In South Asia, is there a need to focus more on “Conflict Expansion” as a distinct field of enquiry, besides the traditional emphasis on Conflict Resolution, Conflict Prevention, Conflict Management and Conflict Transformation?
There is clear evidence in South Asia on conflicts in certain geographic boundaries expanding and assuming new forms. In certain cases, conflicts have been addressed successfully, while in others the State pretends to have resolved it. In certain other cases, conflicts have intensified or resumed. In other words, in certain cases conflicts have transformed.
This brief looks at “conflict expansion” as a phenomenon in South Asia and attempts to find out the nature of expansion and the reasons behind the same.
Conflict Expansion: Beyond Geography, Demography and Ideology
The objective of this brief is not to look at new conflicts in different theatres of South Asia. Rather, it aims to map emergence of new conflicts within the same geographic boundary where there exists a predominant conflict for a long time.
For example, in Balochistan, during the last five decades, there have been a series of nationalist insurgencies against the State led by various Baloch militant groups cutting across different generations. The “Baloch Conflict” primarily revolved around three sets of actors – State, Baloch nationalists and the Baloch militant groups. The “armed” Baloch conflict revolved exclusively between the security forces of the State led by the military and para-military, and the Baloch militant groups. One was the perpetrator and the other was the target; there were collateral damages – primarily belonging to the civil society.
However, during the recent months, one could see an expansion to the above conflict theatre in Balochistan, primarily in the form of sectarian. There have been a series of sectarian attacks in Balochistan, targeting the Shia Hazara community in the province. Though most of attacks on the Shia Hazara community were concentrated in Quetta town, there have been attacks outside as well. During the recent weeks, there have been attacks on the Christian community as well.
The above attack on the Shia Hazara community is not a part of the larger “Baloch Conflict” between the State and the Baloch militant groups. Neither of them have been the perpetrators of this new expansion, nor they have been the targets. The Shia Hazaras have become the target, while the Sectarian militants with their bases in Punjab have become the perpetrators. Clearly, there is a conflict expansion in Balochistan.
Similarly, one could trace a conflict expansion in Punjab and Sindh as well in Pakistan. Since independence, there has been a sectarian conflict between the Shias and the Sunnis, primarily led by the Sunni militant groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) during the 1980s and 1990s. Besides the Shias in Punjab and Sindh, the Ahmediya and the Christian communities were also targeted by the Sunni militant groups.
During the last few years, one could see an expansion to the above sectarian conflict in the two provinces. The believers of Sufi Islam within the Sunni community have also become the target of the Sunni militant groups. The attack on Sufi shrines such as Data Darbar in Lahore (2010), Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine (2010) in Karachi, Sakhi Sarwars Shrine in Dera Ghazi Khan (2011), and Lal Shabaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan (2017) were some of the prominent attacks on Sufi shrines in the recent years in Pakistan. Besides the above attacks in Sindh and Punjab, numerous other Sufi shrines in Balochistan and Khyber Paktunkwa have also been targeted.
In Afghanistan, there have been a series of conflicts during the last four decades since December 1978. There has been a huge reversal in terms of the target, supporters and perpetrators. While the US and Pakistan along with the Mujahideen targeted the Soviet forces in the 1980s, there was a civil war within Afghanistan during the 1990s. Following 9/11 and the US invasion in Afghanistan, the primary actors of the conflict were the Taliban and al Qaeda vs the Afghan forces and international coalition led by the US.
Since 2001-02, the primary actors of the conflict in Afghanistan have been the ISAF, Afghan security forces, Taliban and al Qaeda affiliates, with the Afghan civil society becoming a huge collateral. Today, there is a new expansion within Afghanistan. The ISIS is a new actor, targeting the Shia community in Afghanistan and also the State actors. During the recent months, there have been a series of high profile sectarian attacks in Afghanistan. Clearly, there is a new expansion in the Afghan conflict.
In J&K, the “Kashmir Conflict” during the late 1980s was primarily located in the Valley, though it got expanded in the 1990s into a few districts in Jammu region as well – especially Rajouri, Poonch, Doda and Kishtwar. Though the primary actors of the conflict included the State, Separatists and the militants (from Pakistan and within), later it got expanded to target the Pandit community in Valley during the 1990s.
During the recent years, there has been another expansion to the conflict in J&K – between the two regions – Jammu and Kashmir Valley. Some of the recent crises in J&K have a “regional” dimension, expanding from the original ethnic dimension based in Kashmir Valley.
In Ladakh, there were also fissures between the Buddhist and Shia communities, though fortunately, it did not expand into a conflict – political or otherwise. There have been differences between the two communities in Ladakh, but the region has managed to address the same.
The recent issue of rape and murder of a girl child in Kathua has the potential to create a new faultline in the Jammu region, if it is not nipped in the bud. Perhaps, the polarised debate in Jammu over the issue highlights an already existing divide between the communities in the region. The actors of the above conflicts (regional between Jammu and Kashmir Valley, Ladakh) and the current unrest in Jammu have less to do with the original actors of the Kashmir conflict.
In Sri Lanka, since the 1980s, the primary conflict was between three actors – the State, Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists and the Tamil militants primarily led by the LTTE. The Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led by V Prabhakaran ensured that the other Tamil militant groups and even the moderate Tamil leadership was wiped off. During the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the “Sri Lankan Conflict” was fought primarily between the LTTE and the Security forces belonging to the State, with the civil society on both sides (Tamil and Sinhalese) becoming collateral damage.
When the war came to end in Sri Lanka with the collapse of LTTE following the killing of its leader – Prabhakaran in 2009, there was a predominant expectation that the conflict had come to an end. However, during the recent months, there has been a new conflict emerging targeting the Sri Lankan Muslims. While the Sri Lankan Tamil conflict was primarily located in the northern and northeastern region of Sri Lanka, the new violence against the Muslims spread from Kandy to the south. The actors of the new conflict are from outside those of the Sri Lankan Tamil conflict. Radical groups and a small section of the clergy within the Sinhalese community have become the primary perpetrator, while the Muslims cutting across different regions within Sri Lanka have become the primary target.
Why do Conflicts Expand?
While one could map the conflict expansion in terms of geography, demography and ideology, it is also imperative to trace the causes behind the expansion. Why do conflicts expand? Why do they take new forms within the same geography?
Earlier, in this column, an attempt was made to find answers to the question: why conflicts in South Asia remain protracted and do not end? In terms of answers, one could find numerous similarities behind the above question, and the present one.
Conflicts if extended over a period of time create their own dynamics and groups. Both the State and the militants attempt to find means to bring down the other, and in the process use different groups/section, which in the long run become an independent actor. The sectarian militants in Pakistan is an example of this phenomenon.
Second, the conflicts tend to divide the civil society and force the people to take sides – politically or emotionally or at times both. Reason becomes the first casualty in the process, followed by the social code that every society takes pride in. For example the Pashtunwali across the Durand Line and the Kashmiriyat in J&K.
Democratic politics and the search for votes result in political parties pursing an exclusionary agenda in order to secure what they consider as their “own constituency” at the cost of those who will not vote for them in any case. One could see this trend across South Asia, from Pakistan to Sri Lanka cutting across different conflict societies. The political parties, instead of becoming the bridge between the divided societies lead to further polarising the existing fault line.
Finally, the absence of charismatic leadership – both at the national and regional levels, leads to narrow politics within the conflict zones.