Into heartlands of conflict

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Critical examination of current peace processes in five flashpoints of ethno-national crisis

CONTESTED LANDS: — Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, Sri Lanka: Sumantra Bose; HarperCollins Publishers, 1 A Hamilton House, Connaught Place,

New Delhi-110001. Rs. 395.

The post-colonial era has witnessed conflicts that have protracted into the post-Cold War period and seem likely to continue into the future. There are longstanding conflicts, which even after large scale human slaughter show no signs of resolution. An attempt to find a common ground of cause and effect in such conflicts was long overdue. Such analysis can show the way to build peace processes on scientific and empirically-proved principles.


As the title of the book underlines, ethnic conflicts are all about sub-national or national identities seeking territory as the foundation for security. There are peoples who consider themselves nations and want statehood, even as there are states which have yet to become nations. Sumantra Bose, with considerable academic credentials to analyse such conflicts, has attempted to find the common ground. He does this by analysing the examples of Jammu & Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Israel-Palestine and of Bosnia. He offers an objective and crisply written resume of the history of these conflicts. In fact there is hardly anything comparable to these short histories to be found in one volume anywhere.

The common ground in these “intractable but not insoluble” conflicts as Bose calls them is of territory. The contestants in the conflicts believe, not unreasonably, that security is assured if territory is possessed. That drives the demands and the conflicts for redrawing boundaries and redefining sovereignties. This brings the modern state into an existential crisis of dismemberment. The colonial expedient of partition, which was applied in many states, palpably failed to find peace either for the states or their peoples. States, which in turn, applied the colonial remedy of military force to stem the tide of ethnic demands suffered the inevitable consequences of the conflict taking the form of insurgencies.

The way forward

The way forward, according to the author, lies in finding solutions that move away from territoriality, towards assured political and economic returns for the contestants by making them stakeholders in the nation-building and state-making process. Towards this end a strong emphasis is laid on the role of third parties as instruments of change. The author argues in favour of third parties with the capacity to both persuade and pressure the contestants, to first accede and later abide by the terms of the solution. History does not offer encouraging evidence of third parties succeeding in this.

In J&K, a credible role for the third parties remains an aspiration that has remained unfulfilled for five decades. This is more due to the capacity of the contestant states to withstand third party initiatives and pressures. In Israel-Palestine it is the ability of one party to defy third party (read U.N.) prescriptions. In Cyprus, pressures to find middle ground floundered on the mutual needs of Greece and Turkey to win the larger battle for a place in the European Union. In Bosnia, conflicting interests of third parties, i.e. the E.U., the U.S. and former Yugoslav states, put paid to possible solutions. In Sri Lanka, the Norwegian attempts at peace brokering and the capacity of aid donors to influence the peace process were not sufficient to obtain a positive outcome. It can also be said that an “honest broker” is a rarity amongst third parties. The role of donor states as motivators to a peace process has also come into some doubt.

Another important assessment in the book relates to the importance of time in finding solutions to such long-standing conflicts. The author favours speed in finding a solution over a slow process. An incremental and step-by-step approach is seen by the author as permitting “spoilers” enough space, to subvert or disrupt the peace process. It can however be argued that speed in finding a solution would require greater coercion or economic disincentives from third parties. This would invariably be seen by parties to the conflict as imposing a solution. Sri Lanka is a good example of all these failures.

Peace measures

If, as the author rightly states, territorial issues are the central challenge of peace processes, it is equally true that homeland for one group creates conflicts for minorities within the same homeland. This applies equally in J&K (Hindus in the Valley), in Sri Lanka (Muslims in the North & East) in Cyprus (Turks and Greeks), in Israel-Palestine (the right to Palestinians’ return) and also in Bosnia. A federal system in Sri Lanka, transcending the LoC in J&K through freer movement of people across it, a sovereign Palestine state alongside Israel, and similar methods in Cyprus and Bosnia are the means to “make borders into bridges rather than barriers” between people. On this conclusion of the book, there can be no disagreement, even as these conflicts continue to outlast the generations that started them.



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