Why India’s economic growth hasn’t deterred religious rioting

Another day, another bus burnt.
Another day, another bus burnt.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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We can think of religious riots in India as one example of a broader class of riots that are categorised as “ethnoreligious conflicts”—defined as conflicts that involve ethnic groups that are distinguished from each other by their religions.

The data for 1950-2006 show that there were about 30 religious riots each year in India.

On average, 212 people were killed each year, and almost 600 injured. There is also considerable variation in riots and growth across the Indian states. For example, in 2006, while Punjab had virtually no riots, the affluent state of Gujarat had about six riots.

The damage in terms of property and prosperity must be on a similar scale; so too must the harm done to inter-religious networks throughout the country. The intensity of such riots, puzzlingly, has shown no sign of abating despite India’s recent and accelerating economic growth.

For example, the riots in 2002 in Gujarat are an acute reminder of this. In two and a half months of violence, normal life came to a standstill, and close to 400 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the capital alone. The state-wide death toll of the riots, though disputed, is estimated to have been 1,050.

Events such as this outline the importance of a deeper understanding of the mechanisms behind religious riots (specifically, what determines rioting behavior) and the effects of rioting on economic growth. As macroeconomic theory suggests that riots affect economic growth and growth affects the chance of riots, we must first examine what causes riots.


An economic approach to religious rioting

To develop a framework within which to examine rioting, I view religious riots, as suggested first by E Glaeser, as an act of hatred and an extreme form of religious participation or attendance. The Glaeser model is very important for economic studies of religious conflict, as it provides a unique framework within which to consider the decision to riot. This decision is similar to the decision to attend a sermon, in that both involve costs of time sacrificed for religious activity. Rioting, as a manifestation of hatred, is also determined by economic, historic, political, and psychological grievances. These non-economic determinants provide us with instruments that can be used in the econometric analysis presented in this chapter.

In their pioneering work on the economics of religion, C Azzi and R Ehrenberg included afterlife consumption, determined by time dedicated to time-intensive religious activities, as a component of the household’s utility. An increase in wage rates, by increasing the opportunity cost of time, decreases religious participation. Since religious rioting can be categorised as this sort of participation, we would expect an increase in the rate of Indian growth to lead to fewer riots. Religion may also be a way of ensuring income and happiness in spite of economic fluctuations—especially, as is the case in developing countries, in the absence of other risk-mitigating institutions.


In India, rioting is mainly, but not entirely, an urban phenomenon: only 18.1% of Hindu-Muslim riots in my data set took place in villages, with the remaining occurring in towns or cities. However, this effect could be interacting with the rent-seeking effects of rapid urban economic growth. Furthermore, urban disturbances may be reported more faithfully, given the size of the country. In contrast to the Stark-Finke hypothesis, R Barro and R McCleary find an inverse urban-attendance relationship and attribute this to the presence of competing leisure activities in cities. The literature on the economics of religion may also explain membership in right-wing religious organisations such as the RSS, which imposes strict prohibitions on its members. L Iannaccone and E Berman model this as a club good: the sect imposes sacrifices that may stigmatise members in the view of outsiders but that also eliminate free riders who partake of religious participation without appropriate commitment. Thus sacrifice and stigma, by signaling commitment, may be a second-best solution to crowding externalities within the congregation.

Glaeser’s “political economy of hatred” provides us with non-income causes of rioting. He defines hatred as “the willingness of members of one group to pay harm to members of another group.” Though ostensibly irrational, hatred is modeled as a function of supply and demand in a political market. People hate because of feelings, whether justified or not, of injustice, or if they feel threatened. This is reflected in other historical work as well: for example, Jaffrelot writes extensively about Indian Hindus as the majority with a minority complex.

According to Glaeser, the demand for hatred is reflected by the willingness of consumers to listen to hateful stories—which may or may not be true—supplied by politicians. It is an increasing function of the psychological need for the consumer to hate. For example, if the consumer’s group has just faced a loss, then he or she may have an innate interest in finding a scapegoat to hate. Hatred is a decreasing function of the benefits that a person in the majority group obtains from social or economic interaction with the minority, the value of which we can assume increases as an economy grows. The benefits are a function of the minority group’s size and the extent to which its members are integrated into society. Thus, religious conflict can be modeled as a function of the percentage of minorities in the population.

Politicians supply stories of past crimes, which transform non-haters into haters, to maximise the number of votes received. Individuals in the majority group vote based on the potential benefits they will receive from proposed policies as well as their dislike of the minority. Individuals in the minority group vote based on the potential benefits and their hatred of the majority.

Politicians’ expenditure on hatred is constrained by the level of funds available to campaigning parties, the political organisation of minorities, and constitutional statutes limiting abuse of minorities. The supply of hatred is also determined by the initial level of hatred in society and the intergroup impact of politicians’ policies. Thus a proredistribution candidate is likely to benefit minorities the most if they are poorer, and the response of the opposition may be to create hatred of them.

Glaeser’s model suggests that in equilibrium, the level of hatred increases with intergroup economic differences, time spent listening to messages of hatred, the level of funds of the right-wing candidate, the benefits from interactions expropriated by the majority group, and the voter’s interest in the subsidy received from hating. Hatred falls with the number of interactions not carried out specifically with the members of one’s group, the benefits from interactions with minorities, and the funds available to the left-wing candidate. Hatred displays increasing returns and, once started, is costly to curb.

The size of minorities has an ambiguous effect: if they are large, it is costly for both politicians and voters to hate; but large minorities may increase the majority voter’s innate interest in the benefits of hating. Ultimately, incentives to both voters and politicians must be altered to change the level of hatred in society. Glaeser concludes that economic and social integration and statutes preventing the political use of minorities as scapegoats help fight hatred.

Concomitant with Glaeser’s analysis, secularism has been associated with the formerly socialist Congress Party. For example, former Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh once commented that “Muslims must have the first claim on resources.” The size of the Muslim minority (15% of the population) is not insignificant, but it implies that the BJP need not court Muslim voters to gain electoral success—although the empirical relationship between the size of the minority and rioting that we observe is interesting.

Thus, microeconomic models study the determinants of religiosity, as well as the dynamics of the market for religion. Low wage rates and unemployment due to slow growth, or inequality and urbanisation, are potential factors in the decision to riot. The causality here runs from income to religious activity, a source of simultaneity in our examination of the effect of religious violence on growth. Non-income determinants of rioting include the size of the minority and the prominence of political parties.

Excerpted with the permission of Harvard University Press from The Economics of Religion in India by Sriya Iyer. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com