Published On: Wed, Mar 5th, 2014

Political Conflict in South Asia

Political Conflict in South AsiaReview Article by Dr. Gamini Samaranayake, Former Senior Professor of Political Science at the University of Peradeniya and former Chairman of the University Grants Commission.

This monograph has a broad scope, one that encompasses political conflict in the countries in five national entities of South Asia – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka – and their trajectories of state-formation with all their turmoil, upheavals and inter-group confrontations. In the literature on contemporary processes of globalisation there has been a widespread practice of referring to Asia in general terms. This has tended to obfuscate the very distinct difference between South Asia and the other macro-regions of the ‘Asiatic Crescent’. South Asia, being the cradle of four main world religions, is the venue of a rich and highly diversified social and political history. It is the home of almost one-fifth of the world population, with a large proportion of its inhabitants living in conditions of poverty. Although the British Empire at its zenith included almost the whole of South Asia, the present nation-states of the region have their own distinctive political legacies from the past.

It is in the context of the foregoing observations that the present monograph must be evaluated. The manner in which author has undertaken the daunting challenge of covering South Asia’s post-independence experiences in nation-building, while drawing on its pre-colonial history where relevant, is remarkable as an exercise in analysis, and is of great academic interest to a readership both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world. Recent developments witnessed in the region including the growing speculation on the establishment of an American military base in the Maldives and the increasingly pronounced alignment of India with the United States in its foreign relations – both of which are likely to have a profound influence on tensions and conflicts in South Asia – makes this publication even more topical.

The importance of this monograph is considerably enhanced by the dearth of scholarly writings that deal with the subject of political convulsions in South Asia from comparative perspectives. In fact, the most recent work on this subject is Professor Stanley J. Tambiah’s ‘Levelling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia’ (University of California Press) published 16 years ago, which is largely confined in scope to rivalry and violent confrontation between ethnic groups in India and Sri Lanka, with only passing references to certain political conflict in other countries of the region. We also come across several collections of essays on South Asia – end-products of international conferences and seminars – brought together under the sponsorship of institutions that focus on objectives such as state-level policy formulation, prevention and resolution of conflict, protection of human rights, or responding to the threat of terrorism. In addition, there are monographs of global scope such as Ethnic Groups in Conflict authored by Donald L. Horowitz (1985), Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict edited by Michael E. Brown, et. al. (1997), Peace and Conflict Studies edited by Charles P. Webel & David P. Barash (2002), and Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy after Civil War edited by Donald Rothchild & Philip G. Roeder (2005) which, confined as they are to specific themes, have drawn on South Asian experiences. When placed against this background of these academic writings, the present monograph could be considered as a highly commendable attempt to cater to an existing need for a general but intensively researched reader on a vitally significant aspect of contemporary global politics.

The monograph begins with a descriptive model of political conflict in South Asia which identifies three broad categories of violent inter-group confrontations – (a) Extra-regional (those involving a South Asian nation-state and states outside the region, (b) International (conflict between national entities of South Asia, and (c) Sub-national (conflict between different groups within each national entity and anti-state insurrections). Following this, the reader is taken through a very interesting and creative process of flitting between India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, for the purpose of drawing from the post-independence conflict experiences of these nation-states and thus identifying a range of common issues such as the ‘poverty-conflict interaction’, the phenomenon of ‘youth unrest’ and its relevance to conflict, the process referred to as ‘criminalisation of politics’, ‘ethno-nationalist impediments to nation-building’, and the ramified impact of ‘external interventions’ in international and sub-national conflicts of the region. This broad comparative analysis of types of conflict and processes across countries is a difficult task which, however, is made to look deceptively simple in this book.

The theme-based analysis referred to above is followed by several country-specific chapters that are not mutually exclusive in content. The writer also draws from a wide range of relevant literature and data with substantial projections to augment the analysis without interrupting the main trends and threads of interconnection between the chapters. In each of these chapters there is, however, a special focus on conflict situations that have figured prominently in the political affairs of the country concerned. Thus, for example, the chapter on political conflict in India has a special focus on the ethnic and poverty dimensions. Likewise, the ‘Bangladesh’ chapter examines in detail the so-called “culture of violence” that has pervaded its polity since its “liberation war” of the early 1970s. The study of political conflict in Pakistan devotes special attention to an analysis of the extraordinary power wielded by the military in its political affairs. The secessionist war waged by the ‘Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’ and the anti-state insurrections led by the ‘People’s Liberation Front’ are the principal concerns of the chapter on Sri Lanka. The study on Nepal traces its ‘democratisation’ struggle which, in the late 1990s, took the form of a ‘Maoist Insurgency’, and culminated in the abolition of the monarchy in 2008. This achievement, however, has been marred somewhat by persistent inter-party rivalries and the consequent instability of Nepal’s parliamentary system.

The third part of the volume consists of four ‘case studies’ that are intended to serve as elaborations of some of the more significant conflict-related concerns dealt with in the ‘country profiles’. The conflict situations examined in detail in these chapters are ‘Kashmir’ (the venue of a never-ending conflict that has lasted for sixty-six years), ‘Khalistan Uprising’ (the failed Sikh secessionist insurrection), ‘Birth of Bangladesh’ (the only successful secessionist movement hitherto witnessed in post-colonial South Asia), and ‘youth unrest and conflict’ as experienced in Sri Lanka.

In respect of criteria such as causes and impulses, the intensity of violence, the scale of damage and destruction, the duration, the áscriptive or associational identities of participants, and the overall impact, there is great diversity among the conflicts that are examined in this volume. To refer, at random, to a few examples from this study to illustrate the nature of this diversity, there is the conflict in Kashmir that has continued to last, albeit with fluctuating intensity, for well over six decades, or the secessionist war in Sri Lanka waged from about the mid-1980s to mid-2009, which could be place at one extreme in a scale of duration and intensity of violence, contrasted with conflagrations of relatively short duration between rival groups identifiable on the basis identities of religion, language, caste, tribe or social class that have occurred intermittently in many parts of South Asia (in both metropolitan settings of mixed ethnicity as well as remote rural areas inhabited largely by tribal communities), at the other extreme of the scale. Likewise, there have been the major convulsions witnessed at the ‘Partition of British India’ (late 1940s) or the ‘liberation war’ of Bangladesh (early 1970s) that have had a permanent impact on the political configurations of South Asia. These appear in sharp contrast to the sudden outburst of mob violence that occurred at, say, in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, or the riots triggered off by the attempt made in 1991 to implement job-reservations in the state sector for ‘Other Backward Castes’ as recommended by the Mandal Commission, or the clashes between the ‘natives’ and the Bengali ‘migrants’ in the Indian states of Assam and Tripura, or the attacks on those of the Ahmadi Sect by the Sunni Muslims of Pakistan, which are examples of conflicts that have been ephemeral in their impact. Great diversities could also be discerned between the intermittent ‘ethnic riots’ between groups differentiated on the basis of religious or linguistic identities in the urban ghetto environs, especially in India and Pakistan, and the anti-state (“Naxalite”) insurrections such as that those that have occurred in Sri Lanka, Nepal and the ‘Red Corridor’ of India.

The present monograph, while devoting attention to the foregoing diversities, has also highlighted certain commonalities in their impulses, discernible in most conflict situations. One of the most important among these, as made evident by Professor Peiris, is ‘external intervention’ in sub-national conflicts. South Asian experiences indicate that this phenomenon has taken many forms. For example, over several post-independence decades, the secessionist movement of Nagaland had barely concealed sponsorship and support from the People’s Republic of China, reflecting the tempo of Sino-Indian rivalry which prevailed at that time. The patronage given by the government of India to the secessionist terrorist groups in Sri Lanka, and various other forms of cross-border Indian intervention in Sri Lankan affairs were key ingredients in the perpetuation of the Sri Lankan conflict. India’s military intervention in East Pakistan was a vital element of the ‘liberation’ of Bangladesh. Likewise, over certain spells, the harsh suppression of the radical uprisings by the autocratic Nepali monarchy had the tacit support of Delhi and (in all probability) Washington. The Indo-Pakistan rivalry at the international plane has all along been intimately linked to the never ending Hindu-Muslim clashes in India. Again, there is widespread belief in Pakistan – a belief supported by several authoritative external observers – that the large-scale violence that brought about the overthrow of the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto regime of Pakistan was instigated by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. The Pukhtun ethno-nationalist revolts against the government of Pakistan were intimately linked to the political turbulences in Afghanistan in which the former U.S.S.R. and the United States have been involved. In addition, there are the subversive influences of some of the major global powers could also be discerned in the contemporary political affairs of the region – especially in its smaller national entities.

The second significant commonality of these diverse conflict situations relates to the political role of the social category referred to as the ‘Youth’. The disproportionately high participation of youth has for long been recognised as an important feature of almost all forms of collective political violence. This, according to certain well known analysts like Samuel P. Huntington, the author of ‘Clash of Civilizations’, has been especially pronounced in countries (including those of South Asia) that have been featured by the so-called ‘demographic youth bulge’.

Placing this phenomenon under scrutiny, the author has suggested that phenomena such as socio-economic deprivation (especially the lack of productive employment opportunities), the criminalisation of politics (politician-gangland-police nexus particularly evident in the larger cities of South Asia), and large-scale corruption in public affairs, the inculcation of unrealistic aspirations by the globalised electronic media, tend to generate among the youth a mindset which psychologists refer to as “frustration aggression” which, under certain circumstances, induces a segment of the youth to participate in collective violence. Therefore what is important is that the book has analysed the “youth phenomena” more as a social conflict than an ethnic conflict. My own research on the political conflict in Sri Lanka as published in my book titled “Political Violence in Sri Lanka” confirms the argument.

The book, considered as a whole, establishes a body of information and data which, though extracted from a wide range of sources, supports the analysis and the main arguments of the book in a tone and style that is easy to read and is engaging for the reader. Given the topical relevance of the issues dealt with, the book is of great interest not only to those in academic pursuits at advanced levels but to a general readership that seeks to gain an understanding of contemporary social and political affairs of South Asia. The book is of relevance to senior-level policy and decision makers. Since the main political conflict in Sri Lanka has not in any manner ended, I rank this book as a seminal contribution to an understanding of the complex causal connections in our own conflicts and to the formulation of policies both in internal affairs of the country as well as in our external relations.

‘Political Conflict in South Asia’ is a product of a prolonged research effort, based on a large volume of primary and secondary sources of information (including about 375 published works listed in the ‘Bibliography’, collaborative research conducted in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and long years of experience in conducting course on South Asia in Sri Lanka and several other countries in a career as a university teacher that spanned 43 years. It is due to be released by the University of Peradeniya.

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