In the aftermath of decolonisation, the democratising processes in many countries revealed serious ethnic, religious and cultural differences that led to violent conflicts. Much of the postcolonial world suffers from ethnic, racial, and religious tensions that are periodically punctuated by outbreaks of brutality and carnage. It seems that the administrative institutions of former colonies, once relieved of central authoritarian leadership and one-party domination, did not have the capacity to accommodate diverse claims of constituent ethnic groups. The disintegration of Yugoslavia illustrates this fact.
Many countries of the world have been experiencing some sort of ethno dissonance encompassing various levels of politicised ethnicity. These conflicts are found in most of the African countries, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Senegal, to name a few. In the Middle-East, despite the supposed homogeneity in linguistic and religious spheres, states like Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Yemen have all been plagued by ethnic problems. Our own country is no exception, along with our neighbouring states. What is interesting is that some western countries are also now beset with similar problems. The Basque issue in Spain is well known, but recent outrages in United States, Britain, France and Norway are a testimony to the fact of ethnic consciousness gradually creeping into these societies.
Conflicts based on ethnic identities have emerged as a major threat to the plural structures of societies. But the problem remains largely unexplored in the contemporary discourse as we often see that ethnic conflicts are mostly perceived either as instances of religious extremism or economic impoverishment. However, the case of ethnicity is too complex to be bracketed in such narrow ascriptions. Globalisation had opened up the possibilities of free accommodative spaces and a greater sense of interdependency. Yet, ethnicity is strongly linked to the concept of nationalism, since the latter is based on real or assumed ethnic ties. However, nationalism has more ideological and political dimensions as it refers to the expressed desire of a people to establish and maintain a self-governed political entity. When ethnicity becomes nationalist, the result is the emergence of ethnonationalism, which in turn can prove threatening for the existence of the state and can lead to ethnic conflict and disintegration, as in the case of Yugoslavia.
The intensification of ethnic, racial, and cultural hostilities during the twentieth century undercut several assumptions of modernisation theory; it also contradicted an influential social psychology theory known as the “contact hypothesis.” That hypothesis predicted that as people of different races, religions, and ethnicities come into greater contact with each other, they better understand the other groups’ common human qualities, causing prejudice to decline. Although the contact hypothesis frequently predicts individual level attitudes and behaviour, increased interaction between different ethnic groups, occasioned by factors such as urban migration, frequently intensifies hostilities.
In ethnic analysis, the term nation takes on a specialised meaning distinct from its more common usage designating a sovereign country. It refers, instead, to a population with its own language, cultural traditions, historical aspirations, and, often, its own geographical home. Frequently, nationhood is associated with the belief that “the interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests and values.” Unlike other types of ethnic groups, nationalities frequently claim sovereignty over a specific geographic area. But, as we have seen, these proposed national boundaries frequently do not coincide with those of sovereign states (independent countries). For example, India and Sri Lanka are both sovereign states that encompass several distinct nationalities (cultural identities). In each case, members of at least one of those nationalities—Kashmiris (India) and Tamils (Sri Lanka)—have waged long struggles for independence.
In their more limited manifestations, nationalist movements simply seek to preserve a specific group’s cultural identity and promote its economic and political interests. At a theoretical level, one can certainly probe the ever-increasing eruption of these conflicts in an increasingly democratised and globalised world which offers the possibilities of large accommodative spaces and greater politico-economic interdependency. Western analysts once assumed that improved education and communications in the Third World would break down ethnic conflicts. Because of their country’s experience as a “melting pot” for immigrant groups, Americans in particular have supposed that socioeconomic modernisation enhances ethnic integration and harmony. Yet, in Africa and Asia, early modernisation has frequently politicised and intensified ethnic antagonisms. In fact, Crawford Young observes that “cultural pluralism [and ethnic strife] as a political phenomenon” was not significant in traditional societies but, rather, emerged “from such social processes as urbanisation, the revolution in communications and spread of modern education.”
Early modernisation theorists, who were quite optimistic about the positive effects of literacy, urbanisation, and modern values, clearly underestimated the extent to which these factors might mobilise various ethnic groups and set them against each other. Dependency theorists, on the other hand, provided a rather superficial analysis of ethnic issues, tending to blame conflicts on colonialism or neocolonialism. During the era of European colonialism, ethnic divisions in Africa and Asia were often kept in check by the struggle for independence, which encouraged a common front against the colonial regime. After independence, however, previously submerged ethnic rivalries frequently rose to the surface.
The ethno-nationalist project which involves an interpretation of complex though not mutually exclusive concepts of nation, identity, national consciousness and nationalism is based on two major premises. In the first place, the justification for ethno-nationalism is a claim for an egalitarian, democratic society where there is a direct control over the allocation of resources and their legitimate extraction. This aspiration for equality and political control is often grounded in the feelings certain groups have towards the larger society that they have been deprived of a status to which they are entitled. In the second place, politics of ethnonationalism is based on a linkage between political movement and ethnic identity. National consciousness among ethnic groups arises from a psychological state resulting from the perception of having enemies, invaders or intruders which creates a powerful desire in them to protect what they see as common to themselves from others, or, in the words of Don Ronan, from the perception of oppression. Ronan states, “Ethnic groups are born and arise because of the perception of oppression; if there were no perception of oppression, real or imagined, there would be no ethnic self-determination”.
Consequently, the desire for political and cultural autonomy arises from a simultaneous self-awareness and an awareness of other groups, essential ingredients for converting an ethnic group into a nation. In this self-awareness, perceived history plays a significant role in defining identity through events which threaten identity. This allows the reinterpretation/ reconstruction of the history of the grieved group, projecting their common ideals onto a glorious past. In the process of political construction of an identity for its ethnic group or groups, the state selectively propagates certain historical references and symbols which satisfy its own need for cultural homogeneity and its own version of nationalism. S.N. Sangmpam characterises the Third World state as an overpoliticised state where the major preoccupation of the state actors, who use the state apparatus for accumulation purposes, becomes survival. Political insecurity combined with the need to control state power to satisfy their material interests causes power holders not only to devise short-term strategies legitimising their rule, but often to resort to political violence and corruption.
In a contemporary developing polity where the distinction between the public and the private realms often becomes blurred, “establishing ‘hegemony’ within the framework of an interventionist democratic state typically tends to over-politicise the polity”. In addition, as a result of such a state’s control over a large proportion of economic resources, the state emerges as the centre of competitive political struggle.
The long-term effects of the expanding “world culture” advanced by globalisation are not entirely clear. On the one hand, it may be argued that the spread of Western world brands will eventually reduce or eliminate the differences of dress, food, and customs that currently separate different ethnic groups. For now, however, the prospect of globalised culture, or even the dominant ruling majoritarian cultures have often created a nationalistic or ethnic backlash and widened tensions between neighbouring ethnic communities. To the extent that globalisation economically benefits certain ethnic groups at the expense of others, it has the potential to sharpen ethnic conflict. If national governments can stop that from happening, ethnic relations may remain static or even improve.
Religious, racial, tribal, and nationality groups compete for state resources such as roads, schools, and civil service jobs. Rural-to-urban migration has also brought previously isolated ethnic groups into proximity with each other for the first time. Furthermore, rising educational levels and the spread of mass communications have politicised previously non-participating segments of the population. Because many of these newly mobilised citizens identify primarily with their own caste, religion, nationality, or tribe, their recently acquired political awareness often produces clashes with other ethnicities.
This is best exemplified by the vastly multicultural but equally volatile city of Karachi. The spread of higher education, rather than generating greater harmony, frequently produces a class of ethnically chauvinistic professionals and intellectuals, like a Bal Thackeray, who become the ideologues of ethnic hostility. In time, as these groups come to know each other or as ethnic identities take on more conciliatory forms, these tensions may diminish.
To sum up, it may be said that just as colonialism and modernisation challenged traditional religious, national, and tribal identities, the economic and social forces of globalisation may pose an even greater challenge. As international business conglomerates such as Nike, Coke, Wrangler, McDonald’s and KFC spread their brand names and associated cultural habits throughout the developing world, they bring a certain homogenisation of world culture, which may undercut traditional ethnic practices and values. Also, the states need to shun their interventionist and hegemonic rigidity in creating more inclusive spheres of representation, rather than merely perpetuating the state power. For now, however, ethnic conflict remains a potent phenomenon in the Third World.
The writer is a PhD scholar at Jamila Milia Islamia, New Delhi