Maintaining peace across ethnic lines: New lessons from the past

Saumitra Jha


This policy overview draws upon two studies, one theoretical and one empirical, to explore lessons from medieval Indian Ocean trade for supporting ethnic tolerance in contemporary settings. The overview begins by sketching a model of inter-ethnic trade and violence in environments where there are 'local' and 'non-local' ethnic groups. The model suggests that three conditions are necessary to support peaceful coexistence between these groups over time: Complementarities between groups, a high cost to replicate or expropriate the source of another group's complementarity, and a mechanism to share the gains from inter-group exchange. The article then describes how these conditions were satisfied among Hindu and Muslim traders in medieval Indian ports from the rise of Islam to European ascendance in the 17th century. The article characterizes the institutions that emerged to bolster religious tolerance in these towns during the medieval period and that continued to support religious tolerance two centuries after the decline of Muslim dominance in overseas trade. Finally, the article draws lessons from the theory and India's institutional legacy to understand why ethnic tolerance fails and how tolerance may be fostered in contemporary settings.

Full Text:



al Malibari, Z. a.-D. 1528 [1833]. Tohfut-ul-mujahideen. translated from the Arabic by M.J. Rowlandson. London: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain.

Alberuni, A.-R. M. I. A. 1030 [2005], Indica. Edited by E.C. Sachau. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Bayly, S. 1989. Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society 1700-1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Benbassa, E. and A. Rodrigue. 2000. Sephardi Jewry: A History of the Judeo- Spanish Community, 14th-20th Centuries. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Chua, A. 2003. World on Fire: How Exporting free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. New York: Doubleday.

di Verthema, L. 1503 [1576]. The Navigation and Voyages of Lewes Vertomannus, Gentleman to the Citie of Rome. Tr. from the Latin by R. Eden. Hakluyt.

Esteban, J. and D. Ray. 2007. “On the Salience of Ethnic Conflict.” Working paper. Deparment of Economics. New York University.

Greif, A. 2005. Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Greif, A. and D.D. Laitin. 2004. “A Theory of Endogenous Institutional Change.” American Political Science Review, Vol. 98, No. 4, pp. 633-652.

Hirschman, A. O. 1977. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jha, S. 2007a. “Shareholding, Coalition Formation and Political Development: Evidence from 17th Century England.” Working paper. Harvard University.

Jha, S. 2007b. “A Theory of Ethnic Tolerance.” Working paper. Harvard University.

Jha, S. 2007c. “Trade, Institutions and Religious Tolerance: Evidence from India.” Working paper. Harvard University.

Landa, J. T. 1994. Trust, Ethnicity and Identity: Beyond the Institutional Economics of Ethnic Trading Networks, Contract Law and Gift-Exchange. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Lombard, D. 2000. “Introduction,” in D. Lombard and J. Aubin, eds. Asian Merchants and Businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Lombard, D. and J. Aubin, eds. 2000. Asian Merchants and Businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Mazower, M. 2005. Salonica, City of Ghosts. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Olzak, S. 1992. The Dynamics of Ethnic Competition and Conflict. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Penrad, J.-C. 2000. “The Ismaili Presence in East Africa: A Note on its Commercial History and Community Organization,” pp. 223-238 in D. Lombard and J. Aubin, eds. Asian Merchants and Businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Thapar, R. 2004. Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History. New Delhi: Penguin.



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.