Subversion & its linkage to low intensity conflicts, ethnic movements & violence


Contributing Editor Dr SHIREEN M MAZARI makes an interesting analysis of co-relations between ethnicity, violence and low intensity conflicts

Subvert - as Chambers English Dictionary defines the word - means 'to overthrow; to overturn; to pervert'. Subversion means 'overthrow; ruin'. Since in a conflictual relationship between hostile actors the aim of each is to ruin the other, so subversion becomes a natural strategy for each. More so because of the changing nature of warfare today. Gone are the days when a conventional war for territorial conquests defined hostile state relations. Today, war is more for the hearts and minds of the people rather than for territorial grabbing per se. War has also become more indirect - covering a broader spectrum ranging from political, economic and psychological arenas to the ultimate total war - the latter in fact becoming anti-war in that such a war loses all political goals in the face of annihilation. In other words, in many ways the Clausewitzian dictum of war being a continuation of politics has been stood on its head now with politics becoming a continuation of war by other means.

Given the decreasing relevance and acceptability of conventional warfare, states in conflictual relationships opt for indirect interventions in enemy territory in order to destabilise and weaken the polity. As such then, low intensity conflicts become a more viable option - low intensity conflict referring to a level of violent engagement short of all out war. Given the transnational linkages that sub-national groups within a state have these days, and given the reach of modern communications, the boundaries between external and internal, domestic and foreign have become increasingly blurred. For instance, in the case of Pakistan Muslim sectarian groups have linkages with external groups and governments while the various Christian churches also not only have their links with their parent churches, many of their educational and welfare institutions are funded from overseas. And ethnic linkages tie many groups with each other across Pakistan and India, and Pakistan and Afghanistan - to cite just a few major examples.

Within such a mode subversion is the ideal strategy. Exploiting the prevailing dissensions within civil society, subversion involves the polarisation of dissenting elements till such time that peaceful venues of redress to their grievances are perceived as closed by the parties concerned. For this, the minds of the dissenting groups have to be subverted through psychological warfare so that these people organise themselves into an increasingly militant body - at which point they can be armed and trained so that eventually they challenge the state in a violent manner and create a situation of urban insurgency in major urban centres of the country - where power and wealth are centered. Subversion becomes more relevant where the dissenting group/groups form a minority - albeit an influential and/or sizeable one - so that the possibility of a regular separatist national struggle under a full-scale guerrilla warfare strategy is not feasible for such a group. In other words, the aim of subversion is to keep giving the enemy a nose bleed so that he remains weak and on the defensive. Weakening the state from within and keeping it weak is the ultimate goal of subversion so that the state apparatus is unable to function effectively; and so that the government is forced into erring on the side of overkill - which will further subvert the state's functioning.

From this perspective, then, ethnic conflicts are ideal preying grounds - where an ethnic group can be isolated and, therefore, polarised more easily. The separation of such a group can be based on playing on the racist theme. Two types of racism can be exploited:

One, genuine 'racism' where a strong sense of racial identity exists and it is felt that that is not accorded a sufficient degree of cultural and political recognition - as was the case with the Sindhis and Balochis in the sixties and early seventies and with the Bengalis in a pre-1971 Pakistan.

Two, 'artificial racism' which can be either a defensive reaction to genuine racism or it can involve an attempt to stimulate a dormant emotion. The case of the MQM and the gradual perception built up amongst the Urdu-speaking populace of Sindh that they were being relatively deprived would fit more into this category.

In many cases it can be a combination of the two - where a strong ethnic identity exists and a relative sense of deprivation can stimulate a feeling of neglect and political alienation. Once the MQM highlighted the 'Muhajir's' discontent, it was the quota system becoming divided into 'urban' and 'rural' in Sindh that bolstered the Urdu-speaking Sindhis' sense of relative deprivation.

From the isolation of an ethnic group it is one step further to organising that group into a militant force and gradually arming it so that a low-intensity conflict evolves within the territory of the enemy state - with acts of violent terror increasing in intensity as the government reacts violently and repressively with the state apparatus.

Moreover, the creation of one militant ethnic party/movement also has the domino effect of creating and/or making equally militant other ethnic parties/groups so that a full-scale violent ethnic struggle is unleashed within part of the territory of the enemy state - the case of Sindh being the most clear-cut example where two of the main ethnic groups suddenly became polarised into two violently clashing entities, so ethnic groups are attractive targets for subversion because of this domino effect that is inevitably set into motion.

That violence has a momentum of its own which is difficult to break out of is clearly illustrated in the way the situation with the MQM has unfolded in Karachi. Even when the MQM has been part of the ruling elite, its cadres have continued to behave as if they were in opposition and on the fringes of the political mainstream.

So, while violence is not the only tactic of subversion, it forms an integral part of subversive strategy - which also includes psychological warfare in the form of effective propaganda. After all, first the mind of the dissident has to be won over. From then on, violence becomes one of the main tools - for violent deeds and the state's over-reaction to those deeds themselves then become the propaganda tools to be exploited effectively by the subversive propagandist. Within the conflictual Pakistan-India relationship, and within the overall framework of Indian power ambitions, subversion has become a major tool in the operationalisation of this conflictual relationship. An earlier survey of India's interventionist policies within South Asian states through its RAW (its intelligence services Research and Analysis Wing) in this column had clearly shown India's policy of subversion whereby it has isolated primarily ethnic groups within its South Asian neighbourhood. And the Indians constantly assert that Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has been doing the same in India. However, while the case of India's subversive activities was lent credibility not only by researched books on RAW by Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi scholars [Rohan Gunaratna's Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka and Zainal Abedin (an ex-Mukhti Bahini fighter)'s RAW and Bangladesh] but also by the Jain Commission Report, there has yet to be any substantive publication to establish Pakistan's subversive role within India through the ISI.

Yet all this shows the growing relevance of linkages between subversion in the on-going low-intensity conflicts in South Asian countries. Given the totalitarian baggage of so many of these states and the multi-level ethnic interactions, the elements to be exploited have always been attractively present in these countries. Countries like India have simply taken advantage of this. Within South Asia, India's RAW has gained a notoriously credible reputation for subversion in the territories of India's neighbours.

The publication of the Jain Commission Report for the Indian Government has confirmed what many in South Asia had suspected all along that RAW has been fomenting violent destabilisation within the domestic polities of the South Asian states. This helps to explain why dissenting political movements in countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan - as well as in the other South Asian states - suddenly became more militant and violent in their political behaviour.

For instance, according to Zainal Abedin, presently in Bangladesh, RAW has created an insurgency force: The Shanti Bahini (Fighters for Peace). This force comprises the Chittagong Hill Tracts Hindu and Buddhists tribesmen (the Chakmas) and the intention is to bleed the Bengali military and keep the border area tense. The Chakmas are used to embarrass the Bangladesh government especially when the latter protests over Indian policy on the sharing of water's issue.

Again, according to Rohan Gunaratna, RAW waged a secret war in India beginning 1983 so that when the Sri Lankan armed forces launched a major offensive against the Tamil militancy in 1987, the Indian government had already ensured that the Tamils were well supplied and were able to conduct terrorist acts that brought the war closer to Colombo. Tamil Nadu had became the sanctuary for the Tamil terrorists in their hit-and-run tactics. Already, a year prior to this offensive, that is by 1986, there were over 20,000 Indian trained and financed Tamils. India forced Sri Lanka, through this militant pressure, to alter its foreign policy. But even more crucial, India by now was systematically destabilising Sri Lanka.

Being unable to resist the temptation to now intervene directly, India used the Sri Lankan offensive against the Tamil terrorists to force Sri Lanka to accept India's armed intervention ostensibly to save 'innocent Tamil civilians'. Unfortunately for India, the controversial Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 1987 proved to be as much of a failure as India's policy of direct intervention. The result was India's massively assisted LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) turned on its benefactor and declared war against the Indian forces in Sri Lanka. All in all, this Indian adventure killed 60,000 men, women and children and forced the Indians to withdraw their forces without successfully completing their mission. The price has been steep for both India and Sri Lanka and even today Sri Lanka is paying the price for this Indian-initiated and RAW inspired polarised conflict. The extent of RAW's role in this affair has been painstakingly documented by Gunaratna in his book on the Indian intervention.

In Pakistan RAW has had a multi-pronged strategy using the Indian media, abetting political subversion and actively developing a terrorist network which becomes operationalised within Pakistan as and when RAW feels the time is appropriate. That is one reason why there has been a gradual transformation of simple political dissent into a violent form of political polarisation and subversion.

That the opportunities have been provided by the local political machinations cannot be denied - but RAW has been quick to take advantage and introduce an ever-spiralling element of violence within the political discourse and conflict that prevails in all the South Asian countries. The number of bomb blast incidents in Pakistan for the year 1998 - 78 in total up to November 20, 1998 - show how violent the Pakistani polity has become - and RAW can claim credit for a large part of this development.

All in all, when the international community is increasingly condemning overt war as an instrument of state policy, India has already sought an alternative, indirect and covert mode of warfare through RAW which seeks to destabilise and weaken the states of South Asia from within. Given the changing nature of war one should be prepared for more RAW activities since politics is increasingly becoming the continuation of war by other means - and RAW has evolved the expertise on 'other means' in South Asia.