The quest for peace

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Peace studies: An Introduction to the Concept, Scope and Themes, edited by Ranabir Samaddar; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004; pages 445, Rs.448.

THE word peace almost immediately brings to mind images of negotiations, ceasefire, disarmament - all related to war. Peace and war or war and peace thus go together, possibly because the atrocities of war are more easy to envisage than the attributes of peace. But the notion of peace as the mere absence of war is a minimalist concept, declares the book under review. In recent years, a significant corpus of scholarly work has emerged which challenges the limited approach to peace. Adopting a broader approach, these studies seek to link peace with issues of justice, dignity, dialogue and reconciliation. They emphasise the need to take account of historical, political and civilisational specificities of nations and peoples in understanding both peace and conflict.

Such a comprehensive quest for peace is the theme of the volume. It is the first of four volumes to be brought out. The ones to follow are: "Peace Accords and Peace Processes", "Women and Peace Politics", and "Human Rights, Human Rights Institutions and Humanitarian Crisis", all four specifically related to South Asia.

The introductory volume consists of 19 essays divided into three sections - "Defining Peace Studies", "Borders, Wars and People", "Conflict Situations, Dialogue and Peace". Cutting across the sections and individual essays, I shall comment on selected themes.

The first thing that strikes one in going through the volume is a dilemma inherent in the approach. On the one hand, the maximalist concept of peace that the volume strives to project and defend has to be in terms of what may be referred to as universals - justice, dignity, equality, human rights and reconciliation. On the other hand, the quest for peace will become a vague chase unless it is related to the lives and conditions of people which makes it necessary to situate it in a specific geographical area, in this case South Asia. The task, therefore, is to trace the universals in a specific locale, not merely geographically but in terms of "the historical, political and civilisational specificities of people". Therein lies the dilemma.

One way to evaluate the volume will be to see how it handles this dilemma, an inevitable one. Both the universals and the specifics are dealt with. The universals stand out prominently in the editor's preface, in the introduction and in the concluding essay, "Between Revenge and Reconciliation". Practically in all other chapters the accent is on South Asia.

That, however, leads to a problem. South Asia consists of a number of independent states and - unfortunately - the relationships among the states are noted primarily for tensions, disputes, conflicts and wars. Consequently, even when committed to the maximal concept of peace, the main body of the treatment gets reduced to the minimal concept. Not surprisingly, Kashmir becomes the central piece - the inter-state dispute, conflicts and fights. In fact, there is the firm assertion: "In short, the essential question of peace and concord in South Asia is tied to Kashmir and the aspirations of its people." Other South Asian themes dealt with are the India-China dispute and the India-Bangladesh dispute.

This is not a negative observation. These disputes are dealt with not only as matters of state, but as the live experience of people. Thus, the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir is treated as it impacts the lives of innocent men, women and children. No matter what the political issues and legal settlements are when the old princely state of Kashmir becomes partly the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir and partly Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, those who lived together as neighbours and friends suddenly become members of two hostile nations through no fault of theirs. Even families get divided. Natural and normal contacts come to be viewed with suspicion, as clandestine contacts with "the enemy". And those who are suspected become enemies within, more dangerous than enemies without, and are treated accordingly. So "wars between states are giving way to wars within states", leading to various forms of violence by the state.

A VERY poignant piece in the book has the title "Women across borders in Kashmir - the continuum of violence". When fighting erupts, the women not only face the military onslaughts, but they live in fear of their bodies being violated. Even attempts to protect them are not without adverse effects. From scenes of conflict women and children are usually moved to "safe places" where they live in crowded temporary sheds, without adequate clothing, bedding and cooking facilities.

The condition of young women who become widows is even more pathetic. There is usually a monetary compensation, but the money meant for the widow rarely reaches her. Sometimes "kind" intermediaries take a cut; more frequently men in her own family take it away from her for "safe keeping". In other instances, where there are male relations, force is used to marry her off to one of them so that the money remains within the family.

Another manifestation of the human tragedy associated with war and war-like situations is the forced migration of people within countries and across national boundaries as witnessed, for instance, immediately after Partition and before and after East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Such migrations give rise to the problem of refugees and their rehabilitation. Apart from unsettling human lives directly, this kind of forced migration has other implications related to peace. The phenomenon is usually triggered by threats and violence by one group against another based on religious, linguistic and cultural considerations. One group, thus, succeeds in driving out another and the driven-out group carries with it feelings of humiliation and hatred which find expression wherever its members go. The bitterness of refugees even towards those who try to rehabilitate them is well known. Even when former refugees succeed in rehabilitating themselves in a new situation, they are known to carry with them the sense of venom. The political arena in our country provides several instances of this kind.

The threat to peace can, therefore, arise from unexpected quarters and at unguarded moments. It may be domestic; may be across borders. Religion, language and politics may all contribute to it. But in our time borders between countries play a prominent role in violations of peace. With special reference to South Asia, a historian recalls in the volume that migrations of people from one part of the region to another were quite common without threat to peace. It is well known that during the Vedic period there were movements of people from Central Asia to many parts of South Asia. There were movements of the Mangoloid and Turkic peoples across the Karakoram into the high Himalayan ranges. Similarly, peoples from the Gangetic plains moved to Nepal, those from Yunnan in China to Assam, from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka and so on. The Kabuliwallahs seen in Bengali writings are descendants of those who moved from Afghanistan to the Bengal region in days past.

Such natural movements continued until nation states became the order of the day, first in Europe and then taken by the Europeans to other parts of the world, including Asia. And the Asian continent "was mapped in border lines - the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan which the Afghans still do not accept, the Mac Mohan Line between India and China along watersheds most of which had not been seen or walked along by Europeans or Chinese". How chaotic and crazy the borders are can be seen in northeastern India. From West Bengal one moves east to Bangladesh and east from Bangladesh again to the Indian territory and beyond that to Myanmar. The people in the territory between Bangladesh and Myanmar are Indian nationals, but different peoples who have not stopped fighting among themselves. Borders become fertile grounds for tension and war between nations, but do not prevent conflicts within.

But nation states with their borders are here to stay. Within them and across them there are communities of various sorts with their boundaries which, in some instances, are weaker than national borders but in others far stronger and more rigid. This is true of South Asia; it is true of the whole world. Under such conditions how can the quest for maximal peace - or even minimal peace - be maintained and directed? The volume poses this question, and is far from providing an answer. But then it is only the first in a series and it shows that it is worth waiting for the ones to come.

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