The Role of the State: Pathways from Ethnolinguistic Nationalism to Conflict in South Asia


In the decade following independence, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka all saw ethnic protests as a result of nationalist language policies. The outcomes of these protests varied from peaceful co-optation by the state to civil war. What explains this? Research on ethnic unrest in the region has focused on structural factors, using identity cleavages, social networks, and ethnic fractionalization to explain how an ethnic group may behave during periods of unrest. In contrast, this paper examines three cases of ethnic protests in the context of state response. Tracing the process of the unrest, I identify specific positive or negative state actions as determinants of how the unrest resolves. Where the state bars protesters from access to the democratic sphere, violent conflict results. Where the state actively engages with protesters in the democratic sphere, the protests are peacefully co-opted. The findings show the costs to a state of taking hardline stances with protesters in situations of ethnic unrest and how they may engage with protesters to defuse unrest.

Priyanka Sethy
October 29, 2020


This paper examines the Tamil language movement in Sri Lanka, the Bengali language movement in erstwhile East Pakistan, and the Tamil language movement in India. In each case, central governments propagated policies declaring a unitary national language, alienating politically subordinate groups that spoke different languages. In Sri Lanka, the Official Languages Act of 1956 (commonly referred to as the “Sinhala Only Act”) formalized Sinhalese as the official language, provoking both violent and nonviolent responses from the Tamil community.1 Between 1948 and 1952, Pakistani leaders declared Urdu to be the state language, inflaming the majority Bengali-speaking population.2 In India, the 1950 constitution declared it the duty of the Union to promote Hindi as the official language.  Despite according both Hindi and English official status at the time of conception, the constitution carried provisions to phase out English within 15 years. The Tamil speakers of the South protested this strongly.

Economic fears abounded in the short-term. In Sri Lanka, the new law stipulated that promotions in the civil service would be based only on tests in Sinhalese, and employment among Tamils plummeted. In Pakistan, employment in any administrative office required the knowledge of Urdu, placing the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan at an immediate economic disadvantage. This fear was reflected among Tamils in India when threatened with Hindi as the only official language for polity-wide careers in the bureaucracy and judiciary.

A long-term effect of the policies was ethnic insecurity. If one group’s language enjoys a high status, that ethnicity enjoys greater political legitimacy. Other ethnicities feel that their own political influence becomes relatively lower. Urdu was perceived by Bengalis in East Pakistan as a “political tool of hegemony and domination aimed at destroying their cultural identity.” A Sri Lankan Tamil politician noted that a “Sinhala Only” policy implied “Sinhalese-speaking people alone are the masters and rulers of [Sri Lanka] and that others must accept subject status.”

In each case, the minority groups led organized protests that yielded changes in the status quo. In Sri Lanka, after riots, the government passed a new constitution giving Tamil formal parity with Sinhalese. In Pakistan, Bengali was nominally given the status of national language alongside Urdu. The Indian prime minister declared that English would remain an “associate” language with Hindi. But despite these appeasing measures, the legacy of the national policies lived on as both fear of ethnic domination and economic disadvantage among ethnic groups.

In each case, the minority ethnicity took to the streets to protest. For the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Bengalis in Pakistan the protests evolved into a civil war. The Tamils in India saw democratic means as the way out. I argue that the difference lies in how the Indian state treated the protests—the reversal in ethnic tensions in India came because the central government made an effort to keep the Tamil parties involved in the democratic process by forming coalitions with them. I argue that state action is a key variable that determines whether protests escalate into violence. Once ethnic protests are in effect, the likelihood of conflict increases if representatives of the minority ethnicity are barred from legislative and political spaces and processes that allow for formalized dissent. These processes include democratic privileges such as the right to representation, the right to vote, standing for political office, debating in legislatures, and governing when democratically elected.

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