Political Conflict in South Asia: An Incisive Overview

18 February 2014 (2)K. M . de Silva reviewing Gerald H. Peiris: Political Conflict in South AsiaUniversity of Peradeniya Press, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2013, pp. i-vi; 1-251

Professor G. H. Peiris has grappled with several difficult themes and in working the essence of these, as he saw them into an outstanding monograph, he has made an important contribution to scholarship.  In writing on political conflict in South Asia he has produced, a study of a political system that has evolved mostly under British rule from the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century when the transfer of power from the British to indigenous hands took place.  Naturally this monograph includes a survey of territories that formed what was called the Raj or the British Raj: there are also parts of the British empire located in South Asia, like Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and other even smaller states such as the Maldives that were not part of the Raj, but were linked to formally or informally.  There were other territories close to the Raj, for example, the Kingdom of Nepal (now the Republic of Nepal).  The last time a Sri Lankan, indeed a South Asian, scholar attempted a survey of a range of territories in South Asia as varied as those in Professor Peiris’s monograph was the late Stanley J. Tambiah with his Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia, published by the University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles in 1996.

political conflict bookProfessor Peiris’s volume, reviewed here, provides us with a fresh look at these ethnonationalist conflicts and collective violence in South Asia, and more importantly, in the context of the processes of state-building in the post-colonial era; and state construction under pressure as in India and Pakistan and in Bangladesh.  He has studied several collections of data on these states that few other scholars, South Asian or European or American have handled on this scale and with the same competence.  In the process of dealing with this data and making them understandable to readers he provides sets of useful and illuminating tables; and in dealing with political conflicts that have been part of the history of South Asia, under colonial rule and independent of colonial rule, he also provides the reader with several maps and sketch maps not normally provided by scholars dealing with such a wide collection of states.  Indeed these sketch maps by themselves make his monograph most useful to readers—whether they be undergraduates, post-graduates or general readers—who will find these sketch maps very useful to their own efforts at understanding the issues and themes Professor Peiris deals with in his monograph.  Indeed these sketch maps on their own make this monograph a notable contribution to scholarship. One seldom comes across a collection of illustrations designed to aid the understanding of such a complex set of problems as those provided by Professor Peiris.

In reading Professor Peiris’s monograph, it strikes one that we seldom comes across a discussion of themes and issues handled with the same clarity that he has achieved in this monograph.  Certainly one seldom comes across a study of controversial issues such as the Kashmiri problem done with the same skill and understanding that he provides.  A striking point about his analysis of the Kashmir issue is that we will not come across a volume or a set of essays by Indian or South Asian—in particular—scholars of the subject that can match the works of Alastair Lamb, especially the latter’s outstanding Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy, 1846-1990, Karachi, Oxford University Press, 1996.  The best we have is Prem Chandra Jha’s attempt at a response to Lamb in his Kashmir 1947: Rival Versions of History, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1996, but published in a previous edition at the same time as Lamb.

Briefly, Professor Peiris’s chapters, and pages on the Kashmir Dispute, are among the most illuminating available to students of the subject.  Indeed his monograph reviewed here is worth the money just for his critical commentaries on the Kashmir dispute alone.

There is much more.  For example his commentaries on Sri Lanka’s problems go beyond the conventional reviews of the conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which have been attempted by large number of scholars, Sri Lankan, Indian and Western.  Professor Peiris provides a study of the problems that the Sri Lankan state has had with the Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP) which was not the prolonged conflict as it was between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state.  Indeed we have had few analyses of the struggle between the Sri Lankan state and the JVP as perceptive as Professor Pieris’s certainly not as many as we have had on the conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE.  Professor Peiris provides insights into the struggle between the Sri Lankan state and the JVP that have not been provided by other scholars who have written on the JVP.  There were two episodes of conflict between the state and the JVP—in the 1970s and the late 1980s—and both have been analysed in fair detail by Sri Lankan writers. We need to remember that the first direct attack on the Sri Lankan state by youthful insurgents was by the JVP and not the LTTE.

Professor Peiris focuses on aspects of the island’s demography as crucially a important factor in the emergence of these youthful conflicts with the state, both the LTTE and the JVP and yet there a fewer studies of this demographic factor in studies of the conflict with the LTTE.  Most studies of those violent responses have concentrated on ideological factors.  In drawing attention to the demographic factor, Professor Peiris provides fresh insights to the study and understanding of the violence of the response that some states confront in dealing with youthful groups.  What he seems to tell us is that Sri Lanka faced its version of the Arab Spring some thirty years earlier—if not earlier.

It took sixteen years or so before Professor Peiris came on to look at much the same problem as Professor S. J. Tambiah did in 1996.  I am hoping that it will not be a long as sixteen years before someone provides a successor to Professor Peiris’s monograph, unless, of course, he writes a revised edition.

K. M. de Silva

Former Professor of Sri Lanka History

University of Peradeniya/University of Ceylon (1969-1995)

Director and Executive Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies

Kandy/Colombo, Sri Lanka 


GERRY PICAuthor:  G. H. Peiris is ‘Professor Emeritus’ of the University of Peradeniya. His career as a university teacher began in 1960 soon after he obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) from the University of Ceylon. He was awarded a doctoral degree by the Cambridge University, U.K., in 1965. From 1981 up to the time of his retirement in 2003 he was Professor of Geography at Peradeniya. He has held visiting professorial appointments in Australia, Canada, Norway and the United States, and has undertaken sponsored study tours in the Philippines and the United States. His consultancy assignments include those conducted for the ILO, WHO and UNICEF. He has collaborated with scholars from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Syria, Netherlands and the United States in research projects. His research writings pertain to economic and social change, land reform, irrigated agriculture, university education and ethnic conflict. His recent publications include Sri Lanka: Challenges of the New Millennium (2006); Twilight of the Tigers: Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka (2010); and .k÷rl isysjgk( B<dï wr.,fha wjika woshr (a Sinhala treatise on the final stages of secessionist war in Sri Lanka, 2010).

Book: Since the termination of European dominance over South Asia in the mid-20th century people living in most parts of the region have been plagued by various types of violent political conflict ‒ some, excruciatingly prolonged and devastating in impact – most of which have roots in the colonial legacy. These range from international military confrontations and protracted civil wars to intermittent and localised riots involving rival groups with distinctive primordial or associational identities. Documentary sources of detailed information (academic writings, official records and trails of media reports etc.) on such turbulences, though available in abundance, are widely scattered, with certain sources remaining confined to archival depositories serving exclusive institutional needs. The present study is the product of an attempt, sustained over many years, to gather, systematise, and synthesise the information extracted from these sources, adopting, where appropriate, a comparative approach, and highlighting thematic concerns of salience to an understanding of the successes and failures of the South Asian countries in their post-colonial nation-building efforts.


ALSO SEE GH Peiris: “The Responsibility To Protect and External Interventions in The Sri Lankan Conflict,” https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-responsibility-to-protect-and-external-interventions-in-the-sri-lankan-conflict/

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