fractional nature, it is difficult to treat them on a societal basis.

Schermerhorn's assumption that only minority groups qualify for ethnic group status is not fully agreeable. Linguistic states cannot be a substitute for linguistic groups because not all members of a linguistic group reside therein. Besides this, the states and union territories in India have been formed not only on linguistic basis but also on the tribal criteria. In the states of the north-eastern region, the tribal population is in a majority, eg., Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh. Also, the idea of smallness does not hold ground. Studies by several other scholars on South Asian ethnicity prove that language is as critical an ethnic group maker as tribe and religion.

Thus, in the Indian context, one can see various tribal groups moving to the phase of ethnic community encompassing a number of tribes, e.g., Mizo, Naga or Meiti community. Similar is the process through various dialects among linguistic groups which form a number of ethnic communities e.g., Tamil, Telugu, Kannadiga, Nepali, Malayali, Bangali, Assamese. Yet another is the case of religious groups developing themselves into ethnically self-conscious communities, e.g., Muslims, Sikhs, Parsees. Some of them make their claim for a nation, others do not.

There have been several peace accords signed during these years. The Peace Accord in Assam in 1985, and the Bodo Accord, 1983, have taken care of the problem of the east. Although the north-east simmers with socio-political problems, it appears that the major problem of Assam regarding the issue of erstwhile Bangladeshis has been put to rest. It is essential to note that in such cases the problem is more social than political and vice-versa at the same time. This intermeshing of ethnic issues with politics as well as regional considerations has been commanding attention.

The sub-Himalayan region had experienced the issue of Gorkha identity. The displaced Nepali Gorkhas living for generations in the region demanded a separate Hill Council for attaining an autonomous status. It was, however, in the form of an Accord on Darjeeling in 1988 that peace returned to the region. It was followed subsequently by the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Act and thereafter its amendment in 1994 by which the matters were resolved.

The Twenty-Seventh Amendment Act of 1971 of the Indian Constitution brought about the Peace Accord in Mizoram. The accord conferred normalcy in the state. It was primarily meant to restore peace and normalcy in Mizoram and it was agreed within a time-frame, " take all necessary steps to end all underground activities, to bring out all underground personnel of MNF (Mizo National Front) with their arms, ammunition and equipment to ensure their return to civil life, to abjure violence and generally to help in the process of restoration of normalcy. The modalities of bringing out all underground personnel and depositing of all arms, ammunition and equipment will be as worked out. The implementation of the foregoing will be under the supervision of the Central government."8

The Shillong Accord of 1975 (November 11, 1975) and its Supplementary Agreement to the Shillong Accord (January 5, 1976) was also directed towards peace and normalcy between the Government of India and the underground Nagas. It was agreed that arms and underground activities against the security forces will come to an end.

On the other hand, the Peace Accord in Punjab, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, signed in August 1977 was of great importance, as Punjab had experienced violence and ethnic turbulence for quite some time. The Accord provided a temporary respite to the Government of India, its security forces and warring factions among Sikhs, who were asking for a separate state in Punjab. The Anandpur Sahib Resolution was adopted by the Shiromani Akali Dal, which emphasised "human co-existence, human progress and ultimate unity of all human beings with the Spritual Soul."9 The political objectives of the Accord were primarily meant to negotiate with the Government of India on the Akali position regarding Punjab. While it accepted that foreign policy matters were within the ambit of the central government, it almost insisted for autonomy of Punjab. It lashed out considerably at the discrimination against the Sikhs by the central or state government in any form or manner, so perceived by the Akalis. They emphasised their general policy towards self-assertion, gaining adequate concessions and proper safeguards for a life of self-respect and dignity. Besides this, the Akali Dal brought out an extensive programme towards making Punjab a predominantly Sikh state. They reflected on the centre-state relations; transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab; sharing of river waters; representation of minorities; and promotion of the Punjabi language.

The Punjab Accord was short-lived. Shiromani Akali Dal leader, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, fell victim to the terrorists. Nothing less than total independence of Punjab as a separate state would satisfy them. Punjab was soon engulfed in crisis with terrorist activities on the increase. Thereafter, it was a long turmoil between the different groups of terrorists among the Sikhs, the state governemnt and the central government. The unfortunate Operation Blue Star under the Prime Ministership of the late Indira Gandhi left deep scars on the psyche of the average Sikh in Punjab. This story, therefore, could not come to any conclusion.

The next development in the Indian polity took place in an agreement between the Indian government, the Chogyal and the political parties of Sikkim in 1973. This brought Sikkim into the Indian Union. Although Sikkim had not provided any significant resistance to the Government of India in any meaningful fashion, it nevertheless put India into a questionable position. India's desire to induct Sikkim into the Union provided a sense of alienation on the part of a few Sikkimese. However, this has not created any great stir, political or social, by which India could feel threatened.

A brief reference may also be made of the Memorandum of Settlement of 1988 between the Government of India and the tribals in Tripura. This was primarily meant to restore peace and harmony where disturbed conditions existed. The Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) through its letter dated May 4, 1988, agreed to resolve the problem through negotiations. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was accepted for resolving the TNV problem. The rehabilitation of the undergrounds, reservation of seats in the state Assembly for the tribals, and restoration of alienated lands to the tribals took place. The economic development of Tripura was also highlighted and this was given a further fillip through the Memorandum of Settlement of 1993 between the All Tripura Tribal Force (ATTF) and the Governor of Tripura. The same policy was followed regarding development plans and restoration of confidence among these tribals. There appeared to be normalcy getting back to the north-eastern region.

All these regional, linguistic and cultural factors, registering their variables from region to region, make India a highly heterogeneous ethnic social system. More often than not, the acrimony and hostility experienced either politically or socially are not necessarily based on rigid ethnic considerations. And yet, they may have occurred due to the adherence to ethnic identities. India's political experimentation has been on a unsteady path when it came to the question of communalism, casteism, and intra-religious factionalism. The state, as a system, could not always defend the cause of the aggrieved parties, either socially, politically or economically. The points of deprivation in either sphere have caused tension leading to a conflict from region to region.

This, in a nutshell, provides the ethnic acceptance as well as non-acceptance of India's socio-cultural and political-cum-economic system.

Case of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, like India, has been a multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-lingual country. The four major ethnic groups are Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Moors or Muslims. A fifth group, the Veddhas, numbering several thousands are descendants or the original inhabitants of the island.10 Their original culture has disappeared due to their contact with the Sinhalese and Tamils. The ethnic structure in Sri Lanka had dominantly been influenced by the processes of colonisation and conquests from the West and conversions from India in the north. The extent to which Sri Lanka's multi-ethnic configuration had been determined by its proximity to India and its distance from any other land is clear from the fact that 90 per cent of its population had Indian antecedents. Thus, this migration process had not only created the bulk of Sri Lanka's population, but also had provided a majority-minority component in its social structure, with the Sinhalese comprising 74 per cent of the population and the Tamils accounting for 18 per cent of the population.

A majority of the Sinhalese are Theravada Buddhist and the remainder are mostly Roman Catholics. The Sri Lankan Tamils are mostly Hindus and a small minority are Protestants and Roman Catholics. Modern Sri Lankan Tamil culture is a blend of Tamil and Sinhalese culture, with additional borrowing from other South Indian cultures such as that of Kerala.

Having said this much about various groups, now one should see the genesis of the crisis in a historical perspective. The roots of insurgency lie deep in the social, political, and economic situation at a given point of time. The insurrectionary movements took shape due to the existence of sharp divisions within the society owing to regional, ethnic, linguistic, religious and communal differences along with the issues of legitimacy and authority.

First of all, there was a controversy on the question of whether it was the Tamils or the Sinhalese who reached the island first. There have been different versions to this question. Hence, it became a pointer to the question of their civilisation heritage. The rivalry between the Tamils and Sinhalese on this issue persisted over decades and continued to have a significant bearing on the strife-ridden life of the island.

Needless to say that the island nation of Sri Lanka had been dominated by the Europeans for centuries, beginning with the Portuguese, French, Dutch and thereafter the British. During the foreign domination, British rule included, the Tamils were not discriminated against or treated as a minority groups of people. Historical accounts suggest that once the British left the island in 1948, the numerical superiority of the Sinhalese began dominating the racial scene in Sri Lanka. Cases of widespread discrimination and periodical violence against Tamils were reported. Soon followed the consequential events and happenings involving the rival Tamil groups. The Tamils began their "survival" programme with a demand for a separate state in 1976.

Thus, the current strife in Sri Lanka is a violent ethnic separatist conflict which mainly involves the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese. The Tamils seek political autonomy for the eastern and northern provinces as a Tamil homeland. This is vehemently opposed by the numerically and politically dominant Sinhalese population of the country.

Therefore, it appears that the issue has been the long felt economic and cultural grievance of a Sinhalese-Buddhist majority against an articulate Tamil minority, who as a minority had fared far too well under the British and had acquired a sound base after independence. While the distribution of wealth and employment create much of the grievances on both the sides, the problem of the role that cultural and religious symbolism plays within the Sri Lankan society and within the structure of the state constitutes sore points in their relations.

Under the colonial rule, relations between the Tamil and Sinhalese were relatively peaceful. It was in 1958 that the Tamil-Sinhalese resentment turned bloody as some Sinhalese rioted against Sri Lankan Tamils in the south. During the next two decades, the Sri Lankan economy began deteriorating and the unemployment rates also went up.

The political unrest within the Sinhalese community resulted in the creation of a leftist youth movement, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or People's Liberation Army, as a powerful political force. The leading terrorist group within the Tamil community has been the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The events that took place in Sri Lanka were quite contradictory. One side of the coin had been that of a parliamentary democracy engaged in periodic elections, and the other side of the coin had been violence, murder, torture, secessionist claims, revolutionary demands and state repression. Thus, despite a parallel history of constitutional parties, elections and Parliaments, the history of Sri Lanka continued to be a tale of murder, torture and destruction.11 As mentioned earlier, the first violent attack between the two communities occurred in 1958 and thereafter such attacks became much more frequent. The years 1958, 1977, 1981, 1983 witnessed increasing fights between the warring groups. Thus, the violence against the Tamil community grew sharply more focussed towards their brethren. The fury of such violence took expression in wild forms in the killing and burning of Tamils, both young and old. The loss of life and property itself was bad enough, but worse was the insecure feeling among the Tamils.

At various points of time, India intervened and tried to broker a settlement and the significant Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987 was an outcome of that attempt. It provided a framework for the restoration of peace and normalcy in the area. Hence, in 1987, 60,000 Indian troops, the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) were placed in Tamil regions to control the violence.12 The Indian troops left the island in 1990 at the request of the Sinhalese government.

The devolution of powers to the provinces had taken three attempts, but none was up to satisfaction.

The long history of Sri Lanka, in terms of racial composition of the island, does not lead to a rigid identity of each one of these groups. It is shrouded in the mystery of long historical experience.

However, the identity in terms of Tamils, Sinhalese and others is now based on the basis of separate community and religious adherents. Sometimes, it has been argued that the question has been not so much of social-cum-religious identity, but that of economic disparity among different classes. One group accuses the other of enjoying supremacy in the bureaucracy, governmental patronage and ruling the elite-based institutions. Some groups among the Tamils seemed to have enjoyed this historical legacy, although it is hard to believe this as a general rule for all the Tamil population in Sri Lanka.

The ethnic conflict, thus, in Sri Lanka assumes significance in the context of what has appeared to be a malady of its kind. Political and social turmoil, with a desire to have a mileage in these affairs, have remained the guiding spirit in this case. The economic disadvantage and insecurity cause further distance, preventing a rapprochement between the LTTE and the Sinhalese.

The island nation, therefore, is caught up in a cobweb. It can conveniently be put into the ethnic basket as the modern phraseology goes. But its vital economic and cultural vantage points cannot be glossed over. When deep-rooted vested interests of communities and peoples are disadvantaged, chances are that such communities and groups of people would resort to emotional outbursts. India and Sri Lanka can also be victims of such emotional and volatile manifestation.

One may say, however, that Sri Lanka's problems, with specificity of Tamil versus Sinhalese, as also in the case of India's multifaceted issues, tend to qualify the central gravity of ethnic issues. Hence, the geographical contiguity will have a necessary bearing on the development of the two nations in regard to race relations.



1. Ali Mohamad Rather, "Ethnicity in Kashmir —A Study of Watals", Journal of Peace Studies, vol.III, no.4, January-February 1996.

2. Urmila Phadnis, Ethnicity and Nation-Building in South Asia (New Delhi : Sage Indian Publications, 1989), p.13.

3. Ibid.

4. S.K. Sachdeva ed., Competition Success Review Year Book 1993 (New Delhi : Competition Review Pvt. Ltd., 1993), p.549.

5. Robin Jeffrey, What's Happening to India? (New Delhi : MacMillan Press Ltd., 1986), p.48.

6. Dennis Austin, Democracy and Violence in India and Sri Lanka (London : Pinter Publishers, 1994), pp.39-40.

7. Phadnis, n.2.

8. P.S. Datta, Ethnic Peace Records in India (New Delhi : Vikas Publishing House, 1995), p.146.

9. Ibid., p.178.

10. David Levinson, Ethnic Relations —A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 1994), p.214.

11. Austin, n.6, p. 63.

12. Levinson, n. 10, p.215.