Bringing politics back in

It must not be evicted from the public sphere on issues of national security

Updated - March 11, 2019 12:21 am IST

Published - March 11, 2019 12:02 am IST

In the wake of the Pulwama terror attack last month, politicians and opinion makers made impassioned pleas that ‘terror attacks should not be politicised’. There was also a strong popular sentiment for disassociating politics with what happened post-Pulwama. Unsurprisingly, the demand for dialling down politics was proportional to the demands for increased militarisation. The trust in politicians was replaced with an abiding belief that the men in uniform would save the day for India. When questions were raised about the basis of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s statement that over 250 terrorists were killed in the attack on Balakot — an increasingly suspect claim —it was argued that such questioning would weaken the morale of the armed forces and help the Pakistani narrative. For a proudly and deeply democratic country such as India, this scorn for politics is both perplexing and worrying.

Politicising terrorism?

The calls for refraining from politicising acts of terror also apply to most matters of national security. The strong belief, often convincingly articulated by leading thought leaders, that national security must be divorced from politics is so entrenched in popular narratives that any attempt at discussing national security through the lens of politics is immediately discredited: “How can someone politicise something as important as national security?”

What is puzzling about such assertions is that most serious analysts and thoughtful politicians intuitively recognise that, at the end of the day, political solutions are the best answer to conflicts. And yet de-politicisation comes handy for the government since “do not politicise” also means “do not ask difficult questions”, a convenient way out of a tricky situation. For the general public, this results in weariness over how the political class has managed national security problems. In that sense, then, the aversion towards politics, especially in times of crisis, is essentially a function of the failure of the way in which politics and political debates are practised, not a negation of politics per se. The solution is to offer better political reasoning, and not replace political formulations with military ones, which is often seen as the easy way out.

Popular narratives about solutions to our contemporary security problems demand the adoption of militaristic or securitised solutions as if the military has some superior capability for conflict resolution that politics doesn’t. The problem with privileging military solutions over political ones while dealing with conflict resolution is that the former use a specific set of tools, discourses and methods to resolve conflicts unlike the toolkit politics uses for conflict resolution. Consider an example. Post-Pulwama, the Government of India began a security crackdown in the Kashmir Valley and airlifted around 100 companies of paramilitary forces to enforce it, a typical and time-tested military solution to the unrest in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. A political solution would have been what the then United Progressive Alliance government adopted to deal with the widespread anger in the Valley in late 2010, wherein it sent a team of interlocutors to talk to the protesting Kashmiris. The interlocutors were able to bring about a sense of normalcy almost immediately, whereas the influx of more armed men into the Valley is unlikely to achieve that.

Militarised methods and narratives also lead to de-politicisation, or the dismissal of normal politics from the public sphere, ushering in what could be called ‘temporary emergencies’. Here’s an example. In the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama attack, a leading Indian actress tweeted: “Anyone who lectures about non-violence and peace at this time should be painted black, put on a donkey and slapped by everyone on the streets.” Put differently, she advocated that the practice of normal politics (criticism of the establishment lies at the heart of normal politics) be suspended and be replaced by a depoliticised and securitised discourse. And that those who violate such ‘emergency’ should be punished. When such short spells of emergency are normalised, it opens the door for more permanent securitised spaces and narratives. Kashmir, more or less reeling under spells of temporary emergencies for close to three decades now, is a perfect example.

Privileging militarisation over politicisation for conflict resolution is indeed unwise and counter-productive, an insight enshrined in the Clausewitzian dictum that war is the “continuation of politics by other means”. When divorced from their underlying political intent, militarised approaches can lead to mindless violence — something democratic societies should unconditionally resist. Military means to deal with conflicts do have their limited utility, but they must be politically guided.

‘Freedom to the military’

Another reflection of depoliticising security matters is the tendency to argue that the armed forces should be given complete autonomy to deal with security problems. In the immediate aftermath of Pulwama, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, declared that the “armed forces have been given complete freedom to take action”, a statement that was well received by the general public. However, giving complete freedom to the military is replete with several complications, not the least of which is the indirect acknowledgement that the political class has failed to resolve the problem. For one, telling the armed forces that they are free to deal with the problem as they wish is a dangerous abdication of political responsibility which was entrusted to them through a democratic process.

Second, ‘giving complete freedom to the military’ is an open invitation to use military solutions to deal with what are essentially political problems. Third, and even more important, ‘complete freedom’ flies in the face of political control that should be the hallmark of a mature democracy. It is one thing for the general public to nurture romantic notions about military solutions, but it is dangerous for the political class to actually enshrine that in policy guidance. Popular fetishes about military force are the stuff for feel-good fiction, not policy making.

One direct implication of de-politicised conflict resolution is that it typically leads to more violence. Surprisingly, however, more violence doesn’t normally lead to an introspection about the utility of militaristic tools of conflict resolution — on the contrary, it further strengthens the belief in its uses. When men in uniform die, their loss becomes a rallying cry for more violence which then leads to even more casualties — the cycle goes on until political solutions are brought in. Take any militarised conflict, and you will see this point. The fact is that every death due to violence must be avoidable, and that can only happen if statesmen and women are willing to climb down from the cycle of violence. But for that to happen, there must be a decidedly political approach to conflict resolution.

Root cause theories

There is also an entrenched popular aversion to using ‘root cause theories’ to explain conflicts around us. Not only are those attempting to explain conflicts by examining its root cases routinely shunned by impatient commentators, they are routinely viewed as apologists of non-state violence. While this antipathy towards root cause theorists is a function of depoliticised conflict narratives, it leads to further depoliticisation of conflicts. Depoliticised narratives aim to treat the symptoms, ignoring what gives rise to those symptoms — the latter is difficult, requires introspection and mending ways, while the former expects that military force can be used to end violence or resolve the problem at hand. Militarily framed responses to conflicts also deny justice since they can only be used to reinstate the state’s ‘monopoly over power’, not to provide justice to the aggrieved parties in a conflict.

Let’s not forget that conflicts are a function of differing political values and expectations, and the only way sustainable conflict resolution can be achieved is by bringing politics back to negotiate those differences.

Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is the author of ‘Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics’


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