Fresh perspectives

Print edition : October 16, 2015

Mahinda Rajapakse at the victory day parade in Matara, Sri Lanka, on May 18, 2014. During his presidency, he resisted Western pressure to investigate allegations that some 40,000 Tamils civilian were killed by the troops in the final months of the conflict with the LTTE in 2009. Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

A definitive study on the contexts and subtexts of the civil wars in South Asia.

Every crisis affecting people and every triumph of state and non-state actors have multiple contexts, some of them far removed from the immediate cause of the crisis itself. A close reading of history shows that factors far more important than the immediate causes have contributed to upheavals, for instance the Egyptian uprising of 2011 or the pulling down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Hence, a linear narrative of “what followed what” while providing a logical explanation of an event or a catastrophe hardly contributes to serious academic investigation.

Civil wars, often studied through the boxed-in narrative of security challenges to a nation state or, at best, the question of ethnicity, have multiple contexts and throw up interesting and defining questions on state sovereignty and citizenship, among others. In a study of them, more often than not, the underlying contexts are brushed aside as insignificant, if at all they are acknowledged, and the discussion is often confined to an immediate set of circumstances or is trapped in the overarching narrative of strategic studies, identity issues, and so on. There is nothing wrong in approaching the civil war question from a strategic or identity standpoint, but the fact is that a much deeper and much larger set of issues must be examined, both at an academic level and at the level of democratic practitioners. It is important that the hype/importance accorded to the immediate context does not drown out subtleties such as shifting undercurrents and oblique motives that contribute to and create that particular context.

This is essential to broaden the theoretical basis for debates and arrive at a better understanding of an issue. The book under review attempts to look at civil wars in South Asia from different perspectives while not belittling or glossing over the immediate contributing factor and brings in elements of political economy, anthropology and political sociology to show the complexities involved in the holistic understanding of a civil war in a given setting.

Of course, one could argue from the experience of the United States-backed counter-insurgency group in Colombia, the French-backed Algerian “resistance”, and the India-supported Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, among others, that foreign government-backed resistance movements are doomed to fail. But that would be a simplistic reading of the situation.

That is because politics and its dynamics in a society are fine-tuned primarily by the core strengths of the state—the inherent strength of its institutions, its adherence to the rule of law and its implementation and the flexibility of the state actors—and not merely by its military capabilities. In the introduction to the book, the editors explain that a “central purpose of this volume is to use the study of civil war in South Asia to complicate how we understand sovereignty”. Sovereignty is examined from a British Raj-inspired institutional legacy standpoint, from the perspectives of civilians and “as contested and constituted by international actors”.

Although South Asia is generally regarded as a “peaceful” region, compared with, say, sub-Saharan Africa or even parts of Central Asia, the reality is far from being so. Even today, Afghanistan and Pakistan struggle with multiple insurgencies; Nepal is in complete disarray as India, Pakistan and China continue to gain leverage even as the Far Left tries to unseat every government in power; Kashmir and the north-eastern region remain perpetual problems for India; and accountability for the “war without witnesses”, the Eelam War IV (2006-09), continues to haunt Sri Lanka. As the editors explain, even Bangladesh, which was separated from Pakistan to become an independent nation in 1971, is facing the consequences of the war now “in the form of the decisions of the War Crimes Tribunal”.

Consider Sri Lanka. In a chapter titled “Sri Lanka: Military fiscalism and the politics of market reform at a time of civil war”, Rajesh Venugopal says that the jobs that opened up in the military offset the ill effects caused by Sri Lanka’s blind embrace of market reforms and had a salutary effect on sociopolitical stability. He traces how the political players of the time managed to push forward the reform agenda even as Sinhala nationalism rose to become the overarching theme and military spending went on an upward spiral.

Venugopal asserts that “the only alternative to unemployment, or the armed forces, is the life of a casual labourer, a fate which most would seek to avoid to the extent possible...” One glaring omission in the article is the contribution of those employed abroad. According to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, overseas employment is the largest source of foreign exchange in the country’s economy.

“Since 1970s when formal employment migration commenced, foreign employment has generated substantial inflows of remittance at the same time relieving pressure on unemployment of youth by providing employment abroad. An estimated 1.7 million Sri Lankans are employed abroad impacting nearly 25% of our population. A total of 293,105 (59.7% of males & 40.3% females) left for employment in 2013. During 2013, total remittances received amounted to U.S. $6.4 billion,” the bureau’s website says. Jaffna and the whole of the Northern Province, too, have run on what is colloquially known as a “money order” economy: a member of the family who is employed abroad sends money, and the family survives on that. The whole income dynamics of families change when this is taken into account. Indeed, a study taking this factor into consideration would have added value to this chapter.

Afghanistan’s tragedy is well documented, but Alessandro Monsutti’s “The transnational political economy of civil war in Afghanistan” provides a greater perspective on a much-discussed country.

It is well known that after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the Mujahideen fighters and the Afghan government fought for every inch of territory. It was only a matter of time before the Communist government lost control of Kabul (April 1992). Some estimates put the number of Afghans killed in the war years at more than a million. The fall of Kabul did not mean much: the factions fought with one another, and by the mid-1990s, the Taliban became the single biggest force in the country.

The U.S. mediation, after 2001, led to some dramatic changes, but India-Pakistan rivalry, which plays out in Afghanistan as it does in Nepal and Bangladesh, had a destabilising effect on a country that was already coming apart. Monsutti explains the reasons for the longevity of the Taliban and the settings that make Afghanistan the dangerous place it is—a combination of non-state actors, smuggling networks, drug production and transport centres and, above all, a weak state. All these contribute to make Afghans the largest group of people seeking refuge in other countries.

The Nepal story, outlined by Antonio Donini and Jeevan Raj Sharma in the chapter titled “Aid and violence: Development, insurgency and social transformation in Nepal”, takes one through the difficult journey the country has undertaken in the past few decades and points out where aid agencies have erred.

While welcoming the search of the aid community to know “what went wrong”, the authors point to a devastating but basic point that aid agencies overlooked: “In Nepal, in particular, critical anthropological and sociological information is readily available, but somehow, it is not systematically taken into account by aid agencies and donors when designing programmes and policies.”

Was the 1971 conflict in East Pakistan a civil war or genocide? While A. Dirk Moses argues that there is a need to go beyond the “simplifying slogans of genocide... to reveal multiple conflicts that raged in 1971”, it is clear that “the genocide trials under way since 2011 for the crimes of 1971 suggest that they are an occasion to restage the 40-year-old conflict.”

The rise of jehadi militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in India, and a case study of local agitations in Shopian and Bomai village in Sopore, Jammu and Kashmir, form the rest of the chapters in the volume.

Civil Wars in South Asia adds to the slim body of impartial literature on the study of conflicts in the region from multiple perspectives. It has charted an approach that could be the beginning of a better understanding of the region. It is a must read for policymakers and scholars of South Asia.

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