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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Development, Ethnicity and Human Rights in South Asia
Ross Mallick

(New Dehli: Sage, 1998)
375pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 29.99; ISBN 0-7619-9227-8.



South Asia is one of the most socially and ethnically complex regions in the world. This book examines several cases of ethnic conflict within the context of the region's extreme economic inequality, with a special focus on the role of culture (primarily India's caste system) and civil society in perpetuating the economic and social marginalization and exploitation of minority groups throughout the subcontinent.

After introducing the theme of culture and the importance of elite perceptions, the author analyzes the potential and limits of the use of regional organizations like the SAARC and state policy in both managing ethnic conflict and reducing economic and social inequality. This is followed by chapters devoted to specific ethnic conflicts, including the role of the Mahaweli Irrigation project in Sri Lanka's civil war as well as the status of minorities in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Later chapters then focus upon problems facing tribal groups and Untouchables in India, "the last segregated population in the world with the ending of South African apartheid." (p. 233) The book concludes with a discussion of human rights in South Asian scholarship and the issue of South Asian elite bias in impacting Western perceptions of India.

While the title suggests a broad comparative study of South Asia, much of the text is actually devoted to India and - more specifically - the record of the world's only democratically elected communist regime, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) and its Left Front coalition government in the state of West Bengal. An Indian informant once suggested to me that someone needed to "analyze the analysts". Ross Mallick - an independent development consultant based in Canada - has done just that, and indeed the real importance of the book is in the way he calls into question the validity of much of the scholarship on South Asia in particular and "progressive" Third World regimes in general.

Mallick also raises serious questions about the possible limits of democracy in bringing about substantial economic and social reform in India.

This book is full of fascinating insights from the author's experiences as a consultant in the region, and paints a rather disturbing picture of both academic research in South Asia and the role of the state, foreign aid and development agencies in sometimes perpetuating or worsening many of the problems they purportedly aim to solve. It could have been better organized, however, as it appears at times to be a disparate collection of separately written chapters.


Thomas Brister
University of Virginia and Sweet Briar College




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