Votes and Violence by Steven I. Wilkinson


Steven I. Wilkinson in his book ‘Votes and Violence: Electoral competition and ethnic riots in India’ explores the problem of variability in ethnic violence in different states of India and their causes. He tries to put an end to many prevailing myths and theories that scholars, students and the common people have held regarding the causes of outbreak of a communal riot using detailed statistical analysis. Apart from critiquing those theories he proposes an electoral theory of ethnic violence, which tries to answer the long prevailing problems regarding communal violence. He formulates this theory by analysing different levels of party competition and its relation with voting patterns of communities. In establishing correlation between communal violence and other variables he has drawn attention to various facets of Indian democracy like emergence of regional parties, colonial legacy in communal relations and eroding state capacity.

The book is written in a fairly simple language. The author has avoided jargon as far as possible. Conclusions are substantiated through detailed tables, maps and statistical results. Though techniques of quantitative analysis like regression analysis have been used, it does not present any kind of hindrance to the reader as the results obtained are then sufficiently elaborated using a language, which is perfectly understandable. The narrative and the argument of the book are structured wonderfully making it an easy read.        

Before elaborating his own theory regarding the cause of communal violence, Wilkinson discusses various prevailing theories regarding communal violence which include: economic incentives, “violence begets violence”, embittered refugee hypothesis and demographic balance and security dilemma hypothesis. While he points out that economic incentives play a role in sustaining the riot, they are unimportant in initiating the conflict.

 The book says that an especially violent history of confrontation between communities also helps in initiating an ethnic conflict but in itself is not sufficient to start a conflict. From 1947 to 1950 there was a spike in number of riots because of the fact that Hindu and Sikh refugees brought with them the bitter resentment towards Muslims. It is long known that an increase in the population of a community vis-à-vis other community has an inverse ‘U’ relationship with the level of ethnic violence. But this factor alone cannot explain why despite a large Muslim population Kerala has been relatively riot free.

While dealing with the problem of communal violence the author delves into other trends that have accompanied the Indian democratic evolution which are: an erosion of state capacity due to the constant intervention of politicians in the matters of police and bureaucracy and shifts toward consociational structure since the demise of Nehru. While some argue that the decline in state capacity is the cause of an increasing number of ethnic conflicts in post-Nehruvian era, states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which experienced most erosion, were still able to stop ethnic conflicts from time to time. Arend Lijphart as a solution for preventing ethnic violence presented the consociational theory. 

Wilkinson critiques this theory of consociational democracy as he explains that application of consociational structure in India cannot establish a direct causal relationship between power sharing amidst different ethnic communities and the occurrence of riots. The problem with this theory is that it assumes that identities in India are fixed whereas religion, caste, language etc provide a plethora of identities around which people mobilise. 

One of the prevalent discourses in this field is that the British, through their divisive policies, sowed the seeds of communal violence in India. But Wilkinson provides an alternative perspective to look at the colonial period. He looks at the colonial period as the system, which was modelled to prevent communal conflict from arising through minority overrepresentation and separate electorates. The governors in colonial administration made sure to form an ethnically inclusive government. The administrative legacy of colonial rule was gradually discarded post-1947 when minority reservations were discarded and separate electorates were systematically scrapped. Hence, colonial administrative legacy was systematically discarded which is why one cannot find a complete picture of communal violence by looking at the colonial period.

  The book also points out the micro-level factors in riot management. The mobilisation is first carried out by one community, which is followed by another mobilisation by the opposite community because of fear and insecurity. The behaviour of individuals in this mob is evaluated as the behaviour of the mob, and ultimately, as of community itself. Though the author does mention, at some point, that inter-communal civic engagement might prevent riots from breaking out due to limitations imposed on anti-Muslim or anti-Hindu mobilisation because of familiarity that these communities have towards each other. He himself points out the difficulty in quantifying these aspects of violence, which limit the development of theory while taking these variables into consideration. The relationship is also probabilistic in nature rather than binding.

    Wilkinson establishes state as the unit of analysis because of its control over bureaucracy and police, which, despite being comparatively weakened, still has the capacity to prevent conflict if state government wills it. Local factors can give rise to a riot but whether the party in power has the incentive to stop it or sustain it determines the trajectory of the riot.        

Wilkinson, while presenting his theory, does not undermine these historically contingent, demographical mob behaviours and socio-economic factors which influence the outbreak of violence. But he makes a point that certain conditions within electoral politics provide incentives for these forces to work towards the occurrence of a riot, which cannot be explained by these factors alone, as inferred from his statistical analysis. 

For testing his hypothesis he uses the statistical tools of regression analysis and time series. The results comply with the fact that communal violence is inversely related to the degree of party competition. He divides Indian states into the following categories and draws conclusion regarding the occurrence of communal riots on the basis of this classification:

  1. States with bipolar competition and where one of the parties relies on minority support and other is anti-minority. 
  2. States with a high degree of party fractionalisation, where the minority vote becomes especially crucial.

Based on this classification and quantitative analysis he concludes that there is a positive correlation between lack of electoral competition and communal violence. The first case is especially dangerous- when the party with anti-minority agenda is in government- while in other cases the government has a clear incentive in preventing riots from breaking out. Even if they break out they prevent the situation from escalating. 

  He substantiates his theory with case studies drawn from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Varanasi, Mathura and Gujarat where his theory provide a plausible explanation for lack or occurrence of riots. By testing his hypothesis, not only for India but also against other countries, which have experienced communal violence, he provides a high degree of credibility to his theory. He gives the examples of the inter-communal relationship between Catholics and Protestants of Ireland, Malays and Chinese of Malaysia, and Romanians and Bulgarians in Romania to make his point. 

But what Wilkinson hasn’t emphasised enough is the relation between the violence and the level of organisation which is internal to a particular community. For example, Atul Kohli points the crucial role played by gurudwaras, which provided a ready combination of money, manpower and a platform to sway opinion. The potential for mobilising a community is very much dependent on the cohesiveness that religious organisations can provide like the RSS, Bajrang Dal, Akali Dal etc.   

Ashutosh Varshney, in his critique of Wilkinson’s work, points out that he has conveniently omitted various important events and time periods to support his theory along with certain limitations that the quantitative methods employed by Wilkinson have. Varshney points out that Wilkinson has ignored the positive correlation between the prevention of riots and parliamentary elections. What are the different incentives at play in this electoral competition, which inhibits communal violence?  

Mulayam Singh, whose inclinations towards minority protection are very much known, was able to prevent riots in 1994-95 but not in 1989-90.  Despite Congress’ courting of Muslim vote bank in Gujarat communal riots broke out there in 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1991 and 1992 while BJP came to power only in 1995. These exceptions have been ignored by Wilkinson, which might not get explained through his theory.  

In retrospect, while most of the literature on ethnic conflict focuses on the history of enmity between the groups and economic relations between the communities, the thesis offered by Wilkinson is ingenious. His work is really helpful in understanding communal violence despite its certain deficiencies. Its greatest contribution lies in linking the epistemological sphere. It establishes a cause-effect relationship between communal violence and electoral politics and offers us a new perspective towards antagonistic identity formation in modern India. It holds important conclusions for and regarding scholars, bureaucrats and politicians alike.


Samarth Gupta is a third year student of Ashoka University studying Political Science and International Relations.





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