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Prose & Politics

Waiting for the Barbarians

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The retreat of states and the politics of the future


Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present | Jakub Grygiel | Cambridge University Press | 2018
The Generation of Rage in Kashmir | David Devadas | Oxford University Press | 2018

TRAVEL 20 KM or so west of Narayanpur in Chhattisgarh, and you will find yourself in one of the last unsurveyed stretches of dense forests in Central India. It is a charming place with gurgling streams and cool air, things that residents of urban India never get. But beyond the idyllic setting is a deadly reality: the forests of Abhujmaad—or ‘the unknown’—are also home to Maoists who routinely blow up roads or any infrastructure that can allow the penetration of government in the area.

It is an ideal geographic setting for what Jakub Grygiel calls an ungoverned space. These are regions where the writ of governments does not extend and are often the haunt of people and groups opposed to the very idea of a state. Nomadic, loosely tied together by kinship (or a leader) and happy plundering settled territories, these groups were once consigned to history. By the 17th century, when modern states began dotting the map, these regions began shrinking. By the middle of the 20th century, there were virtually no such places left: all the space on maps had been claimed by nation-states.

This is the theme of Grygiel’s new book, Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2018). A state department official who was until recently a scholar at Johns Hopkins University, the author notes, ‘Since the early 1990s, many regions, vacated by the superpowers, became heavily destabilized, collapsing into a cycle of violence and turmoil. In Sub-Saharan and East Africa, as well as Southeastern Europe and Central Asia, states and their governments either disintegrated or lost their ability to impose order within their own territories.’

He highlights two reasons for the return of ungoverned spaces. ‘First, despite appearing on maps as clearly delimited entities, many modern states are frail and incapable of exerting control over their territories in several regions of the world. Second, new communications technologies are allowing the rapid organization of large groups outside of states’ purview.’

For anyone observing South Asia, India and Pakistan quickly come to mind. After gaining independence in 1947, the two new countries left untouched the colonial apparatus of governing far-flung tribal areas. In Nehru’s India, this lack of control was covered by an elaborate excuse that tribal people should be allowed to develop according to ‘their own genius’. This effectively kept these areas out of the purview of industrialisation and economic growth elsewhere.

The reality was that India did not have the administrative wherewithal to bring places such as Bastar, vast tracts of Assam, the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA)—as Arunachal Pradesh was known then—and other regions under effective control. India’s strategy evolved over time from efforts at centralised control—at times directly by the Ministry of External Affairs, as in the case of Nagaland—until ‘routine politics’ set in. This was followed by granting of statehood, local legislative assemblies and representation in Parliament. But over and above these normal features, a large swathe of territory in these areas is considered autonomous (with special governance features such as extensive freedoms from interference by state governments, as codified under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution).

So what causes the return of barbarism? Grygiel's answer is clear: The weakness and retreat of states. It is, however, an answer that many Indians, addled by ideological explanations for anarchy, will not find palatable

This effectively brings matters to square one: these areas remain ungoverned in Grygiel’s sense. On paper, local councils have extensive powers; in reality they lack the political and administrative experience to run the territory effectively. It is not surprising that these areas are fertile grounds for insurgency. To give an example, the region dominated by the Bodo people in Assam has extensive autonomy. But people who traverse National Highway 27 know that areas to its north—Chirang and Baksa districts— are dangerous places and encounters between security forces and insurgents are routine there. Autonomy has made these places less and not more governable.

The ideas set out in Return of the Barbarians can be usefully contrasted with what is probably the hardest region in India to govern: the Valley of Kashmir. The story of the chaos in that part of India has been elaborated in The Generation of Rage in Kashmir (Oxford University Press, 2018) by David Devadas.

By now, there exists extensive literature on the secessionist militancy in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Historical narratives and memoirs have in recent years been supplemented substantially with analytical studies by scholars. But few, if any, studies exist that look at individual motivations of various actors—ordinary citizens caught in the conflict, stone-pelting teenagers, officials and terrorists. Devadas, a former journalist, has written extensively on the subject. In In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir (2007), he looked at the historical roots of the problem and the situation as it existed in the late 1990s. In his new book, he brings the story up to date—to late 2017-early 2018. By 2018, the nature of militancy was vastly different from what was seen in the late 1990s. For one, the influence of foreign terrorists dispatched from Pakistan had gone down drastically. For another, it was local militants—a large number of them barely out of their teens—who had picked up guns. Finally, the geographic theatre, too, had moved: instead of jungles in the high ranges of Bandipore and Kupwara in the north, the southern districts are the new haunt of militants.

Devadas marks 2007 as the year when the gears shifted. By then it was clear that India had broken the back of foreign terrorists and it was the appropriate time to dismantle the apparatus of counter-insurgency that caused much hardship to the people of Kashmir. But nothing changed and the Union and state governments continued as before. By 2010, this was to bear bitter fruit. Not only were more local recruits joining militancy, but stone pelting became a new form of venting anger, . India’s security challenges now spanned an entire spectrum of threats: from sling-shots and stones in urban areas all the way to regular military operations in the northern and southeastern parts of J&K.

The problems in J&K are now far more extensive than they were in the 1990s. As much as 70 per cent of the population of the Valley is now (2017) estimated to be below 30 years of age. Educational infrastructure in the state has crumbled and governments are unable to do much. Underlying these challenges is a confused state of affairs whereby opinions range from acute dislike of India to utter confusion about the end goal of that elusive term, ‘aazadi’. In one chapter of his book, Devadas reports the results of a wide survey of youngsters he has carried out over time in Kashmir.

There is no clear pattern favouring either a merger with Pakistan or a separate state. It is fascinating to note the instability of preferences among different generations of Kashmiris— a subject to which Devadas devotes some attention—before and since insurgency broke out. But some trends are clear: a far greater liking for orthodox interpretations of Islam and generalised anomic violence. One quibble with this book is that it doesn’t report the survey methodology—its design parameters, selection of questions, choice of sample and the time period over which questions were asked. If these had been added as an appendix, the information would have been much more useful.

So what causes the return of barbarism? Grygiel’s answer— both from his vantage as a seeker of answers from ancient history and a contemporary observer of events taking place in the Middle East and elsewhere—is clear: the weakness and retreat of states. It is, however, an answer that many Indians—addled by ideological explanations for anarchy—will not find palatable. They wish the state to go away and leave people in a pristine Ruritania where kindness and goodwill prevail. That is a dangerous illusion that people constantly need to be disabused of.

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