Uttaraayan, marking a return

January 16, 2011


This weekend, India celebrated Makara Sankranti, which marks the beginning of the Sun’s northward journey (Uttaraayan). The festival brings longer days, warmth and life back to this subcontinent whose southern reaches are almost equatorial and whose northern reaches stretch well past the Tropic of Cancer. Some parts of north India celebrate it as a festival of kites. In Tamil Nadu, from where I write this blog, Makara Sankranti marks the end of the harvest and is celebrated as a four-day holiday—Pongal—during which agricultural waste is cleaned up with bonfires, some part of the harvest cooked and shared, and family reunions and excursions planned.

As my profile tells you, I also run a small non-profit. The last quarter is spent preparing for our annual campaign to raise awareness about gender violence, as one of the many 16 Days Campaigns held around the world. The process consumes our small team, and leaves us good for very little else—including blogging! But that’s done for now, and like the sun shifting course, I am back to the other, not entirely unrelated, hemisphere of my life—research and writing on security.

In the last three months, much has happened. The Happy Families image presented in India during President Obama’s visit has somewhat unraveled with news breaking of corruption scandals that seem to involve just about everyone. The leaking of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks opened another Pandora’s box, raising enough questions to merit a post of its own. A new UN agency devoted to gender equality has come into existence, bringing together the work and mandate of four organizations. India is back in the UN Security Council after a long gap. So much to read, reflect and write about here!


Oslo Notes: Norwegian Lenses, South Asian challenges

September 19, 2010


What are the international relations and security consequences of climate change that South Asia should anticipate?


At the inaugural session of a recent Norwegian Institute of Defence Studies (IFS)-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) conference on grand strategic thinking in India, held in Oslo, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahre Støre, spoke about Norway’s changing strategic horizons in the east and north. In the east, Norway was interested in building further its relationships in South and South-east Asia but saw itself as one among many rather than anticipating a special relationship. It was his exposition on Norway’s northern interests that was illuminating and thought-provoking for someone who cannot imagine anything further north than Norway!

The Norwegian Foreign Minister identified three concerns at the country’s very doorstep. The physical impact of climate change in the Arctic region was the first. The melting ice will open sailing routes in hitherto impassable stretches of the north. With one-fourth of the world’s gas resources being located in the Arctic Sea, the second concern related to the exploitation of natural resource in areas made accessible by melting glaciers. The minister pointed to the imperative of settling delimitation issues and mentioned the imminent Norway-Russia agreement over delimitation in the Barents Sea. Russia and changes within Russia form Norway’s third strategic horizon. The Minister pointed to potential areas of Indo-Norwegian cooperation ranging from scientific to humanitarian to diplomatic and military. But his presentation on Norway’s northern interests raised many questions for me for the South Asian context.

Have we given enough thought to the impact of climate change on our own regional international relations? The Pakistan floods may already presage a re-think of our Indus agreements. If floods and disaster management are going to be added to the agenda of water-sharing, are we looking at a new round of negotiations in years ahead? Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have long been advocates of an integrative approach to riparian issues in the eastern Ganges-Brahmaputra region. Rising sea-levels will also move migration further up the region’s security and economic agendas. Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and large areas of India, including Indian island territories, will experience displacement following inundation and destruction of homes and property along rivers and coasts. This may be the right time to think of cooperative solutions and emergency arrangements.

If there is an assessment of how climate change will affect our food supplies and natural resource base, is it available in the public domain? The Gangetic flood plains are India’s mineral-rich areas. Oil and natural gas have been found off the coasts. What is an opportunity in the northern seas could be a closed door in our much warmer waters. If the ability to exploit newly available resources reduces the global North’s dependence on others, will the premature closing of barely exploited resources increase ours? Perhaps these are questions scientists have already answered; my point is that it is time now to ask them in the context of international relations and security.

For those primarily interested in traditional diplomatic concerns too, I have a question: The Great Game in Afghanistan began as a way to thwart the Russian search for warm sea-ports. If polar sea-routes open up, what happens to Afghanistan? Will it be abandoned, left to heal itself or left to the mercy of its neighbours? For Pakistan, Iran and India, this is a very important consideration because their connection to and interest in Afghanistan is not limited to Great Game ramifications.

Snapshots from Conflict Zones

August 7, 2010


What is it like to live with conflict?


A few, mostly recent, articles describe the experience of living with conflict, from the point of view of those living in conflict zones, those making decisions there and those called upon to act. At the same time, other things have occupied the Indian mind—the upcoming Commonwealth Games, heavy rains and flooding and political-bickering-as-usual—underscoring the reality that conflict may have far-reaching consequences but remains a local, particular experience. Articles like these put a human face to that experience and bring conflict closer home to a citizenry whose sensitivity to daily conflict reportage is benumbed over time.

Suvir Kaul, Days in Srinagar, Outlookindia.com, August 6, 2010. US-based academic logs his visit to Srinagar, where his ancestral home is. Elsewhere, Omar Abdullah, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, spells out his views in a conversation with Vijay Simha. Tehelka, August 14, 2010. This is part of a larger report on his performance as chief minister at a critical time.

Shoma Chaudhury, 10 Years Later: Irom and the Iron in India’s Soul, Tehelka.com, Vol 6, Issue 48, December 05, 2009. Irom Sharmila has fasted for ten years in protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. She has been forcibly kept alive by doctors.

In recent weeks, many reports have documented the growth of militant groups within the RSS fold, or the rise of Hindu terror, as it is labeled.
Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, Militant route to Hindu Rashtra, Frontline, Volume 27 – Issue 16 :: Jul. 31-Aug. 13, 2010.
Smruti Koppikar, Debarshi Dasgupta, Snigdha Hasan, The Mirror Explodes, Outlookindia.com, July 19, 2010.This issue carried other articles on this subject.

Brijesh Pandey, Hard Battles, Harder Lives, Tehelka.com, Vol 7, Issue 29, July 24, 2010. This report on the conditions faced by paramilitary forces in the campaign against Maoist groups was followed up by an interview with the CRPF chief.

Special Report: Feminist Flashpoints in East Asia

November 19, 2009


A cursory review reveals that sexual violence is a common issue that is salient domestically as well as in the international politics of the region. One of the real challenges though appears to be expanding the space for political activism among women.


As President Obama travels through East Asia, he provides South Asian feminist scholars with an opportunity to look east and review those issues that have been contentious for women’s rights activists. Each of the President’s stopovers has its own feminist flashpoints that are either consequences of society’s engagement with the outside world or that have consequences for that engagement.

The movement of people is one of the main sources of concern for Japanese feminists. Women’s immigration from other parts of Asia into Japan when legal is largely in the “entertainment” category, with most immigrants working as bar hostesses, in factories, as commercial sex workers or waitresses. International marriages through brokers are known; along with the old pattern of Japanese wife/ non-Japanese husband now there are also Japanese men who seek non-Japanese but Asian wives either for more control in the marriage or for sham marriages that cover up and facilitate exploitation. (See Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 for more.)

The Japanese also have to confront their status both as perpetrators and victims on the question of wartime sexual exploitation. If the use of “comfort women” during Japan’s mid-20th century occupation of Korea is a history Japan has to live down at minimum and apologize and compensate for at best, then Japan’s own experience with the US presence in Okinawa has been similar. Either way, women have simply been the spoils of militarization, not uniquely in East Asia but here this issue has acquired both feminist and nationalist resonance.

Singaporean women’s organizations have to walk a tightrope, calling attention to social inequities without criticizing the state; placing the blame on culture without blaming religion; being political by virtue of working on political questions, but all the while abjuring politics. Reproductive rights have been one arena of activism, but in insider-for-self-correction mode rather than as dissent or critique of the state’s agenda. Many women from other parts of Asia come to Singapore to undertake jobs as domestic workers. Their status and their rights become political issues in their countries of origin, but in my admittedly cursory search, it was not clear how much their presence registered with the local women’s movement. (Lenore Lyons has written a great deal on the women’s movement in Singapore.)

Shanghai is now one of Asia’s showpiece cities; Beijing is one of its oldest capitals. Through much of the twentieth century, women activists were as focused on nation-building and social modernization issues as their male colleagues. State feminism under the People’s Republic did self-consciously address the institutional and many structural issues relating to the status of women. In the public sphere, gender became irrelevant for both men and women in many ways. Since the 1990s, when China has opened up to the world and western feminist writing has been translated and made available, Chinese feminists are now critiquing this same effacement of gender identity and blaming this for the invisibility of women in many spheres.

From a South Asian perspective, what is most interesting is to look at the impact of how China has opened up and grown, on women’s lives, their decision-making frames and freedoms and finally, gendered expectations that they may now face. Given that China’s political opening is yet to equal its economic changes, it is hard to see what the emerging internal critiques and debates are among Chinese feminists. Whatever they are, they matter for international relations for two reasons. One, there are a lot of aspirants to growth along the Chinese model (or should I say, Shanghai model). For them, this could be an early warning of problems they should anticipate and address. Two, insofar as the Shanghai model is identified elsewhere with the replacement by American-style capitalist economics of socialist development models, its failures will be seen as American failures, exported to Asia. It is in US interests to appear introspective and self-critical with regard to socio-economic issues on the home-front.

Two important strands to the women’s activism in Korea appear to be improving working conditions for women and of course, the issue of “comfort women.” As elsewhere, sexual violence—its prevention, protection issues and victim support services—is a priority for most organizations. It was hard to find very descriptive accounts from which I could learn more.

Two issues seem to recur in this region. The first relates to democracy and space in the public sphere for social activism at all: in its absence or where it is strained, how likely is it that activists will prioritize women’s rights over civil rights and political reform agendas? Women are likely, yet again, to have to take a number and wait their turn. The other is that although my post scarcely suggests it, sexual violence is an important rallying point. Reading about Japan, I learned that in some cases, what were originally shelters for refugees were also taking in victims of domestic violence. That to me really underscores the continuum of violence in which most women’s lives play out. And violence in the name of the state—during war, to reinforce state rules, to ensure regime survival—is one stretch on this continuum.

States are bound by international convention to do business with other states. What this means is that when any head of state comes calling, s/he must meet and confer with whatever regime is in power. A strident discourse on human rights and democracy usually becomes background noise as a summit plays out—that’s diplomacy. But where then is the space for women’s rights issues to be raised and discussed in the international arena? Will we have seen something new in the course of President Obama’s international excursions this time and in coming months?

‘Seminar’ on India’s National Security

August 6, 2009


Useful resource for contemporary debates on South Asian and global issues.


Seminar’ is an institution, more than a magazine. Started in the early 1960s by public intellectuals who were also influential in the corridors of power, the magazine is essentially a monthly symposium bringing together a wide range of perspectives on any given topic. A large part of Seminar‘s archives are also freely available online.

In July, the Seminar theme was ‘National Security’ bringing together several newer scholars in the field.

True or False? Can anyone know?

July 8, 2009


Multiple versions of variously experienced realities appear to characterize the political experience, not just in Sri Lanka, the subject of this post, but everywhere.


A few weeks ago, we were discussing the Sri Lankan debate about bodycounts and refugees in this blog. Now here’s a twist in the tale.

Yesterday, a group of five doctors serving in the conflict areas and charged with assisting the LTTE held a press conference and admitted to exaggerating the impact of government operations on the civilians in the area under pressure from the LTTE.

To the victor, go not just the spoils but the chance to write history on different terms. There are two parts to what the doctors are saying. First, that the LTTE forced them to lie. Second, sustained military operations for almost one and a half years had limited impact on the lives and health of area civilians. The first is not hard to believe; the second is. This brings us back to the question of numbers. What is an acceptable casualty and what is not, in these circumstances, is a political and a humanitarian issue.

The doctors’ account is also at variance with accounts from interested and disinterested parties working in the IDP camps. Chennai’s social sector is awash with anecdotes. For instance, full-term pregnant women arrive at a camp and deliver their babies, but the camps are so poorly-equipped there are no rags to clean the new-born. How do you reconcile this with what the doctors say and what is also being said in expert circles about a well-planned military operation? If the operation was so well-prepared, why were the camps so inadequate to take in the numbers they did, and why are they so poorly equipped? Indeed, if they were well-planned and executed, why was the process of demining not taking place simultaneously as the clearing operations, when it was known there would be large-scale displacement? Landmines everywhere is now the excuse for continued incarceration in camps. Every story yields more questions than answers.

In this climate of confusion and scepticism, the Hindu published an interview with the Sri Lankan president: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3. At a seminar organized by a local think-tank, the editor of the Hindu said he had visited camps on the invitation of the government and found them to be very clean and very well-provided.

Who is to say what the truth is? The problem of knowing is a practical one in such contexts, not an epistemological one. The Sri Lankan situation is like a head of hair full of tangles, where someone smooths down the top vigorously and says with confidence and vehemence, “All done!” And because no one else is allowed to approach the head, no one else can truthfully claim to be sure that is a false assertion. To be fair, all post-conflict situations are a little bit like this.

But if people could go and find out for themselves, how much more confidence we would all have in each others’ words! Darini Rajasingham Senanayake, one of Sri Lanka’s leading scholars, expresses the concern that many feel on two counts. First, it is clear that a continued and growing military presence is going to underpin the post-operation peace in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, even if elections are held. This is a point Indian military experts are also making. Second, the government has been very ruthless about curbing Sri Lanka’s independent media, quelling dissent even to the point now of arresting an astrologer who made an unfavourable prediction. This is the other security dilemma: security appears to mandate constraints on freedom that ultimately undermine security. In the presence of a continued force that can and will be seen as an occupying force and in the absence of free access to information, how can there be peace? Thus, for the Sri Lankan government, it is not merely ‘sanitation’ and rehabilitation that are immediately imperative, but a return to the truly democratic norms and the commitment to social investment that have long made Sri Lanka exceptional by any standards.

In a situation where truth and fiction are indistinguishable, who can honestly claim expertise or foresight? No one really. In the spirit of my previous post, maybe we should just wait for literatteurs and artistes to speak to us.

This South Asian moment

May 27, 2009


A brief contextual review of South Asia at the moment the blog is launched.


The ASI blog is born at a moment that is eventful for many across the large subcontinent of South Asia.

  • In Pakistan, the tripartite tug of war between the Taliban, Pakistani government and the US war on terror provides the foreground for yet another large wave of IDPs in a state that cannot take care of them. On the day I am posting this, Lahore has seen fresh bomb blasts with a large number of casualties.
  • Nepal’s new republican democracy has been in crisis as the army and Maoist-led government locked horns, resulting in the resignation of the Prime Minister. Developments in Nepal could hold important lessons for other polities coming out of civil war.
  • Parliamentary elections took place in the Maldives last week, consolidating the process of democratic transition that began with the election of President Nasheed and the ouster by the ballot-box of President Gayoom.
  • India has just re-elected its ruling coalition but more resoundingly than before. The challenges the new government faces are legion. Whether it is able to use its mandate to make a positive difference on each front or whether coalition imperatives continue to form an obstacle course, remain to be seen.
  • The Sri Lankan army’s long campaign to wrest territories in the control of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam culminated in the death of the LTTE’s entire leadership. The campaign came at a huge humanitarian cost, and rehabilitation, reconciliation and a political solution must all be pursued with the same determination.