Managing Conflicts in India: Policies of Coercion and Accommodation by Bidisha Biswas, Lexington Books: Plymouth, United Kingdom, 2014, ISBN 13: 978-0-7391-8754-8, 144 pp. $75.00 (Hardcover), $59.95 (Kindle).
The Indian narrative reflects an obsession with “economic reform,” and its impact. For several decades American media has touted the story of “India Shining,” as economic growth made inroads into endemic poverty. In 2004, the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hoped to return to power by reminding Indian voters of India’s economic success. In 2014, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi is promising to enact economic reforms to restore India’s economy to previous high growth rates from its current relatively endemic 5 percent.
Not too long ago educated observers were speculating whether divisive forces would tear India apart. Today’s observers would have to be reminded that restive minorities once agitated for separation, and separatist insurgencies seemed to pose a serious challenge to India’s survival. In Managing Conflicts in India, Bidisha Biswas, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University, examines how the Indian state dealt with two separatist movements, Punjab (1984-1993) and Kashmir (1989-present), and India’s Maoist guerrilla movement (the Naxalites, 2004 – present). These are only three of the nine insurgencies India has seen since independence.
Managing Conflicts in India is an academic treatise aimed at serious students of India and Political Science. It is not a book for the layman or the casual reader. In classic academic style, Biswas presents a thesis and rigorously tests it to determine its applicability. The book is not meant to explain why so many Indians at different times did not want to belong to India. That has been the subject of many previous studies. Instead, Managing Conflicts in India examinesthe strategies adopted by the Indian state to counter insurgency.
Biswas extracts from the literature two separate strategies that can be adopted exclusively or in tandem to deal with insurgent threats. At one end of the spectrum is the strategy of “coercion.” States, which rely on this strategy, have concluded that the insurgents’ demands are without sufficient merit, the insurgent movement is dominantly criminal rather than political, and the state must demonstrate its power to control its territory without making concessions. Reliance on coercion is problematical for India for two reasons. As a democracy, India risks undermining its legitimacy by being dragged into a conflict characterized by tit for tat attacks and increasingly flagrant human rights abuses. In a democratic state, the media scrutinizes government activities and political leaders with blemished records often pay the price at the polls.
At the same time, structural factors make coercion a particularly attractive counter-insurgency strategy for the Indian leadership. India is a heterodox state, which unifies disparate elements into one entity. India has usually contended not with one separatist movement in isolation, but with multiple movements taking place at the same time. This leads Indian leaders to conclude that concessions made to one group, will only encourage others to embrace insurgency. India is also locked into a bitter rivalry with its neighbor, Pakistan, which views insurgencies as opportunities to “fish in troubled waters.” As soon as Pakistani covert assistance becomes a factor, Indian leaders determine that only coercion will send a strong message to Pakistan that India will not tolerate interference in its internal affairs.
“Accommodation” is at the other end of the spectrum. States adopt an accommodation strategy when they conclude that an insurgency has legitimate grievances, and a strong ideological base. Biswas recommends accommodation for democratic states such as India. She warns that an over-reliance on coercion can prove self-defeating. While the leadership and even the rank and file of insurgent movements can be “killed off,” the process alienates the local population, which will over the long term never fully integrate into the national mainstream, and could provide the nucleus for a revival of insurgency.
Biswas is systematic and well organized. She follows her analysis well and goes where it leads her. She demonstrates that in all three instances the Indian state relied on coercion almost exclusively in the early phases of the counter insurgency. Initially, the security forces appeared bogged down in a protracted conflict. However, over the course of time, the overwhelming firepower and capabilities of the security forces wore down the insurgents. Only after the insurgencies were considerably weakened did the state try to adopt a more accommodating response, by trying to rein in security force excesses and human rights abuses and address legitimate political and economic concerns.
Just as the government response to insurgency cannot be neatly pigeonholed into distinct categories, the insurgent movements themselves escape easy definition. In Punjab and Kashmir, the local populations did not initially turn to insurgency and violence, but were willing participants in the democratic process. In both instances, the heavy handedness of the ruling Congress government under the leadership of the insecure Prime Minister Indira Gandhi alienated local populations. Punjabis and Kashmiris preferred local political leaders and parties to Congress. Unwilling to accept this, Gandhi manipulated the democratic process and rigged elections to depose local parties and gain Congress control. This was coupled with an oftentimes violent and repressive response to dissent that convinced restive young populations to embrace separatism and insurgency.
Biswas concludes that India’s counter insurgency strategies have been ineptly conceived and carried-out and could have resulted in disaster. In Punjab, the overwhelming majority of the Sikh population was never sympathetic to the insurgents’ call for a Sikh state of “Khalistan.” In Kashmir, the Muslim population of the valley was initially responsive to the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) demand for separation from India and the establishment of a separate state of Kashmir India was “lucky,” in the sense that in both Punjab and Kashmir, Pakistan mishandled its support of insurgency. In Punjab, without a broad base of support, the Khalistan movement quickly splintered and devolved into criminality. In Kashmir, Pakistan could not stomach the JKLF’s separation demand. It backed ultra Islamist insurgents that murdered the JKLF leadership and alienated the Kashmiri population. In the end, both movements lost steam and their failure took the air out of separatism.
Today the Naxalite movement poses the biggest threat to the Indian state. This is because it is not reflective of narrow ethnic or religious identity issues, but is far more relevant. Biswas correctly asserts that Naxalism has no chance of success. It is an outmoded Maoist movement at a time when China itself has rejected Maoist revolution. It aims to overthrow the Indian government and establish a radical new polity on the ashes of capitalism. It calls for a radical transformation of Indian society that rejects capitalist development in lieu of a radical redistribution of power and wealth to India’s poorest populations.
India is experiencing its second iteration of the Naxalite movement. The first Naxalite movement took place from 1967 to 2003 and started in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal as a peasant revolt. Leftist students and intellectuals came to the aid of the peasants to combat what they viewed as the excesses of capitalism and an entrenched feudal system. This movement could not sustain itself in the face of a security crackdown and died a natural death.
This second Naxalite movement gained new life precisely because of the economic boom unleashed by the economic liberalization of the Indian economy. While India has experienced unprecedented economic growth, its benefits have not been equitably distributed. India’s tribal and Dalit (untouchables) populations in the remote hinterlands have been cut out of the process. Occupying vast tracts of land where they eked out a miserable existence, they have seen no sign of development since independence. These areas and their populations remain forgotten and mercilessly exploited by local elites. The neo-liberal economy has no place for these people. No one seemed very concerned and situation received no notice in a press infatuated with Indian economic growth. They would have remained forgotten except for the fact that they occupy land and control resources demanded by India’s new economy. India’s economic growth has touched off a rush for resources and land. The tribal populations are in the way. Mining conglomerates want mineral resources, lumber mafias desire uncut trees, and corrupt and greedy politicians covet lots of land to set up “free trade zones.”
The Indian Supreme Court has acknowledged the systematic human rights abuses unleashed against resisting tribal peoples and the “yawning gap between the promise of principled exercise of power in a constitutional democracy and the reality of the situation.” The abject failure of the Indian state to address the concerns of its most downtrodden citizens has fed the revival of Naxalism. In addition, the Naxalite leadership has learned from its past mistakes. They hope to perpetuate the insurgency indefinitely by taking maximum advantage of the remoteness of the Indian hinterlands. The Naxalite strategy calls for the movement to eventually spread out of the hinterlands, into the countryside and eventually into the cities, before taking over the government. This will not happen, because the state has enormous power it can unleash on the insurgents as soon as they emerge from their protective forest cover. In addition, the Naxalites have created their own financial system based on extortion, and kidnapping and have used these ill-gotten funds to acquire modern weapons. Biswas notes that with the passage of time, criminality and ideology have become muddied and many Naxalites have begun to victimize violently the very tribal people in whose interest they claim to fight.
India cannot fully end the Naxalite insurgency until it addresses its root causes. This appears to be beyond the will or the capability of India’s leadership, however. India’s caste Hindus have always denigrated and marginalized Dalit and tribal populations. Rampant greed and corruption dominate India’s political system and have exacerbated these tendencies. India cannot continue to rely solely on violent coercion in response to the Naxalites, but despite the government’s many pronouncements that it will pump resources into economic development of tribal areas, little development is forthcoming and the violence continues.
Biswas provides valuable insight into the failures of India’s leadership to address the root causes of insurgency and its embarrassing and debilitating over-reliance on coercion, violence and human rights abuses. Her book is a useful introduction to the Naxalite insurgency that has a presence in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. For further reading I would recommend Walking with the Comrades, by Arundhati Roy, (2011, Penguin Books, New York).
A word of warning, although this book is well written and a valuable contribution to the literature on a very important subject, it is short and over-priced at $75. Although a wholly owned subsidiary of the respected publisher Rowman and Littlefield published it, it is filled with typographical errors, and at least one garbled paragraph. This strongly detracts from the work.