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Role of Ethnicity in Indian Politics

India is among the most ethnic diverse countries in the world. Northeast India, particularly Assam, is home to a wide range of ethnic groups with diverse sets of cultures speaking different languages and dialects. Over the years, the Indian federation has risen the ranks to become one of the most powerful countries in the Asia Pacific region, as well as in the world. In fact, India’s economic power is rising so fast that the country is among what economists consider the next big economic powerhouses known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The rise of the country’s political and economic power is however dependent on the nation’s stability, particularly in relation to its internal ethnic stability, which so far continues to jolt the country’s political landscape (Huber & Suryananrayan, 2014). Concerns are rife across the world over the divisiveness of political activity centered on ethnic identity, with many of the opinion that it is indeed the source of conflict in the world today (Leach, Brown & Worden, 2008). Many relate the recent ethnic-based solidarity and political activity to dissolution of many multi-ethnic states, such as the Soviet Union (Leach, Brown & Worden, 2008). The situation in India is the best depiction of the effect of ethnicity on politics and on a country, although it is a recent occurrence beginning in the 80s with the mobilization of people politically along religious, caste or language aspects (Guha, 2007). This paper will look at the role of ethnicity in politics in India, with an initial look at the ethnic composition of the country, the genesis of ethic divide, politics of the country, and the influence of ethnicity in the country’s politics.

India is visibly a multi-ethnic country with a wide range of language, culture, and dialects and religion. The feeling of similar ancestry defines ethnic groups in the Indian community, while people of diverse ethnic origins but with a similar language form cultural groups. Moreover, it is also possible to have cultural groups with common customs and beliefs, for instance, castes within a particular location (Ganguly, 2005). This diversity in culture and ethnicity is also present within other countries in the Indian subcontinent, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

Even in the presence of diverse cultural and ethnic differences, most people of India have similar physical characteristics. Language, religion, culture, and ethnicity are therefore the separating features of the Indian people. Apart from the Gond and the Bhil tribes, which form the major tribes in the country, with each having millions of people, there are other tribal groups in India, which form part of the government designated tribes. These tribal groups, along with other more than 300 tribes, have been identified by the Indian government as the original inhabitants and make up about eight percent of the total country’s population (Ganguly, 2005). The Gond and the Bhils (the major tribes) also encompass other subtribes within them. The tribal groups largely occupy rural areas practicing agriculture as their main source of income. While some of these tribal groups still practice the traditional tribal religion, most have a combination of modern religions, Hindu being the most widely practiced religion, while a about 7 percent practice Christianity (Ganguly, 2005).

Most of the tribes in India are largely concentrated within particular areas. This is as a result of federalism in India, with each state divided according to the majority of tribe or ethnic groups living within the area (Huber &Suryananrayan, 2014). The idea of federalism stemmed from the acceptance of ethnic plurality at attainment of independence by the political elite. The idea was therefore to promote and strengthen the diversity through national development and integration for the creation of a secular and federal state. Even before the attainment of independence, the bulk of the Indian political elite had agreed on the creation of a secular state. Discussions after the attainment of independence therefore involved the kind of secularism and ways of obtaining equity in the acceptance of the majority’s preferences, while at the same time securing the interests of the minorities. The result was constitutional provisions in which there is no distinct separation of the church and the state, but an acceptance and promotion of all religions and communities by the state (Hardgrave & Robert, 1993).

Agreement on federalism also emanated from the historical relations of the state. By promoting federalism and divisions across ethnic and linguistic lines, federalism was “as envisaged as a project to ensure reasonable national agreement across regions and communities to support and develop durable political order” (Dasgupta 2001, p. 54). Even in the creation of the federal state, the elite put into consideration the dangers of federalism, which included the desire for secession by ethnic groups within particular states as well as the balkanization of the federal government by different states. To ensure the absence of such occurrences, India became a federation, not by the agreement of the states and therefore the inability of any of the states from seceding from the federation (Dasgupta 2001). The federation therefore became a convenience entity with divisions only for administrative convenience, with the country remaining as an integrated whole.

The federal design was therefore supposed to ensure that the country reaped benefits from the organization, where each state would be able to accommodate ethnic and cultural diversity without necessarily allowing any of the ethnic groups to dominate at the national or federal level. Moreover, with an anticipation of cultural conflicts within states, federalism was to ensure that these conflicts do not spill to other states. This way, the central government would be at a better position to solidify its authority, while being able to compartmentalize and efficiently manage center-state frictions, while easily containing state conflicts (Hardgrave & Robert, 1993).

During the struggle for independence, the Indian National Congress (INC) emerged as the national political party championing the interests of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions. The party espoused broad social democratic ideologies with populist welfare policies. The result was the party emerging as the strongest and widely dominant political party at the attainment of independence. It continued in its dominance even after the country adopted a multiparty system. Gradually, however, the country started witnessing the birth and growth of regional parties, some of which challenged INC in state elections, largely by appealing to the ethno-linguistic, regional, and religious emotions of the people (Hardgrave & Robert, 1993). Alarmed by the threat to its dominance and power by these small state and regional political parties, NIC recourse was a series illegal, undemocratic, and draconian actions aimed at retaining the party’s monopoly over the country’s politics.

The violent actions against the small regional and state parties resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency in 1975. Protests from the people however forced Indira Gandhi to lift the state of emergency and organize for national elections in 1977 (Guha, 2007). The results of the elections were devastating to INC as it lost power at the central government to a coalition of small national and regional parties. The aftermath of the elections was an upsurge in rise of regional leaders and political parties, and a gradual deterioration of INC. Moreover, the BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) emerged as one of the strongest parties with a right-wing inclination, a distinct change from the now dying socialist INC. All these factors, along with the formation of weak coalition governments at the center, have largely contributed to the constant outbreak and spreading ethnic conflicts in India. The conflicts have however transcended ethnic divide into religion, largely pitying the dominant Hindu religion against Islam. BJP, although standing out as an ethnic inclusive party, is particularly associated with the political violence between Hindu and Muslims, emanating for its call for Hindu nationalism (Hindutva). The notion of Hindu nationalism has been taunted as the inspiration behind prominent Hindu-Muslim violent incidences, such as the Mumbai and Gujarat riots of 1992 & 1993 and 2002 respectively (Guha, 2007). Such violence is only a scratch on the surface of ethnic and religious tensions in the country with a diverse cultural and ethnic composition. The role of ethnicity and the tension between different ethnic groups sits deeper in the Indian society, and easily manifests itself in the country’s politics and constant ethnic conflicts.

Most of the people in India belong to multiple ethnic groupings, far apart from the known cultural and ancestral ethnicities. Three of these ethnicities stand out, and have become the most prominent political cleavages (Huber & Suryananrayan, 2014). The three ethnicities herein are religion, caste, and subcaste all of which are nested. Ethnicity within the Indian contest takes a far distinct definition from the definition of ethnicity as known around the world. Part of the reason for such a distinctive definition of ethnicity in the Indian context stems from the fact that all these are interrelated and nested within the Indian society. For this reason, caste, tribe, religion, and language all marry into the same definition of ethnicity in the Indian context. Therefore, following Eriksen’s definition of ethnicity, it refers to “an aspect of social relationship between agents who consider themselves as culturally distinctive from members of other groups with whom they have the minimum of regular interaction” (Eriksen, 2002, p. 12).

Religion, particularly the Hindu and the Muslims, form some of the major ethnic groupings in the country. According to Huber and Suryananrayan (2014), “Hindu-Muslim politics has taken on a heightened salience with the rising fortunes of the right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP)” (p. 12). So visible is this divide between Muslims and Hindus that during elections, votes cast in favor of BJP are directly proportional to the population of Hindus in an area (Huber & Suryananrayan, 2014). Therefore, competition (economic) between the Hindus and Muslims in India manifests itself prominently in the country’s politics. The manifestation of Hindu-Muslim strife is particularly visible in closely contested elections, which usually have many Hindu-Muslim riots (Huber & Suryananrayan, 2014).

Caste is another ethnic enclave in existence in India. So central is caste in the Indian politics that most Indians are considered to vote their caste than cast their votes (Huber & Suryananrayan, 2014). Huber and Suryananrayan (2014) put Indians into seven castes that include upper castes, peasant castes, upper backward castes, lower backward castes, schedules caste, scheduled tribes, and Muslims.

The sub-caste, also known as jati are further below the castes. These refer to the hereditary localized groups, most of which reflect the historical occupational sub-sets, and which guide religious and marriage customs (Huber &Suryananrayan, 2014). Jati therefore forms the core of ethnic identity, and plays a huge role in the politics of India. According to Leach, Brown and Worden (2008), ethnicity largely provides individuals with a sense of identity; it bestows the social status of a particular people, supplies security, and knowledge necessary for existence as well as grant social protection to the ethnic group. Therefore, by belonging to an ethnic group, individuals get the power to fight for the protection of their ethnic identity, as well as for their place within a nation, claiming their part in the distribution of national resources and leadership (Leach, Brown & Worden, 2008).

India’s founding leadership of the country’s economy and development aimed at the creation of a structure, which would contain and mitigate any forms of ethnic strife. These elite adopted a model “of indicative plans within a mixed economic structure in which both private capital and a state-owned public sectors played a major role”(Currie, 1996, p. 793). The aim of the objective was to catalyze and support rapid and equal development and economic growth. The central government therefore had the mandate to ensure equity in development across all the regions, regulating both the politics and economy of the country. This was however simply on paper as there was no equitable distribution of resources; development of various ethnic groups and regions was visibly unbalanced, thus eliciting feelings of relative deprivation among communities and regions in the country.

The role of the Indian ethnic entities in politics is perhaps most visible in the years after independence with the voicing from ethnic divides towards the creation of ethno-linguistic provinces. This was an idea voiced even before the attainment of independence, which the British shut down for the fear of such divisions strengthening ethno-linguistic sentiments among the people (Brass, 1994). At the attainment of independence, the central government had the same fears against partitioning of the country along ethno-linguistic lines, this time for fear of the country’s balkanization along the ethno-linguistic lines (Brass, 1994). The push for the division of countries along ethno-linguistic lines however happened with the enactment of the States Reorganisation Act. This gave birth to 14 states and 5 Union Territories. Moreover, there was a subsequent formation and reorganization of new states following the ideology that major ethno-linguistic groups need to live within separate states in the Union (Brass, 1994). The union has however seen even more demand for the creation of new states along the ethno-linguistic lines after the passage of the Reorganisation Act. In fact, more than 10 states have been created since the passage of the Act, with each creation stemming from the demand of the ethnic groups to have their own states. Such demands for new states will keep coming, with each of these demands threatening to not only destabilize the country, but also be subjects of political dialogues in local, state, and national levels. Moreover, such demands, which largely go hand in hand with ethnic violence, further threaten the socio-economic growth and development of the country.

India’s ethnic diversity plays an important role in the country’s politics. The level of ethnic support for political parties largely relates to the level of inequality among different groups within a particular region. For India, there are three major ethnic identities that exist; religion, caste, and subcaste ethnicities. At the core of ethnic strife is religion, with Muslims and Hindus pitied against each other for political and economic power. Thus, although the Hindus are the majority, Muslims equally fight for their position within the local, state, and national politics. Subcaste systems also play an important role in the Indian politics, as they are mostly concerned with the religious and marriage customs. These play a significant role in the existence of people and their political affiliation in the country. As evidenced from independence, ethnicity was, and will remain the center of interest in the country’s regional politics. The push for states along ethno-linguistic lines is a push for consolidation of power for each ethno-linguistic group. However, even within these ethno-linguistic groups, religion plays a major role in individual party affiliation. The BJP has come out strongly in the defence of Hindus, as well as inspired violence against Muslims. All these point towards deeply sitting ethnic mistrust, most of which the division along ethno-linguistic lines only continue to fuel. The Indian Union will need to come up with better solutions to the ethnic animosities if it is to achieve stable socio-economic growth and development.


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