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OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Indian Discomfort: A Key to Conflict Avoidance

By R. B. Chamberlain

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India Overview

The government of India apparently is controlled, to a large extent, by a well-educated minority of its citizens. This is axiomatic to interpretation of the results of a recent study, so further exploration and explanation of this statement is required. The present study was conducted in survey format and was executed among a group of highly educated, technically employed Indian citizens. This type of sample would be politically influential in most countries, but is of particular consequence in India.

In recent elections, issues were brought forth that to non-Indians may seem to be primarily targeted at the less educated. These issues included the political exploitation of religious fervor, which is still attached to the earlier destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya (with the proposed construction of a Hindu temple honoring Ram on the same site). Clearly, this issue played to the religious zeal that is often present in the masses. It also often induced cold, hard analysis of the underlying question as to whether India should remain a secular state or be transformed into a Hindu nation. This may have broad implications for the uneducated, but it is primarily a philosophical question that impacts the very foundations of the Indian republic (tending to attract the attention of the educated minority). Clearly, it is an emotional issue even at the highest level of government.

A more serious result of this multiform political issue has been a nearly continuous struggle within the leading political parties in India with regard to their positions on the question of whether or not India should continue as a secular state. Even as the Congress Party (Congress) struggles internally with how to define its public position, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) struggles primarily over the issue of how much moderation to display versus exhibiting an intransigent rhetoric to the voting public.

Having seen first hand the devastating results it can generate, many Indians worry about internal religious discord, and any government action that potentially could rekindle that fire is considered to be dangerous political territory. During the early years of the BJP, party strength drew largely on the fundamentalist religious fervor of the masses, and the BJP became the predominant political voice of the fundamentalist Hindus. Careful observation by party leaders showed clearly that there was a plateau of popular support for such a position. More important for party leaders, this was far below the majority needed to wrest political control from Congress, the "party of Nehru." Founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, and later led by his daughter (Indira Gandhi) and grandson (Rajiv Gandhi), many Indian supporters of the BJP portray Congress as being more of a personality cult than a political party - winning the votes of the masses through identification with the Nehru family legacy rather than sound governmental leadership. However true this may be for some Indians, much of the populace clearly views Congress as being the party of stability -- the party that led the Indian ship of state through the dangerous shoals of non-alignment during the height of the storm (the Cold War). Other countries may not have liked India during those times, but the domestic Indian consensus is that they respected it.

If the BJP was ever to gain control of the government from Congress, it recognized that it needed to broaden its appeal to the voters. The party was winning the religiously motivated Hindu voters as well as a scattering of dedicated and occasionally somewhat rabid nationalists. But, they needed the support of the educated urban population to gain enough momentum for an actual electoral victory. This meant the party had to soften its rhetoric selectively on the emotionally charged religious issues. It did. As a consequence, the BJP currently is leading its second coalition national government and is stronger today than at any time in its past. It appears impossible to determine the precise point of origin of the majority of the growth in support of the BJP, but there is no question that its current success is attributable to the weaning of many of the urban educated away from Congress. The price of this support was a platform constructed of political planks largely cut from the desires of that urban, educated block. Prior to the recent BJP growth and expansion into the urban voting public, the overwhelming majority of the educated voters were supporters of Congress, and Congress was easily winning elections at that time.

This is important. I recently conducted a global survey to determine those factors that tend to produce discomfort in people in close contact with new acquaintances. As reviewed later in the article, discomfort can easily be viewed as a very mild (nearly benign) form of conflict. So, those factors that engender or enhance interpersonal discomfort are important to understand. This is particularly true if such tendencies are not individual but representative of a society. Similarly, if these discomfort factors tend to be bounded by ethnic or national constraints rather than universal ones, they likely will contribute to international, cross-cultural feelings, emotions, and actions.

Finally, there is the question of the size, breadth, and relevance of the sample. The sample population was drawn from large, international software and engineering service providers from seven different ethnic and national populations. In the case of India, there were a total of 452 respondents, representing four different employers and four urban areas (Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, and Chennai). The survey was conducted by random selection of survey recipients with sealed, anonymous responses. The regional distribution of the survey was as follows:

India (Totals) Bangalore, Karnataka Pune, Maharashtra Chennai, Tamil Nadu Mumbai, Maharashtra
Distributed 500 100 100 100 200
Submitted 452 81 95 82 194
Response Rate 90.4% 81.0% 95.0% 82.0% 97.0%

Statistical analysis showed that, although there were definite differences in the responses by urban center, there were no distinguishable differences as a result of the employer. These respondents were all drawn from the same population the leading political party has been attempting to co-opt to expand its political base. Therefore, these are the same people whose opinions are most readily reflected in official government positions and actions.

This article intends to show that there are, in fact, early indicators of incipient conflict well before the conflict itself. It is posited here also that, through careful reading of these indicators, conflict can be minimized, arrested, or completely avoided.

Literature Review

Historically, some writers have put forward the inevitability of conflict as a primary, even genetic, component of humanity. "Are human beings innately aggressive?…The answer to it is yes…aggression has been endemic to every form of society, from hunter-gatherer bands to industrial states." (Wilson, 1978, p.99) Echoing this belief ten years later, we are told "an inevitable consequence of tribal bonding is hostility towards other tribes…having an 'enemy' is one of the easiest ways of reinforcing the social ties which bind a community of people together." (Marsh and Morris, 1988, p.130) But, these writers are, fortunately for the goals of groups such as the Tabula Rasa Institute, a distinct minority.

Others, such as Simone Weil and Charles Taylor, have taken a close look at the cultural and psychological conceptualization of roots and identity and have proposed definable psychosocial needs that, if met, can reduce or even eliminate this "innate aggressiveness." The purpose of the survey was to measure relative levels of discomfort engendered by close encounters with "others." Edward T. Hall stated that "we live fragmented, compartmentalized lives in which contradictions are carefully sealed off from each other." (Hall, 1989, p.11) With an increasingly globalized existence, this isolation is becoming more and more difficult to maintain. The goal was to determine, when that isolation breaks down, which encounters are most likely to generate discomfort, distress, or conflict.

The expectation that the Indian government will reflect the personal attributes of the educated electorate is well founded. "Fundamental democratization…ha[s] qualitatively and quantitatively changed the relations between government and society…The classic civil state has…been transformed into an intervention state in which the rigid separation of government and society has been succeeded by a close interaction of the two." (Link, in Czempiel and Rosenau, 1989, p.103) In a similar vein, "by accepting and converting societal demands, political systems act within their societal and the international environments in order to…produce and augment the domestic consensus in order to stabilize the political system and to conserve the distribution of power and influence." (Czempiel, in Czempiel and Rosenau, 1989, p.125)

Discomfort and Conflict

The transition from acts of charity to genocide is an example of a "slippery slope": there are no large leaps required to make the transition. Each small step slides smoothly and gradually into the next -- producing a slow gradation, and making it difficult to isolate the individual steps.

Figure 1: Relationship Graph

This pattern can be displayed graphically as a relationship graph (Figure 1). The left side of the graph, beginning with discomfort, represents the 'conflict region' (i.e., those relationship characteristics that typically support or lead to conflict of one sort or another). The right side of the graph represents the 'cooperation region' (i.e., those relationship characteristics that typically support or lead to cooperative efforts). These are all steps in a continuous process, inasmuch as it is difficult to abhor something if it fails to cause some level of distress. Similarly, it is rare to experience distress over something that does not produce a reaction of discomfort when it is present. Experience shows that some of the more common human outcomes of esteem are charity, empathy, generosity, conciliation, respect, and so on. Unfortunately, some of the more common possible outcomes of abhorrence are war, fear, threats, aggressive behavior, and even genocide. In some cases, circumstances and events result in a near sudden 'slide' to the extreme position (e.g., the European-American reaction to Slobodan Milosevic).

Essentially, comfort is a very mild form of the set of feelings that includes esteem and reverence, while discomfort is a similarly mild form of the set that encompasses distress and abhorrence. Therefore, it seems reasonable to measure discomfort as an early detection indicator of the presence of potentially contentious situations. This was carried out through the use of a survey instrument designed to assess the relative level of collective discomfort generated across a broad range of stimuli: from education and profession to income, religion, language, and political beliefs. The key issue addressed by the survey is the determination of what makes the sample uncomfortable. Simple deduction indicates that those factors, whatever they might be, are likely to lead to conflict situations within the sample.

The emphasis on acknowledging the influence of the more educated groups on the government becomes understandable at this point. The survey was conducted among Indian citizens who are professional employees of major, high technology firms. This resulted in a sample where less than one percent (0.75%) reported having attained less than a four-year college degree, while 71.5% reported an education level beyond the bachelor's level (23.25% reported a four-year degree; 4.5% were non-responsive to this demographic point). These people not only have personal and collective responses to discomforting stimuli, they are also likely to influence government policies, attitudes, and activities -- either directly (through personal political participation) or indirectly (through financial support, lobbying efforts, voting patterns, et cetera). Although not necessarily representative of the mythical "typical Indian," the respondents are most likely highly representative of this educated, urban, professional -- and influential -- segment of the population.

Dividing the potential impact on the populace into two separate categories helps to refine the applicability of this study. External conflict is defined herein as any conflict in which India pursues a dispute with a non-Indian entity or at a fairly high level of the government, while internal conflict is defined as essentially interpersonal or intra-Indian (e.g., between states). My contention is that the uneducated masses often have major impact on issues that evolve into internal conflicts, but that it is primarily the educated professionals (represented in this study) who wield the greatest influence on external conflict situations.

To illustrate this point, consider Ayodhya. This was primarily an internal conflict that resulted from religious issues between various Hindu and Muslim groups in the region. It thus devolved into an interpersonal issue at the community level, and was seriously impacted by the masses -- the population at large.

During the 1999 election process, the question was raised as to whether Sonia Gandhi (the widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and "hier apparent" to the Nehru family legacy) should be considered for national office. The argument was based on the fact that Mrs. Gandhi is an Italian born, naturalized Indian citizen who (according to her detractors) does not even speak Hindi very well. Whether or not a naturalized citizen can legally hold the position of Prime Minister is a politically philosophical question that generally "played well" as an issue amongst the educated city populace. Her alleged mispronunciation of some words, and whether Indian pride should allow a "foreigner" to hold the highest government office was obviously designed to appeal to the masses as an internal conflict.

Recently, the BJP has been suggesting a review of the Constitution, and this has worried the Congress leaders. "The cabinet decision has come in the backdrop of a controversy that the purpose of the review is to saffronise the Constitution. Congress circles are apprehensive that the government wants to ban the installation of persons of foreign origin in high constitutional offices in order to finish Sonia Gandhi politically." (Times of India; 2 Feb 2000)

Discomfort Patterns

The survey instrument posed the same basic question with 15 different qualifiers. Basically, the question was: "When I meet new people, and learn that they [qualifier], this: (a) usually makes me very uncomfortable, and will likely prevent our becoming friends; (b) usually gives me some discomfort, but does not prevent our becoming friends; (c) usually has no impact on me at all; or, (d) usually gives me a sense of comfort which may facilitate our becoming friends."

The [qualifier] in the question referred to a particular item that enabled the respondent to mentally or emotionally categorize this new acquaintance. The 15 qualifiers were:

  • different religion
  • different denomination/division of a religion
  • different native language
  • strange dialect
  • an accent
  • belong to a higher class
  • belong to a lower class
  • different profession
  • having a higher income
  • having a lower income
  • different race
  • from a different country/ethnic area
  • from a different region
  • different level of education
  • contentious political views

The responses could vary from comfort to discomfort and also provided for a neutral response. Since the intent of the survey was to measure the presence and degree of "discomfort," the instrument did not offer the more traditional odd number of optional responses. This enabled slightly better resolution of the extent of discomfort (when some level was indicated). During the analysis of the survey responses, numerical values were assigned and the mathematical mean (average) was calculated. The standard deviation was also computed to be able to gauge the consistency of the response (a measure of the data scatter).

In the case of India, at least some level of discomfort was indicated in all but three of the categories (i.e.,12 of the 15). Religious division, geographic region, and profession were the only three exceptions. This was not unusual when compared to several other areas that had been included in the same study (e.g., Singapore, Japan, and the USA). Only one responding area showed greater sensitivity to discomfort: South Korea. This is readily understandable when it is realized that the South Korean survey was conducted on the cusp of the economic collapse of the Korean economy that occurred in the late 1990s. Two areas showed noticeably less sensitivity: Europe and Canada. The sample size for Europe was too small to support conclusions based on the response, but the Canadian sample size was significant. Canadians only showed discomfort in five of the fifteen survey categories. It should be noted that, although the survey was identical in all national samples, the actual instrument was only available to participants in English, French, and Spanish. Since all educated Indians are fluent in English, this limitation has no impact on the results from India.

Virtually all responding areas showed a significantly stronger 'discomfort reaction' on three or four of the questions. In this observation, India was no exception -- with the degree of discomfort detected being much more pronounced in four of the categories. Interestingly, what caused discomfort varied widely from country to country and even varied by regions internal to the various countries. So, although there was significant variation from Pune to Mumbai to Chennai to Bangalore, there was also a blended "national pattern" to the reactions that was specifically distinctive of India.

The four categories of major concern in India were (a) higher class, (b) higher income, (c) accent, and (d) political views. In general, the response to accent was significantly more negative than those to either language or dialect. We'll take a closer look at what is most likely behind this seemingly incongruent response in a later section as we look at each of the four "target issues." Then, we'll explore the implications these "indicators of conflict" hold for India's future -- with respect to potential future conflicts.


At no point in the survey was there any indication to the respondent as to what was meant by the term "class." This is a very personal term that means something different to nearly everyone that uses it. The intent of the instrument was to use a correlation analysis to determine how the differing respondents and regions viewed the subject of class. In every other country surveyed, this proved to be an effective exercise -- defining the underlying thought that the respondents had evidently associated with the term 'class' (e.g., income in the US and language in Singapore). In the case of India, however, the highest correlation factor (income) was only 0.275. This is not a significant result and clearly indicates that, if class is to be treated as a dependent variable, then there must be at least one significant independent contributor to 'class' that was not one of the 14 other focus areas available on the survey.

Eighty percent of the Indian population practices the Hindu religion, whereas 86% of the sample was Hindu. So, the sample provided a good representation of the population on the basis of religion. This is important because it also provides some insight into the fact that "higher class" does not seem to correlate well to any of the other categories.

When the Portuguese arrived in India in the 16th century, they found society divided into a number of hierarchical social groupings they called castas. The name has been anglicized, but the assignation has remained. "Caste is the development of thousands of years, from the association of many different racial and other groups in a single cultural system." (Basham, 1959, p.148) The caste system of India is, for all intents and purposes, the national social hierarchy. The terms higher class and higher caste are thus nearly synonymous to 86% of the population. "The organization of the castes, independent of the government, and with social ostracism as its most severe sanction, was a powerful factor in the survival of Hinduism." (Basham, 1959, p.151) For 80% of India, the survival of Hinduism is the survival of India.

Since the survey instrument was a-national by design, there was no question regarding "caste" included in the survey. For most of the world (every nation-state except India), the question would have been irrelevant. But, for India, it evidently was required to be able to define the term "higher class."

It also seems to be important that, whereas "higher class" contacts generated significant discomfort, the corresponding "lower class" contacts did not. This was a phenomenon that was repeated with income, and potential causes will be reviewed in the next section.


The response of "higher income" was the weakest of the 'top four.' But, it was still significant when compared to the other 11 categories. It also had the distinction of being the factor that correlated the "best" with class (0.275). This tends to substantiate the earlier statement that class may be perceived as little more than a "code word" for caste. It is a reality of Indian economic life that there is a significantly disproportional representation of the Brahmin caste among the best-educated, highest income members of society. In the high technology sector (where this sample was drawn), this is noticeable even to the non-Indian who is only marginally aware of caste implications or identifiers.

A more important question may be the disparity of responses between higher and lower income (and higher and lower class). Respondents appear to have been indicating that their nearly neutral reactions to encounters with people of lower income or class were indicative of an inner security in "knowing who they are." In other words, poverty, deprivation, and lesser means do not produce a strong negative reaction in them because they accept this delineation as a societal, infrastructural norm. The seemingly incongruous negativity associated with contacts in the other direction (with higher class or income individuals) thus becomes a reaction to being uncomfortable within a social setting in which they do not believe they belong.


The reported discomfort upon encountering someone with a notably different accent is one that is almost uniquely Indian -- and, in my opinion, probably not representative of the population as a whole. To understand this, we need to review the source of the survey sample.

The sample was drawn from the professional ranks of high technology firms that provide software and engineering services to a host of international clients. That accounts for the extremely high 'average level of education' that was encountered. However, it also indicates that these four-year college degrees (and higher) are nearly all likely to be in engineering fields. Although not surveyed as a demographic point, the employment profiles of these firms are known to the author, and they are nearly exclusively engineers of some discipline. This is important for two reasons: (1) college education in the engineering field in India is an English medium exercise (i.e., the books, the instruction, and the tests are conducted in the English language) and (2) these companies tend to recruit from a relatively cosmopolitan population (so that English also becomes the one assured available medium of communication in the office environment). The natural outcome of these two factors is that the question of accent was most certainly understood to mean the accent with which English is spoken (not, for example, the fact that Tamil might be spoken with a Gujarati accent).

In this context, accent becomes an indication of two things: (1) the native language that an individual speaks and (2) the individual's social position. Accent, furthermore, is related to at what age someone began to learn English. This ties critically back to class and income, since wealthier, higher class (i.e., higher caste) families are much more likely either to enroll their children in English medium schools from the start of the educational process or in native language medium schools where English is introduced as a second language at a very early age. It is generally believed that the younger an individual is when learning a language, the lesser the accent and greater the fluency that is likely to result.

Therefore in the engineering field, the accent with which someone speaks English is likely to be an indicator of both native language and social position. The survey indicated that native language does not produce any significant discomfort; however, social class (at least exposure to individuals perceived to come from a higher social class) did. So, it can safely be concluded that the concern over accent (or the lack thereof) arises primarily from the fact that it is a potential indicator of caste and social class. In that context, the reaction is not surprising.

Political Views

This category displayed the strongest response of discomfort of all of the categories. Since the sample is drawn from a population that exhibits a real potential to influence political thought, this should not be surprising. Also, the survey was conducted at a time when India was being governed by the first of the BJP-led coalitions, and there were a number of politically sensitive issues being considered.

Regional Variation

As stated earlier, the "results" being discussed are a blended result from across India. The actual surveys were conducted with the assistance of firms in four different municipal settings in India: Chennai, Bangalore, Pune, and Mumbai. Understanding the different natures of these cities is important in understanding the regional variation observed in the survey.


Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is a major, cosmopolitan city on the west central coast of India. Local inhabitants are drawn from all over the country to the industrial and financial opportunities in the area. A city of more than 12 million people, Mumbai's primary population mix is from the states of Maharashtra (of which it is the capital) and Gujarat (to the north). The city is one of the more "religiously mixed," with large numbers of Christian, Muslim, Jain, and Parsi (Zoroastrian) adherents as well as the predominant base of Hinduism.


Pune (also spelled Poona) ranks as the tenth largest urban area in India with a metropolitan population of approximately 2.5 million inhabitants. It is an industrial city located in the western Ghats (a low mountain range) not too far from the coast of the Arabian Sea. It has not been a major migration target, and the population is relatively homogeneous: the Muslim population is low; Jains, Parsis, and Christians are almost non-existent; and the city is almost entirely Hindu and Aryan.


Bangalore is often referred to as India's "fifth city" -- following Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, and Chennai -- and has a metropolitan area population of nearly five million people. Bangalore is often described by locals as being the "Bombay of twenty years ago" due to the influx of people from Mumbai. Christian and Jain populations are low and Parsis are virtually non-existent, but there is a large number of Muslims along with the majority of Hindus. The city is near to the center of a region that is at the geographical heart of Dravidian culture.


Chennai is one of the most recent attempts by the Indian government to replace the imposed British city names with more traditional native language place names. Chennai was, until recently, known as Madras. It is a south coastal city of nearly six million people situated on the Bay of Bengal. The population is predominantly Hindu, but does include a fair number of Christians and Muslims. Chennai is a bastion of the Dravidian-speaking peoples of India.

The varying responses for each of the four regions are illustrated in Figures 2 through 4. The numerical scale reflects a normalized (to avoid decimals), standardized (to correct for data scatter) value, and should only be used as a means of gauging relative differences. The use of 3-dimensional graphs admittedly makes reading the actual values more difficult, but they carry no constructive numerical meaning -- the value of the charts is to show the relative responses to the various categories.

Figure 2 shows a graphical representation of the comparisons of Mumbai to Chennai (center), Pune (front), and Bangalore (back). The fact that the same two peaks occur for all three Mumbai comparisons shows that the "difference in response" that is reflected in the graph occurs in Mumbai and not one of the other areas. Compare this to comparisons between the other three cities (leaving Mumbai out of the calculations).

Figure 2: Comparative Survey Responses (a)

Figure 3 shows the paired comparisons for the Chennai region: Pune (front) and Bangalore (back). The scale was set to match that of Figure 2 to highlight the actual lack of differentiation between the attitudes on the survey of these three pairings. Similarly, Figure 4 shows the one remaining pairing of Indian regions: Pune and Bangalore.

Figure 3: Comparative Survey Responses (b)

Figure 4: Comparative Survey Responses (c)

Mumbai is, with the possible exception of Delhi, arguably the most cosmopolitan city in India. When compared to the more parochial cities of Pune, Bangalore, and Chennai, there are significant differences in the level of discomfort exhibited by respondents in the fields of "religion" and "region." In both categories, Mumbai is nearly neutral in its response while the others vary.

In the category "religion," Bangalore and Chennai exhibit more discomfort while Pune exhibits less (the graphs are absolute value plots). These two cities are the two "southern" cities in the study -- representing the two Dravidian centers surveyed. Most residents of India generally consider the forms and ritualistic practice of Hinduism to be "purer" in the south than in the north. Southerners point out that the north has been much more influenced by Islam, Christianity, and other religions brought to India by invading armies and conquerors. (Basham, 1959) This may (or may not) be accurate, but the southern cities do appear to experience more discomfort when confronted by a strange religion. Pune shows less discomfort, but it was originally a British "hill station" to which they went to escape the Indian heat. So, Pune has experienced many of the same historical cosmopolitan influences that Mumbai experienced (although, for Pune, the "others" did not permanently take up residence).

As for "region," the only region that seems to even notice where someone comes from is Bangalore. As the current target of huge immigration moves, this is not surprising. As the city grows, 'where someone is from' becomes an initial query. In the case of the other cities, Chennai and Mumbai are so large that a person's point of origin is simply unimportant. In the case of Pune, they probably rarely encounter anyone from anyplace else (with the possible exception of Mumbai, which is their state capital - i.e., the newcomers are still Maharashtrans).

In essence, a comparison of the various responses by region indicates that religion and region are much more likely to be a "Dravidian issue," higher class and higher income are likely to create discomfort across the board and two issues are found in all four areas, but to a somewhat different degree in one of the locations (politics - less discomforting in Bangalore; accent -- evincing more pronounced discomfort in Chennai).

Implications: Internal Conflict

The study reveals some issues that have potential to influence directly the probability of internal conflict within the Indian state in those areas where the attitude of the educated electorate (as measured by the survey) is reflected in government actions.

Northern India has dealt historically with a series of invasions for several millennia. Most of these 'marching armies' failed to reach the southernmost parts of the subcontinent. This is the region populated by Dravidian cultural groups (purported to have been "pushed south" from the Indus River valley by the Aryans thousands of years ago). The Dravidian respondents manifested a less tolerant response pattern to religious and heritage differences.

So, if religion were to generate future domestic conflicts, it would most likely originate in the south. By contrast, if domestic political issues were to generate domestic conflict, the survey results indicate that it would be more likely for it to originate in the north.

Mohandas Gandhi (the Mahatma) pushed for a 'Greater India' that he envisioned would encompass nearly all of what the British had ruled as British India; however, Mohammad al Jinnah led an effort to create a separate Muslim state. Gandhi failed to win a Greater India, and Jawaharlal Nehru ended up as the first Prime Minister of the largest piece of a divided subcontinent -- with a Muslim Pakistan as his immediate neighbor. The result is that -- to this day -- some southern Indians see their northern countrymen as "pseudo-Pakistanis" (I have personally heard this description offered by a disgruntled Tamil native).

But, what does this mean for the actual potential for domestic strife? The multitude of political parties that compete on the Indian political stage would be problematic in an American legislative system, but India has a parliamentary form of government that better adapts to this splintering. So, although the democracy may look very fragile from an American standpoint, blatant political conflict is not likely.

As for religious strife, it is probable that periodic, regional conflicts will flare up. However, barring an unexpected philosophical shift, the chance of this becoming an issue ensconced in BJP dogma and supported by national government action is remote. In both situations, the Indian federal government would need to become a major participant in the ensuing conflict in order for it to reach national proportions. The government needs the support of the educated minority to remain in power, and the survey implies that this support would not be sustainable with such a position.

Implications: External Conflict

If one were to accept unquestioningly the public pronouncements dealing with the possibility of an external conflict, they would be hard pressed to have reason for concern. Brajesh Mishra, the Indian national security advisor, recently stated that "the country has no plans to get into a nuclear arms race with China" (Times of India; 7 February 2000). Two days earlier, Defense Minister George Fernandes told an audience that "we have no plans to go to war with Pakistan, limited or otherwise" (Times of India; 5 February 2000).

But, can these pronouncements be accepted without question? Probably not. Part of the concern is based on the reality that the government of India is predominantly led by people who share the same discomfort factors as the educated electorate measured in the survey. When India detonated its first nuclear device, the world reaction was one of fear and disapproval, but the domestic reaction had a very different flavor. Domestic surveys conducted by Indian pollsters indicated the act was hugely popular with the domestic electorate (gaining more than a 90% approval rating). It is imperative to ask why the Indian people so broadly supported a move that clearly hurt the economy and damaged international relations. The answer seems to be that this act of global defiance was perceived by the populace as sending a message to the governments of the world that India was no longer a 'third world country.' From an Indian perspective, it changed the status of the leading powers from "higher class" to "peer" and in so doing, one of the primary discomfort factors was effectively eliminated.

The general Indian discomfort with those of higher class and higher income extends to national discomfort when India believes it is being perceived by others as either 'poor' or 'lower class.' Nuclear tests informed the world that this was clearly not the case. The tests were a combination of national "muscle flexing" aimed at the world in general, a tactical military message directed toward Pakistan and China, and a 'statement of worth' intended to foster domestic support for a weak coalition government.

What this means for the potential of external conflict development depends on the external entity in question. India is highly unlikely to initiate a conflict with Pakistan. The general attitude toward Pakistan is that this neighbor is an irritation that needs to be dealt with, but in no way represents a 'higher class' political entity. The March 2000 visit of President Clinton to South Asia was carefully watched and assessed in India. Indian journalists and politicians reported on what they perceived as Clinton's deliberate slighting of their Pakistani neighbors. This reaffirmed their conviction that Pakistan is a 'lesser power' and not one that fuels their discomfort.

In the case of China, this is not the situation. China has been a nuclear power for a number of years, and India has "lived in a Chinese shadow." Therefore, China may be perceived by Indian political leaders as pushing India into a subservient position. The Chinese invasion of Tibet serves as a vivid image to India of China's potential, and the presence of the Dalai Lama's exile government on Indian soil refreshes this image even 40 years after the invasion.

This could conceivably encourage India to become the aggressor in an India-China conflict, although a more likely scenario would be their over reaction to and escalation of a perceived slight. A key intent of the Indian nuclear tests was to serve as a response to the missile testing that China had been conducting in the Bay of Bengal out of ports in Myanmar. Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes attempted to allay Indo-Pak war fears by alluding to the fact that Indian nuclear armed missiles were targeted at China, not Pakistan. Needless to say, this did not eliminate fear, only redirected it. After hurried conferences with the Indian political leadership, Fernandes retracted his comments with apologies.


Contrary to outside appearances, India is a relatively stable parliamentary democracy. The primary threats to domestic stability are from external agitation, not internal disintegration. Those Indians who are the most 'conflicted' by religious issues are the same Indians who are the least politically empowered. They have the potential to incite regional dissension, but lack the political power to do irreparable damage to the Union.

In the northern states, Indian discomfort is more likely to be driven by heritage or political views. These are the same people who actively influence government activity. Therefore, the likelihood that India will ever have a peaceful, calm, and harmonious electoral process is virtually nonexistent (at least for the foreseeable future). A rancorous electoral process, however, does not necessarily result in damage to the Union.

In its external affairs, the situation is more problematic. Notwithstanding the futility of assigning blame in a conflict, it is highly unlikely that India would instigate interstate conflict. The distinct exception would be a situation where India's national identity and stature were being subjugated by another state. The survey results indicate that this would produce real discomfort or resentment in the educated electorate and, therefore, could result in governmental actions. Currently, that is physically possible only with China. Therefore, in the current political environment, the possibility of a conflict with China should be the one of highest concern.

That, however, only addresses the issue of Indian aggression. It does not rule out aggression from other quarters (e.g., Pakistan) to which India would react with extreme and deadly force. Taken together, these two potential sources of conflict provide well-defined goals for any third party peacekeeping initiative.

International pressure needs to be combined with active mediation to preclude countries such as Pakistan, Myanmar, and Indonesia from initiating a situation with India that belittles or degrades their international standing. Simultaneously, international intervention is warranted to defuse India's long-standing inferiority complex vis-à-vis China. These are the two areas where conflict avoidance is most likely to result from third party intervention and action.

Failure to take an active role in minimizing the threat of Indian conflict could contribute to the development of a major conflict situation. Concentration on India's internal issues is probably ineffectual; furthermore, meddling in India's internal issues could be counter-productive, as it exasperates the Indian government and generates discomfort within India when it believes this meddling is derived from a perceived superiority.

The most practical role for the US, Russia, and other powers interested in avoiding conflict in this region is two fold: (1) provide mediation services between China and India (helping define India and China as peers warranting international attention and respect) and (2) public disapproval of aggressive acts from other Indian neighbors (reinforcing India's preconceived views of these neighbors and making Indian military escalation less likely). These positions may be politically incompatible with the parochial interests of Russia, Europe, and the USA, and may be unacceptable to China. Real peace in the region, however, may depend on an ability to reach accommodation between this approach, the political agendas of these powers, and an ability to convince China of the necessity of maintaining peace in the region.


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This article Copyrights Michael E. Salla, PhD. All else ©1998-2000 Tabula Rasa Institute.