Monday, January 22, 2007

Rioting in Bangalore

India Daily reports on rioting over the weekend in the Indian city of Bangalore. Why is this a big deal? Such events are common in many countries; as I write this there is civil unrestin Guinea and Bangladesh over various political grievances. But such rioting in Bangalore demands comment, because the events are certainly discouraging to one of my favorite hypotheses, that free commerce limits ethnoreligious conflict. Bangalore is after all the hub of cutting-edge Indian commercial activity, justly famous as a rising center of high-technology production and innovation, and the one place where we should best hope for civil peace and cooperation among India's extraodinary tapestry of tribal groups. (Indeed, much of the coverage at Google News is emphasizing that outsourcing ventures have been unaffected as much as the cost of the rioting itself.)

The violence (one killed, dozens injured, stores burnt) apparently began after a protest demonstration by Muslims over the execution of Saddam Hussein. And, lo and behold, it is apparently sectarian politicians who are stoking the flames. This report from AKI indicates that hardline Hindu sectarians took advantage of the tensions, and this one from CNN/IBN quotes ordinary people blaming politicians for stirring up tribal passions. Indian politics have for years been becoming more tribal – on both religious and caste grounds – even as the economy has continued to liberalize. One could even argue that for those who benefit from sectarian divisions, politics will soon be the only arena left.

And so the lesson is that globalization and economic liberalization are no instant magic bullet, particularly with tribalization and discrimination patterns that have been centuries in the making. But over the long haul I am optimistic; this stury (pdf) describes the power of the crazy entrepreneurial environment in Silicon Valley to dissolve the traditional barriers of language, caste and religion among Indian entrepreneurs, which they replace by a pan-Indian identity. To be sure, that is not the ideal endpoint (which comes when they cease thinking of themselves in any tribal terms at all, merely as businessmen), but it is a start. The anti-discriminatory urgency demanded by globalization means Bangalore has come a long way, but the rioting shows Bangalore has a ways yet to go.

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