Report on October 7 Seminar, Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge

On October 7 2010, The Democracy Forum, in collaboration with the Centre for South Asian Studies, held a seminar atCorpus ChristiCollege,Cambridgeon the topic of ‘Political violence and terror inSouth Asia’. The chief organiser was Professor Sir Christopher Bayly, Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History atCorpus ChristiCollege,Cambridge, who has published widely on south Asian history, culture and politics. The speakers, academics from both CambridgeandOxford, were experts in the field of south Asian politics, and they spoke on a range of subjects relating to violence as a political tool and a means of negotiation.

After a brief introductory welcome by Dr Shruti Kapila of Corpus Christi and Dr Faisal Devji of St Antony’s College, Oxford, the first speaker, Dr Robert Johnson (All Soul’s College, Oxford), opened the seminar with a comparative study of Afghan negotiations with their British and Soviet adversaries between 1839 and 1989. As well as providing a comprehensive historical background to the Afghan situation at this time, Dr Johnson focussed on very current key ideas, such as the willingness of governments, over time, to negotiate with terrorists, the power of market forces over military ones, and the notion that military intervention in failing states is no guarantee of eventual peace or democracy – indeed, he suggested, mediators such as the UN could eventually become enemies of those they seek to help, and international mediation often seems to lead to dictatorship as the West wants to ‘deal with one person’ rather than many. Dr Johnson also spoke of violence as a form of communication and negotiation, and of the dilemma faced by ISAF in its capacity as a security force unable to become politically involved. Questions from the floor aroused some vigorous debate, leading Dr Johnson to end on a somewhat ambivalent note, warning that the current path to centralisation in Kabul could be a ‘recipe for disaster’ but also adding that, by breaking the cycle of patronage, corruption and lack of accountability, building trust (through, for example, gradual withdrawal of Western forces) and giving more power to people at local level, a solution might be reached.

Sunil Purushotham of St Catherine’s College,Cambridgewas up next with a paper entitled ‘State ofViolence: Telengana, 1948-1951’, in which he discussed the role of Telengana as ‘the birthplace of Indian Maosim’. The history of Telengana was, he said, one of armed struggle against injustice but, he claimed, the anti-state flavour of the insurgency led to lack of governance rather than offering viable alternative forms of government. Mr Purushotham spoke of the pan-tribal support for the Maoist revolution in India that still exists today; of the rationale behind both insurgent and counterinsurgent violence; of the rehabilitation camps designed to inculcate a ‘spirit of cooperation’ but whose real purpose was security; of South Asia as ‘the global epicentre of counterinsurgency’; and how the blurring of the lines between state and non-state violence has characterised the post-colonial history of the south-east Asian region. He also drew interesting distinctions between the ‘criminal’ and ‘developmental’ nature of violence, the latter of which is, he said, intrinsic to creating passive political subjects.

The third speaker, Jonathan Kennedy ofPembrokeCollege,Cambridge, offered a comparative analysis of left-wing insurgency and counterinsurgency in independentIndia. He spoke of the three main waves of insurgency in the country following independence, and how the rise of Marxism inIndiacoincided with its decline in the rest of the world. He pointed to the initially peaceful methods of the CPI, which later turned to violence, and considered the development of left-wing insurgency at macro-, meso- and micro-levels, as well as examining the effect of Maoist insurgency on the Adavasis, the reasons behind the failure of insurgency outside the Telengana region, the Indian government’s ‘state-expanding’ counterinsurgency moves and the paradoxes behind it, and the CPI’s gradual participation in parliamentary politics. Mr Kennedy also addressed questions from the floor regarding the role of moderate views as they relate to Indian Maoism, ideological awareness among the rural classes, and the influence of the Indian Maoist movement on the rest of the world.

After a lunch break, Dr Sujit Sivasundaram of Gonville andCaiusCollege,Cambridgere-opened the seminar with his paper on cycles of violence and ideas of belonging in modernSri Lanka. He explored the concept of indigeneity and its place within the history of ideas, as well as the relationship between territory and the sense of national belonging, and how it relates toSri Lanka. In drawing distinctions between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, Dr Sivasundaram raised questions about who ‘owns’ Sri Lanka, examined the ‘three-pronged’ nature of indigeneity – linguistic, religious and ethnic – and considered the function of violence regarding indigeneity, as well as the constitutional reforms in Sri Lanka that have increased ethnic participation in the political process. He discussed the anti-Indian sentiment of the Senhalese, the notion of the Tamils as ‘outsiders’ and the importance of language in understanding the violent riots in Sri Lanks, as it has been used as a ‘test’ of belonging.Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, he concluded, reflects Indian partition, with the Senhalese Buddhists (‘the majority that feels like a minority’) worried whether the Tamils and the Indians (ie the ‘outsiders’) will unite against them. Questions from the floor inspired a brief discussion about the notion of diasporas participating in national politics, and the appropriation of war as a solution to separatist issues.

A short tea-break was followed by a contribution from anthropologist Dr Radhika Gupta (WolfsonCollege,Oxford), whose theme was ‘Lost in representation: an anthropological perspective on Kargil beyond the war’. She spoke of the Kargilis’ endorsement of political secularism, their fear of Indian state violence yet also their condemnation of separatist violence, and depicted Kargil as the only Muslim-dominated area ofKashmirwhere militancy has not taken root. Amid the increased militarisation of democratic societies, said Dr Gupta, there is a need for groups such as the Kargilis to constantly reassure the state of their loyalty, and she depicted Kargil as an ‘inadvertent critique of both extremist and state violence’. Comments from the floor revolved aroundPakistan’s attitude towards moderateKargil,Iran’s links toKashmir, and the difficulties faced by Indian Muslims as they try to embrace the Indian secular state.

Dr Faisal Devji was the final speaker, and his subject was the Mumbai attacks and the future of militancy. He outlined the targets of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, pointed to the ‘apolitical’ nature of terrorist attacks inIndiain recent times (ie violence as revenge rather than as a direct address to government) and emphasised the ‘non- or anti-political’ nature of the protests that followed the 2008 bombings. Dr Devji drew comparisons between Hindu militancy, which directly addresses both the state and its victims, and the more ‘delocalised’ nature of Muslim terrorist violence, as well as examining the geopolitical character of Muslim militancy inIndiaandPakistan. He spoke of the ‘two kinds of terrorism’ that are Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Indian Mujahideen, and of the Lashkar-e-Toiba ideology that ‘breaks down borders’ betweenIndiaandPakistan, causing a ‘collusion between enemies’. Dr Devji also warned against the use of international mediation to solve terrorist issues, saying that it can intensify conflict, and ended by addressing questions from the floor on the Mumbai attacks’ connection with the war in Afghanistan and current threats in Europe, and the possible ‘pact’ between India, the US and Israel.

A roundtable discussion rounded off the proceedings, with comments from the floor on the Western media’s view of terrorism in south-east Asia and the relationship betweenIndia andPakistan, and perceived justifications for state and social violence. Professor Sir Christopher Bayly then thanked everyone for attending, stressing that this seminar had been ‘an excellent beginning’, leading to the organisations involved developing an on-going relationship that would result in future seminars and discussion groups on related themes. It was, he said, the first time a seminar of this nature had been staged across the two ancient universities ofOxfordandCambridge, and he expressed his gratitude for the participation of The Democracy Forum, and their director, Mr Ajit Sat-Bhambra.

Drinks were then served for all those who had attended, followed by a three-course dinner for the speakers.


18 October, 2010