Conflict Resolution in Multicultural Societies-The Indian Experience : Jhumpa Mukherjee

BOOK - Conflict Resolution in Multicultural Societies

Sage Publications (I) Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi; Year:2014; Pages:164; Price:Rs.795

Reviewed by Dr. Usha Thakkar, President, Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya; Former Professor & Head, Department of Political Science, S.N.D.T. Women’s University, Mumbai.


The issue of diversity management within multicultural states has acquired serious dimension in our times, especially after the disintegration of Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the 1990s.  The quest for recognition of identity has led to severe identity assertion conflicts and movements throughout the world. The conflicts have become more complex and multidimensional.

The causes of ethnic conflicts differ from country to country; consequently no uniform solution is possible. Many countries like India, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Britain and Spain have to handle tribulations stemming from ethnonationalism in their individual territories. The book examines the question of accommodation of ethnoregional diversity in a single political framework.

Since Independence, India has undergone the agony of partition, and has also struggled against the ills of illiteracy and poverty, communal strife and caste divide. There are differences of caste, creed, religion, culture, language and tribes, and still the country has managed to stay united. There have been political extremist movements and sub nationalist demands like Vidarbha in Maharashtra or Kodagu in Karnataka. However, the nation has managed to survive all odds and has maintained democratic practices manifested in periodic elections, institutions of local self government, participation of people and political dialogues between the government and the ethnicities. India has been able to stay united despite the enormous diversities.

This book emphasizes the role of democratic multicultural decentralization in India’s relative success in state formation and political order. According to the author, a dynamic and continuous process of decentralization at various levels of the polity, informed by multicultural concerns, since India’s independence, remains the key to her relative success as a state. A democratically designed decentralized system that caters to the diverse ethnic needs of the population has served to integrate the country amidst spells of ethnic movements and has sought to add a novel dimension to decentralization, informed by multicultural concerns.

The book critically examines various institutional modes of political accommodation of ethno-national diversity in India with relevant case studies. It highlights the need for accommodation of cultural identities through the appropriate institutional mechanisms for more meaningful decentralization in a culturally diverse country like India. It emphasizes that in multicultural countries just creation of federal units is not enough to accommodate identities and democracy by itself cannot sustain and promote diversity. What is required is the recognition of identities coupled with an attitude of tolerance to other communities to prevent social exclusion. Democracy can be a success only if pluralism and tolerance go hand in hand.

The book presents a theoretical dynamics of decentralization and shows the shortcomings of conventional decentralized institutions as of local governance in accommodating identity questions and building a new model of decentralization as a mechanism of politico-cultural integration in multicultural societies. The author views the Indian constitution as a multicultural document providing space for myriad and complex diversities. She refers to the insightful discussions in the Constituent Assembly and the Fifth and Sixth Schedules with the Articles 371 A, B, C, F, G and H.  She notes the concern shown by the Constituent Assembly for the question of political protection to the ethnic identities residing in different parts of the country especially the northeastern region. In her opinion the constitutional provisions suggest that the Indian Constitution not only promotes diversity but also provides scope for accommodation of identities.

The book contains a detailed discussion on linguistic reorganization of states in India. It presents an analysis of the ideas about linguistic statehood in pre-independence period and examines the views of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and B. R. Ambedkar on the subject. After taking an overview of the recommendations of the Dar Commission, the JVP (Jawaharlal Nehru Committee, Vallabhhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya) and the State Reorganization Commissions, the author finds that the linguistic principle seems to have fulfilled its role without endangering, in any way, our national unity. She presents an in-depth analysis of the case studies of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab. In her opinion a functioning multicultural democracy demands that certain criteria should be met for polico-cultural autonomy for distinct communities. They are: precise territory, sufficient scope of autonomy through constitutional enactments, legislative and executive powers to ascertain autonomy, in-built conflict management mechanisms and equal rights for all inhabitants.

The tribes of India represent an impressive diversity in their culture, customs, traditions and beliefs and are mainly concentrated in the north-eastern part of the country and in the Union Territories of Lakshadweep and Dadra and Haveli. The author takes an overview of the tribal governance during the British period, the Constituent Assembly debates on the subject and the tribal policy after independence. It is important to understand how the Indian state has responded to the Northeast imbroglio. The author presents the case studies of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam to understand the politics and dynamics of different movements and discussed the issue of tribal autonomy and decentralization. The table of various accords on various questions of autonomy signed by the union government and the North-east organization is useful.   According to the author such accords show the accommodative nature of the Indian state and its belief in democratic governance. However, she admits that this is not to say that the process of granting statehood/sub-statehood to the tribal communities of the Northeast has completely mitigated the problem. She also realizes that the state has sometimes resorted to coercive measures. On the whole she appreciates that political settlements with major rebel leaders and institutionalizing different degrees of decentralization have prevented the region from degenerating into another Bosnia.

The author analyzes how multicultural decentralization has been operative in India at sub-state level with the help of two case studies of the Bodoland Territorial Council and the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. Creation of ‘states’ alone for distinctive identities is not the key to the right of self-assertion. Other forms of self-government in the form of sub-states, regional councils and Autonomous District Councils within the broad contours of the constitution are also important. The author is aware that recognition of diverse urges of the identities may not end with the grant of these different modes of decentralization. Demands for autonomy are being made in a few places such as in Mithila (Bihar), Coorg (Karnataka) and Vidarbha and Konkan (Maharashtra). The concluding chapter makes an assessment of the effectiveness of continuous decentralization as a conflict management model for multicultural countries and makes meaningful observations.

The discussion in the book could have been more meaningful with in-depth analysis of issues like reconciling the citizens’ individual rights with the demands of diverse collective identities and Naxalite Maoist insurgency. On the whole the book is welcome addition to the areas of conflict resolution in multicultural societies and the working of democracy in India. It provides valuable insights in important issues of contemporary times like, resolution of ethnic conflicts in a democracy and federalism, constitutional and institutional solutions to meet the challenges of diversity and differences, the role of multicultural decentralization, and the strength of Indian democracy.



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