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GDP and Riots: Does Economic Growth augment Communalism

As much as India is a shining case of ‘unity in diversity’, several innocent people die each year due to the lack of unity in the diversity of India. One of the most prominent features of the pluralist society of India is communalism. In spite of religious freedom being guaranteed as a fundamental right to all Indians, every year we see more and more riots based on religious discrimination in this country1. In 2017, 822 incidents of communal violence was seen in the country, and 111 people were killed in these riots2. Religious intolerance is also on the rise all over the nation3. In 2019, we saw the ‘cow protection’ vigilantes take to mob lynching against the beef-eating and cattle-trading communities in India3. Earlier this year, the national capital saw devastating riots of a communal nature which had initially started off as peaceful Anti-Citizenship Amendment Bill protests but turned into violent riots where not only were people killed, but also raped mercilessly, due to religiously divisive comments by politicians. 4 But religious riots are not a new thing in India, nor are they likely to disappear soon.

Communal riots decidedly affect the economic conditions of the surroundings in which they take place. Businesses shut down; people do not go out of their homes, so demand for even bare necessities and transport falls; markets are shut down. Sometimes even curfews are declared, which curtail the functioning of economic activities in that region (which might be restricted to one neighbourhood, or may spread to adjacent cities). Long-term violence leads to deterrence in investment and destruction of property. All these clearly impact economic growth directly. 5 An example to prove this relation is the fact that after the infamous Gujarat riots of 2002, the investment flowing into the state from other states began to decline6. Thus, it is evident that religious riots have an adverse impact on economic growth.

However, far-fetched as it may seem, the reverse also holds true – economic growth too impacts religious conflicts and violence. This impact may be positive or negative in nature. This article argues that there is a positive relationship between economic growth and communal riots – as the economy grows, the incidence of communal riots too increases. This statement echoes Tocqueville’s argument on the cause of the French Revolution – he had said in 1955 that the French Revolution was caused by improvement and not by impoverishment7. This view was considered a paradox then, the topic of this article seems like a paradox now – nonetheless, it is true.

The common opinion goes against the above statement: people believe that economic growth will wipe out religious intolerance and violence. Evidence of lesser communal riots in more developed countries stimulates this opinion. The justification for this statement is that opportunity cost of rioting increases and consequently, incidence of religious riots reduce: one would rather spend their time earning a livelihood than get engaged in time-taking religious activities like rioting. A research paper by Bohlken A. and Sergenti E. in 2010 states: “a 1% increase in the growth rate decreases the average number of riots by over 5%”8– however, the authors clearly state that there is no definite correlation that a region with higher GDP or higher economic growth will show lesser communal violence, as was seen in the 2002 Gujarat riots, where over 1000 people were killed although its economy was one of the fastest growing economies among the states in the country. 9 There are many more examples that go against the opinion stated in the research paper, such as riots in the economically prosperous state of Punjab in India, and so on. It is this conflicting view that causes one to rethink: does economic growth really reduce religious riots or instead aggravate them?

Economic growth, among other effects, increases inequality and polarization in the country, which in turn, incites religious conflict10. This argument may be identified as the root cause of all the conflicts between the Hindus and Muslims in India. It is well-known that during the British Raj, the Hindus enjoyed more economic prosperity due to their greater acceptance of British education and lifestyle, while the Muslims, who refused to adopt British culture and education, remained backward11, and did not hold many government jobs or enjoy economic power12 until a socio-economic wave of reform passed in the form of the Aligarh movement. This difference in status of the Hindus and Muslims was among the primary factors contributing to the beginning of communalism in India. The economic growth of India after British colonialism was marked by improvement in education by installing a system of Western education in the country, and those who embraced it (the Hindus) improved their standard of living, while the others (the Muslims) lagged behind. This gave rise to inequality, and was strong enough to create a sense of communalism in the hearts of the people even after living together for centuries.

Expansion of the economy and of capitalist markets generally leads to dislocation13: such as the rural-urban migration, migration from smaller towns to larger ones, migration to more populated and prosperous areas. If the country is characterised by communal tensions, then such dislocations will aggravate the tensions; this is likely to happen when the minority group tries to settle down in a region where almost every household belongs to the majority group. Furthermore, there will be a scramble for resources by the different conflicting communities. All this can trigger conflict.

In a country like India, we often see that only a particular religious community is seen in a certain kind of industry or business – these traditions in professions persist even today. When there is economic growth, there is bound to be a situation where one type of industry rises, and the others decline, due to change in circumstances. If there are communal interests involved in these industries, then such disparities will encourage communal riots14.

Economic growth leads to a greater spirit of competition among businesses, and this leads to business rivalry. The 1991 Varanasi riots and the 1984 Bhiwandi riots have been claimed to be caused by such business rivalry. P.R. Rajgopal in his book, Communal Violence in India, stated, “When the competition happens to be between merchants belonging to two religious groups, communal motives are imputed for the success or the failure of the different groups.” 15 This statement was made with reference to the 1984 Bhiwandi riots and shows the truth in the argument that economic growth has a positive effect on communal violence.

Any sort of conflict breaks out only when the majority group begins to feel threatened by the minority group – religious riots are no exception. As economic growth takes place, the minority group begins to gather more and more economic power – this threatens the feeling of security and dominance that the majority community likes to enjoy in society. This incites communal violence again. Communal riots in Moradabad, Godhra and Jabalpur too are examples of such riots that spurred from economic rivalry and a desire to weaken the growing economic prosperity of the minority group. 16

When a person sees economic prosperity, he naturally desires to obtain political power. This is seen in communities too. In a country naturally characterised by historical conflict between religious groups or communities, riots may break out due to this aspiration and accumulation of political power by a certain religious group. For instance, in India, it is commonly observed that the political power-holders of a region are generally from the majority community of that region – this happens quite naturally as the majority community in the region is able to access greater resources and hence, experiences economic prosperity, and consequently, gains political power. In such regions, the political agendas are framed according to these communal biases, and this leads to further deprivation of economic opportunities to the minority group, thereby widening the communal divide in society. Such an environment is bound to lead to communal conflict and violence. This argument is substantiated by the fact that even in India, we see that the minorities receive poorer economic facilities like banking services, education and healthcare facilities, due to the political policies17.

Thus, we see the various ways in which economic growth leads to communalism. This end result is slightly concerning, and even proves, yet again, the importance of ‘inclusive economic growth’ – no man or community should be left behind in the growth process. Unless every community grows equally, there will be disparities and such merciless violence shall continue to disrupt the working of civil society. Hence, the policy-makers must take into consideration the diversity of the Indian population while formulating policies for public welfare. It is high time we realise this and change for the better, or else we shall have to give up our pride in the pluralist culture of India.

By Samparna Mittra
Senior Secondary Student, Modern High School for Girls, Kolkata, West Bengal





4 The global organisation, Human Rights Watch, released a report on February 18, 2019, titled “Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities”.


6 Bohlken, A., & Sergenti, E. (2010). “Economic growth and ethnic violence: An empirical investigation of Hindu—Muslim riots in India” Journal of Peace Research vol. 47, no. 5, pg. 589-600.


8 Ray D., Esteban J. “Conflict and Development” Annual Review of Economics pg. 279 (2017)

16 Rajgopal, P.R. Communal Violence in India Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi (Uppal Publishing House, 1987)

Quote retrieved from- Mitra A., Ray, D. “Implications of an Economic Theory of Conflict: Hindu-Muslim Violence in India” Journal of Political Economy vol. 122, no. 4 (The University of Chicago Press, 2014)

9 Bohlken, A., & Sergenti, E. “Economic growth and ethnic violence: An empirical investigation of Hindu—Muslim riots in India” Journal of Peace Research vol. 47, no. 5, pg. 589-600 (2010)


11 Iyer S. “The Economics of Religion in India” (Belknap Press, 2018)

12 Brass P. Language, Religion, and Politics in Northern India pg. 120 (iUniverse Inc., 2005)

13 Khanam A., Muslim Backward Classes: A Sociological Perspective pg. 31 (SAGE Publications, 2013)

14 Bardhan P,. Method in the Madness? A Political-Economy Analysis of Ethnic Conflicts in Less-Developed Countries (Centre for International and Development Economics Research, University of California, 1996)

15 Bardhan P,. Method in the Madness? A Political-Economy Analysis of Ethnic Conflicts in Less-Developed Countries (Centre for International and Development Economics Research, University of California, 1996)

17 Engineer, A. A. Communal Riots in Post-independence India (Sangam Books, 1984)


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