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Ethnic Conflict & its Impacts

by Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh
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Ethnic conflict, a form of conflict in which the objectives of at least one party are defined in ethnic terms, and the conflict, its antecedents, and possible solutions are perceived along ethnic lines. The conflict is usually not about ethnic differences themselves but over political, economic, social, cultural, or territorial matters. Ethnic conflict is one of the major threats to international peace and security. Conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Darfur as well as in Israel, the West bank, and the Gaza Strip, are among the best-known and deadliest examples from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The destabilization of provinces, states, and, in some cases, even whole regions is a common consequence of ethnic violence. Ethnic conflicts are often accompanied by gross human rights violations, such as genocide and crimes against humanity, and by economic decline, state failure, environmental problems, and refugee flows. Violent ethnic conflict leads to tremendous human suffering.
Ethnic identity is formed by both tangible and intangible characteristics. Tangible characteristics, such as shared culture or common visible physical traits, are important because they contribute to the group’s feeling of identity, solidarity, and uniqueness. As a result, the group considers perceived and real threats to its tangible characteristics as risks to its identity. If the group takes steps to confront the threats, its ethnicity becomes politicized, and the group becomes a political actor by virtue of its shared identity. On the other side, ethnicity  is just as much based on intangible factors—namely, on what people believe, or are made to believe, to create a sense of solidarity among members of a particular ethnic group and to exclude those who are not members. Not all ethnic groups are politically active or engage in ethnic conflict. Depending on the political structure of the state (democracy versus authoritarian regimes) and the size and situation of the ethnic minority (large versus small portion of the society, regionally concentrated versus dispersed), ethnic groups will have different claims and will use different means to voice their demands.
Conflict describes a situation in which two or more actors pursue incompatible goals. It is not necessarily violent, but the use of tension, dispute, or unease is more common in a nonviolent context. A violent internal conflict is generally called a civil war or armed conflict when casualties and destruction are substantial, the conflict has certain duration, the protagonists are organized, and military operations are used to achieve political goals. Ethnic conflict, therefore, is a form of conflict in which there is an ethnic dimension. The ambitions of at least one party are defined in ethnic terms, and the conflict, its antecedents, and possible solutions are perceived along ethnic lines. The conflict tends not to be about ethnic differences themselves but over political, economic, social, cultural, or territorial matters.
If the political goal of ethnic mobilization is self-determination, the movement is called nationalism. A nation in this context is a politicized ethnic group with the desire for self-government; that self-government may take a variety of forms, ranging from participation in public affairs to local segmental autonomy to territorial claims, including independence. The use of the word nation is problematic. On the one side, nation can mean the state as a whole (the way the term is used in international or United Nations). If nation refers to people in this context, it can be understood as the aggregate, permanent population of the state, based on citizenship. On the other side, the word nation is also widely used to refer to a politicized ethnic group, in which case the link among people is based on ethnicity rather than citizenship. Ethnic disputes are common in every multicultural society. Intergroup problems arise in periods of substantial political, economic, and social change and lead to uncertainty, emerging opportunities for action, and particularistic interests. Grievances and polarizing leadership lead to mobilization, ranging from political action (conventional politics, strikes, demonstrations, and other nonviolent means) to violent acts such as terrorism, armed uprisings, guerrilla activity, and civil wars.
Ethnic conflict is particularly likely in states where ethnic groups lack sufficient representation in public and political institutions. Authoritarian one-party regimes with discriminatory legislation and a lack of opportunities for ethnic groups to participate in state decision-making processes are particularly prone to ethnic conflict. Economic problems such as slowdowns, stagnation, deterioration, and complete collapse are sources of state destabilization and can lead to increased tensions and competition among ethnic groups. Discriminatory economic systems in which various groups are faced with inequitable options (in terms of economic opportunities, access to land and other resources, standards of living, and the like) generate resentment and also contribute to tensions and destabilization. Cultural factors such as problematic group histories, stereotypical perceptions, and grievances over cultural discrimination—including limitations on religious and cultural practices, unequal educational opportunities, and restrictions on the use of minority languages — are common causes of ethnic conflict. In addition, a weakening of traditional forms of dispute settlement (such as a council of elders) changes the environment for the resolution of ethnic disputes.
Once ethnic conflict breaks out, it is difficult to stop. Massive human-rights violations and physical attacks on civilians—such as rape, torture, mass killings, ethnic cleansing, and genocide—lead to tremendous human suffering. Systematic discrimination and exclusion from national and local political decision making, the appropriation of ethnic minorities’ traditional homelands, and policies that marginalize ethnic minorities are common practices accompanying ethnic conflict.
The recent violence in Manipur has had a significant impact on the state’s economy. The violence has led to the closure of shops, businesses, schools, and other institutions, and also disrupted transportation and communication networks. This hit the growing agrarian sector in Manipur, which is considered the backbone of the state economy. In Manipur, the economy is driven by agro-based trading. But in the past more than four months, agriculture has taken a bad beating. Many people have left their houses and trading has been hugely impacted,” drivers are not ready to ferry goods from and to Churachandpur, which was the hotspot of recent violence. “We can’t move goods to Churachandpur and Moreh as well as commodities from Churachandpur and Moreh are not coming to Imphal. Drivers are unwilling to move it. The simple hike of the conveyance rate from Rs 4 to Rs 7 has impacted a lot on the prices. Manipur is an agrarian state, when the agriculture and agro-based businesses were reviving from the impact of the Covid pandemic, violence hit the state. The central government had invested around 200 crore in organic natural farming in Manipur. “The Government of India had invested crores in the development of organic farming, which happens mostly in the hills. It began 2016 and production and cash flow went well during the pandemic. The export of agricultural products, mainly pineapple, ginger and green chillies, was a key economic driver in the state. This has also been stopped due to the violence. “We used to do export business of ginger worth Rs 20 crores before the pandemic era. We were recovering from the loss incurred due to Covid and then this situation happened which completely destroyed trading. We are now at zero. No one is exporting anything from Manipur now”. According to the trade analyst, the violence created a ‘buffer zone’ on the land which was used for agricultural purposes. No one is going to harvest now. Plantation cultivation has also been affected. The state saw more than Rs 200 crore businesses in 2022. But, 2023 gives no hope for the agricultural and trading business. It fears that the agro business will fall below Rs 50 crores this year.
Cultural differences and ethnic conflicts are important issues shaping international politics. Because cultural affiliations and ethnic identity are particularly strong factors shaping group relations, these conflicts have led to tremendous human suffering and are a significant threat to international security. Instability, refugee flows, spillover effects, and other international consequences guarantee that ethnic conflict remains an issue on the international political agenda. However, it is not the cultural differences per se that lead to conflict but the political, ideological, and economic goals of international actors, regardless of whether these actors are states or ethnic groups. Given the complexity of ethnic and cultural conflicts, there is no easy solution to related issues.
(Writer can be reached at:[email protected])

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Imphal Times is a daily English newspaper published in Imphal and is registered with Registrar of the Newspapers for India with Regd. No MANENG/2013/51092


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