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Conflicts in South Asia can be divided into three main categories: Peace process is a major event in most of the dominant identity group and centralist conflicts. In the second category of conflicts involving mostly the mar- ginal groups, the peace process is largely a low-key or peripheral affair. It is typically a case of peace talks without a process. The third category includes conflicts that are marked by absence of peace process or peace talks

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IPRI # 6, 16 June 2020

South Asia’s Dreary Experience in Peacemaking

  P Sahadevan

South Asia hosts some of the oldest conflicts in the world and, consequently, making peace with numerous aggrieved groups has long been one of the main preoccupations of the states. In most cases, therefore, conflict and peacemaking have proceeded as concurrent events, raising hope and causing despair in societies. That many conflicts have neither been resolved nor become amenable to the states’ coercive strategies indicate the resilience of the groups and the limits of state power in conflict situation. The experience the world over is that groups do not easily give up their goals under the state’s pressure, but they tend to alter their core demands if, at least, some of their genuine grievances are redressed.

What do the peace processes in South Asia exemplify? Are they productive exercises? What is the kind of peace the states largely prefer? Are they willing and committed to create a positive peace—defined as a comprehensive strategy or phenomenon that addresses the underlying causes of conflict and establishes a ‘just’ social and political order in conflict societies? Or, are they merely interested in achieving a negative peace—defined as a situation devoid of manifest violence in such societies? In answering these questions, this essay provides a comparative analysis of South Asia’s peacemaking experience in scores of internal conflicts.

I
Profile of Conflicts: Causes, Goals and Strategies

South Asia has experienced over forty conflicts in the post-colonial period, the largest number of them have been in India. As conflict is not a monolithic category, viz., no one conflict is similar to the other even though certain features are common to all, categorization of South Asia’s conflicts is necessary for understanding their innate nature and dynamics. This is done along the following lines:
 
Conflicts in South Asia are primarily of two types: 3 Identity conflicts are a numerically large category as they are widely prevalent in most of the countries, and
centralist conflicts are very few in the region. As identity of a group involved in conflict is grounded in ethnicity or religion or language, it is given a generic name accordingly—ethnic or religious or communal or linguistic or sectarian conflict.

Identity conflicts are between two or more distinct groups, which make them inter-group events. In South Asia the inter-group conflicts are further divided into two sub-categories—dominant and marginal group conflicts. A dominant group conflict involves two larger identity groups, with one enjoying the status of a majority and the other is labelled as a minority. It is thus called a majority-minority conflict where the state plays a partisan role by openly identifying with the majority community through its policy and actions. This eventually transforms such a conflict into one between the state and the minority community. Conflicts in India’s Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Tripura and Kashmir; Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces; Pakistan’s Baluchistan, and Nepal’s Terai region could be included in this category.

In contrast, a marginal group conflict is typically between two or more weak groups settled in a common peripheral region. This type of conflict by and large remains a local event wherein each group targets the other and the state seeks to play a non-partisan role while being merely interested in maintaining law and order. India’s northeast is gripped by several such conflicts. Unlike an identity conflict, a centralist conflict is deeply rooted in opposing ideologies of both the state and rebel group, with the latter directly challenging the former’s power and authority. As both the entities are wedded to their respective political orthodoxies, they become direct parties to a conflict. The Maoist insurgency against the Indian and Nepali states and the Taliban militancy in Afghanistan are the major centralist conflicts in South Asia.

Every conflict is a purposive activity caused by a set of perceived or real grievances. The causes of South Asia’s identity conflicts are invariably linked to the groups’ deep sense of relative deprivation and alienation from their respective states, most of which are seen as exclusivist entities whose discriminatory policies have created a structure of inequality in many societies. Denial of equal political, linguistic, cultural, religious, educational and employment rights for the minority identity groups is the hallmark of such state policies. This has cumulatively made them suffer from a chronic sense of powerlessness and, at the same time, privileged their counterparts—majority identity groups—to control state institutions and exercise authority. In pursuing such skewed policies, many South Asian states have developed an enduring majoritarian streak or become full-blown majoritarian entities.

Consequently, conflicts have become means by which a number of minority identity groups have sought to redress their genuine grievances by bringing about changes in the state structure and policies. If power is central to every identity conflict in the region, it has also been a critical factor in all the centralist conflicts where the radical or extremist forces have found the state to be their ideological adversary, whose policies are seen as regressive (by the Taliban in Afghanistan), meant to deprive the dispossessed (according to the Indian Maoists), and a source of an oligarchical system (in the Nepali Maoists’ view). In each conflict the state has been made out to be the target, and reforming it or capturing its power has become the solitary goal of the rebels.

The nature and intensity of group grievances determine the goals of conflict. South Asia’s identity conflicts have had diverse goals, ranging from autonomy to secession, with the former being the dominant objective defined and defended by the respective group leaders. In their view, autonomy is a comprehensive goal that encompasses not just devolution or decentralization of power, but also equal sociocultural recognition, status and freedom, and economic inclusivity. The groups have placed their demands solely on their respective states, which are considered as the principal sources of their problem as well as part of any solution. In questioning the states’ sovereignty, the secessionist groups have set a high- end goal of dividing them along the ethnic lines.

Secessionist conflicts have broken out in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, some of them resulted from rejection of the autonomy demands. As regards the centralist conflicts, the goals of rebel groups have primarily centred on capturing the state (in Nepal and Afghanistan) and restructuring it along their ideological lines (in Nepal). It is, however, unclear as to what the Indian Maoists aim to achieve by launching an armed struggle against the state

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