Posts Tagged ‘Conflict’

The XYZ of India-Pakistan Relations

December 17, 2015

India and Pakistan are engaged in a high-stakes game in which the outcomes (and non-outcomes) are significant for many of the players involved. The essential ABCs of this game are well known; the finer XYZs are less obvious and I aim to address some of them in this article.

It might be useful to treat the high-stakes game as just that – a game – and employ some of the features of game theory to better understand the situation.

For those unfamiliar with game theory, here is a very brief orientation.

We regularly engage in transactions in which our actions are independent of the actions of others and have no measurable impact on them either. If you go to the market to buy a cup of coffee you are engaging in this sort of a familiar independent action.

There are other situations in which the choice of your action can depend on the action of someone else. Such situations can be likened to games. Chess is a classic example of such a game in which your next move depends on the move of your opponent. Not only that, it also depends on what you believe might be his/her next few moves; these, in turn, depend on your move and his/her anticipation of your next few moves.

Since the India-Pakistan relationship is inter-dependent, this is all we need for the moment to think of it in terms of a game. But consider how extremely simple a game of chess is to appreciate the complexity of the India-Pakistan game.

  1. The rules of chess are clearly defined and fixed.
  2. There is a neutral referee to ensure that rules are not violated.
  3. No violence or physical punishment is permitted in the game.
  4. There are only two players in the game, one on each side.
  5. The responsibility for their actions rests solely on the individual players.
  6. Each player acts only in his or her own interest.
  7. During a game, the players cannot communicate with each other either directly or through intermediaries.
  8. Whatever one player wins, the other loses – think of the prize money of the match with all of it going to the winner.
  9. There are no unrelated side-games going on at the same time as the main game.
  10. The game has to be completed within a given time or a given number of moves.

Most conflicts in real life can be modeled as games but a moment’s reflection on the above list should convey how much more complex even ordinary real-life games are compared to chess. Imagine the familiar scenario in which an individual dies leaving behind a piece of land with a house or factory on it to be divided among the survivors. Most would agree that few if any of the simplifying assumptions of a pure game like chess would apply in this case even though in theory the rules of inheritance are well defined. There may be a quick outcome or there may never be one; the players might or might not trust each other; some players might desire a quick decision while others might want to drag out the process; intermediaries and arbiters might be bought out or intimidated; there may be a cooperative outcome or a non-cooperative one; all the players might gain, all might lose, or some might gain while others might lose; future gains or losses could be very much more than the present worth of the property if opportunity costs and costs of litigation are factored in.

Consider another familiar example – the game of cricket. We have seen all of the following: sub-games between factions in the same team; players preferring to lose rather than win and strengthen the position of a captain they don’t like; coaches, selectors, or administrators making key decisions instead of the captain; players throwing matches; umpires and players cheating in games; players maximizing their own interest instead of that of the team. The list can continue to be expanded.

One would rightly expect a game between two countries with a confrontational history to be much more complicated than the above examples. The aim of this article is not to propose a solution but to suggest a way in which these complications can be thought through in a systematic fashion using the template of game theory. A fuller understanding might help dissolve some of the myths that perpetuate the conflict.

The following are some salient characteristics of the India-Pakistan conflict:

  1. There is not one conflict but a set of conflicts that are at issue.
  2. There is more than one player with decision-making power on both sides. (Note: India and Pakistan are not players – they are represented by various groups with varying degrees of power.)
  3. The players formally designated as leaders in the negotiation may actually have less power that players acting behind the scenes.
  4. Because of the lack of transparency about players with actual decision-making power, there is likely to be a problem in communication between the two sides. The nominal equivalents on the two sides might have very unequal decision-making powers.
  5. The gains from resolving the conflict are huge. Not only are there actual costs imposed by the conflict (see Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?), there are also gains that cannot be realized unless relations are normalized.
  6. The biggest beneficiaries of such gains from normalization are the majority of the citizens of both countries for whom the costs of many essential commodities would decrease and new jobs would be created. They are stakeholders in the game but without any real power or ability to affect the outcome.
  7. The players with the power and ability to affect the outcome are materially well-off. For them the gains from normalization would not make measurable differences in their quality of life.
  8. There might actually be players who gain from a continuation of the conflict. If so, they would need to keep the conflict alive at just the right level of intensity – not so high as to upset the entire apple-cart; not so low as to be ineffective.
  9. Players who believe they would lose from normalization might undermine the credibility of other players on their own side with relatively more to gain.
  10. There are simultaneous side-games between key sub-groups on each side. The end of conflict might lead to a shift in the balance of power between these sub-groups that the negatively affected would resist even at the cost of prolonging the conflict.
  11. The passage of time might affect the two teams in different ways. The stronger team might aim to wear down the weaker one simply by delaying the resolution of the conflict and by raising its costs.
  12. Both teams influence their major stakeholders, the ordinary citizens, in various ways and for various ends, by means of state-controlled media and education and by making it difficult for them to have people-to-people exchanges.

Each of these points apply in differing degrees to both sides. The perceptive reader should have no problem extrapolating them to the reality of the India-Pakistan conflict and in identifying on the two sides the key sets of players along with their internal frictions, incentives, and likely strategies. Not every reader will arrive at the same conclusion but that is not the intention of this exercise. The objective is for the reader to analyze the conflict in a more systematic manner with the common template enabling a mutually intelligible discussion of the resulting viewpoints.

One more premise needs to be stated before the reader embarks on the analysis. In a game, all players (including sub-groups) act in their own self-interest. Any claim by a player that he/she is acting in the larger interest of someone is to be treated skeptically. There might be partial coincidence in some cases and coalitions might form but in general a player would not incur a personal loss to maximize another’s gain even when the other is on the same side. Usually players wielding decision-making power claim to act in the interest of powerless citizens. In theory, such claims are inadmissible. All evidence suggests that the same is true in reality. While saints do exist, they are not part of the games under discussion.

While every reader would arrive at a personal perspective, there are some conclusions that would likely command general agreement. Those with most to gain from an end to conflict, the citizens, lack the power to force its resolution in their interest. Those with the least to gain, and perhaps something to lose, wield effective decision-making power. There are internal conflicts over dominance among sub-groups within teams and these considerations outweigh widely distributed gains from conflict resolution. And key decision-makers might not be averse to keeping citizens misinformed to maximize personal gains.

What should citizens, the majority stakeholders, do in such a situation? That depends on the conclusions they arrive at from their analyses. Citizens do possess some leverage: the vote, the choice to reject misinformation, the space for open debate, and the ability to communicate directly with fellow citizens across borders. Some combination of these is essential to force the power brokers to end a conflict that is preventing a better life for millions of people in the subcontinent.

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Theater as a Matter of Life and Death

March 31, 2014

By Kabir Altaf

In the US and in other developed countries, theater is often seen as a leisure activity, engaged in primarily by those with disposable income and enough time to spend two hours watching a play.  However, in many countries around the world, the importance of theater goes beyond entertainment. Rather, theater is a matter of life and death.

As part of its “World Stages” festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently hosted a panel discussion entitled Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees, and Theater”. Moderated by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the co-founder of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the panel featured artists from Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, and the US.  All the panelists discussed the ways in which theater was essential to helping individuals cope with extremely difficult situations, including occupation and civil war. As Derek Goldman, a professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown, commented, “In the US, ‘home’ is seen as a safe space, a haven. In contexts in which home is fraught and chaotic, theater becomes a kind of home.”  Theater provides a platform in which “the unspeakable becomes spoken”.

Nabil Al-Raee, the artistic director of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, a city in the West Bank, described the role of theater as a means for Palestinians to resist the Israeli Occupation.   The theater is located in Jenin refugee camp, which dates from 1948, soon after the creation of Israel. 17,000 people live in one square kilometer.  The theater draws its inspiration from the work of Arna Mer Khamis, a woman of Jewish origin who devoted her life to campaigning for freedom and human rights, particularly in Palestine.  During the First Intifada, Arna developed a project called “Care and Learning”, which used theater and art to address the fear, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by children in the refugee camp. In 1993, Arna won the Right Livelihood Award for her work and used the award money to build The Stone Theatre, which was destroyed in 2002 during the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp.   The Freedom Theater was founded in 2006 by Juliano Mer Khamis, Arna’s son, who had returned to Jenin during the Second Intifada to continue his mother’s work.  Juliano was the General Director of the theatre until 2011, when he was assassinated.  The theatre continues to carry forward Juliano’s legacy and aims to promote freedom—not only for Palestinians but for all human beings.

Nabil commented that theater and other performing arts serve as a very important tool to help people understand themselves and to resist their situation in a non-violent manner, through art.  He recounted a remark made by an audience member in Gaza at a performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian academic Edward Said as a collaboration between Israeli and Arab musicians.  The audience member noted that “People provide us food and shelter but you would do that for animals. By bringing us music, you have treated us like human beings.”

Just as theater plays a role in helping Palestinians cope with the Israeli Occupation, it is important in helping Syrian refugees confront the violent conflict in their country.  Liwaa Yazji, a Syrian playwright and filmmaker, described the situation facing her countrymen, both in the areas controlled by the Assad government and in those that are “free”.  She noted that in areas controlled by the regime, artists cannot depict war or revolution on stage.  In areas in the north of the country, which are outside of regime control, artists often come under threat from Islamists.  Liwaa described how activists and professionals are conducting workshops with Syrian youth to help them cope with their experiences during the war.  She described how during a performance of “Little Red Riding Hood”, a child asked her “Who is the wolf? Is it Bashar Assad or the Islamists?” Clearly, the arts have a role to play in helping refugee children confront what is happening to them.

Though the situation in Pakistan cannot be compared to that in Palestine or Syria, artists are still playing an important role in a society confronted with rising levels of extremism. Shahid Nadeem, one of the country’s leading playwrights and the founder of Ajoka Theatre, described how Pakistanis have become “cultural refugees”, forced to disassociate themselves from much of their traditional culture, because it is “tainted” by association with India and Hinduism.  He recalled that when he was growing up, he was told that the arts are un-Islamic and have no place in Pakistan.  Through its plays, Ajoka has been striving to reclaim Pakistan’s traditional heritage.  By using humor and music to keep audiences engaged, the plays address serious issues such as women’s rights and the rise of fundamentalism.  Because they often deal with controversial issues, the group’s performances have at times been banned by the Pakistani government as well as received threats from religious extremists. Theater thus serves as an important platform in the fight for greater social justice and for progressive values.

Overall, the discussion highlighted the relevance of theater in extremely difficult contexts, not usually associated with the arts.   Far from being merely entertainment for the well-to-do, theatre is vital for helping individuals across the world cope with violence, war, and conflict.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.

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The Intolerant Indian: A Review

March 25, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The title of Gautam Adhikari’s new book, The Intolerant Indian, is intended to be provocative and it might indeed provoke those who go just by titles. Anyone reading the book though is more likely to be puzzled.

The subject is important no doubt – the extent of conflict fueled by the inability to agree is increasing – and so the intent to provoke a debate is laudable. But the manner in which the debate is framed is likely to generate more heat than light thereby threatening to inflame the very intolerance it aims to subdue. (more…)

On Culture and the Clash of Cultures

March 18, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The “West” versus the “East,” the “West” versus “Islam” – there is much talk of the clash of cultures in these ideologically charged times. Yet, there is as much confusion about the understanding of culture itself. If we are to be clear about the nature of the conflict, we need to first define what the argument is about.

Culture as a thing in itself: “the power of culture”

Culture has many dimensions and meanings – we can talk of the power of culture as well as of the culture of power – and some of the meanings have altered over time. In its original sense the notion was applied to humans as it was to the earth, the equivalent of agriculture – a way of cultivating the mind akin to cultivating the soil. It was common to speak of a cultured person as one who had cultivated good taste (even the choice of the word ‘taste’ hints at the commonality of the origins) – tastes could be refined with effort much like sugar. In this usage, culture was something an individual aspired to acquire and refine. The oft-heard European characterization of Americans as ‘uncultured’ reflects this usage. Within countries, ministries of culture were the facilitators of the cultivation of tastes.

It is less common these days to speak of culture in this manner because the focus has shifted to conflict and therefore away from the individual to the group. Yet, some of the sense of culture as taste remains when there is talk of the “cultural wars” between highbrow (elite) and lowbrow (popular) cultures.

Culture as the ethos of something else: “the culture of power”

There is a transition to associating culture with a pattern of behavior when one refers to the culture of power. Notions of the cultures of affluence or poverty convey the same sense – the powerful or the affluent or the poor behave in ways that are recognizable and common to the members of the group. It is also common to speak of the culture of organizations – the distinction was often made between the vertical culture of IBM (based on hierarchy) and the flat culture of Apple (based on equality).

The culture of a place

This transition to the behavior of groups can be rooted further in a specific geography. The association of culture with place – the culture of New York, for example – is an obvious extension although it is not as simple as it seems because a place can contain subgroups with quite distinct cultures of their own – say, the poor and the rich or the elite and the commoners. This nuance is vividly illustrated by an observation about New York by E.B. White: “Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” All these distinct subcultures come together to comprise the composite culture that New Yorkers claim as their own.

Residents of New York and San Francisco would insist that the cultures of the two cities are very different. One cannot conceive of saying about New York what was said of San Francisco – “If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Those going to New York might be better advised to wear a Blackberry on their hips.

One should note that in this conceptualization of the composite culture of a healthy organization or place, the differences in the subcultures of its members, their religions or ethnicities for example, have relatively minor importance. Thus the culture of IBM is not sensitive to the different religions of its employees. Likewise, residents of Chinatown and Little Italy readily identify themselves as New Yorkers.

This is rather more difficult for us to appreciate in South Asia where we have witnessed composite cultures fragment and polarize around subcultures of language, religion or ethnicity. Nevertheless, despite the traumas of recent history, it still remains possible to speak meaningfully of a composite culture of UP or Punjab that subsumes religious differences. Indeed, we often speak of an even larger Ganga-Jamni culture that emerged out of the interaction of two initially very distinct cultures – something that was the subject of Dara Shikoh’s justly celebrated work, Majma-ul-Bahrain (“The Confluence of the Two Seas”).

Culture and religion

This conception of the composite culture of an organization or place should caution us against falling into the trap of giving primacy to religion in the discussion of culture. Religion influences culture but is itself embedded in pre-existing cultures – every place has a culture before religion is introduced into it. It is for this reason that the culture of Saudi Arabia is distinct from the culture of Iran or Indonesia even though they are now all countries with Muslim majorities. It is also the reason why society in Pakistan shuns social equality when the message of its holy book espouses equality quite explicitly. And within Pakistan, the social norms that prescribe how honor is defended in the different provinces vary from each other and also from the prescriptions of the Shariah.

West, East, Islam: misplaced categories

We are now in a position to return to the issue of interest – that of the so-called clash of cultures. It should be noted immediately that there is a serious incompatibility in talking about a culture clash between the West and Islam – the former is a spatial unit while the latter is a type of a non-spatial organization. We can either talk of a clash between Christianity and Islam or remove the incompatibility in some other way.

A formulation in terms of Christianity and Islam is much too broad – one has never heard, for example, of a conflict between the Christians of Latin America and the Muslims of Sub-Saharan Africa. Reformulation as a conflict between the West and the East is equally problematic because the East itself is too large a unit – there is little that can be considered common in the cultures of South Asia and East Asia, for instance.

Conflict of cultures or conflict of interests

A little thinking should reveal the intellectual laziness or subterfuge in such formulations. What initially motivated the proponents of the theory of culture clash was the problematic of the different interests of the USA and Europe on the one side and the Muslim countries of the Arab world on the other. It lent a false generalization to the articulation to conflate the former with the “West” and the latter with “Islam.” No doubt it also helped to mask the real nature of the material differences in interests that fueled the conflict. Over time, the generalization acquired the momentum of a self-fulfilling prophecy as more and more people began to see the world in its frame of reference.

Posed against each other in this formulation were the democratic, secular, and peace-loving values of the “West” against the totalitarian, religious, and aggressive values of  “Islam.” After the recent developments in the Arab world the mask has slipped to some extent from the emptiness of this conflation and questions have begun to be asked about the odd reality in which the friends of the “West” in the Arab world were precisely those totalitarian autocrats who were receiving billions of dollars to deny democracy and freedom to their own people. The choice of friends was the giveaway in the gulf between the rhetoric and reality of this false clash of cultures.

Culture and values

Although there is a very clear political economy rationale to the articulation of the clash of cultures, let us set it aside for the moment to discuss the conceptual issues in the understanding of culture. What exactly might we mean when we speak of a culture of the “West?” We are in the realm of geography and had mentioned earlier the notion of a culture of New York that was distinct from a culture of San Francisco. If we think of culture as a manifestation of shared values, to what extent can we enlarge a geographical unit while still recognizing some significant value that remains common across that unit?

In this sense can we associate certain shared attributes with as broad a geographical unit as the “West?” We can say perhaps that the West is relatively horizontal in terms of social relationships and that religious beliefs have relatively little impact on political behavior. In contrast, we can easily recognize some societies that are relatively vertical in terms of social relationships and where religious beliefs have relatively greater impact on political behavior. South Asia immediately comes to mind but note that East Asian societies are markedly different from South Asia in many respects so that a simplistic West-East classification would be very misleading.

Values and social structures

Thinking further along these lines would suggest that these attributes are not intrinsic to people but related to the structures of societies at particular moments in time and that there is a relationship between structural attributes and social values. The values of a pre-industrial society could be expected to differ from those of an industrial one. We can quite readily characterize a set of values as “feudal” and another as “capitalist” – it would be quite natural for honor and loyalty to be carry more weight in the former while the bottom line and merit gain more prominence in the latter. This also suggests that values change over time as the structures of societies evolve. Europe too was feudal, clerical, and dynastic at one time.

The clash of values

This should lead to an important observation. The fact that societies have different values does not imply that they must necessarily clash. To revert to an earlier illustration, IBM had a vertical culture while Apple had a horizontal culture but this in no way made a clash between the two inevitable. There was competition for sure but even this was modulated within the meta-rules of a composite capitalist culture.

However, and this is an equally important observation, when there is a conflict of material interests, real or perceived, one can expect a clash of values even within the same society. One can see this in the conflict over caste-based quotas and reservations in India as well over race-based affirmative action in the US. These material conflicts are recast in terms of a clash of values, between social justice and individual responsibility or between desert and merit, for example.

The conflict of interests

The key to understanding an articulation of a clash of cultures is to recognize the underlying clash of material interests and to identify the parties representing those interests. From there one can follow how the conflict of interests is recast as a conflict of values, how each party characterizes the values of the other as the exact opposite of its own to the point that the conflict is transformed into one between good and evil. This rhetoric of good and evil is then used to rally popular support – how often have we heard in recent years that “they” hate “us” because they dislike our values and our freedoms.

Seeing through the fog

This strategy continues to pay because there is always a pool of people ready to line up behind it. The resulting jingoism and chauvinism leads many to fall into the deeper hole of believing and wanting to prove their values superior to those of anyone else. This is easy enough – any one of hundreds of possible indicators can be picked as evidence of the superiority. Thus many Muslims claim Islamic values superior to Western values because the divorce rate is lower in Muslim countries. The failure to realize that they are comparing apples and oranges or that there may be other indicators suggesting the opposite conclusion illustrates well the benumbing influence of seeing the world through the lens of a clash of cultures. There are no clashes of cultures, only clashes of interests masquerading as clashes of cultures.

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What’s Happening in Karachi?

November 16, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

What’s happening in Karachi is obvious for all to see. Why it’s happening is less obvious and, for that reason, the cause of much speculation.

Karachi’s ills are complex in nature and beyond the stage of simple prescriptions. This article looks at only one dimension of the problem: Why and how have conflicts in the city taken an increasingly religious form? For that, it is necessary to look at events that took place many years ago outside the city itself. It is often the case that the present cannot be explained fully without recourse to seemingly unrelated events that occurred in other places in the past. (more…)

Imaginings: Retrospective on Pakistan

June 27, 2010

Editor’s Note: The aim of this series is to identify the major trends underway in the various South Asian countries and, based on an analysis of their interplay, to assess the likely consequences for the future. The precise predictions are of less interest than the discussions that are triggered, for it is the process of discussion that deepens our understanding of the changes that are taking place in our countries.

We launch this series with an unusual choice – a paper published in 1982 that speculated on the political implications for Pakistan of a single major trend, the large scale emigration of labor to the Middle East. (more…)

To Whom Does India Belong?

September 24, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

Some recent comments have made me reflect on this question. I am intrigued by the notion that someone can think of India as belonging to its religious majority. I am going to argue that such thinking is arbitrary, inconsistent, anachronistic, and schizophrenic. It is also a vocabulary that is entirely unhelpful in advancing us to a better and more secure future.

It is arbitrary because there is no logical reason for using religion as the characteristic by which a majority is determined. Why couldn’t one say that India belongs to men because there are more men than women in India? Or that India belongs to Hindi speakers, or to peasants, or to the lower castes? No case can be made that accords primacy to religion over all these other dimensions that can also separate a population into a majority and a minority.

It is inconsistent because if such logic can be applied to India there is no reason that it cannot be applied to a part of India. How can one argue that India belongs to its majority community but Maharashtra does not belong to its majority community? One would be forced to concede the validity of Bal Thackeray’s argument.

It is anachronistic because it belongs to an age when tribes claimed ownership of particular pieces of land and fought over them. If India belongs to a majority, however defined, then by definition the residual group, no matter how long it has resided in India, is a guest at best and an intruder at worst. Such a characterization is not compatible with the norms of our time.

It is schizophrenic because it reflects a mind that has accepted the structure of a modern nation-state on the one hand but continues to exhibit a pre-modern mental frame defined by all sorts of divisions between people who inhabit that nation-state.

I have been consistently arguing the case that South Asia does indeed suffer from this schizophrenia. It has borrowed ‘modern’ forms like the nation-state and democratic governance but both its elites and its masses remain infused with the ethos of a monarchy. The elites continue to think of themselves as above the law and entitled to dynastic rule and the masses continue to look upon the rulers, whoever they may be, as their mata-pitas.

If the countries of South Asia are to be modern nation-states, South Asians would have to abandon such archaic notions as someone owning a country. There are no majorities and minorities in modern, democratic, and secular nation-states. Everyone who is granted citizenship by the Indian state is an Indian with equal rights; an Indian – nothing more, nothing less. This is not to say that Indians stop being Bengalis or Tamils or Brahmins or Sikhs but that these distinctions remain markers of culture and have no bearing on differential ownership of India or privileged entitlement to rights simply by virtue of numerical counts. The fact that there may be more Bengalis than Assamese has no bearing on anything in a modern nation-state.

And if there are people in India who do not wish to be Indian, Indians would have to find a way to resolve that dilemma just as Spain has to find a solution to the dilemma of those Basques who do not wish to be citizens of Spain. This is true not just for India but also for Pakistan and Sri Lanka, at the very least.

How we relate to each other is a function of the vocabulary we employ. We cannot continue to dwell in the past and refer to each other as Aryans and Dravidians, Hindus and Muslims, Mughals and Rajputs, Sinhalese and Tamils, Bengalis and Biharis, etc., etc.  Nor can we undo the past. If we wish to move forward with the times we have to employ the vocabulary of the times. In South Asia, we have to deal with each other as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Maldivians.

The welfare of South Asians will be enhanced by cooperation between the countries of South Asia and will be hurt by conflict among them. This may strike some as fanciful but an essential step towards that cooperation may be the choice of the terms we use for each other. It may be how we converse with each other that would have the most impact on our future.

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On Cooperation and Competition – 3

June 13, 2009

I find it hard to believe that I forgot the reason for initiating this series on the possible origins of cooperative and competitive behavior using Malaysia and North India as the case studies.

I had wanted to revisit the partition of India.

This is an event in history that I visit again and again trying to understand how a tragedy of such magnitude could have occurred under the very noses of so many eminent personalities. And the one counterpoint I keep going back to is the situation in Malaysia which, from an ethnic perspective, was even more complex than India but was resolved in a much more satisfactory fashion. (more…)

Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?

September 30, 2008

It is often asserted that the majority of people in India and Pakistan desire peace. Do you believe that?

Even if they don’t, some suggest that if only people knew how much it is costing to keep up the state of conflict they would become advocates for peace. Well, here is the information as calculated in 2004 by the Strategic Foresight Group, Mumbai, in their report Cost of Conflict between India and Pakistan.

The summary of the report claims that “the Siachen conflict alone will cost India Rs 7,200 crores and Pakistan Rs 1,800 crores in the next five years;” that “India and Pakistan have the potential to enjoy a trade of about $1 billion if the hostile environment continues and $13.25 billion if peace prevails on a cumulative basis for the next five years (2004-08) resulting in an opportunity loss of $12 billion;” and that “Kashmir lost 27 million tourists from 1989-02 leading to a tourism revenue loss of Rs 16,500 crores.”

Whether the numbers are fully accurate or not, it is safe to say that they are likely to be very large. This kind of sustained conflict cannot be conducted on the cheap. The magnitude of the costs should not be a surprise.

What is a surprise is the fact that such a report has not made more waves. It has not woken up people and made them angry at so much money being diverted from development that would otherwise benefit ordinary people. It has not made them demand peace from their political representatives. On the contrary, the report has faded from memory like most of the news items in newspapers. Why?

Could it be that the oft-asserted existence of a very large number of people desiring peace is a myth? Had that been the case surely there would have been a “Peace” party that would have rallied support using the report as damning evidence of the cost of conflict.  Would it not have made political use of it to canvass support, to campaign on the platform of peace and development, and contested elections on that agenda?

But the fact is that there is no party of peace in either India or Pakistan, not even one that comes close to such a position. In fact, almost every party in opposition in either country accuses the ruling party of having sold out on Kashmir. Does that not suggest that the political parties consider the voters to be hawkish on conflict?

This raises some disturbing thoughts and challenges our complacent presumptions about what people want and how they behave. Is there a paradox and, if so, how can we explain it? I read a very perceptive essay on the 2004 US elections by a young Pakistani-American high school student. Comparing the strategies of the Right and Left he quoted William Reich’s explanation of how the fascists took power in Germany. Reich wrote, “While we presented the masses with superb historical analyses and economic treatises on the contradictions of imperialism, Hitler stirred the deepest roots of their emotional being.” Do voters vote their emotions rather than their pocketbooks? If so, what lies at the deepest roots of the emotional being of the Indian and Pakistani voter?

Of course, there is more than one explanation for every observation – therein lies the fascination of the social sciences. It would be useful if readers can help identify the flaws in the logic of the argument presented in this post.

Cost of Conflict between India and Pakistan, 2004.

Telling the Truth About the Election by Asad Haider, 2004.

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Democracy in Sri Lanka

February 11, 2008

We found the book The Cultural Construction of Politics in Asia edited by Hans Antlov and Tak-Wing Ngo (St. Martin’s Press, 2000) referred to in an earlier post (Democracy in India – 1) very useful in furthering our analysis of governance based on concrete case studies. In this post we summarize the experience in Sri Lanka using the chapter by Peter Kloos (Democracy, Civil War and the Demise of the Trias Politica in Sri Lanka).

The author starts by noting that in 1947 Sri Lanka seemed to have all that was needed to transform itself into an independent democracy and few post-colonial states had such a favorable point of departure:

It had already had an elected parliament for more than a decade and a half… [It] had universal suffrage earlier than several European states. It had a high rate of literacy and also a newspaper tradition of a century and a half. It had a well-established, island-wide legal system and it had, inherited from the British colonial government, a Public Service… that was virtually free of corruption. It was finally, one of the most affluent countries in Asia… This made possible a welfare state with island-wide free medical care and free education.

So how does one explain the transformation from a promising democracy in the 1940s to the state of the present? As in pre-partition India, the new form of governance could not adapt itself to the exigencies of reality and the lack of creative accommodation only heightened the divisions in society.

During pre-colonial times, Ceylon was politically united only for one brief period in the fifteenth century. At the beginning of the colonial era, the early sixteenth century, there were three kingdoms, two Sinhala ones… and one Tamil, with its capital in the present-day Jaffna. Ceylon was politically united for the second time in 1815 [by] the British…. In 1947, the Sinhala formed in this polity a clear majority of about 70 percent. There was a politically and economically quite powerful minority of almost 23 percent Tamils. Somewhat less than half… were so-called Ceylon Tamils who had lived in Ceylon for many centuries… Somewhat more than half, however, were Indian Tamils, who as contract labourers, had been brought from South India to Ceylon by the British in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Once again, “the politics of Independent Ceylon was based on general elections. The electoral system was similar to the British district system, each electorate supplying one member of Parliament. This implied that the ethnic composition of the population came forcefully to the fore.” The disconnect between the elective principle and the reality came into play right at the very beginning.

Amongst the earliest acts passed by the House of Representatives were the Citizen Act (1948), the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act (1949), and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act (1949). The first two acts denied citizenship to the majority of Indian Tamils and the third one disenfranchised them. The political motive behind these Acts was fear of Sinhala leaders for the electoral strength that could be exercised by the Indian Tamils, especially in the Central Province, where they outnumbered the Sinhala in several districts.

The author sums up the case study by noting that “the introduction of the majoritarian model of democracy rule in Sri Lanka chosen already during the late-colonial period paved the way for political forms that were undemocratic in the moral sense of the term. In the end this led to violent opposition – and to dismantling of democracy…. The democratic process as a way of handling conflict failed and government rigidity led to violent opposition. The government answered in kind and in the ensuing life-and-death struggle began to manipulate both legislation and the judiciary, presumably to create greater freedom to fight its enemies. By doing so it contributed to further escalation of violence.”

The author notes that there are two dimensions to democracy – the instrumental one focused on regular elections, rules of representation (e.g., first-past-the-post or proportional representation), the drawing of electoral districts, division of powers, etc. and the moral one that includes an attitude to acceptance of majority rule and of respect for and protection of minority points of view. It should be obvious that for a system to work the moral dimension would need to take precedence over the instrumental one. Clearly, neither in pre-partition India nor in post-partition Pakistan or post-Independence Sri Lanka were ways found to make the borrowed system work. In fact, an elective principle was chosen that actually turned the rich diversity of society into its biggest weakness. Building a representative system on indigenous traditions or more creativity in adapting foreign ones might have prevented the loss of over a million lives sacrificed to mindless experimentation.

The bigger point the author makes in the context of Sri Lanka applies equally to all countries in South Asia:

Sri Lanka is a highly politicized society in the sense that the interest in the actual political process receives much attention. In fact, politics is one of the most common topics of discussion in most sections of society. But this discussion is predominantly on the level of actual political practices. Even among politicians and political scientists the interest in a more abstract political discourse regarding the principles of political behaviour is almost absent… Far-reaching decisions regarding the political process are based on political expediency rather than on fundamental discussions of democratic rule.

How relevant this is for Pakistan today heading once again towards the “restoration” of an instrumental democracy without any discussion of the adjustments that are needed to make democracy work in a society riven by extreme distrust and multiple conflicts.

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