Ahsan Butt is Washington based Pakistani political scientist who teaches at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His first book Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy Against Separatists, published by Cornell University Press recently explains the state policies with regard to separatist movements. Zafar Aafaq got Butt on Skype to get him explain the ideas that make his book a contribution to understanding conflicts. Excerpts from the interview
KASHMIR LIFE: What is this book about?
AHSAN BUTT (AB): The book is mainly about state strategies and policies against separatist movements. It tackles why some separatist movements are coerced while others are not and why some separatist movements are given peaceful concessions up to including autonomy and even independence.
The basic answer I gave is that it is tied to external security concerns. States are more likely to coerce the separatists when they are worried about facing a future war, against a regional or global rival that is taking advantage of the state losing territory and population or a newly seceded state as in case of Ethiopia and Eritrea which fought a war in 1998.
If the state does not fear war, it uses more peaceful concessions. So the movements tied to external rivals will see more violence from the state than those which are delinked. With the high levels of external support, the movement becomes a lot stronger and the stronger the movement, the more violence is required to defeat it.
In the book, I look at Pakistan’s violent treatment of East Pakistan secessionism in the 1970s in comparison to less violent response in Baluchistan. In India, I look at Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Punjab and compared the contrast in responses. I have a chapter on Ottoman treatment of the Armenian community in the early part of 20th century and then I look at Israeli Palestinian dispute, peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia and Norway-Sweden and the US Civil War. The book is trying to get a big picture look at separatist conflicts and why states deal with separatists movements differently.
KL: How has been this journey of writing this book?
AB: It is my dissertation that I wrote at the University of Chicago in three years after I graduated in 2012. It was a weird feeling when I got my book in hand for the first time last month; a series of MS Word files take the shape of a book which you can hold in your hands gives nice feeling.
I was interested in South Asian security issue when I went for graduation. While growing up in Pakistan, one big question I had was about the Bengali genocide. Why was Pakistani army so aggressive in East Pakistan? A decade later, when I joined the grad school, I took a class in a conflict that drew me to the field.
KL: Did you travel to these conflict places?
AB: No. There were two issues. One was finance. The other, more important, is my citizenship status. I am a Pakistani citizen and don’t have American citizenship. It protruded me from travelling to India or Kashmir because it would be extremely difficult to secure permission to talk to Kashmiris or people in Punjab or North East about these sensitive issues. In Israel-Palestine case, Pakistan doesn’t even recognize Israel. My Passport is valid for all countries except Israel.
I did a lot of my interviews on phone and Skype. I got a good cross-section of opinion. In Kashmir case, for instance, I talked to Kashmiri journalists, Shujaat Bukhari, Zafar Meraj, Yousuf Jameel and Basharat Peer. I talked to security types sitting in Delhi and think tanks and former retired military officials. I talked to Kashmiri Pandits who were relatively young and relatively old.
KL: What were the earlier theoretical arguments explaining the state policies that the book challenges?
AB: I tackled two dominant theoretical arguments in the literature. One is veto point argument which says that the domestic internal structure of the government really matters. A government that has too many veto points is not going to be able to give concessions because you have to satisfy too many people to get your policy through. And then separatist movements will not trust concessions that haven’t gone through the meat grinder of veto points
The other explanation looks at ethnic heterogeneity concern of dominant theory: a state thought the process that if we give peaceful concession to one separatist group, we are creating precedence. So they think, it is better to be valiant against the group and deter others from making these demands. So the countries with ethnic heterogeneity, as in India, the state will be more likely to use violence.
These reasonable theoretical takes, in general, have real trouble in explaining the Indian case. If we apply veto point theory, it becomes difficult to explain why the same government would treat two movements very differently despite the same number of veto points in the government. It is heavy hand in Kashmir versus softer policy towards Assam. Even Punjab, in Rajiv era, was treated differently than his predecessor. My argument that ties it to external security concerns can explain that lot better.
KL: India has succeeded in denying any territorial or political concessions to the separatist groups. But in Kashmir, it has failed in bringing the people into Indian mainstream.
AB: It is a multifaceted question. If you look it from the Indian stateside there is constant overriding fear that any concessions given to Kashmiris will end up in the accession of Kashmir to Pakistan. If they give them an inch, they will take a mile. That is why both Congress and BJP have been very reluctant in granting any concession since Indira Gandhi’s time.
When you look at it from the Kashmiri point of view as to why India has been less successful in bringing Kashmiris into Indian mainstream, I think the level and extent and severity of Kashmiri dissatisfaction and disillusionment is much higher than their counterparts in the North East or Punjab. In Kashmiri public, I think the feeling is much stronger and it’s a lot harder for them to forget everything that has happened.
KL: Is it correct that world community has remained silent on Kashmir?
AB: There are three things going on. First is at the structural level. Most independence movements don’t enjoy global support until they ride at the point which is sort of quasi-independent. It is also the question of do they get the recognition or not.
When we say international community, we just mean big powers like US, Russia, China, and others. In post World War-II, there is sort of tension between the Right to Self Determination and respect for territorial sovereignty. That tension tends to balance in favour of territorial sovereignty rather than separatist movement.
The second point I would make with respect to the way Indian state is placed in the international politics especially in last two decade: ascension to a regional power status, its versioning friendship with the US and its big market of billion-plus consumers. These things add up to the point where big countries don’t want any trouble with India for Kashmiri’s gains. They can gain a lot with India’s friendship than by going against India on Kashmir.
Third and the last point I would make is Pakistan angle. I think, especially in the historical sense, if you go back to late 1980 or early 1990s when Kashmiri independence movement was a realistic possibility, in my opinion, one of the reasons that the Kashmiri nationalist movement did not enjoy the sort of global support as other independence movements enjoyed such as in Eastern Europe. Kashmir was seen as Pakistan led movement, that Pakistan was trying to take Kashmir from India, which took away the rhetoric and symbolic power to Kashmiri nationalist movement.
If Kashmiris had been united on the ground demanding independence, as JKLF, for instance, was demanding, rather than being split between pro-independence and pro-Pakistan groupings. I think you might have seen a different situation where it would have been very hard for the world during1980s and 1990s when all these new countries in central Asia and Eastern Europe were welcomed to the Community of Nations. It would have been very hard to ignore Kashmiris if they were united on Kashmiri nationalism.
KL: So is the game up?
AB: It is unfortunately not in hands of Kashmiris whether they are heard or not. India is a very powerful state with a big presence, internationally. So I don’t think many people have the patience to pay the attention to the Kashmiris. It just complicates their relationship with India. However, there is certainly some room for movement at the local level. There is agency these people do enjoy. I think one issue to focus on would be unity. I would say the best bet in terms of getting the voice heard would be a unified coherent narrative from Kashmiris across the spectrum.
KL: Are splits also part of the statecraft?
AB: Everybody I interviewed talked about the use of Ikhwan in the 1990s in splitting and using Kashmiris against Kashmiris. That happened in North East too. However, on the political side, a lot of responsibility for splits also resides with Kashmiri politicians and Kashmiri body politic itself. Certainly, on the militant side, it is definitely true. But on the political side, a lot of those splits are self-generated.
KL: What about Pakistan’s approach to Kashmir issue?
AB: One issue is sort of Pakistan’s strategic blunders. I think one of the biggest strategic blunders was splitting the Kashmiri movement into pro-independence and the pro-Pakistan groups. Pakistan’s made a blunder by not demanding Kashmiri independence. I think Kashmiri independence push forward by Pakistan would have been much more realistic possibility than saying the territory should be ours. That way you really create a problem on the international stage.
The other issue is the way in which Pakistan has sought to mobilize and free Kashmir, almost entirely to do with violence like supporting militancy, creating groups, sending boys across the borders and training them in handling arms. There has been very little political and diplomatic efforts on the world stage. It’s just rhetoric but on the ground, all you are doing is you are supporting them with violence and I think the international community here is not ready to buy that. It is all right for Russia to take on Ukraine or Georgia. But if you are a relatively minor power like Pakistan, you have to play by the rules – you can’t take over territory by violence. So I would say one of the big failures of Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has been its pure focus on militarized violence and trying to take Kashmir by force. I think India is a stronger state than Pakistan. India’s army is twice as that as Pakistan.
So if you imagine an alternative scenario where Pakistan only supports Kashmiris politically and diplomatically, has a very consistent and coherent narrative of Kashmiri nationalism, which says we want them to have independence and we want them to be happy and free. I think their message would have been heard with a lot of much tolerance. When you start involving violence and militarization then nobody has the time to hear you.
KL: So a tripartite dialogue can be an option?
AB: It is a good idea but I think it is never going to happen, not in near future. Indian state would simply not agree to that. No Indian prime minister would ever agree to that.
I think there is certainly a scope for dialogue between India and Pakistan or the inter-state level. If you go back to the Musharaf-Manmohan four-point plan or previous negotiations, the basic contours of an agreement are there. If you corner Pakistani and Indian leaders and inject them with truth serum and ask them what the final outcome of this look would like, they would probably say something like that plan. It is one thing to see a reasonable and viable solution but getting there is a different process.
I strongly support dialogue and peacefully negotiated an end to this conflict where essentially Pakistan gives up its claims on a Jammu and Kashmir as an Indian state and things like ease of travel, connecting families, trade, buses get going. Then, let Jammu and Kashmir sort out its relationship with Indian state internally, which includes issues of Jammu and Ladakh. Pakistan, in my opinion, should try to reach a settlement with India on Kashmir at the inter-state level, something along the lines of the four-point plan which will then hopefully free up India to negotiate with the Kashmiris at the intra-state level and negotiate wherever that relationship they want.
I strongly support the dialogue at the interstate level and at intrastate level, but I recognise intra-state negotiations are not possible without first interstate negotiations. That’s why I distinguished between the ideal policy and the realistic policy.
There is the Indian domestic angle. When Modi came to power, the big question was, would he try to satisfy his Hindutva base or go for the economic reforms. It is pretty clear now that he chose to burnish its social culture Hindutva base which is extremely intolerant of any concession to Kashmir. They want to take back old concessions like Article 370 and 35-A rather than giving new concession. So I don’t think this government in Delhi is in any mood to concede anything to Kashmir.
Now are they in a mood to negotiate with Pakistan, I think that is a more open question. There have been some conversations here and there at the inter-state level. But you get the complication of the Pakistani side in the Pakistani military. What do they want and whether are they happy giving up and even allow talks between a civilian leader. Would they even trust a deal cut by the civilian leader? That is when you get that third party angle in a very complicated way. So I think, realistically I don’t see any major concessions in the near future especially under this government.
(The interview was lightly edited and condensed)