A New South Asia: Justice, Peace, and Political Will
Zakia Soman and Jimmy Dabhi
Human beings have differentiated, demarcated and divided the world they inhabit in various ways; one of them is nation states. Many reasons are given to justify these artificial divisions and boundaries, some of them convincing, others not. The process of dividing and unifying is not new to human beings. The world has gone through this process a number of times, influenced by human and non-human interventions.
South Asia is one such region which has experienced many changes of division and unification over the years. Some of these experiences have been immensely beneficial to people, others not so. Often the people have been mere objects in these processes, sometimes even coerced into them. The elite and powerful (whether the ruling class or not) have always either benefited from these processes of change, or have subverted the processes in one way or the other to suit themselves. SAARC is one such attempt at South Asian unification. However, as it stands today, SAARC has not made a people’s South Asia possible. Issues of justice and peace have either been circumvented or just given lip service. Justice and peace are very important for any human community and its well-being, and more so for nation states and a region like South Asia.
Peoples’ initiatives to improve their lives and the state/region they belong to are their right and prerogative. One can dream of a future but that remains quite an unconscious activity. But there are citizens who do not just dream but imagine a future, imagine a country and the region of the future. We have witnessed the power of peoples’ action in Nepal and Pakistan in recent times. Imagination is a conscious process, future-looking, yet creative and grounded in reality. Citizens of the world, nations and regions while imagining the future seek alternatives, possibilities and opportunities inclusive in nature, for all sexes, for all cultures and people.
Imagination without taking into consideration the ground realities may not be very helpful and, therefore, imagining a new South Asia necessarily demands taking stock of the situation. Our focus is justice and peace because we believe that they are important components of a healthy and dynamic developing society, state and region.
Conflict and violence are not uncommon in human groups, societies, nations and regions. Conflicts within and between communities and nation states arise out of multiple factors such as geographical and border disputes, exploitation of natural resources, political control and manoeuvring, clash of identities such as caste, religion, culture, gender, region, language, ethnicity, etc. to mention a few.
Conflict is defined as a state of opposition, disagreement or incompatibility between two or more people or groups of people, which is sometimes characterized by physical violence and a war resulting out of military conflict between states. In political terms, it would refer to an ongoing state of hostility between two or more social or political groups/communities and parties.
Generally speaking, all group conflicts are political in nature and they revolve around control and power. In a conflict the ‘other’ party is always perceived as blocking ‘our’ interests deliberately. Therefore a perception of the ‘other’ party is created’ as one undermining and blocking ‘our’ interests, values, actions or directions. This perception often sparks a conflict between two groups and which sometime results in violence.
There are various other dimensions to conflict. Not all conflicts are damaging or destructive. It is argued that conflict, if well addressed, can benefit both parties and create a win-win situation and thus change the perception of the other party as an ‘enemy’ or a ‘rival’. Those not averse to conflict might argue that conflict is inevitable and often helpful as it provides a new angle to our perception of reality. It helps us to see reality differently, from the perspective of justice, equality, equity, power structure and relation at its centre (Dabhi 2007).
Another dimension is that the existence and the nature of expression of conflict (violent/non-violent) indicates deeper causes such as the power relationships between aggrieved groups/parties and others such as false perceptions, injustice, inequality, inequity and domination of one by the other. Conflict, thus, has the potential to provide a better understanding of the situation and can lead to the exploration of effective and equitable methods of redressal, resulting in a more humanized society. However, it must be realized that conflict can be induced and manipulated by vested interests.
Many think that conflicts are bad; they divide people and strain relationships within communities and across the nation state. On the face of conflict it seems to be so, but it need not be.
Often the expressions of conflict may be violent, destructive and damaging. In South Asia violent conflict involving minorities can mean (a) attacks on minorities and (b) minorities resorting to violence. Violence is largely directed at minorities, sometimes because minorities are used as scapegoats for other problems in society, sometimes because authorities want their land or other possessions, or simply because they are ‘different’. Such violence may be carried out directly by government agents or by a third party, but almost always with government connivance (Baldwin et al.2007). This type of violence, if left unchecked, can easily escalate. Minorities may retaliate, or the violence against them may worsen, sometimes culminating in mass killing, rape and other atrocities.
Violence resorted to by members of minority groups is often because they feel they are under threat and have nothing to lose from violence. Often, the minority community has suffered years of discrimination and denial of its identity, although what may spark the actual violence may be a relatively minor incident. It is argued that ‘the societal condition most vulnerable to the outbreak of violence is one where the symbolic order or law has broken down. The most malignant situations come about when this symbolic order is corrupted from above, that is, by the state or by the leaders’ (Sonpara 2007: 40). Violence, once started, may easily escalate and can continue for generations, especially as ethnic and religious conflicts continue long after the initial grievances have been addressed.
Conflicts in India
Imagining a new South Asia is futuristic and yet rooted in the lives of the people. Experience and understanding of the present reality of people makes the imagination more feasible and attainable. Our efforts in the following section will be to examine the Indian and South Asian reality.
South Asia fascinates the imagination because of its rich history, its large vari-ety of socio-cultural expressions that communities have developed to adapt to their environment as well as to address their identity and other needs, the dynamics of its economy and the sheer size of its population. The struggle for justice and peace has long been a part of the lives of the people of the subcontinent. Conflict, including bloody conflict, has therefore been part of the subcontinent for a long time. Efforts to restore justice and peace are part of this reality and history, as are the experiences of oppression, state coercion, wars and exclusion. Not one of these realities is by itself sufficient to describe the subcontinent at a given time and external observers have been struggling to understand the conflicts that are both endangering the fabric of societies and creating opportunities for their development (Berndt 2006) and collaboration.
The responsibility for conflict-ridden South Asia lies with multiple factors and actors. Past and the more recent neo-global colonizers are in collusion with the elite and powerful of South Asia. Communal tensions and violence continue to fuel the argument for a division of the subcontinent into those who are identified with Hindu belief systems and those who are considered Muslim. The politics of the exclusion of minorities, the oppression of lower castes, and the division of society along religious and/or ethnic lines are recurring events in the part of the subcontinent.
The arena of conflict is sociocultural, economic and political. The territorial (water, land and border) conflicts have many of these interests at stake. The multiple actors and factors in the conflicts often have multiple interests and that is one of the reasons why many conflicts become increasingly complex in nature and of long duration. It is in this context that the growing conflicts in India and its neighbouring countries need to be examined. We need to examine conflicts from the perspective of those who are pushed to the margins—Dalits, tribals, religious groups, ethnic groups, the poor, children and women.
India might boast of a democracy but after more than 60 years of independence the kind of democracy we have is deplorable. Gujarat, Kashmir, North East, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh are live examples of state repression in the name of development, democracy, law and order, and national security.
Sociocultural and political ideologies, including active development discourses are both redressal mechanisms as well as factors contributing to escalation of conflict and violence. The ideologies as well as economic theories and practices of the right, the centrist and the left political parties, have substantially contributed to conflict. In sev-eral instances their contribution and interventions have resulted in bloody violence—the killing of tribals in Kalinganagar (Orrisa), Dalits and Muslims in Nandigram and Singbhum (West Bengal) in recent times, the killing of over 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, the Babri mosque demolition and killing of Muslims across India in 1992, and the killing of Sikhs in 1984 riots.
The use of brutal police force and the armed forces and the invoking of acts such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) act (TADA), the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), the Prevention of Terrorist Activities act (POTA) and so on formed a part of the political strategy of the state to protect the interests of and to inflict atrocities carried out to preserve the privileges that come through belonging to political parties, classes, castes and communities (Bandukwala 2006; Majeed 2002). TADA and POTA are no longer in use but over two hundred people are still serving sentences under POTA in Gujarat. Also, the TADA detainees (of whom over 90 per cent were released by courts for lack of evidence) have not been compensated for the wrongful detention and torture. The Human Rights Watch observed, ‘like its predecessor, the much misused and now lapsed Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) of 1985 (amended 1987), POTA has already been used by the Indian government to target minorities and political opponents’. The violation of the political and democratic rights continues through a systematic subversion of justice and draconian acts. Out of 287 instances where POTA has been invoked 286 happen to be on Muslims. The repeal of POTA was promised in the Common Minimum Programme of the Congress-led UPA. The repeal happened, but without benefiting anyone in Gujarat. By not making it a retrospective repeal the UPA branded all those booked under POTA in Gujarat as terrorists. Those booked in the Sabarmati Express burning, Haren Pandya murder, Akshardham case, etc. continue to remain condemned under POTA even after the repeal of this draconian law. Whereas those who massacred over 2,000 innocent people, mass-raped dozens of women before burning them alive, carried out unprecedented barbaric violence on Muslims in February—March 2002 remain free citizens (Ganguly et al. 2006; Jowher 2006). The events speak volumes about the role of the state and judicial system in India.
In a conflict and violence-ridden region, religion, class and caste are closely associated. Political parties especially those which adhere to the ideology of cultural and religious nationalism exploit the volatile situation and add fuel to the fire. For example, in India the process of the birth of a cultural organization called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925 and its arms saw subtle and overt attacks on Muslims and Christians. Ram Puniyani (2006: 168) highlights the organizational structure of the RSS and its ideological underpinning and identifies its inherent regressive characteristics, as opposed to the progressive tenets of a modern nation and a democratic nationalism. He traces the inspirational roots of the Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation) of RSS and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to Nazi fascism. According to Puniyani the RSS promulgates an ideology which says India is a Hindu nation and here Christians and Muslims are aliens. There is no place for ‘Western’ concepts like secularism and democracy in a Hindu nation as Hinduism is the most ‘secular’ and tolerant religion. This ideology aims to bring in Hindu rashtra in India, a pro-cess which is being consolidated through propagation and perpetuation of hatred of Muslims, Christians and ‘Western concepts’.
Fundamentalists across South Asia use the weapon of hatred. Once you cre-ate hatred amongst people, against the ‘other’ community, it is difficult to use logic and dialogue. This hatred for the other has resulted in killing of innocent lives, and destroying livelihoods and properties, cultural heritages and monuments. Berndt (2006) argues that political ideologies, deriving their symbols and justification from various religious sources, demanded that the dividing lines between communities be more clearly drawn. The concepts of purity of religions come into play. Pilgrimage sites, feasts and shrines that belong to both religious communities have been attacked, especially after the rise of the so-called Hindu and Muslim politics in India. In some Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, although many religious sites of minority communities have been destroyed in communal violence, sites of shared importance have been targeted to a much greater extent. The Hindu fundamentalists have brought under threat the composite heritage that is the cementing factor of Indian society and culture, and also the depository of creativity and knowledge.
The BJP mobilized Dalits, Adivasis and Kshatriyas in the state of Gujarat with the support of the Sangh Parivar (the consortium of fundamentalist social and political organizations in India). Ghanshyam Shah, a sociologist from Gujarat argues (2006) that these communities were mobilized against the Muslims to a large extent by creating a common enemy—‘the Muslims’. The Hindu fundamentalist forces (political as well as the social organizations) used the religio-cultural symbols such as songs, slogans, pamphlets, hymns, video cassettes, distribution of swords and tri-dents, prayer meetings, to create a sense of ‘our culture’ vis-á-vis ‘their (Muslim) barbarism’. The BJP and its associates succeeded in creating the feeling that Hindus were not safe as they effectively painted Muslims as ‘anti-national and terrorists with dangerous weapons and part of an international network’ through various issues of Panchjanya and Organiser through the years apart from leaflets published in states such as Gujarat, UP, and MP.
The right wing political parties like the BJP, the ‘centrist’ parties like the Congress and the left parties are in many ways the same, especially when it comes to political and economic interests of the parties themselves and the classes and castes that support and finance them. The BJP Government in Gujarat has internally displaced thousands of Muslims through violence, killings, and fake encounters, and has terrorized ordinary people—many of whom happen to be tribals, Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and non-Hindutva Hindus who refuse to adhere to their fascist agenda of cultural nationalism. The Congress and its type also play a soft Hindutva card to win votes.
Praful Bidwai (2007) has rightly said, ‘The inconvenient truth is that Indian leaders and the media largely chose to ignore the indigenous origins of many recent episodes of terrorist violence, rooted in the communalism of society and politics, the growing demonization of Muslims, their butchery in Gujarat, and the state’s abject failure to bring the culprits of communal violence to book’. This politics of majority fundamentalism and minority exclusion is no different from that in other South Asian countries. The scenario concerning Muslim fundamentalism in Bangladesh and Pakistan presents the same dynamics of ‘we’ and ‘they’ politics fragmenting individual countries and vitiating the human development agenda of subcontinent.
As discussed above, the minorities in India face discrimination, violence and atrocities. Constitutional and legislative protections have not prevented periodic pogroms against religious minorities despite a relatively impressive array of constitutional and legislative guarantees, and the establishment of a broad range of institutions, autonomous bodies and commissions to monitor and protect the rights of minorities, India’s disadvantaged and marginalized segments find their access to power and judicial redress blocked by a coalition of powerful forces (Chadda 2006). The government response to violence against the minorities has not only been ineffective, but at times even supportive.
Kashmir and the North-East have their historical baggage of conflict rooted in the British Raj and independence of India. In Jammu and Kashmir, both the Government forces and insurgent groups are responsible for serious human rights violations against both the Muslim majority and Hindu minority populations. In Kashmir Muslims appear to have suffered most from repression by the Government forces. Kashmiri militant groups have often targeted Hindus and even Muslims when suspected as working for the Indian Army (Sonpar 2007). Politicians and their relatives were targets for killings and kidnappings. Political murder, torture, rape, custodial deaths, excesses by police and security forces remain a significant problem in Kashmir (Das 2007; Quraishi 2004). In far too many cases police and army personnel have acted rashly and without judgement, leading to the deaths of innocent civilians. Accountability in the police and security forces remains weak in Kashmir and that is yet another reason for continuing conflict. Women, children and the poor suffer the most.
These conflicts have been escalated over the years by political parties, fundamentalist forces and the state’s approach and polices to development and people’s right to self governance and development. The violation of human rights, and undermining self-governance, autonomy and full citizenship of groups and communities have exacerbated conflict and violence. People’s demands and their resistance against years of exploitation and injustice are projected as antisocial and subversive activities by the state, the political parties, capitalists and business communities (Dabhi 2007). Such demands are often branded as acts of terrorists, Naxalites and Maoists. Strangely those who get killed in these encounters are almost always tribals, Dalits and Muslims. The state-sponsored terrorism through the police, the armed forces, the party cadre and rogues is more widespread than any other terrorism we can think of.
Conflicts in the North-East are large in number, diverse in nature and higher in intensity. All forms of conflicts—political, regional, religious, communal, ethnic, economic and social—characterize the region. Even within the region, conflicts within one state are very different from that in another. Only the term ‘North East’ is common for these states, but they are distinctly different from one another (India Human Rights Report 2007; Moirangthem 2007). There is long-standing conflict and violence along the northern borders of India and in those regions of Bangladesh that are inhabited by ethnic and religious minorities, challenging the development of the regions and communities therein. The various conflicts in the North-East, exacerbated by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the region, have made life unbearable in the region. In such a situation human development has taken a back seat. The North-East has been a region of strategic interest to the Indian Government, but one that has also failed to be completely integrated into the country. Accessible only with difficulty, low intensity civil wars have been going on there for almost 50 years (Berndt 2006). The people in the North-East feel that justice is denied to them and that their human rights are violated by the Indian state.
Development programmes including special economic zones (SEZs) or locally referred to as special exploitation zones have been another major cause of conflict and violence in India and other South Asian countries. We would not like to elaborate here on development-induced conflict and violence as the focus of the chapter is justice and peace. However we would like to mention that Adivasis/indigenous people, Dalits, the poor and the minorities in South Asia have been victims of violence stemming from development thrust on them. Amit Bhaduri (2007) has rightly called the development-induced displacement in India ‘development terrorism’. Such development endeavours expose the hypocrisy of the state and the ruling parties who claim to be pro-labour and pro-poor. In reality their policies, programmes and implementation record pay lip service to people-centric ideologies and development discourses, while promoting political strategies and economic practices that are anti-poor and antidemocratic. A large number of people are constantly being disempow-ered socially, economically and politically, and therefore conflicts are inevitable.
South Asian countries are being re-colonized by imperialists and multinationals (Indian and foreign) in the name of investment, development and high economic growth. The events in West Bengal, such as Singur and Nandigram, have proved that the left is no better in the race for power and wealth-creation. The top cadre of the Leftists after all a historical product of a divisive and patriarchal society and their top brass (including Left labour unions) by and large represent the affluent class and castes of India. This is not only the case of India but in most countries in South Asia. Often the economic and political hegemonic agendas are camouflaged by war on terror to exploit countries for economic gain through oil and natural resources and create new market for their products.
Conflict in Other Parts of South Asia
Nepal, situated along the southern range of the Himalayan mountains between India and Chinese-administered Tibet, in some way has been fortunate as it has never been colonized by any external power.
Nepal has been dependent on India for many of its development needs. Anyone visiting Nepal will know the economic influence and dominance India has on Nepal. There has been outright civil war in Nepal since 1996, a situation also prevailing in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. It has taken more than 15,000 lives since 1996 (Berndt 2006). Nepal had been a country blessed by its openness and good security situation. But tensions had been building up for decades and the latent conflict was not sufficiently addressed.
It has been ruled by a monarchic system which has been challenged over the years by democratic movements and modernist thinkers and protagonists. In the 1980s a democracy movement brought a new democratic constitution which allowed a multiparty system within the framework of a constitutional monarchy in 1990.
The conflict and disagreement have continued thereafter among important actors. The indigenous peoples, for example, left the constitution-building process when they realized that there was a political move to keep Nepal a Hindu kingdom by not giving equal rights to other religious groups and not recognizing other identities. The Maoist faction of the communists decided to discontinue their participation in constitutional activities after a few years of parliamentary exercise sometime in 2007.
The monarchy with all its ‘false generosity’, to use the term coined by Freire (1972) in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the context of Brazil, has not done good to the people of Nepal, especially the masses. The feudal system is entrenched and corruption at all levels is rampant. Corruption, nepotism and impunity threaten the peace process in Nepal. Police officers are more interested in juicy job postings than in establishing law and order in the state (The Economist 2007a). But this is true of all the countries of the subcontinent. ‘It goes to the feudal character of our society,’ says Devendra Panday, a former finance minister who is now a campaign minister for peace and democracy. ‘In the patronclient system there is no incentive to clamp down on corruption’ (The Economist 2007b). Nepotism and party bias in appointments undermine institutions. ‘The country is full of incompetent people as well as corrupt ones.’ In villages where most people live development is yet to come. Peasants are quick to assume, rightly or wrongly, that money intended for them has been stolen higher up the system. Others contend that it is simply wasted by people too rich to understand their problems.
A large rural, illiterate and poor population in Nepal has been a mute spectator and/or victim of various political struggles. Nepal consists of more than 100 different communities speaking about 70 languages and dialects, living largely in regions with difficult accessibility and depending on subsistence production. Studies and personal experiences show that till date Nepal remains a country dominated by a male leadership hailing from a few upper middle class or high caste Hindu families. Women and ethnic and religious minorities are excluded from decision-making. For that matter, the social, economic and political powers in Nepal by and large are in the hands of Hindus belonging to higher castes, particularly Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Political struggles largely take place within these two castes groups as all parties, including the Maoists, are led by members from these castes. This is also the case for most NGOs, including those active in the field of human rights. The NGOs, being a part of the dominant society, most importantly lack the sensitivity to understand the effects of power dynamics on the perspectives and aspirations of the discriminated and disadvantaged segments of Nepalese society (Berndt 2006).
In August 2004 the peace negotiations broke down and all democratic institutions in Nepal were suspended by King Gyanendra since February 2005 in a royal take-over of powers. There is a perception that the Maoists control large parts of the country, but they have failed to establish democratic systems where they are in command. The army has been brutal in search for rebels in rural areas. The army and the Maoists had severely punished those who were considered ‘collaborators’. Human rights violations are routine. Violence and political instability have overshadowed the need for economic development, social equality and justice. Villagers feel caught up in a civil war which they often do not identify with.
A new ceasefire was negotiated in April 2006 after the king was forced out by a people’s movement. The Maoists have agreed to participate in the democratic movement. This recent development, the assertion of civil society and people power, has brought the hope of parliamentary democracy. Monarchy in Nepal is not desired by many but there are forces within the country and in India who would like monarchy to remain in some form. A new cease fire had been negotiated in April 2006 after the king was forced out of power by a people’s movement.
Pakistan has it own share of conflicts and violence within the country and with the neighbours. Pakistan is in a difficult phase of its socio-political history. It was founded in 1947 as a state for South Asia’s Muslims based on the vision of an educated secular Muslim elite originating from the large towns of India. They were supported by feudal landowners in today’s provinces of Punjab and Sindh who feared the socialist land reform policies of the Indian independence movement (Berndt 2006). Military rule in one form or the other has been a normal governance pattern in Pakistan. Power within the country has been changing hands and alliances among a few large political parties, elite families, big industrial houses, large-scale landowners and the military-industrial-feudal class, representing the interests of the rich and powerful are the norm.
The chief factors that are holding up this system are the military’s involvement in all spheres of political, economic and cultural life, the continuation of feudal land-owning structures and the weakness of civil society outside existing networks shared by the military, industrialists, landowners and the administration (Berndt 2006).
Lack of social justice and equality, economic development and participation, together with the changing political situation in the subcontinent after the US invasion in Afghanistan in 2002 have created forces within Pakistan that are not only challenging the old power structures but also the cohesion of the country. A few political factions and groups with fundamentalist ideology have been integrated in the current political system. Political equations change with time and there are no permanent friends in politics. Those who were allies against erstwhile soviet occupa-tion are now seen as a threat to Pakistan’s stability. Pakistan’s political leadership tries to maintain a delicate balance between Islamic tendencies and Western allies. Security and intelligence play increasingly important roles in maintaining the system. Among the population, clan and regional identities, sometimes combined with religious ideologies, are becoming more integrative than Pakistani nationalism.
Discrimination against women, ethnic and religious minorities as well as the erosion of civil liberties have to be seen in the light of the struggles between traditional power holders and the newly emerging political forces, and as a consequence of the disintegration of a state which, in principle, should guarantee and enforce rights (SAARC 2006). The conservative Islamic parties are still strong, ethnic-based violence has shown an increase in the big towns and military interventions have destabilized regions along Pakistan’s western borders. The madrasas still attract much larger numbers of children than the neglected secular educational system.
In the midst of all these, people’s efforts and continuous struggle for a secu-lar and democratic Pakistan have been remarkable. The people’s movement to rein-state Justice Chaudhury in March 2008 ultimately led to the downfall of Musharraf backed by military might. The military-industrial-feudal power constellation has been facing criticism from an urban educated middle class. The demand for political reforms has increased to create space for economic development. The state censorship has not succeeded in silencing the media, especially in the English language print media. Human rights groups, NGOs, civil society organizations and people to people movement have kept alive the public debate, giving hope for the democratization of society. However, there are some, mainly in the establishment, who perceive women struggling for women’s rights and religious minorities insisting on their constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of religion as representatives of foreign interests. Hindus are discredited as agents of India, while Christians are described as supporters of American policies (Berndt 2006).
The constitution of Pakistan guarantees the rights of minorities, and prohibits religious intolerance and social discrimination. However, throughout its history, governments have not taken concrete steps to rise up to these standards. Instead, laws have been enacted and policies implemented to institutionalize discrimination. As in India, one gets the impression that directly or indirectly the State supports or over-looks religious intolerance. The awareness that such a state of affairs infringes on their own democratic rights and goes against a plural society, is lacking among the majority community and civil society at large.
The situation for religious minorities has become more difficult since successive governments have been trying to appease Islamist forces by including some of their demands into changes in legislation. The most striking examples are the blasphemy laws and the Hudood Ordinance. Amendments to the blasphemy laws in 2004 have only increased the possibility of misuse and the discriminatory character of the laws. These laws are often used to settle personal or community disputes by accusing an opponent of blasphemy. Religious extremists use the laws to mobilize against minorities, just as TADA/POTA and the Religious Conversion Bill were/are used in India.
Bangladesh has its own share of conflicts and violence, besides perennial natural disasters. Extreme poverty, ethnic divisions, unemployment, underdevelopment, displacement, development terrorism, fundamentalism, human rights violations, political violence, political vendetta and military interference are all a part of the socio-political landscape of Bangladesh.
The peace accord, signed on 2 December 1997 in the presence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, between the government of Bangladesh and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS, or Chittagong Hill Tracts People’s Solidarity Association, founded in 1972) is not respected. The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) consist of the three districts of Khagrachhari, Rangamati, and Bandarban in the south-east of Bangladesh, bordering India and Myanmar in the north and east, as well as the districts of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar in the west. The development project (Kaptai Dam and Kaptai Hydroelectric Power Plant) has uprooted hundred of thousands and submerged about 40 per cent of the most fertile plough land in the CHT (Islam 2007; Panth 2007). The local people began to become aware of their situation and started to organize themselves to resist this development initiated from outside that did not cater to their own needs. Today, frustration about the lack of implementation of the peace accord between Government of Bangladesh and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti signed on 2 December 1997 by successive Bangladeshi govern-ments and the feeling of powerlessness are all pervasive among the local people. To many taking up arms seems to be the only option left to regain respect (Berndt 2006).
The conflict of language and culture is not new to Bangladesh. The demands by the CHT people to respect their cultural, linguistic, and economically distinct identities and to protect them from further Bengali settlement were rejected by the new leadership of Manobendra Larma and his brother Jyotirindra Bodhipriya. In the face of rising militarization and police atrocities, the peaceful democratic move-ments, such as Shanti Bahini, turned into an armed struggle in 1975, for establish-ing self-determination, when all democratic avenues failed to draw the attention of the government. The State reacted with harsh counter-insurgency operations by the military and with a scheme of demographic engineering through planning the ‘trans-migration’ of landless Bengalis into the CHT. This further eroded the legitimacy of the State in the eyes of the CHT people.
Co-option is an instrument used by all governments across the world and it has not always helped, at least in the long run. Such is the case in Bangladesh with the co-option of indigenous leadership by the government. The disregard for indigenous people, their land and forest, indeed their identity, culture, and security as well as their exclusion from political participation and partnership in development by the state and the civil society has escalated the unrest and conflict. Indigenous identity is under threat from a dominant State ideology that builds on Bengali culture or more recently on Islam as constituent aspects of nation-building. The military presence is high and the militarization of all spheres of society is a reality. Forcible eviction from land, random violence, threats and humiliation by military personnel, rape and killing continue in an atmosphere of near impunity in the area. Development activities have not become an instrument of justice and peace but rather of development terrorism. The pressure of a large population on limited resources accompanied by lack of equality and social justice has only added to the conflict and violence. The discriminatory and dominating civil and military administration has subverted the process of formation and functioning of NGOs and therefore prevented them from becoming operative in the development and peace movement.
In conclusion, let us not forget that in our attempt to blame the colonized past and the imperial agenda, we South Asians are responsible for our state of affairs:
We must not be blind to the fact that violation of human rights has become an every day affair in many of the third world countries—politics of convenience, authoritarianism and repressive state practices, politically motivated ethnic and communal carnages, massive corruption and virtual collapse of any system of accountability have become some of the striking features of [the] modern state system in the third world. (Alam 2000: 22)
Imagination Backed by Action and Political Will
In the face of such complex multiple conflicts and violence where the state is guilty of aggression and discrimination, conflict redressal becomes difficult and conflict solution almost impossible. When the protector becomes the perpetrator and/or takes side of the perpetrator violence is bound to escalate. Often the victims of conflict and violence such as tribals, Dalits, Muslims and other ethnic minorities, landless labourers, fisher folk, and the displaced (women and children in particular among these groups) are left to fend for themselves against the powerful State and corporate houses, bureaucracy and even judiciary.
Peace within the nation states of South Asia will help the peace process across the region. SAARC has done very little in this regard even when there have been opportunities and the space to do something. Political will on part of the Governments, their leaders and political advisors has been seriously lacking. SAARC has been dominated by Pakistan—India Kashmir conflict. The other SAARC countries have tolerated this nuisance for a number of years, though, we believe, not without reason and benefit.
It is time for the people’s SAARC to be proactive to attain the objectives for which SAARC in the first place was created. People’s movement and civil society actions are vital in bringing justice and peace in South Asia. Leaving matters to NGOs will not help. Many NGOs or people connected with them receive funds, status and recognition from state agencies and various corporate houses. Many NGO heads and senior staff belong to the same class/castes as the elite and powerful in the government/establishment and have common interests. It would be too much to expect that they would work towards changing the existing power equation.
Dialogue and awareness building at community level and among the masses is important in building a new South Asia. Effective and lasting justice and peace within the country and across South Asia may be better achieved through dialogue. Conflict resolution methods including conciliation, mediation, arbitration and litigation are means to an end, but means without any political will are suspect. A political solution is a must, but only with the inclusion of the victims in the conflict resolution process. Let us not assume that those with vested interests want the conflicts to be resolved. If conflicts and violence cease, then they have nothing to gain.
One important agenda is the need for a paradigm shift in the way we look at conflict and, violence, their causes and agents. Branding groups and communities as terrorists, Naxalites, Maoists and antinationals may not help. On the contrary, the real culprits, the mighty and the elite, may get away by such tactics. Majeed (2002: iv) has argued:
Once the nation, meaning the people, gives way to the nation, meaning the state, the next step becomes identifying the state with the government in power. Then, it is easy enough to brand the people opposed to a particular government and regime as opposed to the state and, by implication, anti-national.
Further the development discourses need to be examined to make them more people-centric and inclusive, aiming towards employment-generating, supporting livelihoods and empowering people. National security is not at risk as the Sangh Parivar in India likes to believe. It is human security and the right to be a full citizen of the nation state in South Asia which is at risk.
Many at the grassroots whose lives are directly affected by these conflicts would like to act in some way to change the situation. For them Berndt (2006: 65) argues:
Conflict analysis does not mean a systematic, scientifically consistent approach to understanding the larger realities around, but an effort to make sense, to open up debate, to visualise different perspectives and discover provisional attempts to address aspects of the disempowering realities around them.
We, therefore, talk of action. Imagining a new South Asia is not possible without people’s action. Goading governments to act is part of the people’s action and campaign.
Issues of citizenship, ethnic and minority rights, access, control, sharing and management of natural resources, dignity of women and children, respect for cultural and religious diversity, employment and free labour movement across the subcontinent, trade, development, cooperation and collaboration, development of indigenous and modern technology and infrastructure are the issues which needs to be addressed as part of the justice and peace efforts. A multi-faceted approach will take us on the right road to building a new South Asia.
Concrete Actions, Less Rhetoric
South Asia needs a creative and genuine democracy and governance (not the ones armtwisted and defined by the imperial powers, WTO, ADB, WB and IMF) where the politicians, bureaucracy and judiciary are held accountable. The various governments in India did evolve institutional and ameliorative strategies to address the problems, but these were vitiated by the compulsions of competitive politics. Democracy can be a solu-tion to ethnic conflicts; it can also be a source of problems. The answer to this paradox is to further deepen democracy. The process of deepening worked reasonably well in Tamil Nadu. Although Tamil Nadu is by no means an ideal case of good governance, it is nevertheless a good case, within the Indian context, of conflict prevention via the protection of minorities. An inclusive process of accommodation politics in line with commitments to protect minorities, including the weakest and most disadvantaged, is required.
At a broader level in India, the failures in Kashmir and the North-East provide insights into the difficulties of democracies in reconciling territorial nationalism with religious, ethnic, tribal and linguistic nationalism; modernization with tradition; and democracy with security imperatives. To achieve true democracy in South Asian countries would mean to sensitively but firmly do away with monarchy, dictatorship and army rule, while at the same time respond to conflicts and violence in an effective and time-bound manner.
Ethnic and religious groups within each of the South Asian countries. Full citizenship goes beyond just the voting right thought that is important. It means enjoying the full responsibility and rights of a citizen.
The borders are a sensitive issue but we can learn from other regions, for example, Europe. National identities, autonomy and sovereignty are not an end in themselves. They must facilitate greater cooperation and collaboration, of the free movement of people, exchange of cultures and customs to enhance and enrich human diversity. Perhaps a SAARC visa is due which will allow the free movement of people in the region. A common visa may reduce the unhealthy feeling of ‘we’ and ‘they’. Greater openness and freedom for social and economic movement brings familiarity and reduces threat.
Having said this, it is important to note that although territorial autonomy can promote power-sharing where there is a large geographically based minority group, it doesn’t guarantee change on the ground. It needs to be accompanied by human and minority rights protection and promotion for all communities, including the smallest and most marginalized. It must also be economically inclusive, and ensure political participation, access to power and self-government (Chadda 2006).
Demilitarization is yet another effort in restoring peace across borders. Violence leads to violence and mistrust leads to breakdown of relationships. Militarization is a kind of defence mechanism of a nation state, which robs away a lot of energy and resources of the country which otherwise could be spent on productive and creative purposes such as health, education, improving rural infrastructure and technology. The defence budget of each of the South Asian countries is far above their education budget. Besides providing employment to kill the ‘enemy’, it is an open secret that militarization is hugely profitable to those engaged in the armament and weapon industries, as evident from the many ‘arms scams’ that routinely surface. Not uncom-monly, politicians, retired armed forces elite and advisors thrive on arm deals and business.
‘Minority rights’ is an international legal term. It refers to the rights of minorities as groups, but also the rights of individuals within groups. The South Asian countries need to understand the conditions and problems of minorities in India. We argued that there is a wide gap between existing laws and the reality of minority conditions which deserve attention. As a member state of the United Nations, India is bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (UNDM). The rights of the minority and ethnic groups are part of the human rights charter and India must not only arrest the violation of these rights but affirm them at all levels. A greater commitment to understanding and implementing minority rights at local, national, regional and international levels, with the full inclusion and participation of minority groups, is imperative to conflict prevention. Where conflict has occurred, such knowledge and participation is critical in peace-building, not least so that minorities who are caught in violence between the other majority groups have their voices heard (Chadda 2006).
India is also legally bound by treaties against torture, extra-judicial killings, illegal detention and targeted violence. However, India’s anti-insurgency operations, as well as laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, lead to violations. Human rights violations, oppression, atrocities and denial of political rights lead to violent protests that, in the regions of Kashmir and the North-East have developed into insurgencies. An understanding of how this has happened will provide us with clues to avoiding and managing conflict. ‘Whatever may be the attitude and policies of the governments, the demand and the need for human rights, including both greater social and economic justice and greater political freedom and civil liberty is beyond debate’ (Alam 2000: 31).
A common currency for South Asia may seem to be a dream but for those who imagine, things are possible, if not today in the days to come. A well planned common currency will help trade, transport, productivity and economic growth in the region. It is easier said than done but the possibilities are immense.
Conflict-free India and South Asia may be a far-fetched dream but a violence-free India and South Asia is possible. India and the region will enjoy freedom from fear and freedom to live with dignity. A new free India and a new South Asia will be violence-free because there will be a celebration of diversity and negation of hegemony and oppression in the name of religion, ethnicity, caste and culture.
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