D. Suba Chandran
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore
The ongoing political crisis in Balochistan is one of the multiple conflicts in South Asia’s peripheries. A cursory look at the multiple conflicts across different States in the region will highlight a geographic reality – they are concentrated more on the border regions/provinces and peripheries. Balochistan, FATA, J&K, Northeast, Terai and North-east Sri Lanka – all conflicts share a common geographic trait.
Does South Asia have a ‘periphery problem’ in a geographic sense? Why are they concentrated in the border? What makes the South Asian peripheries conflict-prone? Are these conflicts in South Asia’s periphery totally unique, or do they share a few similarities?
The question of Colonial Legacy
First, certainly, there is a colonial legacy problem. Except for the Madhesi conflict in Nepal, all other conflicts in South Asia’s periphery could be linked to colonial legacy. The British made new political structures and demolished a few existing ones in Balochistan, Afghanistan, J&K, Ahom, Burma and Sri Lanka to accentuate their colonial rule.
One could trace the contemporary conflicts in South Asia’s periphery to the colonial legacy. However, it has been seven decades since the British have left. Should one still find an excuse in their rule for our inability to resolve these conflicts? The South Asian States witnessed numerous forms of governance – democratic, undemocratic and a mix of both since the British left in the late 1940s. Is the problem of non-resolution of these conflicts today more to do with post-1947 governance problems within and across South Asia, than the former?
For the State, it is easier to blame the British, but difficult to find an answer to the contemporary issues and demands from the peripheries. For example, the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA), has been referred as a primary problem in the tribal regions of Pakistan. But, why is the State reluctant to repeal or reform it, despite repeated demands from the region?
The contemporary State is yet to make sufficient intellectual investment and politically address contemporary issues in the peripheries. “The issues are too complex to address” and “colonial legacy” are two common refrains for the State.
The “Problem in” the Periphery
Second, South Asia’s conflict periphery could be pursued in two inter-related issues – “problem in the periphery” and “problem of the periphery.” Both relate to the process of nation-building within and the process of region building externally.
From Balochistan to Rakhine and from the Terai to North-eastern Sri Lanka, the issues in conflict are undoubtedly related to the nation-building process, or its failure. Despite seven decades, these geographic peripheries are also pursued as “political” and “national” ones, with less or least importance attached to them at the national capital. While the national capital makes an absolute claim over the periphery territorially, it does not have the same passion in ensuring that the governance process in these regions are given as much importance as is given to the heartland.
Statistics in the periphery – from governance to human development will tell a different and harsh story at the ground level. From the number of four-lane roads to primary health centres, there is a huge problem within.
The State in South Asia is yet to understand that the periphery is unique in geographic, cultural and economic terms. Historically, they have been outward looking and for centuries interacting more with rest of the world, than with rest of the “mainland”. Leh, Kargil and Gilgit perhaps had more contacts outside of what became South Asia later. So was Manipur and Nagaland.
The “Problem of" the Periphery
Added to the above “problem in the periphery” is the “problem of the periphery”; while the national capital and rest of the nation is jingoistic about the geographic territories, they do not understand its history. As mentioned above, these “border” regions historically and ethnically were bridges to the neighbouring countries.
Unfortunately, most of South Asia has a problem with its neighbours, which spill over into the peripheries. As a result, the national capitals see the peripheries through an inward strategy, and would prefer to “secure” from the latter’s historical linkages, and even physically fence it. The peripheries get discussed in the national parliament mostly from what is happening outside the country, than domestic issues.
For rest of the nation, State and the Deep State, “problem of the periphery” assumes importance over the “problem in the periphery”. If needed, the latter could be ignored, or even subjugated to the former – all in the name of “national interests”.
The “Deep State” and the Periphery
The fourth major problem in the geographic periphery is the national approach or the lack of it, and which ministry gets main priority in dealing with the former.
Unfortunately, South Asia manages its periphery through its Home and Defence ministries. Instead of national and state/provincial capitals engage in a dialogue in addressing the problems, the Parliament has outsourced the conflict management to military, police and intelligence agencies.
Though the idea of a “Deep State” is talked widely in Pakistan, there is a “Deep State” in every conflict in South Asia, with a vested interest. Unfortunately, both the national and regional elites make use of the Deep State to suit their own political interests. In return, the Deep State gets entrenched in the system, and abuses the former.
Ironically in South Asia, even the so-called “separatists” or “insurgents” also have linkages with the Deep State either within or with the neighbouring States. The Deep State seems to be more pervasive than the government.
The Deep State in South Asia has a colonial legacy, in terms of its approach towards the conflict in the peripheries. It would prefer to “divide and rule” and pursue some of the old strategies pursued by the British – both politically and militarily.
Ignorant and Insensitive Mainland
Fifth, the "mainland" is ignorant and insensitive when it comes to its own periphery, especially the conflicts there. Worse, one could even sense a political and cultural arrogance in the "mainland" towards the periphery. The mainland looks at the periphery through a condescending lens, whereas the periphery has its own pride and history - that neither the capital understands and acknowledges. Those in the periphery would even complain that their rich history is neglected even in the textbooks.
While rest of India would want its Northeast to be a part of it, not many, even educated with a graduate degree will be able to mention all the seven states. There have been occasions in which newspapers published in Delhi, in their editorial have got the capitals of the Northeast wrong! While Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad may have newspapers in print, Quetta is still struggling to have its own. How many in Biratnagar in Nepal will read the Kathmandu Post published from the national capital? While Jammu region and Kashmir Valley have numerous print editions, there are hardly any from Ladakh and the two Kashmiri political entities across the Line of Control (LoC) under Pakistan’s control.
The space that the geographic periphery gets in the national dailies is limited to a small strip in the third page unless there are major militant attacks or accidents have a larger casualty.
Peripheries and the “Shire” approach
Sixth, the politics in conflict peripheries tend to look inwards. While criticising the role and attitudes of rest the nation towards its peripheries, equally important is the latter’s approach towards the former, which could be defined as one of the most important “problem in the periphery.”
Most of the peripheries tend to look inward – politically and culturally. Not many in Kargil would have crossed the Zoji La and not many in Kashmir Valley would have crossed the Jawahar Tunnel. Like the Hobbits in the Shire of the Lord of the Rings, many in the periphery consider their region as one of "idyllic happiness" and rest of the world from a Hobessian view of nasty, brutish and short.
The regional societies also tend to insulate themselves; nationalist discourse is perceived as a first step towards losing their unique position. From tourism to language, regular developments and discourses get interpreted as “imposition” leading towards “integration” of the periphery into mainland.
Besides the societal outlook, the politics in peripheries also tend to be inward looking. The political environment is led by regional political parties, and the “national” parties have been losing their base in the peripheries. Worse, the “national” parties tend to engage in political engineering, sometimes aided by the Deep State. As a result, the “national” parties are seen with suspicion. Besides, the peripheries have small provincial assemblies and a smaller representation in the national Parliament. As a result, the provinces do not have a voice that could be heard in the Parliament, forcing them to look inward further. From Balochistan to Manipur, one could see the above trend across the peripheries. This disconnect accentuates the conflicts further.
International Interest, or the lack of it
Finally, the global attention or the lack of it also plays a role in the conflict simmering politically, but within a geographic boundary.
While Afghanistan attracts international attention, many conflicts in South Asia’s peripheries do not get into the global conflict debate – either at the State level, or through non-governmental organizations. J&K was in the international news as “regional nuclear flashpoint”, but subsided eventually. From Gilgit Baltistan to Terai, there are numerous conflicts that do not get sufficient attention. Even if there is, “larger picture” forces the global players to ignore the ground realities. The global response to the Rohingya crisis is a case in point; from the US to Japan no power wants to pressurise the regime. In Myanmar, because of the larger picture.
To conclude, with no voice of their own, and with rest of the mainland pursuing them as a territory, the peripheries in South Asia will remain conflict-prone.
The author is a Professor and a Dean at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. He edits an annual - Armed Conflicts in South Asia and maintains a portal on Pakistan – www.pakistanreader.org. An edited version of the above was first published in the Daily Times. Click here for the original commentary. https://dailytimes.com.pk/178341/conflict-south-asias-peripheries/