The battle for the Asian state

An Indian development economist recently asked me my opinion on “emerging trends” in India-Pakistan-China relations.  This person then proceeded to talk about de facto Chinese administrative expansion into small parts of northeast India, and Pakistan’s relentless push in Kashmir.  What?  Emerging?  These “trends” have been going on for a number of decades, and to talk of a joint Chinese-Pakistani assault on Indian territory not only starts to sound a bit Indo-centro-paranoid, but also, I think, misses a key trend that really should catch our eye in the 21st century – namely, the struggle of the state to survive and adapt to new internal challenges.

All three of these great Asian powers are finding it increasingly difficult not to jockey for international clout or territory, but just to keep a firm grip on the territory that is nominally theirs already. This reorientation takes the interesting form of armies that have typically been outward-looking being tasked with increasingly inward-looking security work – and begging a whole host of questions from the state’s legitimacy to govern without the classic Weberian monopoly on the use of violence, to basic questions of how the state defines who “the Enemy” is when it is its own citizenry.

Pakistan is the most notorious case now, of course, as the legendarily professional and historically India-focused national army turns on its own territory to fight the spread of the Taleban in the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan. Now ethnic Baloch are being disappeared by the Frontier Corps in a clandestine campaign.  Less well known in the western world is India’s increasingly intense struggle to wrest control of the so-called Maoist “Red Corridor” from the Naxalites, so named for a peasant uprising in the West Bengal town of Naxabari in 1967. The Naxal movement first gathered steam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was largely stamped out by the Indian government in the following decades. The opening of the Indian economy, however, and the resulting effects of globalization – everything from large-scale development projects like dams and special economic zones that displace marginalized groups to the rapid development of farmland and forests on which tribal and poor people depend – have seen it roar back to life. While historically consisting of an urban intelligencia and a rural peasant base of support, the Naxals and their front organizations today are increasingly finding themselves struggling to remain hidden in urban areas – a trend attested to by the recent arrest of Kobad Ghandy, the South Western Regional Bureau (SWRB) coordinator for the premiere Naxal group, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), or CPI-M, formed in 2004 through the merger of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War and the Maoist Communist Centre of India. Ghandy had organized Naxal activity in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra, and was caught living in Delhi on 20 September, 2009.

Nonetheless, today Naxals are present in 16 of India’s 28 states (or 170 of 602 districts), primarily finding purchase in the remote and less developed forested belts running generally from the Nepali border in the north to the inland mountains of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south. They draw largely on marginalized tribal people for their recruits and logistical support, where they are often seen as the only force standing up for the rights of the underclass. While the various Naxal groups disagree on the overarching strategy for eventual capture of the Indian state, most groups have relied upon recruits from the forest areas, with the intention of then spreading to rural agricultural areas, small towns, and, in the final stage, large cities. As such, it is often seen as a classic case of a rural insurgency, even if its primary recruits are often forest-dwellers rather than agricultural peasants.

There has been a great debate in India over just how to deal with the Naxals.  Do you (as the progressives suggest) push a strategy of rural development so that Naxals lose their peasant support base?  Or do you adopt a sort of Guilliani-type “mano dura” with heavy police repression and possibly the domestic use of the military against the country’s own citizenry?  Some have even suggested a bombing campaign of the forest areas by the Indian Air Force, to the outrage of most people of conscience (or just those who remember how well air strikes have traditionally fared against entrenched insurgencies in places like Vietnam or the Afghanistan/Pakistan border).

Add to this trend the handful of secessionist movements in Northeast India; the festering anger of Muslims, Christians and other minority communities marginalized in an increasingly Hindu-nationalist political atmosphere; and a crescendo of terrorist activity that is often – though not often enough for the Indian government’s liking – linked to foreign interlopers, and you have a true national identity crisis.

While China’s army has been outwardly-oriented to a limited extent since the establishment of the PRC (pushing into Tibet, fighting border wars with Burma, India, Vietnam), China has never pretended to embrace democracy like India, nor even flirted with it sporadically and schizophrenically like Pakistan.  It has therefore never pretended to make any social contract with its citizens (even if it claims to represent them), and has often used its army to repress domestically at will, solidifying its “legitimacy” and image of national harmony.  But there too, signs of strain have been appearing, whether in the Uighur unrest, the rural farmers revolts, continuing American arms sales to Taiwan (still part of China, in the eyes of the establishment), or even the siding of urban internet users with Google and against the official Chinese position in the recent political sparring around human rights campaigners’ email privacy and web censorship.

Across the board, then, transnationally-flavored movements – whether religious, ideological, or economic – continue to challenge the Asian state.  Far from being inherently invidious, many of these challenges could push these states in the direction of increasing accountability, more broad-based development initiatives, and greater respect for human rights.  How the political establishments will choose to respond will make all the difference in the years to come.


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