Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Book Review

Conflict Literature: A Sociological Perspective

Edited by Nandini Sundar and Aparna Sundar  
Sage Publications, Delhi, 2014, pp. 273, Rs. 850.00


The book originated at a workshop in Delhi University’s Department of Sociology in 2010. Consequently it helps fill a gap in writings on internal security that are usually security related and state centric at that. The development perspective relying on human security and peace studies on conflict resolution frameworks are fast emerging as strong competitors. Nevertheless, the sociological angle deserved greater visibility than it has received so far, even if it has been much in evidence within the academia and in progressive tracts.
On that count, the book serves to bring the sociological perspective to the general readership to flesh out conflict literature and is a contribution to both strategic and peace studies in South Asia. For this we can credit noted scholar Nandini Sundar, and her sister, Aparna Sundar, Associate professor at the Azim Premji University, along with the team of academics brought together for the purpose at a workshop.
The jointly written introduction by the sister-duo that comprises the editorial team spells out what they mean by civil wars and how they situate the concept to the region. Simply put, civil wars to them are armed conflicts that challenge state sovereignty. States have taken care to refer to these instead as insurgencies to be able to operationalize and legitimize a counter-insurgency approach. Finding this wanting, particularly in the conflict management approaches it gives rise to, the two wished for a more holistic reappraisal to include ‘structures and dynamics’ (p.4) that give rise to or are set in place by armed confrontations.
Their intent was to examine civil wars in the region for ‘theoretical implications and from a comparative and regional perspective’ (p. 3). They problematize sovereignty in order to enhance the study of the state, not in its ordinary ‘everyday administrative practices’ (p.5), but how it behaves in the context of internal conflict. They complicate the relationship between economic development and civil wars by counter intuitively bringing out, using the cases of Sri Lanka and India, that conflict can buoy economics, such as by the boost to the military, humanitarian and developmental sectors, and to social segments and political actors advantaged by conflict. They challenge the thesis of state fragility as cause of conflict bringing out that South Asian states on the contrary have robust centralized authority and rely on ‘extraordinary’ laws inherited from their colonial forbears. Yet, there is a fragmentation of sovereignty with power being shared with ‘overlapping centers of local authority’ (p. 20) in which ‘militants, states and others are more or less successful in enforcing their writ over limited areas’ (p. 23).
A tour-de-horizon follows by academicactivist Nandini Sundar, famous for her keeping the state to the straight and narrow in its operations in Central India. The chapter contextualizes those that deal with each country separately; Maldives and Bhutan being left out since their set of internal troubles do not amount to civil wars. Myanmar has been rightly included into South Asia, even if it overlaps with South East Asia. The categorization of causes is discrimination on ethnic, religious and linguistic grounds; in addition, the unfinished business of decolonization; wars for democracy and redistribution; and finally, wars with Cold War as context and more recently the ‘war on terror’.
The book has its initial three chapters on the political economy of conflict covering economic growth in the time of conflict in Sri Lanka; smuggling and drug trade, remittance, non-state armed groups and humanitarian NGOs in Afghanistan; and the relationship between aid and Nepal’s Maoist insurgency. The next two chapters are on institutional legacy of colonialism, examined respectively in chapters on insurgency and counter-insurgency in Pakistan’s North West and the legal inheritance from the British in the shape of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in India’s North East. Finally, there are two chapters with ethnographic approaches examining civilian agency with a chapter each on ethnic Karen-Burman relations in eastern Myanmar and on two local, though structured and organized agitations, in Kashmir that are part of but simultaneously distinct from the larger resistance movement there.
A summing up chapter has not been necessary owing to the editors covering the ‘significance of the book’ in their introductory chapter itself. Rajesh Venugopal’s chapter on Sri Lanka discusses how market reform coincided with the outbreak of insurgency in Tamil areas. The unpopular liberalization policies however were easier administered by the military expanding ten times, resulting in absorption of the surplus manpower in Sinhala rural areas that could have otherwise been dissident in the form of two preceding Sinhala insurgencies. The author argues that the ‘civil war has been of functional significance to the promotion of economic growth by mitigating the adverse effects of the market reform agenda in the South’ (p. 73). His chapter raises the question whether this phenomenon is not visible in India too with the military and central police forces expanding steadily over the last two decades of India’s economic reform, ostensibly to cope with ‘civil wars’ in Kashmir and Central India. Alessandro Monsutti brings out that despite over a decade of ministrations by international organizations and humanitarian and developmental actors in Afghanistan, ‘the population remain unconvinced by the merits of programmes promoting democracy and transparency, human rights and women’s empowerment’ (p. 111). The transnational networks share sovereignty with the state and channel resources that can be used in political and social struggles, resulting in ‘multiple and segmented de facto sovereignties’ (p. 112). In the same vein, Antonio Donini and Jeevan Raj Sharma explore how developmentalist assistance got intertwined in Nepal’s insurgency. It brings out the competing narratives between the humanitarians and developmentalists by taking recourse to specific examples from Nepal’s experience where both domains intersected and contended.
The study on Bangladesh has A. Dirk Moses look at the confusion in the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office as to how to approach the civil war in 1971. That this was true for the US—witness the neglect of the Archer Blood telegram from the US embassy in Dacca in Washington D.C.—also suggests the problems external players have in understanding and engaging with civil wars in general, resulting in ultimately being guided by the ‘national interest’ raison d’etat. He notes multiple axes of conflict as characterizing civil war, with violence occurring between Bengalis and Biharis, Bengalis and the military, India and Pakistan, and outright criminal activities.
Haris Gazdar, Yasser Kureshi and Asad Sayeed in their chapter attribute the rise of Jihadi militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas to state complicity. The Army wanting to control the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Kashmir outsourced these to proxies. This imposition of the national security paradigm has resulted in the displacement of authority in tribal areas away from Maliks to Mullahs. The backlash has been in the form of ‘sovereignty divided in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas’ (p. 186).
The chapter of greater interest for Indian readers is the one on AFSPA in which Sanjib Baruah informs of the manner India has subverted the concept of emergencies in international law by refusing to recognize that the laws it operates in conflict areas are meant for a the temporary period of great challenge to the state. He rightly notes that, ‘Decisions to proclaim an area as “disturbed” are made rather casually.’ Testimony to this is the manner AFSPA was extended recently in Arunachal Pradesh from along a 20 km wide stretch along its border with Assam to all bordering districts by New Delhi without consulting the State Government. The latter’s remonstrations led to the State capital being left out of the ambit and the strip being increased to 30 km.
Gowhar Fazili is informative on the manner local resistance continues even outside the wider framework of the movement and militancy in Kashmir in his examination of two incidents of 2009: the killing of two youth by security forces in Bomai and the better known one of drowning of two women in Shopian. He recounts how local agitationists took pains to dissociate from the wider movement in order to press their cases for justice lest the state gain a handle for suppressing or ignoring their cases. Stephen Campbell relies on his three-and-a-half-year research experience with the Karen Human Rights Group to argue in his chapter on Karen-Burman relations in South East Myanmar that, ‘a recognition of, and appreciation for, local context is crucial, both in explaining the diversity of individual articulations of grievance and in challenging politically restrictive master narratives’ (p. 242).