Introducing Political Conflicts in South Asia

Gerald H Peiris

GERRY PICSince 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.


Map MR My study is structured in the form of three parts. The first part consists of two chapters designed to provide an overview of violent political convulsions in South Asia, and an examination of their causal nexus. This part of the volume, while not attempting model construction or formulation of theoretical postulates (which, I believe, is often detrimental to the understanding of the realities of specific confrontational situations), draws upon conflict experiences of the different nation-states of the region in order to identify certain commonalities pertaining to issues such as the highly complex ‘poverty-conflict interaction’, the phenomenon of ‘youth unrest’ and its links with outbursts of collective violence, the process referred to as ‘criminalisation of politics’, ‘ethno-nationalist impediments to national consolidation’, and the ramified impact of ‘external interventions’ in internal conflicts of the region. The five chapters that constitute the second part of the study are ‘country profiles’, each intended to present a portrayal of the important types of ‘anti-state’ and ‘inter-group’ conflicts in the country to which it is devoted. These are not designed within the framework of a uniform structural format. Instead, in each of the chapters, I have focused on the conflict issues that are of special importance to the country concerned, while attempting to contextualise such issues in their wider spatial and temporal settings. The third part of the volume consists of four ‘case studies’ that are intended to serve as elaborations of some of the more significant conflict-related concerns dealt with in the ‘country profiles’.

It is the objective of contributing towards the filling of an existing lacuna that has provided the main impulse for my undertaking the attempt of producing a general work, covering the diverse but interrelated facets of violent political conflict in South Asia. The ‘lacuna’ I refer to could be explained as follows.  On account of the continuing vitality of ‘South Asian Conflict Studies’ as a field of research in the Social Sciences one often comes across several writings even on certain brief and parochial outbursts of collective violence that occur so frequently in the region. On the more destructive conflict situations such as those of Kashmir or the recently concluded secessionist insurrection in Sri Lanka or the rising tide of ‘Naxalite Revolt’ in India, there is, of course, a large volume of scholarly works. Despite this, however, efforts to place the information and interpretations presented in such insightful but disparate writings within the framework of a single ‘regional’ study have been few and far between. The more recent among scholarly works of the latter type is Stanley J. Tambiah’s Levelling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (University of California Press), published 16 years ago, which is largely confined in scope to rivalry and violent confrontation between certain ethnic groups in India and Sri Lanka. Somewhat more plentiful are the collections of essays on South Asia brought together under the sponsorship of institutions that focus on objectives such as state-level policy formulation, prevention and resolution of conflict, protection of human rights, or responding to the threat of terrorism. In addition, there are several works of global scope such as Ethnic Groups in Conflict authored by Donald L. Horowitz (1985), Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict edited by Michael E. Brown, et. al. (1997), Peace and Conflict Studies edited by Charles P. Webel & David P. Barash (2002), and Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy after Civil War edited by Donald Rothchild & Philip G. Roeder (2005) which, confined as they are to specific themes, have drawn on South Asian experiences. Thus, while not claiming any superiority or uniqueness for my efforts, I venture to suggest that my book is an attempt to cater to an existing need for a ‘general but intensively researched reader’ on a vitally significant aspect of contemporary politics. Since I have tried to incorporate into my study diverse and often mutually incongruous perspectives – most of the issues dealt with being replete with controversy – it is intended to facilitate an impartial entry into this highly complex field of study.

I am aware that multi-disciplinary course units on South Asia are found incorporated into the undergraduate and professional curricula of many universities. In the course of my career as a university teacher I have offered such courses at the universities of Western Australia, Maryland, Trondheim (Norway) and Bowdoin (Maine). This general scholarly interest on South Asia, I think, is attributable mainly to the fact that nearly one-fifth of mankind lives in this politically dynamic and turbulent region. Moreover, in the context of the close interactions that have continued to prevail between the countries of South Asia and those of the English-speaking ‘West’, gaining an in-depth understanding of political strife in the region constitutes an essential element of the background required for diplomatic services, humanitarian and ecclesiastical work, development and welfare oriented services, trade and commerce etc. In designing my book as a ‘general reader’ (but not a ‘course-text’) I have had in mind a readership generated by these circumstances.

Map MR1

Conducting an undergraduate course on South Asia was my first assignment in the Faculty of Arts at the ‘University of Ceylon’ (Peradeniya, Sri Lanka) when recruited to its staff in 1960. I continued to remain in this ‘speciality’ over many years thereafter, extending the experience so gained to my teaching assignments in other universities as Visiting Professor during spells of leave from Peradeniya. At Cambridge, while working on my doctoral dissertation (1962-65), I devoted as much time as I could to pursue this interest in the extraordinarily rich treasure trove on South Asia at the university library. When the ‘Centre for South Asian Studies’ (one of five specialised institutions for Asian Studies sponsored by the University Grants Commission of Britain in 1962) was established at Cambridge, with my own research supervisor, B. H. Farmer, as its Director, I had the opportunity of participating in its inspiring work well beyond its inaugural years. In later times, I have also had the privilege of collaborating with eminent scholars from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal in major research projects. Among the most beneficial of these interactions from the viewpoint of the present study were the ‘South Asia Dialogue’ (a series of conferences held in different countries of the region), and the parallel research project designed as an inquiry into the ‘Problems of Governance in South Asia’, both of which were coordinated by the ‘Centre for Policy Research’ at New Delhi in collaboration with institutions engaged in ‘conflict studies’ at Lahore, Dhaka, Kathmandu and Kandy. I was associated with this work over a greater part of the 1990s, contributing several conference papers, five chapters to a volume titled Problems of Governance in Sri Lanka (1993), and a chapter titled ‘Inter-Group Conflict and Problems of Governance’ to the concluding publication of the project ‒ Problems of Governance in South Asia (2000). Another of my invaluable learning experiences was through a study of ‘Political Conflict in South Asia’ sponsored by the ‘Clingendael Institute’ at The Hague, and directed by the ‘International Centre for Ethnic Studies’ at Kandy, with similarly designed studies being conducted simultaneously in West Africa and the Caribbean. I gained a great deal from the international conferences and workshops conducted in the course of this project, while writing a part of the final report (2000) and co-authoring a ‘country report’ published under the title of Managing Group Grievances and Internal Conflict: Sri Lanka (2003). For several years since the late 1990s I have also had peripheral association with the Delhi-based ‘Institute of Conflict Management’ which ranks among the most dynamic institutions of its kind in Asia, contributing two articles to its research journal and several short pieces to its South Asia Intelligence Review. My recent book – Twilight of the Tigers: Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka (2009) – has had a good readership and reviewer response internationally, the only adverse comment on it being the criticism by an eminent Indian scholar that it has a “statist paradigm”, whatever that means. In that book and in my present manuscript, I have not, when necessary, refrained from being sharply critical of government policies and operational modalities in relation to conflict situations, despite the impression I have gained through collaborative research of the type referred to above that almost any issue pertaining to the subject of ‘political conflict’ is replete with the type of dispute that generates intense hostility even at a personal plane.


Operation Balavegaya Troops in defence in Wanni Area Sri Lankan Army at war with the LTTE






Filed under communal relations, economic processes, historical interpretation, language policies, law of armed conflict, Left politics, military strategy, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world events & processes

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