By Ajai Sahni
As repressive regimes of long standing crumble across the Arab world, raising the spectre of anarchy, there is rising concern among leaderships in South Asia that the ‘jasmine revolution’ may waft across parts of this long troubled region as well.
On many counts, South Asia is a tinderbox. As in the Arab world, demography is a rising concern. With some of the highest population densities in the world, the regional giants India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alone will add at least 226 million people to their combined 2010 population of about 1.52 billion in just a decade (on a ‘medium variant projection), bringing unsustainable pressure on already stressed resources and the environment. Between 35 and 45 per cent of the populations in these countries subsist below fairly modestly defined poverty lines. Administrations in these countries have failed to accommodate a burgeoning ‘youth bulge’, with over 20 per cent of their populations in the volatile 15-24 years age group. Corruption, collusion, ineptitude and crippling deficits in capacities for governance have kept alive, and often compounded, violent movements of political dissent, even as the state demonstrates significant evidence of withering away across vast territories.
Against this troubling backdrop, there is a surprising mix of news relating to the major movements of political violence in South Asia. After a trend of continuous escalation since 2005, total annual fatalities relating to terrorism and multiple insurgencies in the region have dropped from their peak of 29,638 in 2009, to 9,431 in 2010 [all data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal].
The most dramatic turn-around was, of course, in Sri Lanka, where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were finally decimated, after 26 years of war, bringing fatalities down from 15,565 in 2009, to none in 2010. While the promise of peace is far from being fully realized by a triumphal political leadership that remains principally committed to its own consolidation, it is nevertheless the case that some of the most urgent aspects of post-war reconstruction have been addressed with a measure of efficiency. The promised ‘solution’ to the Tamil issue is yet to crystallize, although the political mandate that President Mahinda Rajapakse sought as its precondition has been delivered in both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections of January and April 2010, respectively. The final report of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), which had been constituted by President Rajapakse in July 2006, provides the necessary direction for constitutional reform and an equitable resolution to the ethnic problem in the country, but the Rajapakse regime has demonstrated little enthusiasm for taking its recommendations forward. Despite the collapse of the LTTE, the Government continues to militarize the country even further, with the 2011 Budget making the highest allocation of SLR 215,220 to the Defence Ministry, as against, for instance, just SLR 75,250 million for the Economic Development Ministry. Despite a measure of concern about the Rajapakse regime’s politics in the post-war phase, it is clear, however, that there is simply no possibility of significant resurgence of terrorist violence in the country in the foreseeable future.
In Bangladesh, on August 17, 2005, some 459 explosions were engineered by Islamist terrorists across 63 of the country’s 64 Districts in the span of just half an hour. There was rising global concern, at that time, over increasing radicalisation in the country, the progressive concentration of Pakistan-linked Islamist terrorist groups, the emergence of Bangladeshi soil as safe haven and launch-pad for terrorists into other countries, principally, though not exclusively India, and deep collusion of state institutions and the democratic political leadership in these developments. Indeed, some had begun to speak of Bangladesh as ‘the next Afghanistan’. The 2005 bombings, however, proved to be a fatal over-reach by the Islamists, and set into motion events that have led to sweeping de-radicalisation. The principal perpetrators of that outrage, from the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) were quickly arrested, tried and convicted, with their top leaderships executed under the military backed interim Government that took charge after Begum Khalida Zia’s Presidential term ended on October 27, 2006. Processes of de-radicalization have enormously accelerated after Sheikh Hasina Wajed assumed power on January 6, 2009, following a landslide electoral victory. While the Islamist extremist infrastructure and cadre base remains substantially intact across much of the country, its leaderships have been ruined, even as Dhaka has initiated a number of measures to permanently exorcise Islamist extremism and terrorism from the country. Significantly, the Government has initiated the investigation and trial of War Criminals of the 1971 Liberation War, which would bring to justice the men, prominently including the top leadership of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), who collaborated with the Pakistan Army in the genocide of an estimated three million people. After decades of collusion with insurgent groups operating in India’s Northeast, moreover, Bangladesh shut down their camps and handed over large numbers of their leadership and cadres to Indian authorities, bringing to an end a long chapter of covert warfare against its neighbour.
While tremendous gains have certainly been recorded, residual dangers persist. Bangladesh continues to struggle against foreign terrorist groupings, principally from Pakistan, which are linked to domestic extremist formations. The surviving capacities of the JeI, the JMB and the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B), while dormant, remain significant. Pakistani linkages with, and covert support to, these groupings persists. Moreover, the corrosive nature of violent and disruptive street mobilization by political parties in Bangladesh has the potential to destroy the tentative stability that has been secured after decades of rising disorder. The gains in Bangladesh have been nothing less than dramatic, but if the Government loses focus, the risks of a backslide are ever-present.
Nepal is another success story, though risks of a spiral into disorders remain. Between 2001 and 2005, a raging Maoist insurgency had cost a total of 12,348 lives, with 4,896 killed in 2002 alone. In 2010, 37 fatalities were recorded, principally in fratricidal turf wars between armed groups, or in extortion-related violence. The country has moved from political crisis to political crisis, but the peace agreements of 2006 and after continue to exercise sufficient restraint over the principal actors, including the main armed groups. Regrettably, political deadlocks have blocked the process of Constitution drafting, and, indeed, every possible initiative of governance. It took more than seven months, and 17 rounds of elections, to elect a Prime Minister, Jhala Nath Khanal of the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), whose tenure was put under threat within days, as the formerly insurgent United Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (UCPN-M) demanded the accelerated implementation of its seven point agreement with the CPN-UML as a condition for continued support. Meanwhile, the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), established by Security Council Resolution 1740 on January 23, 2007, ceased operation on January 15, 2011. Before this date, the country’s three principal political formations, the UCPN-M, CPN-UML and the Nepali Congress (NC), had constituted a task force to define a political mechanism to complete the task of ‘Army integration’ – the integration of Maoist armed cadre with the Nepal Army. With a multiplicity of armed groupings, most prominently including the UCPN-M, retaining, and in some cases consolidating or augmenting, their capacities for violence over the past years of uncertain peace, the unrelenting chain of political crises in the country remain fraught with constant danger of a return to violence.
The tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has seen little of armed disturbance since its expulsion of Indian insurgent groups from its soil in 2003. Though some ethnic difficulties remain unresolved, particularly the question of the Ngolops (ethnic Nepalese minority), the incipient trends towards militant mobilisation that were visible in the early 2000s appear to have been neutralised.
India is another of the qualified success stories of South Asia, with total terrorism and insurgency related fatalities collapsing from a peak of 5,839 in 2001, to 1,902 in 2010. Indeed, the two principal movements drivers of violence in the country – the Pakistan-backed Islamist extremist insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and the multiplicity of ethnic extremist insurgencies in the country’s Northeast – appear to have succumbed substantially to sheer exhaustion and the transformation of their proximate and enabling environments. There has been a significant decline in Islamist terrorist incidents outside J&K since the peak of 2008, the year that also saw the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, accounting for 157 fatalities in this single incident. There were no major (resulting in three or more fatalities) Islamist terrorist attacks outside J&K in 2009, though 2010 recorded at least two such attacks, including the German Bakery bombing at Pune, which killed 17.
Total fatalities in J&K have fallen from their peak of 4,507 in 2001 to 375 in 2010, though another 111 persons were killed in street violence, principally in Police firing, in an orchestrated campaign of militant-backed stone pelting that escalated between June and October 2010. Indeed, the success of the stone-pelting campaigns in 2010 and the paralysis they inflicted across the Kashmir Valley have provoked anxieties that the events of Tunisia and Egypt could be replicated in this insurgency-riven region in the summer of 2011. This is far from likely. For one thing, despite the utter confusion of state responses to the stone pelting campaigns of 2010, the reality is that institutional strengths and the democratic constituency in J&K are far greater than anything that could be imagined under repressive Arab despotisms. Moreover, the insurrections of Egypt and Tunisia will find little resonance in J&K for the simple reason that, despite their slogan of ‘azadi’ (freedom), the reality is that the separatists are fighting against a democracy to establish a theocratic dictatorship, at the behest of a rogue state with a hideous record, both of rights violations and of failure to adhere to the very theocratic vision it has instrumentalised and exploited throughout its existence. The principal difficulty in J&K remains a succession of spiritless Governments in Srinagar and New Delhi that have sought to desperately woo the most extreme separatist elements in the Valley, rather than to strengthen and empower the democratic constituency to effectively counter the perverse logic of the Pakistan-backed separatists.
In India’s chronically troubled Northeast, fatalities fell from 1,051 in 2008, to 852 in 2009, and further to 322 in 2010. Manipur and Assam, still the worst affected State in the Northeast, registered the most significant drops, from 416 and 391, respectively, in 2009, to 138 and 158 in 2010.
It is in the Maoist insurgency that the most dramatic escalation of the recent past has been recorded, and it is in theatres of Maoist violence that the most visible indices of the state’s confusion and incompetence are visible. February 2011 saw a nine-day crisis in Odisha, after the abduction of the District Collector of Malkangiri and a Junior Engineer, with the State Government simply conceding all Maoist demands to secure their release, exemplifying the wider infirmity and incoherence of responses across much of the Maoist afflicted belt – with the notable exception of Andhra Pradesh. Naxalite (Maoist)-related fatalities, at 1,180 in 2010, now significantly outstrip the combined total of all other terrorist and insurgent movements in the country. Divergent assessments of the intensity of Maoist activities have been provided by official sources from time to time. What is evident on the facts, however, is that the Maoists have not been pushed out of any of the areas where they had established their disruptive dominance prior to the launch of the Centre’s “massive and coordinated operations” in late 2009 (abruptly suspended after the Maoist ambuscade at Chintalnad in Chhattisgarh on April 6, 2010, in which 76 security personnel were slaughtered), and there is reason to believe that they have substantially expanded their areas of subversion. Unsurprisingly, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram conceded, on February 1, 2011, that “The Communist Party of India-Maoist remains a powerful and determined adversary.”
The broadly positive trends in India – with the exception of Maoist violence – do not, however, provide an accurate index to the quality of the State’s responses. Indeed, in all spheres, it is a range of complex extraneous factors that has led to dramatic improvements, where these have been registered.
Pakistan remains the core of instability and terror in South Asia and, indeed, well beyond. Total fatalities, however, dropped from the unnatural peak of 11,585 in 2009, to 7,435 in 2010, but were still higher than any preceding year, including 2008, when the figure stood at 6,715 [the figures are likely to be gross underestimates, since reportage from areas of conflict is poor, as authorities deny access to reporters, international observers and other independent institutions]. Significantly, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) accounts for the overwhelming proportion of the dramatic drop in fatalities and violence, essentially indicating active disengagement between the SFs and extremists in this Province, as the total killed declined from 5,497 in 2009 to 1,202 in 2010. US State Department correspondence exposed by Wikileaks described operations in KP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as “ham handed military tactics, which included indiscriminate artillery bombardment” and “blind artillery and F-16 bombardments” which had displaced millions of innocent civilians from their target areas. These ‘blind operations’ appear to have been scaled back in KP and FATA through 2010. Terrorism-related fatalities also fell in Punjab, from 441 to 316 over the same period. However, FATA saw 5,408 killed in 2010, as against 5,304 in 2009; in Balochistan, fatalities rose from 277 to 347; while Sindh saw an increase from 66 to 162.
There is increasing evidence of deepening radicalisation in Pakistan, most dramatically exemplified by the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who was murdered by his own security guard, with no reaction from others in his security detail, because of his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. There is substantial cumulative evidence of Pakistan’s unwillingness to act against terrorist formations operating from its soil into Afghanistan and India, and the international pretence on this has been blown away by the Wikileaks disclosures, where Pakistani duplicity is explicitly and repeatedly emphasised. Unsurprisingly, US-Pakistan relations continue to deteriorate, though the Obama Administration remains impotently trapped in a relationship described as ‘co-dependent’. This can only worsen with the continuing farce of the US AfPak policy, and the war of imminent flight the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is seen to be fighting in Afghanistan. Islamabad remains unwilling to act consistently against a wide spectrum of Islamist terrorists and extremists – with the exception of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and factions that operate within the country – even as the stranglehold of radicalism strengthens over the country’s institutions and chokes off the most incipient signs of reform. A significant proportion of foreign aid continues to be diverted to the extremist constituency in the country, even as this constituency continues to enjoy unfettered access to a wide range of independent financial sources. In December 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote, somewhat coyly, that “some ISI officials… continue to maintain ties with a wide array of extremist organisations, in particular the Taliban, LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) and other extremist organizations.” The persistent ambivalence about the role of state institutions in promoting terrorism sourced from Pakistan is now no longer sustainable, even as the country faces an imminent ‘economic catastrophe’. Regrettably, the world, and the US in particular, is yet to respond unambiguously to this rogue state’s continuing adventurism.
The institutional apparatus of South Asian states remains infinitely stronger than that of the Arab world, even in countries that have been systematically undermining, if not dismantling it, over decades. Capacity deficits in security and governance, nevertheless, remain endemic across much of the region, and the potential for conflict continues to augment. The realization of such potential, however, is integrally linked to the quality of governance in each constituent state, and even the apparently worst of these can abruptly be turned around under determined leadership. This, then, is the obvious and immediate lesson of the present South Asian experience – as of much of history: where states demonstrate a modicum of wisdom and restraint, nations flourish; where states and national leaderships are undermined by corruption, opportunism, weakness, or even the mere absence of sagacity, nations suffer, decline, and sometimes perish.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management