Peace, Justice, Strong Institutions, and the Role of Local Governments in times of Communal Riots

Updated: Aug 24

Authors: Surbi Tyagi, Project uP and Sanaa Munjal, Project Statecraft


In contemporary times, conflict, insecurity, weak institutions and limited access to justice pose a great threat to sustainable development. Without peace, stability, human rights and effective governance, based on rule of law, a sustainable future of the world is beyond imaginable. Access to justice for all, as well as effective, accountable and inclusive institutions is seemingly lacking in most societies today. With persecution, injustice and abuse still running rampant leading to a tear in the very fabric of civilization. Heightened levels of armed violence, localised conflicts and instability have disastrous effects on the institutions of democracy. These times thus call for the strengthening of institutions, especially local governments, for the building of social cohesion, promotion of long-lasting peace and effective delivery of justice. Local institutions play a vital role in averting or facilitating communal violence. Strengthening the rule of law, increasing institutional accountability and promoting human rights is key to the process of reducing the flow of conflicts and communal violence.

This paper seeks to explore the appositeness of peace, justice and strong institutions in modern democracies. Sustainable Development Goal 16 aims at providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. The lack of access to and ineffective implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 16 which seeks to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, in turn, renders institutions and local governments weak and incompetent to ensure the promotion of peace and justice. This often results in armed conflicts, communal riots and unstable governments. The paper aims to understand and assess the linkage between strong local institutions and the prevalence of peace and justice. The research focuses on the multifaceted reasons which lead to success and failure of implementation of the SDG 16. In an attempt to promote long-lasting world peace and conflict-free societies, the paper presents suggestions and recommendations to problems thus analysed.


With the world living in a constant state of conflict and struggle, the paper aims at providing an overview of the role of some specific players, namely peace, justice, and strong institutions, along with local governments. One of the biggest issues that the world and specifically, India grapples with is that of communal violence or riots instigated on the basis of religion, ethnic, or along communal lines. In these dire times, it is essential to regain peace, provide timely justice to the victims, and for the governments and other institutions of the state to facilitate the same. The widespread communalism and the violence between different communities steps on the guiding principles of our country’s Constitution. The trauma and harm caused by such instances of violence tend to break and impact society in negative and diabolical ways. The 17 sustainable development goals set up by the United Nations, which are set to be achieved by 2030, include the goal of Peace, Justice, and Strong institutions that are important in a world where threat and conflict looms large, and for a more sustainable world. To fulfill these goals, the role of government and local institutions is imperative, and that will determine our standing and performance while also impacting our fulfillment of the other 16 goals. Further, the role of peacemaking, in relation to that of young people, and the ever-evolving culture of peace stand on a pedestal, along with the role of players like the police and administration who are the real peacemakers but compromise on it at the behest of a political agenda. The prevailing injustices in the society are also the scum of the earth, and a fair intervention by the institutions for timely justice and proper redressal is necessary. In several instances, state and judicial complicity results in wrongful judgments. The local institutions and the machinery are usually at the head of managing such issues and try to prevent the disruption of harmony and peace. Ever since the partition in 1947, ideological governance has taken over which has impacted us both positively and negatively. The local government plays an important role in sustaining the cohesive nature of society, and for the fulfillment of the sustainable development goals and long-lasting peace, prosperity and animosity among communities. The role played by them during communal violence and riots is usually oriented to meet their political motive and depicts their inaction and failure to prevent widespread barbarity and violence. This relation between the key elements and the role played by them in creating a better world is essential for a more sustainable framework and a peaceful society.

Communal Riots and its Implications

Since Independence, India has continued to grapple with the grave issue of Communalism. It is merely an ideology that ends up creating divisions on various grounds like race, ethnicity, beliefs, values, and most importantly, religion. These divisions produce clashes in our society, and in a democratic and secular country like ours, it is something to worry about. It rises from religious pluralism and results in a threat to not only the national integrity but also leads to heightened tensions, rivalries, and hostilities between different groups and communities.

Our country was built upon the values and teachings of secularity, integrity, democracy, freedom, and a shared vision of a better India. Communalism stains each of these! A lot of differences like caste, class, ethnicity, religion can lead to the feelings of resentment and thus, a rise in communalism, like economic interests and differences, beliefs in societies; politics and ideas of the leaders. (C.D.J.S.C. 2015, October 25).

With communalism comes communal violence and riots, and it was a defining feature post-independence. Violence between different communities is never-ending in our country, be it between Hindu’s, Muslim’s, Sikh’s, Christian’s, or any other religious group. Media is a significant player, it influences us in stronger manners than subtler tones. The targets are the “enemy” community in the eyes of the other group. It is based on hatred, enmity, and revenge. There has also been a very exorbitant increase in Hindutva politics and agendas in India in the past few years, and a lean towards more of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Sangh Pariwar which are some of the organizations that have also played a major role in increasing communalism and leading to violence. It also leads to a feeling of anti-nationalism and breaks the cohesive nature of society and further leads to an impact on the mental health and well-being of individuals. Raghotham, S. (2019, March 27), UKEssays. (November 2018), Kulkarni, S. (2020, February 29).

Anti-Sikh Riots 1984: One of the earliest examples of communal violence and riots that tore the nation were the Anti-Sikh Riots of 1984. With a very complicated history, the riots began when the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, under Operation Blue Star ordered a military mission to remove all Sikh militants hiding inside the Golden Temple, Amritsar. It was one of the biggest security missions undertaken by the Army, to subdue the Khalistan movement that was a Sikh political movement for an independent state for Sikh’s. The army used tanks and other military equipment to regain control. There was also a media blackout in Punjab. It was followed by the assassination of the then PM Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards, four months after Operation Blue Star. Further, it led to the Anti-Sikh riots claiming thousands of lives, with Sikh men beaten, stabbed and burned to death, women raped, and children killed. (Hussain, F. 2018, December 17).

Bhagalpur Riots 1989: The violence and riots began in Bhagalpur, a district in Bihar, after a Hindu religious procession came under a bomb attack, triggered on October 24, 1989. The riots began, and over the next month it was an organized massacre of communities. The mobs burned down villages, mass killings took place, and resulted in a very high death toll on both sides. The two went on a rampage with killings, looting, and destruction of properties. It spread to almost 195 villages, and the death toll was almost between 1000-2000 people. These riots are often known as the forgotten riots of Bhagalpur. Iqbal, J. (2014, December 31), Chakravarty, I. (2015, August 12).

Jabalpur Riots 1961: A major riot that broke out in the year 1961 between Hindus and Muslims began in the city of Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Although the real cause of the violence is unknown, there are various versions of the story. The riot also began and was instigated between Muslim and Hindu entrepreneurs due to an economic rivalry between them. The media reported several stories of police brutality and atrocities. Several people died, according to official reports with several more being reported dead unofficially. V.G.J.G. (2013, July 15)

SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

One of the 17 UN sustainable development goals is for more peace, justice, and strong institutions which is Goal 16. Conflict, insecurity, and injustice is a threat to sustainable development. With more conflict and war increasing across the world and a large number of people suffering and with poor access to justice, social services and institutions, the SDG aims at reducing violence, working with governments and communities to end all conflict and insecurity. It is essential to promote the rule of law and human rights, along with reducing the flow of arms and strengthening participation. It is essential to uphold this goal due to several issues the world is grappling with daily, and the fulfillment of the goal would only help the world inch towards a better life for one and all. Examples of the issues include violence against children that affects more than 1 billion children around the world and costs up to the US $7 trillion a year, with the most corrupt institutions being the judiciary and the police, with the proportion of prisoners held in detention without sentencing being almost 31% of the total. M. (n.d.), Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions. (n.d.). UNDP.

India, being one of the largest democracies in the world, has the principles of justice, liberty, and equality enshrined in its Constitution. There are a large number of institutions functioning for smooth administration in the country. There are several policies and frameworks in place for the protection of its citizens and have been made more inclusive, with a grassroots level of governance. However, India is still lagging in several areas for the fulfilment of SDG Goal 16. According to the Niti Aayog SDG Index report, as per the performance indicators of all the states and the Union territories, India’s score for the SDG 16, i.e Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions ranges between 53 and 91 for all the States and between 63 and 92 for the Union Territories. SDG India Index Baseline Report (2018, December 21)

For a successful fulfilment of the SDGs, governments, and institutions, must be held accountable for their errors and mistakes like corruption, crime, state-sponsored violence, or other related acts. The violence against certain groups based on religion, race, and on any other basis must not take place. Peace and justice, along with access to education, healthcare, and other facilities and things should be available universally, and the needs of the people must be kept above that of the leaders. The governance of sustainable development and the norms within the international policy instruments such as the SDG’s is not a technical challenge that is agreed upon the universal norms, but a political process that involves the contestation of who governs what. The SDG calls for a better approach towards management, decision making, and national reporting. SDG 16 requires the states and other institutions exercise their power, with importance given to the participatory processes, and for more local decision making. McDermott, C. L. (2019, December), Cornerstone Capital Group. (2019, July 28),

Peace and Communal Violence

“Upholding human rights is a crucial element of prevention,” and “Human rights are intrinsically linked to sustaining peace.”

- Secretary-General António Guterres

Peace, harmony, tranquillity or be it some other synonym; these are three words with the same meaning and it is something everyone yearns for, in every situation. It is a sense of security, or a basic need of people amid violence and conflict. The primary task in such situations is peacebuilding. Peace is the opposite of conflict and violence. It refers to the specific relations in particular situations and covers the entire society. The effects of conflict and war are always far-reaching with insecurity or political repression. Many issues are also due to inequality, injustice, and exclusion. Military power cannot resolve such political and social problems. The violence and conflict shatter and impact millions, no country inflicted with violence can achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals and the UN SDGs. It is essential for the world because if we are not in peace, there are several consequences like the loss of life, property, mental trauma, and other issues. People have to live in fear and suffering. Those living in a conflict face this issue every day. It is always better to resolve conflict and issues, along with instability, fear, and other consequences like lack of food, water, economic issues, and other problems that the world grapples with. Peace and Violence. (n.d.). Council of Europe, Rummel, R. J. (n.d.), Dumasy, T. (n.d.), C. (2019, October 3)

Young people are the stakeholders in the development, sustainment of peace, democracy, peacebuilding, and governance. The approach needs to be inclusive and integrated and even more empowering. The UN World Population Prospects estimates that there are approximately 1.3 billion youth in conflict inflicted regions and places where it is likely to take place. A culture of peace and sustainable development is one of the priorities, along with more education, rights, peaceful relations, and better governance. Admin, Y. (2019, March 6), Culture of Peace and Non-violence. (2020, May 29), The Role of Youth in Peacebuilding: Challenges and Opportunities. (2019, September 16).

There is more social and political marginalization that causes more social contests. In different cultural contexts, there are several challenges and opportunities. It is also necessary that the youth are provided with training opportunities and for them to adapt to the technological trends and act as mediators, mobilizers, peacekeepers, etc. For example, some countries, despite battling internal and external issues, have maintained harmony and safeguarded rules of law, like Mauritius, Senegal, and Tunisia. We need to focus on approaching the UN’s regional peace operations and entrepreneurship from the perspective of sustaining it. There needs to be a holistic view of international crimes and atrocities against peace in each and every form. Athie, A. (2020, May 12)

A major chunk of the law, order, and peace is maintained by administration and police. Although, several communal riots have taken place due to the partisanship by the administration, and their ineffective way of dealing with such communal elements and hatred. With these important institutions being on the wrong side of the spectrum, their role during communal violence has not been very cordial and is communalized. It can be seen in several instances and cases throughout the years and with several examples. The maintenance of communal peace depends on the acceptance of social and political institutions that help in strengthening law and enforcement. This is for meeting the aspirations of the people. Our institutions need to uphold peace and treat communal violence as unnecessary, along with the provisions for better administration. The communalism by the police, those who are the peacemakers at the forefront, is leading to the development of a political culture. It is important to directly follow the law and order and we need to stop buying peace, and everything needs to be done for the safety and security of the country as our priority. Peace is not a compromise; it is essential for the smooth functioning of a country, and amicable living of all of the people. We should not trivialize the situation and turn it into something it isn’t. Bhatnagar, C. N. (2020, February 17)


"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought." - John Rawls

Justice is based on the concept of righteousness based on ethics, law, religion, equity, and fairness. It is also based on the administration of law, rights of humans and citizens, protection before the law, no discrimination on any basis like gender, race, color, religion, etc., and being socially inclusive. Justice. (n.d.). ScienceDaily

Justice is essential for any and every country or institution for several reasons such as that everyone gets the essentials for living a good life and are owed basic things like food, water, shelter, etc. Alongside this, even adequate healthcare is necessary for everyone, with proper services provided for all. Another important factor is of justice protecting people against all forms of discrimination like that based on their sexuality, religion, it also prevents people from racism and there is a need to advocate for practicing all religions safely and freely. It also promotes economic equality, with social justice being the motive to secure economic stability. It also helps in improving educational opportunities. Soken-Huberty, E. (2020, July 12)

There are also several types of injustices prevailing in the society like,

● The way people are treated (interactional injustice)

● Due to the inadequacies in components of the decision-making process (procedural injustice)

● Due to outcomes or certain decisions (distributive injustice).

There have been several instances throughout where denial of justice that are often now used as a rhetorical excuse for interventions by governments acting on behalf of their nationals to obtain reparation for alleged violations of their rights. Such events also lead to the breach of international law and are not related to the administration of justice. It does not only apply to when there is a refusal of redress and a delay in hearing in a complaint but also in cases of the delay, and denial of justice which affects the defendants. Justice in these cases was understood as justice wrongly rendered but not justice being denied. Several judicial decisions provoke hostile attitudes and decisions leading to violence in several forms. Like the decisions that hold certain religious practices as un-Indian, decisions that undermine the rights under Articles 25 and 26 to profess and practice religion, and final decisions that resolve cases involving communal crimes based on politics. Each type of decision has challenged the constitutional relationship between religious and the secular law. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.), Ahmad, S. A. (n.d.), C.G. (n.d.-a). Why justice is important.

The Indian judiciary has always struggled to dispose and wind up cases in time hence providing untimely justice, with cases being estimated at 30 million, and the ratio of the judges per citizen is also as low as 17 judges per million citizens. Limited, M. T. P. (n.d.)

Example: The case of the Anti-Sikh riots in 1984 is a grim reminder of justice delayed being justice denied. It is a depiction of India’s slow justice delivery system and the failure for taking timely action by the leaders. India is a country facing violence in several forms since partition. The role of the state is crucial in most of the communal riots that take place. It further leads to the denial of justice, something that forms the basis of a democratic society and country. The commission set up for the riots absolved the people in power, and the leaders remained outside the purview of the law. Some leaders like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler got elected to the upper house despite having irrefutable evidence against them and were only denied the ticket due to public outrage. The riots were about the state failing to protect the communities and a reality that depicted the same. Another example of the atrocities faced by one community on the behest of the other is the riots of Gujarat in 2002, where again justice has been delayed. Moreover, there is no acknowledgment of the riots by the state government on the crimes committed against the Muslims. Investigators and commissions have pointed out the fact of the complicity of the state institutions in persecution and victimisation, and only when the leaders and those responsible are punished can justice be done. Communal violence and justice in India. (n.d.), 1984 riots: Justice delayed is justice denied. (2018, December 17), Singh, R. (2020, February 23)

Strong Institutions

In communal violence, several causes and multiplicity of factors are involved which contribute to the generation and aggravation of communal riots. Apart from religious animosity, weakening communal ties etc., local institutions and local government also play a significant role in inspiring communal passion in which even the mildest of provocations erupt into irrational violence. A nexus between politicians, local authorities and anti-social elements of the society disrupts the local equilibria of peace.

After a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was torched, allegedly by a Muslim mob, on February 28, 2002, the worst carnage of independent India's history took place which is also known as one of the most obvious examples of state involvement in post independence Hindu-Muslim riots.After the train was torched, the state did not attempt to prevent or stop, revenge killings. State

The police looked the other way, as gangs murdered scores of Muslims with remarkable ease. The statements of NGOs closely associated with the Gujarat state government, run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), openly supported anti-Muslim violence. According to the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the BJP government did what was necessary:namely, allow Hindu retaliation against the Muslims, including those who had nothing to do with the mob that originally torched the train in Godhra.(Varshney, 2003, pp. 1–3)

From a constitutional perspective, the government, local machinery and local authorities cannot stoke or allow public anger and violence, no matter what the provocation is or whatever its ideological colour. No elected government, or state machinery should behave in a manner that leads to denial of justice and disruption of peace.

The distinction between the constitutional and the ideological often gets diluted hence hampering the sanctity of the institutions and the people’s faith in these institutions. Strong institutions which act in an ideologically neutral way forms the backbone of a strong and long-lasting democracy.

In addition to managing resources effectively and giving people a voice, local governance structures and local institutions nurture political will for sustenance of peace. Effective decentralization allows local governments to serve as a fora for people to engage in dialogue with each other and negotiate local-level issues. When there is an intense local-level competition between groups, for example, local governments and its various institutions provide opportunities for power-sharing. For example in Northern Ireland, power-sharing arrangements between Nationalists and Unionists emerged in local councils well before the Belfast Agreement provided for power-sharing at the national level. Such efforts at local-level conciliation can help build political goodwill for peace at the national level.(International Peace Institute, 2018, pp. 1–3)

With a strong civic structure in place, the state can prevent riots with considerable ease. One such model of strong institutions leading to peacebuilding can be found in the Bhiwandi model. Bhiwandi, a town just outside Bombay, was infamous for Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1970s and in the 1980s with nearly 200 lives being lost in riots during those years. However, the pattern changed with the arrival of a new police chief in 1988 who started an organizational experiment. The chief put together neighbourhood committees (Mohalla Samitis) for the whole town where the two religious communities can meet once a week in normal times, but daily in times of tension, with a police officer presiding (Varshney,2003). The model was a huge success with Bhiwandi becoming a peaceful town and keeping communal peace even in sensitive times. This example shows how strong institutions play a vital role in averting conflict-ridden situations and have a pacifying impact on elements that attempt to create unrest.