Yi Feng, SPE, CGU and Saumik Paul, SPE, CGU

"It Takes Two to Tangle: Religion, Riots, and Economic Growth: An Empirical Cross-State Study of India, 1980-2000"

On April 13, 2006, Yi Feng, Professor in the School of Politics and Economics, and Saumik Paul, doctoral candidate in the School of Politics and Economics at CGU shared ideas from their paper, “It Takes Two to Tangle: Religion, Riots, and Economic Growth in India, 1980-2000.”  In this paper, they examined the relationship of Hindu-Muslim tensions, riots, and economic growth development in 17 Indian states over the period of 1980-2000.

For Feng, this paper began because of problems with a widely accepted theory of economic growth, the theory that poorer countries’ economies will grow faster than the economies of richer countries.  Yet this theory is not always supported by evidence from countries around the world.  Feng and Paul decided to focus on 17 states in India in order to examine how the factor of religious tension might affect economic development within one country with a unique religious history.

Paul pointed to previous religious conflict in the twentieth century and riots throughout the 1920s and 1930s in many of the same regions that are prone to rioting between religious groups during 1980-2000.  Looming largely in the history of twentieth century India is the partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh out of parts of India that had high Muslim populations at the time.  At that point, the areas around the borders had a number of riot incidents.  Paul also pointed out several of the major riots in the second half of the twentieth century.  Then Paul concluded by describing the riot in Ayodhya in 1990.  This riot involved the demolition of a mosque by Hindus who claimed the mosque was built on the birthplace of Lord Rama.  Paul tied this riot to the rise to prominence of the non-secular pro-Hindu party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Then Paul turned to the empirical data gathered for this study.  He showed a map revealing that most, although not all, of the riot-prone states were northern border regions with Muslim populations that existed in a comparatively high proportion to the Hindu populations.  For riot statistics, however, they were dependent on official reports where a riot is designated as an unlawful gathering of three or more people, and these statistics do not state the cause, religious or otherwise, for the riots.  For statistics on religiosity, they were also dependent upon statistics that did not examine how religiously observant people actually behaved.  Following the accepted equation for the neo-classical growth model, they included a variable termed “INTER,” which was the multiplication of population shares for Hindus and Muslims in a given state. Also, Feng stated that this part of the equation would only work for two groups who have a history of religious conflict.

At this point, there was a question raised about why Sikh-Hindu conflict was not included considering the riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.  Paul argued that this had not qualified as the same kind of riot because, in his opinion, the Hindus were not as responsible for killing Sikhs as the police were.

In Paul’s examination of their statistical analysis, he stated that both the variable “INTER” and the number of riots were statistically significant in slowing economic growth. Yet there is not always a clear one-to-one correlation between higher Muslim population shares and riot-prone areas.  He believes the empirical evidence does demonstrate that poorer areas are catching up, but he also believes that the variable INTER does seem to lead to increased rioting, which is definitely detrimental to economic growth.  Paul then argued that religious conflict was often instigated by politicians for their own ends, and that this study does not prove that differing religious cannot live and work together; Paul emphasized that this study was only about this situation in India.

Paul then turned to questions for future study.  According to Duverger’s law, after the formation of democracies, countries tend to settle into a system with two dominant parties.  Why is it that this did not happen with India, which has 10-15 major parties? Paul was then interested in the case of Bhiwandi, a previously riot-prone area that became peaceful after stricter controls were implemented; why has this not been tried successfully in other areas?  Also, Paul believes some examination should be done on how the creation and sustenance of civic ties between Muslims and Hindus affects conflict and riots.

In the question and answer period, one question interrogated how segregated life really was, to which Paul answered that, while some segregation does exist in the case of schools, it does not exist for many aspects of life.  Paul explained that Hindus and Muslims often work together everyday, and these riots generally do not occur unless politically provoked.  Many questions were also raised about Feng and Paul’s statistics, about the problems of relying on officially reported riots, and about ignoring other types of group conflicts that are not necessarily Hindu-Muslim.  In addition, questions were raised about what can really be observed from this study considering that all the states do continue to grow economically and most of the conflict is rooted in Hindu targeting of the Muslim populations.  Paul and Feng maintained this study’s importance because it was examining if religious tension was a variable, but they were not trying to contend that religious conflict was the main or only explanation for slower economic growth in some areas.

Professor Wimbush then concluded the conversation by arguing that this case shows how religion is not necessarily something one believes in, rather it is a shorthand for how people organize themselves; religion is a framework within which people interact and work.  Wimbush wanted to know what this study of India does for a conversation begun by Max Weber on the relationship between religion and capitalism as he focused on the West.  Wimbush also wanted to know what it would mean to study the U.S.A. on these terms.
Questions for consideration:
If Feng and Paul are right in their descriptions of Hindu-Muslim riots as being instigated by politicians, why is it that communities organized along religious lines can be so politically exploited?   What role does a long historical backdrop play in making these tensions exploitable among these communities? On the other hand, if these riots were a more grassroots decision, what might that say about the powers of "religion" as an organizing principle?

Human history has witnessed multiple religious communities live in relative harmony.  What are some of the possible factors that can explain how these communities have succeeded in co-existence?  How has nationalism in the U.S.A., as one example, worked to create religious "others?"  On the other hand, how has nationalism functioned in the U.S.A. to quell or mask conflict between religious groups?

Are the results from a study based on questionable statistics and flawed methodology necessarily wrong?  If not, why is there still something valuable to be gained from such a study?  How can we as students of culture understand the role of statistical measures in supporting our research?

Assuming that Paul and Feng are correct and that the conflicts are instigated by politicians, how do other factors, like class, race, or ethnicity affect religious conflict?  How can civic relations between groups divided by religion, race, economics, etc. be facilitated so as to produce peaceful coexistence?

How does voluntary segregation such as in the schools define and reinforce identity and difference?  How does this socialize a view of what the "Indian" is?

How might ethnographic study shed light on bare statistical analysis in that it uses narrative and biographical information about individual experiences?

How could the questions raised by this study be aided by considering the history of India before the British?  How could considerations of Mughal India as well as the birth and development of Sikhism shed light on some of these religious factors affecting the political and economic climate of contemporary India?  How also might this study be aided by considerations of the relations between other religious traditions in India, and specifically Sikhism, considering how important many of the audience members viewed the 1984 riots?

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