Colonisation & Social cohesion


Many sociologists have argued that caste system in India underwent a fundamental change with the advent of British rule. I did not understand what it meant till I saw colonisation at work in Iraq

Concepts like social cohesion and trust have been central to the study of institutions in politics and in economics. It has been argued widely that a society that is more cohesive (or where people tend to trust each other) tends to perform better. This argument has been used in explaining economic growth, political stability, industrial productivity, functioning of markets, among other things. I subscribe to the idea that widespread trust or forms of social cohesion are important both for its own sake and to enable us to pursue our goals. But I have been troubled by a dominant idea that people sharing different identities cannot coexist peacefully or trust another.

Elegant statistical estimates have been made to prove this point. A series of papers used the construct “ethno-linguistic fractionalisation” (the probability that any two randomly picked individuals in a society will share the same language and ethnicity) to establish that “cohesive” societies (i.e. where this probability is high) tend to have higher economic growth. Abhijeet Banerjee et al wrote about the role of caste in preventing collective action and as a result fractionalised regions in India tend to have a lower incidence of public goods. These studies have their point, but they have deeply entrenched problems as well.

Frozen identities

My objection to these studies stems from two concerns. One, they select a narrow set of identities (caste, language, ethnicity) and freeze them forever. This ends with a dire result that societies are either cohesive or not and those that are not cohesive are doomed forever. An implication of this view is that societies can escape this predicament only with drastic measures such as purging certain identities or dividing communities into separate nations. These terrible routes have been taken as recourses resulting in form of ethnic cleansing, aggressive Hindu nationalism, and division of nations (as Joe Biden is reputed to have recommended for Iraq). Secondly, this formulation assumes that any difference is conflict and conflict exists in a binary form (i.e. it exists or it does not). In my view, this is a gross and a costly distortion of reality.

Differences need not be conflicts, and conflicts need not be frozen in their intensity. When I read sociological accounts of caste, I did not understand this point well. Many sociologists argued that caste system and differences based on caste existed well before the British rule, but colonisation ossified this and made the differences rigid. Seeing the conflict in Iraq I see how this could have happened.

Many Iraqi intellectuals have argued that sharp differences did not exist among people of various identities (Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, et al) before the invasion. Cordial relationships between the groups existed and sectarian warfare was not heard of. Following colonisation and “de-Bathification” a power vacuum was created intensifying conflicts to capture power. Proliferation of weapons and calculated murders to intensify conflicts has become the order of the day. American response in the form of separating populations (best exemplified by the Bagdad wall) and arming tens of thousands of local militias will now solidify these identities and separate people so much that hatred and mistrust are only bound to develop. These are beautifully captured in a 30 minute documentary called “The other side of surge” (Part 1) (part 2).

At one point the narrator interviews a father grieving over his son’s grave and says, this murder represents everything that has gone wrong in Iraq. The boy, a sunni had gone to meet his best friend who was a shia. When they were having a friendly chat a shia militia caught them. His friend was left alive since he was a shia and he was shot dead. It represents too a reason why we should not capture the fate of societies with simple ossified indices.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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