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Complementary Commerce Reduces Ethnic Violence

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 13, 2014

In Indian Port cities that have enjoyed a long history of ethnic tolerance even as regions around them succumbed to violence, commerce may have provided the path to peace.

Saumitra Jha, an assistant professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who studies conflict among different social and ethnic groups, looked at the level of violence in medieval port cities in India, which tended to have greater ethnic diversity than other towns. He discovered that when differing groups provide each other with complementary goods and services, their cities are more peaceful.

He examined the history of Hindus and Muslims in South Asia, where they have interacted for more than 1,500 years. The two groups have done a lot of fighting, but they have also had peace, and Jha wanted to learn what conditions led to some long periods of tolerance and cooperation. His research showed that port cities were five times less prone to Hindu-Muslim riots between 1850 and 1950, and half as prone from 1950 to 1995. In the Gujarat state in India, port cities were 25 percent less likely than similar inland towns to experience violence in the ethnic rioting that swept the region in 2002. The medieval port city of Surat in Gujarat was peaceful during that upheaval.


When a minority group, or group not native to the area, provided goods or services that couldn't be duplicated, peaceful coexistence was likely. In a paper in the American Political Science Review, Jha wrote that seventeenth century Muslims had something Hindus wanted. They had transoceanic trade routes, developed through religious pilgrimages. For millions of Muslims from all over the world, the Hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Mohammed's birthplace in Mecca in Saudi Arabia, in a time-honored obligation. Jha writes that from the 700s through the 1800s the world's largest textile market was in Mecca during the Hajj. Ocean trade routes couldn't be stolen or replicated, Jha writes, so the Muslim dominance in Middle Eastern trade was valuable to Hindus, and made the two groups less prone to conflict.

Jha also found that institutions and organizations, especially those that emerged from historic ethnically diverse trade, can help counter conflict. For example, he writes, the Bhoras were Muslim traders who had promoted ethnic tolerance and community disaster relief as well as commerce through a well organized religious hierarchy. See Jha's paper on trade organizations and religious tolerance. The influence of such organizations is likely to have aided the historical and present day relatively peaceful coexistence of Muslim and Hindu in port cities in the Indian Ocean region. See a Stanford news release here.

image credit: ancient city of Surat from freelibrary.com

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture 

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