ENGAGING WITH THE WORLD: Critical Reflections on India’s Foreign Policyedited by Rajan Harshe and K.M. Sethi. Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2009.
IN 1998, the BJP-led NDA government emphasized the importance of ‘engagement’. Strategic engagement came to be understood as the mantra underpinning India’s approach to foreign policy. For many analysts, the testing of nuclear devices, the offer of assistance to the US in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, and the ensuing debate on sending troops to Iraq in 2003, marked a shift in India’s approach to foreign policy. Indeed, commentators argue that the conclusion of the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (2008) under the Congress-led government is evidence enough that engagement is here to stay. But what does engagement actually mean or imply? Does engagement render dead the conceptual framework of non-alignment, a term seldom used to define contemporary Indian foreign policy?
A whole score of edited volumes have been dedicated to re-understanding Indian foreign policy. Written both by scholars and practitioners, many of these volumes, however, do little to tease out the tensions embedded in change, i.e., engagement. Barring a few exceptions, we are left with empirically rich articles and chapters that mostly lack an overall argument. Causality or the correlation between ideas and behaviour are rarely outlined, leave alone identified. What does all this information actually mean is a rather simple question that is not always addressed.
In the volume Engaging With the World, contributors provide the reader with food for thought on populist subjects in the realm of international affairs whilst attempting to unravel the knots associated with change. Simply put, the critical perspectives in this volume ‘review the past and link it with the present without losing sight of the future.’ Keeping these tensions in mind, it outlines how India might address major challenges before it in the ‘global political, strategic and economic landscape’: the overarching theme centres on continuity and change. Though published in 2009, one major drawback of this volume is that it also includes articles based on a conference held in 1998. By virtue of having been inked more than ten years ago, many of the ideas discussed fail to incorporate recent moorings on relevant subject areas.
Nevertheless, at a time when most analyses are so focused on the future, this volume provides an all-encompassing collection that allows the scholar and practitioner to measure change. More alarmingly, this edition makes clear that the debate in the late 1990s is not necessarily very different to the debate in the current milieu. This factor in itself does well to tell us a thing or two about the deep tensions embedded in India’s changing approach to foreign policy.
The volume has something for everyone interested in foreign affairs, broadly defined. Divided into six sections, it pays just about the right amount of attention (for an edited book) to each. The first, on globalization or the ‘global setting’, consists of three articles forwarding three separate arguments. Essentially, they question the underlying premise of viewing change as what is often portrayed as a shift from ideas associated with economic non-alignment to pragmatism. Leaning on what might be classified as a left-of-centre analysis of India’s place and interactions with the global political economy, they highlight no new ideas, but rather outline the ramifications of moving closer to a neo-liberal framework.
The section titled ‘the nuclear question’ is refreshing, not because it necessarily provides bracing insights but because it challenges conventional wisdom, going some way in re-orienting the debate on deterrence in the South Asian context and India’s approach to international treaties. The articles, however, are not always supported with empirical evidence, slanting at times to opinion rather than argument. The remaining four sections look at India’s relationships with the ‘big powers’ – the US, Russia, and China; its South Asian neighbours; regional cooperation efforts; the Middle East or West Asia, as well as Africa.
Most of these articles highlight established canons in today’s parlance, but interestingly, pay some attention to detail and history, a rare feature in most collections of this genre. As stated earlier, this volume might not advance the debate in a post 9/11 world, but does well to remind us that change and history are more closely connected than we sometimes realize. As Pulitzer winner Gordon Wood once wrote: ‘What we need more than anything is a deeper and fuller sense of the historical process, a sense of where we have come from and how we have become what we are. This kind of historical sense will give us the best guide we’ll ever have for groping our way into an unpredictable future.’ This volume might not present us with accounts of scrupulous contemporary policy analysis, but raises the all important question of ‘where we have come from.’ For this reason alone, it is an important addition to the library of any interested reader.
TWILIGHT OF THE TIGERS: Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka by G.H. Peiris. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009.
FROM the upper caste Sinhalese citadel of Kandy, G.H. Peiris has written an unabashedly partisan account of the Machiavellian politics of peace processes in Sri Lanka ending in the triumph of a military strategy and supposedly the final resolution of the Tamil minority turned national question. And as if the gridlock of the minority question could be so summarily brushed away, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 19 May 2009 declared, ‘There are no minority communities in the country.’ But the prospect of an expanding democratic agenda of ‘equal rights’ is belied by the grudging forbearance with which the Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka, a couple of months ago, spoke of the minorities having a place but, simultaneously that ‘they should make no demands.’
Also, there is the ominous foreboding of life for the Tamil and Muslim minorities in the now ‘liberated’ North and eastern provinces, under the shadow of the ‘to be expanded’ military outposts in every division. A foretaste of ‘life under occupation’ is available in the welfare (more internment camps) in which 2.8 lakh Tamil survivors of the brutal war have been herded. Access to information and movement, however, continues to be stringently restricted, despite the war being over. But given Sri Lanka’s entrenched culture of impunity, the prognosis for democratic rights is a grim one.
To paraphrase Ashis Nandy, ‘You become what you hate.’ There is what the LTTE did to the people, but also what the state became through its own excesses in the course of fighting the war. Human rights organizations have accused the Sri Lankan state of turning fascist and using state terror, not only against the Tamils but the majority Sinhala population as well. Though several Presidential commissions of inquiry have exposed the hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese killed in the counter-terror operations against the radical left chauvinistic JVP in 1980s, its non-recognition remains rooted in a culture of impunity.
However, Peiris in Twilight of the Tigers makes short shrift of such ‘unrealistic human rights paradigms’, and brands the national dollar NGOs as ‘White Tigers’, and internationals – Louise Arbours (UN High Commissioner on Human Rights) and Manfred Novak (UN Special Envoy on Investigating Torture) as ‘charlatans’. Peiris justifiably draws attention to the LTTE’s cynical manipulation of the humanitarian crisis to provoke external intervention. However, his assertion of a causal relationship between LTTE reverses and escalating humanitarian crisis would have carried more weight if only he was not so keen to extol the Sri Lanka government’s ambivalent record of civilian casualties in Eelam IV.
More particularly, Peiris displays an amoral appetite for a moral skulduggery that has been so characteristic of the 26 year ‘dirty war’. For example, the killing of the LTTE’s political head Tamilchelvan in a successful precision bombing strike in November 2007, Peiris suggests, was a lost propaganda opportunity. Given Prabhakaran’s ‘psychopathic’ and megalomaniac history of eliminating his closest colleagues, the government ‘should have pinned it on Prabhakaran, half the world would have believed it and more to the point, it might well be the truth.’ Similarly, the Muttur war atrocity story, in which 17 aid workers of Action Contre la Faim were found dead in ‘execution cum exhibition’ style, he suggests, could easily have been stage-managed to point at the LTTE. Instead, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission pointed at the government’s security forces, an allegation that Peiris fiercely challenges.
At the core of Twilight of the Tigers, is Peiris’ conviction that the possibility of achieving peace through negotiations has all along been an illusion. ‘Neither the LTTE nor the majority of the Tamil political groups including the "moderates" ever had a genuine desire for a negotiated peaceful solution.’ Their single minded objective is an independent eelam and their ‘unfounded’ claims to a historic Tamil homeland that includes not only North but the East, is aimed at paving the way for realizing a viable territorial unit. Giving credence to this assumption is Peiris’ analysis of the doublespeak on the federal question in 2002-2006 ceasefire-peace negotiations, the centrepiece of the book.
In the chapter ‘Oslo Declaration’, Peiris in a close reading of three texts lays bare the contradictions in the Wickramasinghe government’s assumption of the LTTE’s willingness to abandon the secessionist route and embrace the federal option. Peiris demonstrates fine analytical skill as he juxtaposes Prabhakaran’s Martyr’s Day message of November 2002, the Oslo Declaration of December 2002 issued by the Norwegian government, and the reports of the joint press conference. He shifts the emphasis from Prabhakaran’s openness towards ‘internal self-determination’ to Peiris and Balasingham’s contradictory statements, the former asserting that the option to secede has been abandoned and the latter adamant that it has not been abandoned.
However, the subtle reasoning demonstrated in that chapter disappointingly gives way to polemical rhetoric that too often substitutes for analysis. Nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of Norwegian facilitators whom he accuses of being part of ‘a carefully crafted design to provide the LTTE respite.’ In so doing, Peiris joins the choral denunciation of the external facilitator, the Norwegians and the Scandinavian staffed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) – as blatantly pro-LTTE. He walks us around the raging controversy over the partisan role of Norway, including the supply (via diplomatic channels) of communication equipment to the LTTE and facilitating the rebuilding of the LTTE’s military regime.
Initially, he posits the sophisticated hypothesis that the asymmetry in the structure of peace processes, i.e. between a militant insurgent group and the government of a state, tends to push facilitators (read here Norwegians) in striving for a false parity that makes them veer towards partisanship. However, this style of reasoning is soon given up in favour of such damning phrases as – LTTE’s ‘friend in need’ Erik Solheim (Norwegian Ambassador and Foreign Minister) or assertions that the SLMM in turning a blind eye to LTTE ceasefire violations, ‘is guided by the curious axiom that it’s necessary to support parity of military strength.’ While it does draw our attention to the LTTE’s obsession with parity, political and military, the extreme economy in providing sources to build the argument leaves Peiris falling back on interpretative assertions. For example, why did the LTTE commit the blunder of boycotting the elections that brought Rajapakse in coalition with the chauvinistic JVP-JHU, to power.
Peiris’ interpretative analysis is a persuasive one that the LTTE’s business-commercial empire was dependent upon war and the continuation of the ‘myth’ of Tamil oppression and genocide to sustain the flow of diaspora dollars. In a rare exception to a source, he cites a 1995 study by the Mckenzie Institute, Toronto that estimated that fund-raising (extortion) from Tamil compatriots in four countries had produced an inflow of 10mn dollars. And as Peiris suggests, Prabhakaran and the LTTE’s assets were not likely to be valuable in a democratic set-up. Consequently, peace was desirable but only to rebuild the war machine. Peiris claims that between 1999-2001 LTTE had lost 50 per cent of its cadres and needed to revitalize itself and entered into the ceasefire. Such a black and white plot is attractive but distorting. For example, Peiris’ account of the beginning of the battle for ‘clearing of the East’, casts the LTTE’s blockade of the Muttur Mavil-Aru canal as a deliberate act to provoke war. However, Frontline magazine (12 August 2006) correspondent Murlidhar Reddy’s version of the events suggests otherwise. ‘The position taken by the government has… strengthened the impression that the Rajapakse regime is keen on yet another "fight to finish" battle… Speculations persist about whether the events unfolding are part of a plan for Eelam-IV of the Tigers or Fight to Finish-IV of the government.’
Much more crude is Peiris’ interpretation of the defection of Karuna, the LTTE rebel of the East. Strangely for a student of peace accords, he seems surprised that the conflict industry wallahs are distressed at the ‘muddying’ of bilateral peace talks. He protests the innocence of the Sri Lanka state against charges of aiding and abetting Karuna’s paramilitary forces. His point-wise defence of the Karuna episode is a narrative derived from a state agenda. Aside from the serious military implications for the LTTE’s war machine, Peiris highlights the political implications. LTTE can no longer claim to represent the Tamil people. He asserts (without citing evidence) that the Tamils of the East are not keen on a Tamil homeland.
Peiris work is a ‘high table’ account of the peace politics centring on the 2002 agreement. He captures the tussle for political power in the South that provided the backdrop to the prospects for peace in the North and East and vitiated any possibility of a southern consensus on the federal option. He reminds us of the ‘legitimacy of the demands of the Sinhala majority community’ that were being sacrificed in what he describes as the appeasement politics of Wickramasinghe. Though short on research and long on interpretation, it is a book that will be eagerly read to try and understand what went so wrong.
CROSSED SWORDS: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within by Shuja Nawaz. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008.
THIS book is an exhaustive and meticulously researched work on the Pakistan Army, its role in shaping national security strategy and its impact on domestic politics. It is also a forthright account of the army’s penetration of Pakistan’s society and economy and the role it occupies in the country’s national consciousness. Unlike many scholars who conclude that the army’s interests are essentially parochial or intended to safeguard its own interests rather than Pakistan’s national interests, Nawaz offers a more nuanced view of the army’s institutional dominance. He notes that the Pakistan Army does not merely conflate its own interests with Pakistan’s national interest; rather it defines the national interest in terms of national ideology. It’s another matter that ideology has assumed different forms over the course of more than sixty years. At its inception Pakistan was flexibly defined as a Muslim state. It became ‘an Islamic polity under Zia ul Haq and …back again to a newly defined "enlightened moderation" of General Pervez Musharraf.’ The army today reflects the political and social conservatism of Pakistan’s society. Nevertheless, though the army is the most efficient institution in the country, its recruitment base needs expansion.
Contrary to the common view that the Islamisation of Pakistan started under General Zia ul Haq, it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who set the stage for this process that became entrenched during Zia’s reign in the 1980s. However, civilian leaders sought to concentrate power in their hands. Two civilian leaders, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, tried to use the army as an instrument to consolidate power and appointed what they believed to be pliant officers as army chiefs, only to see themselves overthrown by the very men they elevated to the highest rank. Tragically Pakistan has suffered from the dual malaise of civilian and military authoritarianism. This dysfunctional civil-military relationship has had the effect of compounding its relations with its rival neighbour – India.
Nawaz also draws attention to the army’s consistent attempt to corner the largest share of Pakistan’s resources generating a ‘culture of entitlement’, under-cutting investments in crucial non-military sectors, and dissipating developmental gains for its most impoverished regions. Its repeated forays in politics have had a corrosive and subversive effect on the Constitution, and civilian institutions such as the judiciary and parliament. At various moments in the last sixty years, the army has also muzzled the media during periods of military rule. This propensity for intervention has stunted Pakistan’s social and political evolution.
Two crucial insights come through in the book – more specifically about A.Q. Khan’s nuclear bazaar that made Pakistan unarguably the greatest facilitator of proliferation and the wars between India and Pakistan. Despite Nawaz’s equivocal conclusion about the army’s role in Khan’s activities, he does note that it strains credulity to believe the army’s non-involvement. Second, on the wars between India and Pakistan, the author notes that flawed assumptions about India’s capabilities and reaction have animated Pakistani grand strategy.
While one can draw the inference from the book that the balkanization of Pakistan is not imminent, because the rump entity it is today is reasonably cohesive, Nawaz does make an explicit point that Pakistan is a diverse society and emphasizing pluralism and democracy will bring greater balance between the military and civilian leadership. Similarly, while the army can effectively defend Pakistan from external aggression given its formidable conventional and nuclear capabilities, its authoritarian instincts simply do not equip it with the capacity to provide the requisite antidote to overcome the internal malaise afflicting Pakistan’s polity. Therefore, the generals have to step back and let the democratic process play itself out.
By repeatedly citing India as the principal threat to its security, the army’s strategy of employing militant and radical proxies to countervail India and also Afghanistan have only exacerbated Pakistan’s internal stresses. Rather, Nawaz proposes that the army work out an alternative strategy in resolving Kashmir, crack down on militants and extremists and ultimately divest itself from an intensely competitive relationship with India. These observations and other insights have particular relevance to India’s security. Notwithstanding the author’s sobering recommendation for a more defensively premised strategy for Pakistan, the army’s proclivity to rival India is likely to continue. New Delhi is confronted with an extremely complex country whose accumulated insecurities and attitudes are unlikely to disappear soon.
MILITARY INC by Ayesha Siddiqa. Pluto Press, London, 2007.
STATES are strange beasts, but few specimens are more peculiar – or perplexing – than Pakistan. On the one hand, a pivotal strategic location, an influential middle class, a demographic dividend and a large, professional, nuclear-armed military ought to conjure up an impression of strength or, at the very least, security. Instead, Pakistan has appeared increasingly weighed-down by its deteriorating internal security, uneven civil-military relations and its dependency on foreign aid, thereby epitomising the paradox of state strength and weakness.
The variables being what they are, one institution – the military – is central to any equation pertaining to Pakistan. Without a doubt, the greatest dilemma for the United States government in developing a regional strategy is how exactly to engage the Pakistani military, especially its dominant branch, the army. This directly impacts not just the success of the United States’ efforts in providing security and political stability to Afghanistan, but also its intelligence-gathering, non-proliferation and counter-terrorism goals more broadly. Yet rather shockingly, the institutional objectives of the Pakistani military remain poorly understood in Washington. Specifically, there is little appreciation, and only slightly greater awareness, of the military’s propensity for accentuating the state’s strength-weakness paradox, of its reasons for continued political intervention in traditionally civilian affairs, and of its privileged position within Pakistani society. Yet given the military brass’s predisposition towards ostentatiousness, it is easy – albeit unscholarly – to derive from anecdotes a larger picture of profound and widespread military involvement in aspects of Pakistani politics, society and the economy.
Enter British-trained Pakistani military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, with a comprehensive and controversial assessment of the Pakistan military’s role in the domestic economy provocatively titled Military Inc. Upon its release in 2007, Siddiqa’s book offered a useful and timely exposé of the Pakistani military’s ubiquity in Pakistan’s economy, and pointed to evident motives for its continued position of privilege in Pakistani society. Siddiqa focuses her study on ‘Milbus’, a short-hand term she employs to describe unaccounted capital and resources ‘used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity’ – in other words, economic activity controlled by the military or under its patronage for the personal benefit of its staff and affiliated individuals.
The term ‘Milbus’ sits uneasily on the tongue, but more easily in the mind. For Indians, accustomed as we are to the traditions of the license-quota Raj, the unofficial economy is familiar territory. The justifications for the continuance of ‘Milbus’ in Pakistan echo anti-reform arguments enunciated regularly in India by mandarins and politicos alike. Siddiqa’s data provides ample evidence that such justifications are flawed, meant only to hide narrow self-interests using the fig leaf of public welfare.
Readers should be warned: Military Inc. is a work of polemic, and Siddiqa is content being in equal parts scholar and gadfly. As is often the case with polemicists, she tends to overstate her case, despite frequently backing herself up with meticulous research and a clear analytical framework.
Yet Siddiqa deserves kudos for tackling a subject on which accessible data is scarce, and for which potential individual sources need not always be forthcoming. Her task was no doubt complicated by the fact that ‘Milbus’, as she defines it, straddles the formal, informal and illegal economies, and allows for several layers of plausible deniability between the military proper, its affiliated institutions (such as the Fauji Foundation and Army Welfare Trust), their subsidiaries and loosely-associated individuals. In this regard, there are eerie parallels to the structure of Pakistan’s security apparatus, both formal and informal and, occasionally, illegal.
The predatory military that Siddiqa portrays so vividly is clearly unsuitable for a major state hoping to make a positive impact on the global landscape of the 21st century. But at the same time, many of the military’s sins taint Pakistan’s civilian leadership in equal measure, a fact underscored by the snarky sobriquet regularly thrust upon its current head of state. A predatory state and military cannot be considered an isolated phenomena, but rather as rooted in the preservation of predatory feudal structures. Siddiqa does make note of this in a chapter entitled ‘The New Land Barons’, in which she makes a case for how the military became ‘an instrument of feudalism and part of the feudal class’, but this begs further avenues of inquiry. Sadly, she fails to take a step back and sufficiently contextualise her damning portrait of the military within the broader social canvas that is Pakistan.
THE DARKER NATIONS: A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World by Vijay Prashad. LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2007.
THE cover jacket of this well-researched and analytical volume does both justice and injustice to it. In proclaiming that the Third World was a project and not a place, as is commonly believed, it refreshes our collective anti-colonial memories. But in saying that the ‘vibrant’ idea of the Third World was ‘flawed’, it belittles the very book it is supposed to promote. The editors, and not to speak of the author himself, should have been more careful. How could the idea of the Third World have been flawed if its demise, as this pleasant and inspiring book proves, ‘has produced a much impoverished international arena’? Was the idea itself flawed or was its promise undone by the political leaders of the former colonies?
Prashad has synthesized an enormous amount of historical data spanning countries across Asia, Africa and South America in writing this book. Indeed the implications of Prashad’s scholarly submissions are clear. By departing from the inherently anti-imperialist practices implied by the Third World, and embracing former enemies in the guise of globalization, many countries are repeating the historical mistakes they made during the dark days of superpower alignment and the Cold War. This book tells us where, how and why the anti-imperialist project went wrong after the Second World War. Its message is icy; to escape the trap of western domination reasserted by contemporary globalization, the Washington Consensus must be abandoned and the socialist path retaken by some South American countries should be followed. Unfortunately, the present Asian leadership of the former Third World, despite the ongoing economic crisis caused by the anarchies of capitalist globalization, seems happily immune to the possibilities present in the volume under review.
While the 19th century saw the triumph of industrial capitalism and the establishment of several modern colonial empires, the 20th century was the one in which capitalist imperialism entered a period of crisis from which it has not recovered. The idea of the Third World, like modern nationalism in the colonized countries, was produced by the contradictions of modern imperialism and colonialism. Hence, Prashad is right in tracing the origins of the Third World idea to the anti-imperialist conferences of the early 20th century organized by the communist and non-communist opponents of imperialism. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the hope inspired by the formation of the USSR as the world’s first socialist country also played a crucial role in the historical evolution of the idea. Later Tito would show how the Third World had to guard itself against Soviet encroachment. So to assume, as some pro-American critics dismissively do, that the Third World was ultimately a front of the Soviet Union would be completely wrong.
As far as the imperialists were concerned, the opposition to the Third World idea was easily understood. Moscow, in contrast, developed a more problematic relationship with the Third World countries. The process through which the USSR became a superpower changed its attitude towards the Third World gradually during the 1940s and ’50s. Fraternity gave way to domination as the Red Army swept across eastern and central Europe and later when the Cold War progressed. It goes to the credit of leaders like Tito, Nasser and Nehru that while the leading countries of the Third World maintained friendly ties with Moscow, the USSR failed to convert India, Egypt or Yugoslavia into clones of the extremely pro-Soviet East European countries.
In sum, the Third World, with all its problems, remained a site of resistance to the compulsions of the Cold War during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. This book shows how this resistance was gradually undermined from both inside and outside during the Cold War and how the consensus on globalization ultimately reversed a process which had started in the beginning of the 20th century.
This book defends the idea of the Third World without becoming its Bible. This balanced approach leaves ample room for criticism to emerge and flourish. The numerous country-wise chapters of this easy to read volume speak of the promise which the Third World held for the ex-colonized peoples of our unhappy world – the promise of human dignity, human rights, gender equality and social justice; the promise of a scientific and modern society. Simultaneously, the somewhat melancholy chapters also tell us why and how these promises failed to materialize. The blame is correctly laid at the doors of an incomplete national revolution resulting from the several anti-colonial national liberation struggles.
The idea of the Third World, as it often happens in history, was destroyed by the elites of the former colonies who, under intense pressure from Cold War politics, finally chose collaboration over resistance when it came to dealing with new forms of imperialism. To begin with, the dream of a Third World could be realized only on the basis of national sovereignty, industrialization, universal education, democracy, international cooperation, peaceful coexistence and non-alignment. Instead what the ruling classes in former colonies achieved, in general, was a near complete betrayal of the anti-imperialist national liberation struggles which rocked world history during a large part of the 20th century.
In most instances, the Third World ruling classes, which were supposed to represent the interest of the people they led against imperialism, encouraged corruption, nepotism, conflict and elitism. The incomplete anti-imperialist revolutions ultimately produced social distortions and contradictions at higher levels. In many countries, even before a full-fledged national reconstruction programme could begin, the leadership compromised the ideals of the national liberation movements which had brought them to power in the first place. Thus was caused the problem of ballooning debt with well-known consequences like structural adjustment and globalization. Today, the book’s conclusion notes, the ‘alchemy of international usury binds the darker nations.’
In sum, the ‘divergence between the North and the South grew as the Third World fragmented. But even this spatial metaphor of the North and the South is insufficient; it ignores the mature class hierarchies that had grown within each of the countries in the South and the North.’ Nonetheless, this sad biography of the ‘assassinated’ Third World ends in optimism. Hope comes from the fact that each distress creates its own contradictions. These contradictions are then resolved at a higher levels if people manage to gain control over their future. Political struggle is the key to this process and here the signs observed by Prashad appear encouraging. Failing globalization, like colonial imperialism, its predecessor, has created conditions for the emergence of popular movements over several issues. If imperialism can transform itself into globalization, surely the peasants, workers, students and women of the former Third World can revive a project based on rationalism, socialism, secularism and sustainable development.
BEYOND COUNTER-INSURGENCY: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India edited by Sanjib Baruah. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2009.
TALK of insurgency, and the region that first comes to mind (in India) is the Northeast. ‘Viewed through comparative lenses, Northeast India’s conflicts are of "extraordinary duration" and the sheer number of rebel groups makes Northeast India "an outlier by world standards". Yet, our understanding of the region, not just the insurgency, but the people – their existential conditions, aspirations and angst, languages and histories – remains woefully inadequate, if not fundamentally misplaced. Far away from the seat of power in Delhi, the region and its people remain a ‘black hole’ in official consciousness, almost as if they have been subcontracted out for ‘management and containment’ to the security forces. ‘The national security-discourse about the Northeast – shaped mostly by former bureaucrats and retired army, police, and intelligence officials – is "heavily pro-state and insensitive to the vulnerabilities of the common man and dismissive of the frequent transgression of rights of its own citizens by the state".’
It is disturbing how, despite the virtual intellectual revolution in the scholarship on armed civil conflicts in the world, policy-thinking about such issues in India remains insulated and in the firm grasp of the military and security establishment. Just try and remember the long list of governors in the region and you will be hard put to come up with the name of a single politician familiar with or knowledgeable about the peoples. Worse, even the Look East policy which sought to foreground trade and economic links of India’s Northeast in a transnational regional context by seeking to reduce the centrality of international borders was soon subverted and made subordinate to the military and security establishment. No wonder, unusual politicians like the former minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, probably the first central politician to attempt ‘out-of-the-box’ policies was given short-shrift. And now that he is no longer in Parliament, even that glimmer of hope has faded.
Sanjib Baruah, who first came to notice because of his work on the Assam movement against the in migration and ‘illegal’ settlement of outsiders which further fuelled local antagonism and conflict against all seen as ‘alien’, has long struggled (often unsuccessfully) to break the isolation of the region from national and international scholarship. He has pointed to the hazards of trying to ‘buy-out’ the local elite, of not attempting to institutionalize norms of good government, of letting low-intensity conflicts fester and proliferate, all the while doing little to reduce the ubiquitous presence of the security forces or whittle down repressive laws. ‘The paternalism of central-level bureaucrats, coercive top-down planning, and little support or feedback from locals’ is hardly designed to engender trust, an approach which applies even more to the institutions engaged in counter-insurgency. Remember Manipur and the protest of women who publicly bared themselves to highlight their vulnerability to rape and worse? Or the unending fast by Irom Sharmila against the continuation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act?
Equally limited is the view that foregrounds the ‘greed’ of rebels rather than ‘grievances’ as fuelling conflict, or that ‘extortions, violence, and doing the bidding of foreign intelligence agencies are all that is there to the rebellions of Northeast India.’ And we are surprised and hurt when civilian populations, often on the receiving end of depredations of rebel groups, refuse to buy-into the blandishments of the security forces! Yet, ‘While the notion of a development fix or the premises of the greed theory might be flawed, it does not mean that particular grievances articulated by insurgent organizations, are better guides to understanding Northeast India’s conflicts.’ Far too commonly, one rebel group may be at war with another, often more than with the Indian state, who often plays off one group against another, sometimes even sponsoring its own rebel groups. And finally, an unmentionable: different state agencies promote their own groups, sometimes targeting rebels sponsored by rival agencies.
Making sense of this confused and confusing landscape of conflicts is not easy. So rather than advance any grand integrated theory or framework, this collection brings together a collection of viewpoints, organized for convenience under five broad rubrics: Stalemated Conflicts: What Cost?; Nation and its Discontents; Discourses of Inclusion and Exclusion; Making Peace, Making War: India’s Peace Policy, and; Breaking the Impasse. Each of the fourteen essays, and the introduction, is empirically rich and theoretically nuanced, and though may not offer the uninitiated a quick, comprehensible guide to the region, does present vital clues about what not to do. This reviewer, in particular, was struck by Dolly Kikon’s essay ‘From Loincloth, Suits, to Battle Greens: Politics of Clothing the "Naked Nagas"’ which demonstrates the degree to which we ‘outsiders’ remain prisoners of an outmoded anthropological thinking about the unchanging tribe. Makiko Kimura’s essay on the Nellie massacre of 1983 helps demolish the carefully constructed official account of the massacre. No wonder, the scholar was not permitted to even present her research in Guwahati. Finally, the essays by Samir Das on the various ethnic peace accords in the Northeast and Bethany Lacina’s meditation on ‘Why neither counter-insurgency nor winning hearts and minds is the way forward’ should form staple reading for all those concerned about peace in disturbed areas.
It is unlikely that secessionist movements in the Northeast will succeed in their formal project, both because of the ‘strength’ of the Indian state and the shift in global mood. We only have to recollect the fate of the LTTE in neighbouring Sri Lanka. This, however, should breed no complacency. For if the discontent is permitted to simmer and the state continues to respond to it in the way it has over the last six decades, the greater danger is of losing our democratic soul.