A Review Article
Sumantra Bose, Contested Lands, HarperCollins Publishers India, Delhi, 2007, price not stated, pp vi + 329, ISBN 978-81-7223-608-3.
Successive waves of decolonisation since World War II created a global mosaic of nation states, putting in place a power configuration that seemed immutable. For the authors of the nationalist revival in the Third World, their mission was nothing less than predestined. Nations that had long been denied their place in the sun despite all compelling claims derived from long and hoary histories, were finally coming into their own. There was no limit to the potential for human betterment they embodied.
It did not take long for the optimism to be dispelled, as these nations faced up to the fractures bequeathed by colonialism. Where the new nations were amenable to a coherent form of ethnic characterisation and mobilisation, they suffered these fractures along other fault-lines. But in general, the majority of such fissures emanated from the competing claims of rival sections of the national elite and in turn, acquired the colours of ethnic rivalry.
Fractured national polities being pervasive, one could ask what criteria Sumantra Bose has used in his choice of six particular countries or regions for attention: Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Jammu and Kashmir, Bosnia, and Israel/Palestine. Why not Lebanon, Iraq, Congo, the Ogaden, Kenya, or Afghanisan too? Manageability may have been a criterion. To consider all the countries and regions of the world where fissiparous tendencies are at work, often with brutal implications for human security and welfare, would be to open up a canvas that could not possibly be dealt with in one scholar’s lifetime. But then, the criteria used are as good or bad as the generalisations they yield. Does Bose manage on the basis of these five case studies of divided lands, to come up with general insights that could be applied elsewhere?
Bose’s more general conclusions, fortunately, are stated with relative clarity right up front. The origins of “divided lands” he argues, are in “rival states or mobilized ethnonational groups (claiming) sovereign power over the same territory”. It is a situation that cannot possibly be sustained, since in “an era defined by globalization and its subphenomenon, regional integration and cooperation, it is simply impossible for communities to live in hermetic segregation from one another in ethnonational ghettos”. In addressing the modalities of conflict resolution, Bose permits himself two broad generalisations: that the transition from war to peace is frequently accomplished only through “third-party engagement”, and that a strategy of “incrementalism” or “step-by-step progress” is often less likely to produce durable results than “embarking on a fast track to a comprehensive settlement”.
Both formulations merit serious attention. When “third-party engagement” is called for, it is obviously relevant to inquire into the motivations that the third-party might import into its mediation effort. In all the cases that Bose has studied, there is no clear success involving a third-party mediator. Unfortunately, in a world where might speaks more eloquently than principle, the most likely mediators in any conflict would be neighbouring powers, former colonial masters, or the regnant world hyper-power, the U.S., which is in the famous words of a former top diplomat of the country, the world’s “indispensable nation”. None of these are likely to enter the fray with an unbiased attitude or an even-handed approach.
Bose fails to recognise this and though his case studies bear testimony to several instances of third-party engagement going awry, he remains convinced of its ultimate efficacy and necessity of a mediator to compose the fissures of divided lands. In relation to the U.S. record in the Israel-Palestine peace process, he manages to summon up the stricture that it failed to meet the standard of even-handedness. This must seem a rather tepid characterisation of what has seemed to most other observers, a record of gross partisanship.
All the contested lands that Bose deals with, emerged as sovereign political entities, or part sovereign entities in the years following World War II. The retreat of colonialism in these territories seemed in many instances, to resemble a disorderly cut and run. But in truth, there were calculated efforts made to effect a transfer of power that would maintain an unchanged pecking order in world councils. Orderly transfers of power were rare. In most instances, the colonial masters left deep and bitter animosities that smouldered for long, often necessitating the intervention of the U.S. to either roll back the tide of nationalist radicalism or enforce a degree of compliance with the imperial diktat.
Third party involvement in short, is often where the problem originated. Could then, the solution lie in the same? Can imperial power be acknowledged, even potentially, as a neutral arbiter? This question in turn leads to a broader one: is the organised might of a State, especially an external power, ever used in a neutral fashion?
These questions are never really addressed in Bose’s volume, which concludes with the rather rosy prognosis that “the United States holds unique leverage and influence, globally and in particular world regions, that equip it to play the role of a constructive third party with decisive results”. If played well, “such a role can significantly enhance American interests and American prestige across the world”.
How does this square up with the actual record of interventions by the U.S. in the past? Consider Cyprus, one of Bose’s case studies of divided lands. In the narration of this book, Cyprus was a land torn between two ethnic nationalities: the majority Greeks who believed the nation’s historic destiny lay in enosis or unification with Greece, and the Turks whose formula was for taksim, or a clean break with the Greek majority and a restoration of historic bonds with mainland Turkey. These fissures deepened through Cyprus’ long and arduous struggle for freedom from colonialism, when the British masters found in the island’s Turkish population an all too willing accessory in the brutal repression of Cypriot nationalists. The constitutional formula the island-nation adopted at independence was a model of complex and multi-tiered power-sharing, a system of governance that has lately come to be theorised and extensively studied under the rubric of “consociationalism”. Yet the island continued to be riven by ethnic rivalries and antagonistic visions of its future.
In 1974, the right-wing military junta in power in Greece, instigated revanchist Greek nationalists in Cyprus to overthrew the democratically elected President, Archbishop Makarios. Suspecting that the next step would be the fulfilment of the Greek Cypriot stratagem of enosis, Turkey which was then nominally under a civilian government though in truth controlled by the military, invaded the island-nation, effecting a partition along ethnic lines that was in due course, completed through a transfer of populations.
This much is clear from Bose’s narration. But what he fails to elaborate on is the role of the U.S., which far from intervening to calm things down, chose to instigate the most uncompromising reaction from extremist elements on both sides. Recently declassified documents show Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, with unparalleled authority over the diplomatic and intelligence machineries, putting into play his fanciful reading of the Cyprus problem, which saw Archbishop Makarios’ pesky neutrality and his resolute indifference to U.S. strategic interests, as the central issue. But since an armed confrontation between two such vital allies as Greece and Turkey would endanger the “southern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)”, a neat partition of tiny, unarmed Cyprus seemed an acceptable alternative.
Bose documents how the dynamics of European integration since, which have favoured (predominantly Greek) southern Cyprus, as the internationally recognised legatee State, have tended to soften the hard edges of this partition. But the very same process has induced also, a sense of complacence among Greek Cypriots, who have begun to enjoy the benefits of European integration without any of the burdens of sharing power within the State, with a truculent Turkish minority. Economic disparities have widened with the Greek south enjoying distinctly the better standards of living. After three decades of separation, there is little incentive left for reunification. Larger ambitions of enosis have been diluted by the political moderation that has reigned since the overthrow of the Greek military junta in 1974; and in large measure, European integration renders ambitions of enosis somewhat irrelevant.
In Sri Lanka, Bose provides an extended treatment of the internal political dynamics that have led to the current situation of separation and undying rancour between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority. But perhaps because he remains committed to “third-party engagement” as an indispensable part of the solution to such schisms, he fails to delineate the full dimensions of the fatally miscued Indian intervention of 1987-90. He correctly observes that Indian support for the Tamil insurgency, which broke out in full-blown fury in 1983, was “fundamentally shallow, born of circumstances and strategic perceptions that were open to change”. There was never the slightest support at the higher-levels of the Indian government for Tamil secession, which was seen to have deep and dark implications for India’s own fragile internal cohesion. But then the Indian response to the Sri Lankan crisis was little short of absurd: with an Indian Prime Minister signing an agreement on behalf of the Sri Lankan Tamils “after murky and hasty negotiations from which all Sri Lankan Tamils were excluded”. “The problems with the agreement went beyond questions of the lack of process and inclusiveness to matters of substantive content”, Bose comments, “although undoubtedly the glaring substantive problems stemmed directly from the absence of process”.
If the agreement was crafted in such unpropitious circumstances, its subsequent implementation was catastrophic. The principal belligerents on the Sri Lankan Tamil side, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) felt completely unconstrained by the agreement and took on the Indian army contingents deployed in the island nation, ostensibly as peacekeepers, in a savage guerrilla war. The Sri Lankan president, R. Premadasa, on succeeding the architect of the agreement, made no secret of his deep resentment of the Indian troop presence. With violence escalating dangerously, he launched a brutal war of extermination against armed Sinhalese elements in the south, while secretly conspiring with the LTTE in the north and east and rendering it material support in the guerrilla campaign against the Indian army. Bose only partially narrates this story and does not enter into a discussion of how all sides in that abortive effort to resolve the Sri Lankan issue, acted in extreme bad faith. It was, in short, not the best advertisement for the efficacy of “third-party intervention” in repairing the fissures of divided lands.
Finally, there is only the U.S. intervention in Bosnia in 1995 that Bose manages to uphold as a successful instance of third party engagement. Here again, it is clear that the truce achieved through U.S. coercion cannot, by any yardstick, be described as a just peace. And only time will tell whether it will be a durable peace. The U.S. indeed, as Bose himself suggests with a lengthy quotation from Richard Holbroooke, its principal negotiator in the dispute, recognised this. In fact, the circumstances for the Dayton peace accord were achieved only by western acquiescence in a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing by Croat armed forces, which effectively emptied three large population centres of all Serbs. This was followed by waves of U.S. and allied aerial bombing of troop concentrations that decisively tilted the balance on the ground in favour of the Croat and Bosniak Muslim forces. Bose quotes a rather ambivalent judgment by Richard Holbrooke, who recorded in his memoir of those times that “the basic truth” was “not something that could be publicly stated”. But the plain fact was that the “map negotiation” which was the most “daunting challenge” facing the U.S. as a third party mediator, was taking place on the battlefield.The essence of third-party mediation in this case then, was to use the U.S. military as a force multiplier for one side in the hostilities in Bosnia, indeed, to create a shotgun coalition of Croat and Bosniak Muslims who had nothing more in common than the contingent and convergent intent of expelling the Serbs from their enclaves.
Unwittingly perhaps, Holbrooke lays out the dubious U.S. motivations in the very same memoir that Bose relies upon, just a few pages ahead of the section that he quotes. As a member of Holbrooke’s negotiating team scribbled on a note just as the mediation mission was beginning, there was no cause for excessive scruple about the methods used by the U.S.’s chosen allies. The Croats and the Bosniaks, as he said, had been hired as “junkyard dogs” because the U.S. was “desperate”: “We need to try to control them. But this is no time to get squeamish about things. This is the first time the Serb wave has been reversed. That is essential for us to get stability, so we can get out”.
Stability in other words was the object, not justice. And the regime that was crafted was a hasty patchwork operation to remedy the instability caused by the precipitate western recognition of a 1992 referendum that voted – in the face of a complete boycott by Bosnian Serbs – for the independence of the province from the larger Yugoslav federation. The western powers failed evidently, to honour the cardinal principle of stable confederations, which is that each constituent unit would have a veto over crucial policy decisions.
When structures of the state are dismantled, there should be little wonder that people fall back on ties of kinship and community as their sole bulwark against a threatening environment. Ethnic nationalism and extreme forms of historical revanchism are not natural states of being, but the contingent outcomes of cataclysmic failures of the modern political State. If the mission of repairing the polities of deeply fractured lands is partly about forging -- in place of an ethnic or communitarian sense of belonging -- a sense of civic identity, of citizenship as the sole basis of entitlements and responsibilities, then part of the strategy must embrace a radical program of social and economic equality. It is when equality is denied that identity becomes paramount. And the forging of this radical notion of substantive equality is not a task that is done in an “incremental” or “gradualist” fashion, but through a fast-track effort that clearly recognises the ultimate goal in advance. In this manner perhaps, Bose is quite right, though not perhaps in the manner that he intends.