Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Saturday, November 28th, 2020

Dangers and kinds of ethnicity in South Asia

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Dangers and kinds of ethnicity in South Asia

In modern times, Anthony D. Smith places ethnicity in the context of modernisation and Cynthia Enloe examines the issue in the context of power and authority while John Saul looks at the issues of tribe in relation imperialism and the modes of production debate. The ethnic conflicts have assumed major proportions and have become an important feature of political life in the final quarter of this century. The scale, intensity and persistence of these conflicts provide persuasive evidence that we are not dealing with these conflicts as fundamental determinants of history.
Background and forms of ethnicity
The first exposure in ethnic identity came from consciousness and material circumstances. Consciousness does not reflect material reality in some mechanistic way; and indeed a consciousness of ethnic identity can persist long after the material foundations that endangered it have withered away, or it can emerge in advance of the proper consolidation of an immanent identity. In general, the material circumstance that underlies an ethnic unit is illustrated by drawing attention to the periphery, or boundary of a socio–economic unit which possesses its own internal structures or mode of production. Though ethnicity as a category in political conflict and the concomitant consciousness of identity are linked in this way to material life, yet slowly and tortuously, ethnicities disappear or become politically irrelevant.  For example, the Boers and the blacks of South Africa do not even today co–habit the same material socio–economic entity, their material transformations ultimately led them finally align itself with reality, but not until it has exhausted its own tortuous and extended life span. Its natural outcome is ethnic war and negotiation processes.
Ethnic war is a large–scale violent incident entailing an organised and prolonged military engagement and confrontation between regular (government) forces and highly mobilised insurgent or militant group(s). There is continuity in fighting; military attacks/operations are extended over a considerable part of the country’s territory. Importantly, the warring parties and their grievances and goals are solely defined in ethnic terms. Whereas the government represents the dominant/majority ethnic group, civilians belonging to the minority/weaker ethnic community invariably constitute the insurgent or militant forces.  Like interstate wars, internal ethnic wars are serious hostile events. Hostility does not develop in vacuum or automatically, but stems from deep–rooted socio–economic and political grievances that can not be redressed by normal political means. In most cases, grievances are genuine and serious. Even ethnic fear of extinction does not always evolve itself in a direct form to become a major source of ethnic war. A long history of denial of legitimacy to or lack of recognition of, a group’s identity in relation to its ethnic territoriality and its growing sense of relative deprivation–defined as a perceived gap between value expectations and value capabilities may initially appear to be a mere ethnic grievance but, in the long run, creates a fear of its extinction.
Relation with ideology and politics
However, grievance–formation as a principal source of ethnic war is a dynamic process in which each ethnic group with seemingly different ethno–ideological and value structures try to consolidate and promote its identity and material interests from a threat or invalidating behaviour of other groups. Ethnic war is deep–rooted in a situation, where one group’s core sense of self interest is perceivably or in reality threatened by the demands of or denial by another group, thereby eliciting the former group’s defensive response.  Ethnic wars are not fought over ordinary issues or for limited goals. Fighting a war is fundamentally the decision of the concerned group in pursuit of its own interests in that gains and losses are borne by its members. The warring parties belong to two different ethnic groups with strong identities based on distinct historical antecedents, heritage, culture, language and religion but both of them form part of the same political system at least in the legal sense.
Ethnicity has gained prominence in South Asian politics today for two additional reasons. First, the growth of sectarian political parties throughout the region has amplified and redirected ethnic issues to the political limelight. These parties have arisen, or have been resurrected by parochial interests, because of the government’s inadequacy or inability to remove ethnic grievances. These parties differ from national parties in that they have a narrow political base; represent the interests of only particular ethnic groups or segments thereof; and are dedicated to achieving political ends through violence. Second, the ethnic factor in South Asian politics is sustained also by the international role of the regional countries. For example, the Pakhtoonistan movement in the NWFP has been inspired and sustained by successive Afghan government and the Lanka–Tamil secessionist movement received full support from the neighbouring Indian state Tamil Nadu.  Likewise, the tribal in the Bangladesh CHT are deriving sustenance from the neighbouring Indian tribal movements in Mizoram, Tripura and Manipur.
Status in South Asia
Especially in the case of ethnicity in South Asia, the pursuit of colonial policies inevitably led to discrimination against certain ethnic groups which remained unresolved during that period. When the colonial masters withdrew they did not leave behind them a society with a strong potential ruling class in place. The other side of the same coin is the economic backwardness and the weakness and distortion of the productive forces in these countries. Hence, the nature of the state in newly independent countries and its interaction with class formation is unstable and tottering. Earlier, it was in the interest of the colonial authorities to encourage internal differentiation within the subject population. The positive impact of this policy was that the rich cultural diversities in the subcontinent were preserved and endangered, while its negative impact was that these gave rise to numerous parochial attachments. Although the national policies of the new ruling elites in post–independence period attempted to rectify historical anomalies or reorder political realities, it however, only aggravated ethnic feelings or created new ethnic tension.
At large the issue of ethnicity is closely related to nation–building and internal stability. Initially the pattern of political development was on the line of Western notions of modernisation and its leaders hoped that with the ongoing process of modernisation, parochial attachments would simply disappear. In course of time and with the rapid expansion of communication and transportation networks, the ethnicity in the region has invalidated most of these assumptions associated with the national development process. As a result, within each country, the separate cultural identities of regions, far from losing social significance and becoming blurred, have in fact reasserted their cultural/regional identities by politically mobilising themselves in order to confront the state system which has failed to recognise or protect their interests. They have rejected the continued validity of national symbols and values and have redirected their allegiance to ethnic symbols and values in order to fight for greater influence within their societies.  In most cases the discriminatory policies of the national leadership have made ethnic communities to rise above parochial attachments to form a unified political order.

Dr. Rajkumar Singh is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, B.N. Mandal University, Madhepura Madhepura-852113, Bihar, India. Email-rajkumarsinghpg@gmail.com

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