Twenty-two years ago, a mosque in Ayodhya was demolished by militant Hindus. Indian society and polity have never been the same since. The demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 sparked nationwide riots, and helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerge as a national force. Since then, the segregation of Muslims, especially in urban India, has only increased, and Hindu-Muslim differences have formed the backdrop of many heated political exchanges and electoral contests.

Despite the profound influence of communal conflicts in shaping Indian society and polity, empirical research on the subject is rather sparse. Two recent research papers, published earlier this year, partly address this drought. They offer equally provocative but substantially different narratives about Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India. The first study, by economists Anirban Mitra of the University of Oslo and Debraj Ray of New York University provides evidence (mintne.ws/1vQqoNH) to show that increase in the levels of Muslim affluence is a key driver of Hindu-Muslim conflict. The second study, by political scientists Gareth Nellis, Michael Weaver and Steven Rosenzweig of Yale University, provides evidence to show that the election of a Congress legislator in state assemblies has a statistically significant impact in reducing the likelihood of riots in a typical constituency.

Both studies rely on a unique database of communal riots in India, prepared by two outstanding scholars on Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India, Steven Wilkinson and Ashutosh Varshney, both of whom do not see the Congress as the peacekeeper Nellis et al do. The two US-based political scientists, who separately wrote influential books on communal violence in India in the early 2000s, compiled a database on Hindu-Muslim riots spanning the 20th century based on interpretive assessments of The Times of India news reports. One big reason for the lack of empirical research on communal conflicts in India was the paucity of reliable data. The academic literature on the subject has grown since the publication of the Wilkinson-Varshney database. The database has its limitations but is the most consistent source for analysing historical trends in Hindu-Muslim rioting.

Based on data from 1979 to 2000, Mitra and Ray show that Hindu-Muslim violence rises in response to an increase in the average income levels of Muslims across regions. Similar increases in levels of Hindu income have little impact on rioting. The effect holds even after controlling for literacy, inequality within the groups, and urbanization levels for each region. The authors also point out that the strength of the BJP across regions does not explain differences in levels of rioting. Mitra and Ray argue that envy and Hindu insecurity could be a key driver of inter-religious conflict. Muslims are poorer on average than Hindus. In a society with rigid social hierarchies, where everyone knows their place, a rise in Muslim prosperity allows them entry into domains and social circles that were hitherto closed to them. This upsets social conservatives and fuels violence. In their support, the authors draw on earlier ethnographic research on riots in cities such as Varanasi and Meerut, where Muslim businesses were systematically targeted by Hindu goons, allegedly at the behest of business rivals.

Nellis et al offer an alternative reading of riots in India. While Mitra-Ray emphasize economic forces behind communal conflict, Nellis et al emphasize the role of politics in shaping and containing such conflicts. They analyse data between 1962 and 2000 to show that the election of Congress legislators in close elections contained riot incidents by about 10% over this period. They focus on assembly constituencies that faced close contests and then compare differences in rioting in constituencies where the Congress won to those constituencies where the Congress lost elections to arrive at their findings. They also argue that rioting polarizes voters and harms the electoral prospects of the Congress party in ensuing elections, while it has the opposite effect on the fortunes of its principal rival, the BJP, which gains vote share following such polarization. Unlike Mitra-Ray, Nellis et al do not seem to control for other determinants of riots such as the levels of literacy, urbanization, residential segregation and incomes, which have been identified by other scholars as key determinants of riots. This should not matter as long as their key assumption—that outcomes of close elections are completely random—holds true.

Still, geography and history do have an important role in generating and sustaining communal conflicts. A 2008 research paper by Duke University economist Erica Field and her co-authors suggests that living arrangements of communities can have a large bearing on rioting. Field et al contrasted neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad that witnessed violent rioting in the post-Godhra riots in 2002 with those neighbourhoods that remained peaceful in that period. They found that the violent neighbourhoods were typically low-income mixed neighbourhoods, where Hindus and Muslims lived cheek by jowl. The mixed neighbourhoods were typically in the mill areas of Ahmedabad. Textile mills had been the engine of economic growth in the city till the mid-1970s and employed both Hindus and Muslims. As in Mumbai, mills also offered subsidized accommodation in tenements (or chawls) for their workers. Many continued to live there even after the mills had shut down, but could not sell their tenancy rights.

“As a result, mill neighbourhoods had among the highest religious diversity in 2002, and were also the ones in which real estate markets functioned the most poorly...workers and ex-workers remained in more integrated neighbourhoods even as the distaste for, or fear of, living among other religions rose on account of external events," Field et al write.

In a 2011 research paper, Ward Berenschot of the University of Amsterdam points out that even within mill areas of Ahmedabad, there was considerable variation in rioting in 2002. He contrasts a peaceful neighbourhood against a violent one in the mill area of Ahmedabad to show that local leadership and patronage networks play a large role in explaining riots. In the violent neighbourhood, the local BJP legislator called the shots, and neighbourhood goons owed allegiance to him. They could therefore be used to foment trouble. The peaceful neighbourhood Ramrahimnagar had a unique history: both Hindus and Muslims had come together many years ago to form a joint committee and evict the local slumlord. The patronage networks in Ramrahimnagar centred on that multi-ethnic committee, and hence the committee could play an effective role in preventing violence.

The role of civic association, highlighted by Berenschot, corroborates the central thesis of Varshney, who had pointed to the importance of civic engagement in preventing riots in his seminal work on the subject, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life. Varshney did not see the Congress party as a pacifying agent across the country. According to Varshney, communal harmony in Congress-held districts depended on “whether the Congress ideology of a composite nation or groups subscribing to a communal view of the nation dominated local wings of the party." Varshney also showed that the BJP was not uniformly anti-Muslim. In Lucknow, where economic interests of Hindus and Muslims were intertwined, the party did not attempt to polarize voters across religious lines.

Wilkinson in his 2004 book, Votes And Violence, also doubted the role of the Congress party in promoting communal harmony. Wilkinson emphasized the role of inter-party competition and the ruling party’s reliance on Muslim minority votes in determining whether or not state governments act to suppress Hindu-Muslim violence.

“Despite Congress’s official claims to always protect minorities, the party’s status as the dominant catchall party for many years and its often weak party discipline has meant that at one time or another Congress politicians have both fomented and prevented communal violence for political advantage," wrote Wilkinson.

Nellis et al challenge the conclusions of Varshney and Wilkinson with their new research. Wilkinson argued that state governments matter more than local legislators. But Nellis et al argue that the local legislator matters more both in fomenting and controlling violence. Surprisingly, their results suggest that the ability of a Congress legislator to contain ethnic violence does not depend on whether the state government is headed by a Congressman or not.

Given the complex interplay of factors determining Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India, it is unlikely that the last word on the subject has been said yet. If further research corroborates the findings of Nellis and his co-authors, this should indeed lead to a reappraisal of the role of the Congress party in post-independent India, as the authors suggest. If Mitra-Ray’s conclusions are found to be more credible, it can help identify potential flash points well in advance.

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