Conflict Resolution: Perspectives from India and United States

  Co-authored By Dr. Jyoti M. Pathania and Michael Kugelman


CLAWS (New Delhi) – Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (US)


The American Experience with Conflict Resolution

By Michael Kugelman,Deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. 


This essay describes how conflict resolution has figured in American history. It focuses on domestic manifestations, with particular emphasis on the prominent individuals and movements oriented around nonviolence, as well as on how the United States has sought to pursue conflict resolution overseas.

The principle of conflict resolution occupies a prominent role in U.S. history. It has animated some of America’s most admired historical figures, and today it constitutes a common theme across academia and civil society. And once the United States became a top power in the 20th century, it became a major focus of U.S. foreign policy as well—albeit with limited degrees of success.

There is some irony in all this, given that America’s early history is steeped in violence and conflict. It gained its independence following a violent rebellion against British rule. There was also the massacre of native American populations, the War of 1812, the brutalities of slavery, and a bloody civil war.

Critical Civil Society Contributions

And yet, despite this violent distant past, American society still enjoys a robust legacy of conflict resolution and nonviolence. To be sure, it lacks the deep heritage and religious and philosophical belief system undergirding nonviolence that is endemic to India—a rich tradition nicely articulated by Dr. Jyoti Pathania in her companion essay. But America has nonetheless made a very important contribution. It is perhaps best embodied in the long line of iconic American figures determined to overcome—and resolve—societal tensions and conflict through nonviolent advocacy.

For example, there were the abolitionists Frederick Douglass, who became one of America’s greatest anti-slavery orators, and Harry Tubman, who helped manage the famous Underground Railroad—the covert transport system that helped whisk slaves away to freedom. Later, early in the 20th century, there was Jane Addams, who became a prominent advocate for a variety of causes ranging from world peace to women’s rights.

Then came the U.S. civil rights movement. Its main leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., often cited the influence of Mahatma Gandhi on his work. King once wrote that “Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change” during the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott—the successful effort by African-Americans to protest racial segregation on public transit in the Alabama state capital by not riding city buses. King visited India in 1959 and met with the late Gandhi’s family. After his trip, he wrote: “It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a nonviolent campaign,”

Less well known in this tale is that John Lewis, another civil rights leader who later became a U.S. congressman, was also deeply influenced by Gandhi. He studied Gandhi in workshops on nonviolence, which would later guide Lewis when he staged sit-ins at lunch counters to protest segregation in restaurants in Tennessee.

As tensions within American society evolved later on, fresh campaigns of civil disobedience emerged that aimed to resolve new problems. Cesar Chavez, an activist who became prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, advocated on behalf of American small farmers and Latin American immigrants. Later in the 1970s, in response to rising crime in New York City, a group called the Guardian Angels was formed to patrol public transport in the city and to promote nonviolence. Clad in trademark red berets, the Guardian Angels looked out for people’s safety, made citizens’ arrests, and offered education programs for schools and businesses. The Guardian Angels are still active in New York today, and were seen patrolling the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn earlier this month after a rash of violent attacks on the Jewish community.

This legacy of nonviolent advocacy is complemented by a rich scholarly contribution to conflict resolution. It is a common field of study at American universities. Think tanks also embrace the study of conflict resolution, with several of them—such as the U.S. Institute of Peace and Stimson Center—adapting it as the overarching theme of their activities. There is also a flagship scholarly publication, the peer-reviewed Journal of Conflict Resolution, which has been in operation since 1957. The study of conflict resolution has also gone mainstream, as evidenced by the best-selling 1981 book Getting To Yes, which was published by three scholars at the Harvard Negotiation Project and focuses on how to successfully negotiate personal and professional disputes. The most recent updated edition was published in 2011.

Internationalizing Conflict Resolution

In recent decades, American civil society has increasingly oriented its conflict resolution efforts around disputes outside the United States. One example is the Track II dialogue process, a form of diplomacy that entails discussions between nongovernment interlocutors meant to build trust and pursue cooperation during trying times for relations between the interlocutors’ countries. The objective is for experts and former policymakers to try to lay the groundwork for smoother exchanges on official levels. A prominent U.S. public intellectual named Norman Cousins is credited with establishing the Track II process in 1960. After a U.S. spy jet was downed over Soviet skies in May of that year, Cousins invited a group of private American and Russian citizens to a meeting at Dartmouth College to discuss ways forward. Today, a variety of U.S. universities and think tanks sponsor Track IIs.

Then, in 1993, an American journalist named John Wallach established Seeds of Peace, an organization that recruits young people from conflicted countries to spend time together at a camp in Maine. This is one of America’s most well-known and sustained contributions to conflict resolution. To this point, Seeds of Peace has produced nearly 7,000 graduates from the Middle East, India and Pakistan, and the Balkans.

Once the United States became a superpower in the 20th century, conflict resolution became a component of U.S. foreign policy—though here, the results are mixed. On the one hand, the U.S. government has successfully brokered several peace accords. The Bill Clinton administration deserves specific credit in this regard. It helped produce the Oslo Accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Led by the late Richard Holbrooke, it also helped end conflict in the Balkans (for a short-lived period) with the Dayton Accords. Additionally, the Clinton administration, led by special envoy George Mitchell, helped broker the Good Friday Agreement that ended conflict in northern Ireland.

More broadly, U.S. government mediation has helped deescalate tensions between conflicted states—including India and Pakistan.  It has also mediated internal political crises in other countries. One notable recent example was Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiation of a power-sharing deal between the Afghan leaders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah after Afghanistan’s contested 2014 presidential election.

Challenges to Externally Focused Conflict Resolution

Not surprisingly, Washington has been less successful in areas of international conflict resolution where it is one of the parties to the conflict.

Washington was successful in helping negotiate peace deals after the first and second world wars—conventional conflicts, featuring state actors, in which America was on the winning side. The Korean War proved more of a challenge, but ultimately it resulted in a truce that has held up to the present day.

The Vietnam War marked a new phase of U.S. forces squaring off against non-state actors on the battlefield and struggling to reach agreements to end the fighting. In April 1975, U.S. military helicopters evacuated the remaining Americans from Vietnam at the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The war ended soon thereafter with the victory of America’s north Vietnamese enemies.

Later, in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces achieved their early military objectives, only to confront powerful insurgencies spawned by the U.S. military presence. Today in Afghanistan, American negotiators are trying to reach a deal with the Taliban that would enable U.S. forces to start withdrawing from the country—but such a deal, if finalized, would not end the war. It would likely result, at most, in a ceasefire that would stop attacks against US troops—but not against the Afghan security forces on the front lines of the war.


Two major conclusions emerge from this discussion.

First, American civil society is blessed with a rich tradition of organizations and individuals committed to conflict resolution. Given the current environment in the United States—one marked by deepening political and social polarization and divisions, as well as intensifying anti-immigrant and racist sentiment—it’s high time to tap in to this tradition more robustly. One idea is to take the remarkably simple Seeds of Peace model—bring people out of their conflict zones into safe spaces to calmly negotiate ways forward with their rivals—and widen it so that it targets people in the United States. Seeds of Peace itself has now started bringing young people from different American cities to its camp.

Second, pursuing conflict resolution in global disputes is more difficult in today’s complex world than it was earlier in history. Non-state nemeses hold increasing sway in a world in which nation states are not as powerful as they used to be. And the negotiating styles of the former differ from the latter’s. U.S. governments will have to take into account these changing realities of international relations, and consider course corrections in conflict resolution approaches abroad.

Indeed, as challenging as it is to pursue conflict resolution at home, it’s arguably even harder to do it overseas.

Conflict Resolution Practices, Skills & Orientations In The Indian Context

By Dr. Jyoti M Pathania, Senior Fellow and Chairman Outreach Committee at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, 


This essay reflects on the rich legacy of the Indian Conflict resolution institutions, skills and practices which have been embedded in the religious, cultural, philosophical heritage, indigenous norms, traditions, as well as in the civil society and politics too.


Today we are all living in an era of multiple conflicts. Be it at any level; interpersonal, intergroup, interstate/intra-state or at the international stage. To resolve these conflicts is the greatest need and challenge not only to our polity and civil society but also to our national and international security.

Conflict resolution practices/skills by themselves, do not attempt to impose any preconceived resolutions to the parties in conflict, but they only try to facilitate a peaceful solution through dialogues, discussions, negotiations and other collaborative processes. While dialogues alone, might not lead to an eventual settlement of a conflict but it certainly is a necessary pre-requisite and will remain a fundamental component for resolution of any conflict.

India is the largest democracy in the world and has a long record of engaging in dialogue with those who oppose the state and what it stands for. Amartya Sen attributes India’s democratic longing for peaceful existence to dialogical traditions, heterodoxy, and public reasoning in Indian ethos. [i]

Indian Traditions and Religious – Philosophical Heritage

The Indian heritage and religious philosophical beliefs provide an important orientation towards resolution of conflicts. It has given birth to many religions of the world and they have lived in peaceful coexistence with each other since hundreds of years. This has been possible because of India’s ethos of plurality, humanism and openness, its sense of adaptability and the power of assimilation. The ancient Indian heritage of Buddhist, Hindu, Medieval Sufi & saints’ teachings, Vedantic, Advaitic and Jain Philosophy all embrace peace and love.

Sen traces the tradition of secularism in India back to the tolerant and pluralist thinking in the writings of Amir Khusrau in the fourteenth century and to the non-sectarian devotional poetry of Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya and others. And this ‘tradition got its firmest official backing from Emperor Akbar’ who believed in tolerant multiculturalism.[ii]

The religious-philosophical treatise of ancient India be it the Upanishads, Brahma Sutra or the Bhagvad Gita, believe in pacifism and humanitarianism but also accepted violence as legitimate when it is a matter of safeguarding order as a whole. The Indian tradition does not categorically prohibit the use of violence, in spite of it extolling Ahimsa (non-violence) as the greatest virtue. Mahatma Gandhi too considered it as the prime factor in attaining peace and harmony ultimately leading to conflict reconciliation.

Engaging the Civil society

One of the prominent examples of engaging the civil society leadership in mobilizing public opinion towards resolution of conflict was the first talks between the Maoists and the government of Andhra Pradesh in 2004. Since 1967, the left-wing revolutionary movement known as Naxalism[iii] has been active with the aim of overthrowing the state through violence, it has been active across eleven states in the South and Central India.

By the 90’s the conflict had reached such a violent stage wherein the large sufferings of the rural society merited civil society intervention, so much so that a group of civil liberties activists, former bureaucrats, journalists and lawyers formed the Committee of Concerned Citizens (CCC), to mobilise public opinion in favour of the talks, henceforth ensuing the peace process. It was only after consistent, persistent and sustained efforts of not less than five years that the CCC succeeded in building a public constituency. Subsequently, in 2002 and 2004 it brought the revolutionaries and the State government to the table for negotiations.[iv] Another prominent civil society organization formed by the women, is the Naga Mother’s Association (NMA)[v]  which has been working since more than two decades to address conflict related issue in Nagaland.

Indigenous Conflict Resolution Institutions

The tribal communities of the North East India practice and believe in their indigenous institutions of governance and conflict resolution. The Sixth schedule of the Indian Constitution also known as the “mini Constitution”[vi] further upholds and protects these unique norms, practices and institutions from the outside influence, helping these indigenous Conflict Resolution mechanisms to sustain even today.

The indigenous communities of Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Tribes of the Meghalaya state use their own traditional  mechanisms like Nokma (considered peacemakers as they are called first to resolve petty quarrels, thefts and marital discord cases) and Dorba (a three-level arrangement of Governance giving directives on daily administration and disposal of cases on community conflicts).

In the state of Manipur, the traditional Kuki conflict resolution institution of Hemkham[vii] (present day cease-fire) Toltheh, and Salam Sat are used for resolving family related conflicts. The Kuki Village court is one of the fastest courts in the world where there is no pending of cases and the court restores the sinner back to his/her normal life. The indigenous dispute resolution mechanism in the villages, like the Nyaya panchayat[viii] (council of Justice /village Courts), Gram Kachahari’s, Khap Panchayats[ix] in the North West and Katta Panchayats in Tamil Nadu are also continuing their traditional dispute resolution practices. However, today the main challenge is how to fully explore and address the competencies and compatibilities of these traditional institutions of conflict resolution and peace building in relation to their modern state based counterparts.[x]

Politics as an instrument of Conflict resolution

Politics deals not only with the State and its institutions, but is beyond that. It cannot be separated from the social fabric of which it is a part of and where it operates, but should be seen as one of the vital elements of the complete social process. Political parties, political activities, governance issues, elections etc. are life line of the democratic political processes, having a  great role in voicing and articulating the demands of the grieved citizens, thus helping in establishing  a vital link between the civil society and the state.

Some examples of good governance can be seen by setting up of inter –state water tribunals by the Indian Government to resolve the major interstate water conflicts; Garib Kalyan Melas in Gujrat[xi], Krushi Mahotsav[xii], Gunotsav[xiii], Samras Yojana[xiv] etc. Another example of the successful story was the striking of the peace deal in Nagaland, which is one of the oldest armed ethnic conflict and it took more than sixty years to strike the breakthrough with the culmination in the Naga Peace Accord.[xv] Assam Accord[xvi]was another Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) initiated by the Indian Government.

Major Takeaways

  1. The resolution of the conflicts needs to be undertaken collectively, by all the stakeholders to the conflict.
  2. The needs and the aspirations of the conflicting parties should be addressed and taken into cognisance for any meaningful resolution.
  3. A lasting political solution lies not from outside, but from within, it lies in the hands of people living together from time immemorial. Hence, it is the civil society that should ring in the resolution and facilitate in the establishment of peace.
  4. Harnessing the wisdom of indigenous conflict resolution practices reflect a deeper concern for social harmony and well-being of the one hand (positive peace) and conflict transformation and violence reduction on the other (negative peace) offers a unique historical opportunity for all those interested in delegitimising war and violence and promoting the development of peace. [xvii]
  5. Ethno-graphic considerations and cultural norms need to be studied and analyzed in detail, because they help in building the trust deficits of the conflicting parties.
  6. The Resolution Processes should try and build bridges across traditional divide between ancient, indigenous and modern perspectives.
  7. A sustained political dialogue will certainly have a transformative effect to the conflict, even if no political agreement is agreed to. Continuously articulating of views helps in mapping those issues which have the potential to move towards reconciliation.


[i] Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. London: Penguin, 2005.

[ii] Rev. Dr. Selvam Robertson, Christian identity and witness in the present Day Hindutva Nationalism, june23,2019, Accessed on: 5-01-2020,

[iii] Naxal is a loose term used to denote groups waging a struggle on behalf of the landless laborers and tribal/indigenous communities against the landlords, industry and the central and the state government.

[iv] Conflict Resolution, Learning lessons from the Dialogue processes in India. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Delhi Policy Group, July 2011.

[v] NMA is a prominent civil society organization formed by women in Nagaland to address problems of conflict and violence and it helps in creating a platform to address the disparate voices.

[vi] SIXTH SCHEDULE.” Ministry of External Affairs. Accessed on: January 9, 2020.

[vii] This is a traditional Conflict resolution mechanism wherein killing/violence is stopped and negotiations begins.

[viii] These are traditional village-based dispute resolution courts dealing with petty civil and criminal cases within the village.

[ix] Khap panchayat is the union of a few villages, mainly in north India though it exists in similar forms in the rest of the country. Lately they have emerged as quasi-judicial bodies that pronounce harsh punishments based on age-old customs and traditions, often bordering on regressive measures to modern problems.

[x] Upadhyay, Anjoo Sharan and Priyankar Upadhyaya 2016. Traditional Institutions of Dispute Resolution in India: Experiences from Khasi and Garo Hills in Meghalaya. Berlin: Berghof Foundation.

[xi] The mela or the fair is held at different locations across the state, poor people are given benefits of various government schemes. Various government departments take part in the mela, including Social Justice & Empowerment Department, Tribal Welfare Department and Women & Child Development Department.

[xii] Krushi Mahotsav is unique initiative of the Gujarat Government that helps agro-sector of the state scale newer heights and celebrates the qualitative change it brings with it in the lives of the farmers.

[xiii]  Gunotsav is a quality enhancement initiative of the State for bringing about improvement in learning levels of students at Elementary level.

[xiv] Village people gather and decide representatives from among them unanimously for the administration of Gram Panchayat, where many persons give up their rights, act in unsparing way for society and adopt noble approach for higher purpose of welfare of the people and also initiate developmental works in the village.

[xv]  The Naga Peace accord signed on 3 August 2015 between the Government of India and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland to end insurgency.

[xvi] Signed Between representatives of Indian Government and the leaders of the Assam Movement signed on 15th August 1985 in the presence of then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi in New-Delhi.

[xvii] Peter Coleman, Morton Deutsch, Eric C. Marcus ed., The Handbook of Conflict resolution Theory and Practice, Third Edition, 2014, Jossey-Bass a Wiley- Bass.

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DR. JYOTI M. PATHANIA is working as a Senior Fellow and Chairperson Outreach committee at Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New-Delhi. A doctorate in Political Science, she graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in Political Science (Honors) and secured the Third rank in Delhi University. She obtained her M.A. and M.Phil. degree in “International Politics” from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was selected to go on a scholarship to the European Peace University in Austria, Spain, and Ireland, where she pursued another Masters's in advanced studies in ‘Peace and Conflict Studies. She has over 20 years of teaching, training and research experience in various universities: to name a few; Symbiosis Law College Pune, Amity Law School Delhi, Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies, Jammu University, Jiwaji University Gwalior, St. Xavier’s College Ranchi and also worked as an analyst for South Asian Analysis Group and was also the Assistant Director of the Amity Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution. She has also qualified for National Eligibility Test for lectureship under University Grant Commission. Recipient of various awards and scholarships, to name a few, Prof. Randhir Singh Award for securing distinction in Political Theory, Prof. N. N. Aggarwal Memorial Award, Austrian Govt. Development Scholarship, H.P. State Govt. Scholarship, National Talent Scheme Scholarship, Delhi University. She was also awarded by the Chief Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat for excellence in research and establishing collaboration with international research institutes. She has authored books and written articles for various newspapers and journals both national and international. She is also the founding editor of the Online Indian Journal of Peace & Conflict Resolution. Her book on India- Pakistan: Confidence Building Measures was one of the first few books on the subject. Her areas of specialization are International Politics, Conflict Resolution & Peace, Non-Traditional Security, and South Asia.