The Ethnic Community: Urban Form, Peace, Conflict, and Violence in Urban India

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What causes some cities to have higher levels of ethnic violence than others do? This research explores whether the urban form affects the level of ethnic violence in a city.

Here, the term urban form refers to identifiable physical characteristics of a city: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Contemporary understanding of the physical city, as a determinant of outcomes or even as a target in ethnic violence is very limited. Although ethnic conflict is a prominent global phenomenon, ethnic violence occurs in some narrow streets and crowded neighborhoods, but not others. In addition, social scientists have focused on the ethnicization of urban spaces, but its effect on levels of ethnic violence is largely unstudied.

The central hypothesis is that cities where the urban form is “ethnicized” are more likely to experience violent ethnic conflict than cities where the urban form is largely shared, secular, or multi-ethnic.

India is a rapidly urbanizing globalized country with much ethnic diversity, features typical of many post-colonial nations in the global Southeast. The study involved a simultaneous ethnographic, geographic, and spatial comparison of two Indian cities, Surat and Ahmedabad, and the Hindu-Muslim ethnic relations in those cities. Ahmedabad has experienced the most Hindu-Muslim violence of any Indian city (using number of violence-related deaths as a measure). In contrast, Surat has been peaceful. This disparity is especially interesting since Surat and Ahmedabad are part of the same Indian state with similar linguistic, political, and demographic features. These questions are addressed through an analysis of semi-structured interviews and cognitive mapping exercises. The study includes 66 respondents: 36 in Surat and 30 in Ahmedabad.

The research concludes that the urban form is an important factor in ethnic conflict. This finding has several research and policy implications which include a shift in the way various practitioners operate in the urban context.