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Rebels And The State (An Essay)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Rebels and the state

Rebels and the state


There is an underlying pattern to the rise, sustenance and demise of sub-national movements

IN the aftermath of the recent massacre of Central Reserve Police Force personnel by Maoist insurgents at Chintalnad in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district, it was common to hear analysts say that no lessons were drawn from the successful elimination of the Sikh separatist insurgency in Punjab in the 1990s. The same people blamed the Central and State governments for ignoring the lessons learnt from the success of Greyhounds (a special police force created to tackle Maoist violence) in Andhra Pradesh. They may be right, but the specific factors that help to sustain or discourage armed movements in different States are not all that clear. The four books under review help us understand the essential but subtle differences between terrorism and insurgency, both in terms of the characterisation of certain events and groups and the nature of state response to contain them.

The first book, Ethnonationalism in India: A Reader, edited by Sanjib Baruah, Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and Honorary Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, poses the question: “How is India doing vis-a-vis the challenge of managing its exceptional diversity?”

In his essay, Kanti Bajpai of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford subscribes to an “umbrella” definition of ethnicity to mean social identity based on ascribed qualities such as race, religion, caste, tribe, language and region, and suggests that a mix of state violence and political compromises with militant groups has been successful at least in the sense that India has not splintered.

Gurharpal Singh, Nadir Dinshaw Professor of Inter-Religious Relations, Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, questions this conventional wisdom about India's successful record in managing diversity. He argues that as Partition in 1947 created an overwhelmingly Hindu India, the Hindus institutionalised dominance over the state as well as hegemonic control over ethnic minorities.

Will India and Pakistan resort to war again on the Kashmir question? An affirmative answer to this question is not implausible, given the history of conflicts between the two countries. The essay by Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, U.S., is perceptive. In this essay, written in 1996 and reproduced here, he warns of the dangers of using the army against particular ethnic groups in poly-ethnic states.

Most analysts suggest that the current insurgency in Kashmir began in 1989 but offer no convincing explanation why it did not begin earlier. Ganguly argues that insurgency in Kashmir arose out of a process of political mobilisation that was juxtaposed with steady institutional decay.

The political mobilisation of Kashmiris started later than in the rest of India, but it accelerated dramatically after the 1970s. Institutional decay in Kashmir began as early as the 1950s, much earlier than in the rest of India.

These two trends, he suggests, intersected as a new generation of Kashmiris emerged on the political scene.

The cases of certain States in the north-eastern region of India illustrate how some of them have resolved their conflicts while some have not. M. Sajjad Hassan, an Indian Administrative Service officer, compares Manipur and Mizoram, which share similar grievances. Mizoram's relative peace in the past two decades, he says, is explained by the convergence of a number of historical factors. The Mizo rebellion that ended in 1986 contributed to creating a fairly inclusive Mizo identity. The state is marginal to people's lives in Manipur; therefore, political space is wide open for a variety of players, including those speaking in the name of traditional authority and organisations with exclusive ethnic appeal to perform state-like functions, he says.

In his essay, journalist M.S. Prabhakara discusses the proliferation of a particular kind of political mobilisation in Assam by small groups, mostly tribal communities numbering just a few thousands in some cases, to demarcate a territory and political space for themselves. As a consequence, he says the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) seek territorial councils and the non-Scheduled Tribes seek their reclassification as S.Ts, as part of a strategy for political survival and advancement.

Atul Kohli of Princeton University, New Jersey, explains that ethnonational movements in India have followed an inverse ‘U' curve: heightened mobilisation of group identities are followed by negotiations, and eventually such movements decline as exhaustion sets in, some leaders are repressed, others are co-opted, and a modicum of genuine power-sharing and mutual accommodation between the movement and the Central and State authorities is reached. The experience of Tamil Nadu illustrates this inverted ‘U' curve rather well.

As Kohli recalls, Tamil leaders mobilised considerable support for a ‘Tamil nation' during the 1950s and 1960s and demanded, at a minimum, autonomy or, at a maximum, secession from India. However, the rise and consolidation of power by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had a profound impact on Tamil Nadu politics. As the DMK settled down to rule, it lost much of its self-determination, its anti-Centre militancy, and its commitment to socio-economic reforms. The reasons for that de-radicalisation in Tamil Nadu, he suggests, were the same as elsewhere. Once national leaders made important concessions, though within firm limits, and the DMK achieved its major goal of securing power, realpolitik concerns took over and ideologies lost their relevance for guiding governmental actions.

In Kohli's analysis, Sikh nationalism also traversed the inverse U curve, but the top of the curve turned out to be prolonged. Tamil Nadu's inverse U curve happened when Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister. Nehru was more accommodating than Indira Gandhi, whose commitment as Prime Minister to dominate Punjab politics pushed the Akalis into aggressive mobilisation.

Will Kashmir experience the inverse U curve? Kohli cautions readers not to take his argument too literally and adds that Kashmir's turn to experience the inverse U turn may well happen if the United Progressive Alliance-II government maintains a firm but flexible set of policies, that is, if it grants the State the promise of ‘maximum autonomy' within the Indian federation and if Pakistan's role in the State diminishes.

In the words of Sanjib Baruah, in India, as in many other parts of the world, the challenge today is to forge political communities defined not by a shared past but by a shared future. In order to be able to do that, he suggests that we find ways to think of ethnonationalism by highlighting ambiguities and paradoxes inherent in it rather than mask them.


Beyond Counter-insurgency, also edited by Sanjib Baruah, tries to answer the recurrent dilemma facing policymakers in North Block over the ideal mix of development and military approaches to contain insurgency. Incidentally, this is also the crux of the policy conundrums encountered while dealing with the Maoist menace. As one of the contributors in this book says, development in north-eastern India means a little more than “externally delivered economic packages which can be translated through various backdoor means and leakages, at the soonest possible into hard cash”. Another contributor argues that neither development nor a military fix can achieve peace in the north-eastern region. Only concerted efforts to establish the rule of law, a system of accountability, and faith in the institutions of government can break the cycle of violence, the authors say. This is also true of approaches aimed to contain left-wing extremism.

In his Introduction, Baruah confronts the paradox of how rebel groups in the north-eastern region remain active for long periods even though they know that goals like secession have little chance of success. Even the largest insurgent groups have only a few thousand members; none has ever grown large enough to drag the region into a war on the scale of the violence that prevailed in Kashmir in the 1990s or in Punjab in the 1980s. One of the contributors, Bethany Lacina, suggests that the influence and the endurance of insurgency in the north-eastern region are because of the fact that armed groups are embedded in the workings of the north-eastern civilian politics which makes it difficult for politicians or bureaucrats to act independently of the rebels.

The third book, Terrorism: Patterns of Internationalization, edited by Jaideep Saikia and Ekaterina Stepanova, both security analysts, aims to map the processes, forms, stages and degrees of internationalisation of modern terrorism. The editors understand terrorism as a tactic that involves the threat and use of violence in order to achieve a political goal. This goal may be formulated in ideological or religious terms, but it invariably retains a political element, they say.

For the editors, the use of the term ‘state terrorism' is a misnomer because of the definitional constraints imposed on the word ‘terrorism'. To them, terrorism is a specifically oriented violent tactic of the ‘weak' against the ‘strong' by killing or threatening the civilian population. While the state as a stronger side may also engage in mass violence against its own citizens, such criminal actions are not ‘asymmetrical tactics' of the weak.

The editors suggest that freedom-fighting as a goal – whether it implies anti-colonial struggle, resistance against occupation or the fight for greater autonomy – and terrorism as a tactic are not mutually exclusive; terrorism has been used to augment freedom-fighting in certain cases and in the name of freedom-fighting.

The internationalisation of terrorism is best exemplified by Mumbai's 26/11. The editors point out, while analysing 26/11, that with the internationalisation of terrorism, the internationalisation of politics aided by terrorism was manifested, and that terrorism was a tool of politics, and not religion. The widespread stereotyping of all Muslims as condoning terrorism and, therefore, treating them with suspicion is based on viewing terrorism as a tool of religion rather than politics. One wishes that the editors took a bold stand against this stereotyping than leaving it for interpretation by readers.

Sikh separatism
The author of The Sikh Separatist Insurgency in India: Political Leadership and Ethnonationalist Movements is Jugdep S. Chima, Associate Editor for South Asia with Asian Survey at the University of California, Berkeley. The book grew out of his PhD thesis on the subject.

Chima's interest is in evolving a coherent and consistent theory for the rise and decline of Sikh insurgency. He explains that internal disunity and competition between state elites often contribute to the rise of violent ethnonationalism, and their internal unity and coordinated action can conversely help dampen violent ethnonationalist movements.

According to him, in the absence of a negotiated settlement or a complete military victory, violent sub-nationalist movements decline when ethnic militants fractionalise and lose a viable political front, and unified state elites pursue coordinated policies prompting traditional ethnic elites to unite, moderate, and re-enter the normal political process.

Chima agrees that from 1992 to 1993, armed militants became weakened as a result of effective state repression, internal disunity, and their schism with the extremists. But the government leadership also united and concurrently implemented policies systematically to restart the democratic political process at the local and State levels in Punjab. This opened the doors for Sikh extremists to participate in politics and avoid marginalisation and to break free from the militants to whom they had become subservient.

Chima's comparative perspective is useful to understand why Punjab could not be replicated elsewhere. Chima compares the Punjab experience with that in Chechnya, Northern Ireland, Jammu and Kashmir and Assam.

Although all the four case studies may be of interest, the last two are of immediate relevance to India. In Kashmir, armed militant groups have retained a much more effective political front in the form of the extremist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) than the Sikh separatists were able to maintain in Punjab. The APHC has maintained a strong united front on most grass-roots political issues. Again, unlike Punjab, there are two moderate regional parties that seek to outbid each other in espousing ethnic issues with the tacit support of two main national parties. Thus, he says, the insurgency in Kashmir is likely to persist in the immediate future, despite the Centre's attempt to restore the democratic political process by holding a series of democratic elections since 2005.

In Assam, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has managed to retain a significant degree of popular support for its armed struggle for sovereignty by formally dividing its organisation into discreet “military” and political wings and by creating a unified People's Consultative Group whose members include prominent journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and academics from the ethnic Assamese society. In contrast, Sikh militants in Punjab were unable to create an institutionalised internal political front or retain an effective external political front in the form of extremists, who eventually fractionalised into a multiplicity of competitive groupings and rejoined the government-sponsored political process. ULFA, according to the author, will most likely be able to maintain its insurgency well into the future, but in a significantly dampened form.

None of the reviewed books specifically looks at how the Maoist insurgency in large parts of India can be contained. But an intelligent reader will not miss the pointers the authors throw in their case studies. In a nutshell, it would mean opening up the democratic political space in the real sense, besides ensuring an effective justice delivery system to end the alienation of the tribal population.


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