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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 45 New Delhi October 31, 2015

Dissecting Civil Conflicts in South Asia

Wednesday 4 November 2015, by Bharti Chhibber


Civil Wars in South Asia: State, Sovereignty, Development edited by Aparna Sundar and Nandini Sundar; Sage, New Delhi; 2014; pp. 273.

The Oxford dictionary of Politics defines civil war as a ‘military conflict centred on territory within a state, involving combatants from the state, over the political right to control that territory. Civil wars usually involve govern-ment forces and the territorial aspect of the conflict means that civilian involvement and civilian deaths are usually high.’ Academic studies in the field of analysing civil wars have taken note of structural factors resulting in conflicts, relationship between the government and armed forces, economic dimensions including control of natural resources and distribution of wealth in society, culture, ethnic and religious diversity as well as external factors like involvement of outside powers. However, better understanding of the factors does not necessarily result in finding a solution to the problem or preventing conflicts but it may definitely contribute to containing conflicts.

The book, Civil Wars in South Asia: State, Sovereignty, Development, edited by Aparna Sundar and Nandini Sundar, is the outcome of a workshop on ‘Civil War in South Asia’ held in the University of Delhi in February 2010. The editors argue that the insurgency affecting South Asian regimes have different ideological orientations and origins within the domestic political milieu. However, these armed conflicts have challenged state sovereignty resulting in mass displacements of the people. Another effect is the spill-over of refugees, militants and weapons across the borders. Some insurgents have highlighted their war as the unfinished business of decolonisation resulting in struggle for the right to sovereignty and self-determi-nation. The editors have gone beyond looking at civil wars as a unidimensional occurrence which focuses on a single variable of the state’s strength or weakness. Rather, civil wars in South Asia are approached as multidimensional phenomena with complex variables including relationship between war and economic development.

For the purpose of this volume civil war has been broadly divided into fourc categories: 1.civil war due to religious linguistics or ethnic discrimination as in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; 2. civil war due to imperfect decolonisation further heightened by ethnic and religious discrimination as in North-East India, Kashmir and ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar; 3. democratic and redistribution war as in the case of the Maoist-led war in Nepal and India; and 4. wars which are affected by the Cold War as in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Internal situations affect the regional scenario and in turn get affected by it owing to strategic reasons. In the case of Pakistan’s tribal areas, institutional dynamics and political economy of the tribal regions along with external influences have resulted in sustained militancy as Haris Gazdar, Yasser Qureshi and Asad Sayeed map out in the volume through The Rise of Jihadi Militancy in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.

In fact this focuses on the comparative and regional approach to understand civil wars in South Asia and relate it to wider debates on economic development, state capability and sovereignty. The editors also interrogate the notion of sovereignty through the study of civil wars by mapping out the contours, first, how colonial, legal and institutional legacies like preventive detention laws shape the nature of sovereign powers in the post-colonial state. Second, the civilian perspective and how the attitude of international actors, international networks result in sovereignty becoming a contested concept. As the editors point out, ‘We use the lens of civil wars to refract larger questions about economic development, state capacity and sovereignty in South Asia as well as asking what the specificity of these processes in South Asia tells us about civil war and conflict more generally.’

The work comprises of ten chapters dealing with different aspects of civil war in South Asian countries. The chapters try to contextualise civil wars in South Asia with anthropological and sociological insights and theory building perspectives. There are some country-specific readings as well as incident-specific understanding of the conflicts. Case studies include specific chapters on Sri Lanka in the context of military fiscalism and politics of market reforms during the civil war, Afghanistan dealing with transnational political economy of civil war, aid and violence in Nepal, Jihadi militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas and on Southeast Myanmar. Two chapters are dedicated to India’s studies—one on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and second on situating local agitations of Shopian and Bomai into the globalised context.

The book adds another dimension to the well-discussed notion that lack of development and poverty is correlated to civil war. The work negotiates a far more complicated relation between civil war and economic development. For example, Rajesh Venu Gopal in ‘Sri Lanka: Military Fiscalism and the Politics of Market Reform at a time of Civil War’ argues that civil war actually helped growth in the South by providing employment in the military. Also at times war may prove to be economically profitable for powerful actors who therefore may not like to see an end to the conflict. Similarly, Antonio Donini and Jeevan Raj Sharma in ‘Aid and Violence: Development, Insurgency and Social Transformation in Nepal’ have argued that development agencies in Nepal for many years wrongly saw poverty or the technical question as the main issue to be investigated rather than structural violence and inequality which needed to be addressed.

As mentioned by the editors themselves, the lacunae in the book include absence of gender- related studies in the volume along with conflict resolution and post-conflict reconciliation in peace- building. However, the work is an important contribution to the existing literature given the current prominence associated with South Asian civil wars both at the national and international levels. There is a very useful index at the end of the book. The volume is also supplemented by figures mostly on Sri Lanka including the numerical strength of the Sri Lankan security forces and civilian and military components of public sector employments from 1982 to 2012. This is further substantiated by a comparative list of tables including the size of the armed forces by countries including Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal. The book would be of immense interest to South Asian scholars, academicians, students, politicians and general readers keen to know more about civil conflicts in South Asia.

Dr Bharti Chiibber teaches Political Science in the University of Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail bharti.chiibber@gmail.com