When Grievances Do Not Mean Violence

By Bethany Lacina

The vast majority of political violence is within rather than between states. How do national politics—that is, the central government’s attempts to stay in office—make civil violence more or less likely? Social science has ignored that question in favor of debate, catalyzed by scholars at the World Bank, over whether “greed’’ or ‘’grievance” most motivates militants. There, governments are not actors but background conditions. To challenge that approach, I studied violence during one of the largest and most complicated domestic policy reforms in recent history, the reorganization of the Indian federation in the 1950s. Activists’ decisions to engage in violence were related to how they expected the government to act. Those expectations depended on electoral politics. Ironically, the most militant ethnic groups were not the most aggrieved groups. Instead, militants were from reasonably large, powerful ethnic groups that needed violence to overcome a modest disadvantage in partisan politics.

In the 1950s, Indian states’ borders were redrawn to roughly conform to (some) language borders. In theory, any language that had an area of territorial concentration could have had a new state boundary drawn around that area. The majority language group in the new state would be able to set the state language, be powerful in state politics, and thus be privileged in education, civil service, and state-run firms there. Other interests would be losers: some people would end up as linguistic minorities and/or the new state would siphon off resources from an existing state. Thus, each possible change to the federation defined a unique coalition of ethnic interests in favor and opposed.

The central government was controlled by the Indian National Congress (INC). The strength of the party’s organization and its popularity among voters varied across ethnic groups and regions of the country. The national government was happy to endorse new states where statehood proponents were a valuable INC constituency and statehood opponents were either too few to matter much to the INC’s future electoral fortunes or were firmly in the column of a rival party. Regional elites knew whether they had this kind of advantage with the INC government. If they did, they had no reason to mobilize their followers for violence. I show that these “peacefully accommodated” statehood proponents had recently elected a large number of INC representatives relative to the number sent by rival anti-statehood interests.

Other regional elites did not mobilize violent statehood campaigns, but for opposite reasons. These elites were from ethnic groups that could have benefitted from a newly carved federal state. However, the group’s representation in the INC compared very unfavorably to the representation of anti-statehood groups. Statehood proponents could not expect to succeed through violence. The national executive would put down militancy rather than compromise at the expense of a valuable INC constituency.

Thus, there was no such direct relationship between unhappiness with existing federal borders and violence. Instead, some of the most disadvantaged ethnic groups in the country—particularly the “tribes” of central India—were not militant because they happened to be located where a powerful Congress bloc favored the status quo.

Violent statehood movements did succeed in parts of India. Statehood proponents mobilized for violence and won concessions in regions where they were not too disadvantaged in the Congress party relative to opponents of statehood. Violence transformed parochial statehood disputes into national crises. With crisis underway, the center compromised with the pro-statehood militants.

A connection between violence and domestic politics almost certainly exists outside India and beyond the realms of ethnic or territorial conflict. Part of the logic is intuitive: some interests are peacefully accommodated because of their political importance to the national government. A more provocative claim is that there are ethnic groups, economic classes, and interests that are not violent because the constituencies opposed to their goals are so close to the central executive. Anticipation of government repression deters violence. The ironic implication is that the interests that use militancy are not that much weaker, politically, than the opponents of their policy goals. There is no linear relationship between objective measures of grievance and militancy because domestic politics gives governments a credible threat of repression against the most marginalized.

About the Author: Bethany Lacina is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester and a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Civil War at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. Her article, “How Governments Shape the Risk of Civil Violence: India’s Federal Reorganization, 1950–56” appeared in the July 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association. AJPS is published by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing and supported by the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the MSU College of Social Science.


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2014: 4/161 (Political Science)

Online ISSN: 1540-5907

Print ISSN: 0092-5853


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The Editor of the AJPS is at Michigan State University and the Editorial Office is supported by
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