Siddhartha, San José, Costa Rica, 25 - 28 novembre 2009
The Challenges for Peace in India and South Asia
Les défis de la paix en Asie du Sud. Conférence retranscrite en anglais.
India is a land of a million mutinies, as the writer V.S.Naipaul put it. Perhaps our democracy has survived because we have a million rebellions and not merely one or two. I was reminded of this some years ago when I visited Rwanda, just after the genocide. A young Rwandan intellectual, who was discussing with me said: “Since you have so many religions, castes and languages you have to deal with multiple conflicts. Maybe this makes things a little easier, since society is not polarized between just two groups. In Rwanda we have just the Tutsis and the Hutus, and this becomes a fundamental polarization.”
Nevertheless, the million rebellions we have in India bring with it its own toll of suffering and anguish. The causes of social conflict in India are economic, social, religious and political. Economically, India is one of the poorest countries, despite claims of being the second fastest growing economy in the world. The government figures state that about 250 million people live with less than 25 US cents a day. Non-governmental studies show that the figure may be much higher. One study says that about 500 million people earn less than 25 US cents a day.
Naturally, this situation of extreme poverty, coupled with a corrupt and inefficient developmental process, make people easy targets for recruitment into extremist movements and activities. Some time ago the prime minister of India referred to the maoist movements as the single biggest internal security threat. Right now there is considerable debate in the country about how to deal with these maoist movements. Every now and then there are media reports of Maoists beheading a police constable, or attacking the police or para-military forces, or even innocent citizens. Leading political parties feel that the state must deal ruthlessly with these rebels. There are even calls for the army to be used against them in a big way.
But in all the jingoism people forget that the so called Maoists are shirtless and shoeless adivasis (tribals), among the poorest in India. They have been systematically pushed out of their lands to build large dams, or allow multinational industrial units to be built. New forest laws also forced hundreds of thousands out of their traditional forest habitat. Mining activities have also displaced people from their land.
Needless to say the big challenge is to start a dialogue with these disenfranchised sections of our population. Non-governmental organizations, peace groups, social movements and political parties must be at the forefront of these dialogues. The tribal people must have the freedom of self-determination, particularly in areas concerning forest use, mining, the location of industry and the construction of dams. Instead of being displaced they must have the major say in what is being done in the name of development in their areas. They must also reap the benefits of development, instead of being further driven into absolute poverty.
Another section that has been historically oppressed are the former untouchables of India, known today as the Dalits. They represent about 20 % of the population, and are mainly landless agricultural labourers, or workers living in the urban slums. However the situation of Dalits has undergone major changes in the last 50 years or so, with many social movements springing up from among them. They have also thrown up a large number of local and national political leaders. However, when you are at the bottom of the economic pyramid, you remain a part of the poorest of the poor.
Then there are the Muslims, who represent about 12 % of the population and represent about 120 million people. They are among the poorest in India, and have been systematically discriminated against in educational and employment opportunities. Muslims are also not well organized, which results in their demands not being properly articulated. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism has created a siege mentality among many Muslims in India, who feel they are being targeted because of their religion.
Because of the discrimination they face, a few Muslims may be tempted to join extremist organizations. This in turn leads to the stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists among some sections of Indians. But in recent years there is a realization in the Muslim community that unless they mobilize and organize themselves they will always be victimized.
Another area of very serious concern for maintaining peace is Climate Change. Already hundreds of thousands of people are being affected by the progressive impact of climate change.
In the Himalayas, small apple growers have begun to cut their trees, as the climate has become warmer and apple yields have decreased dramatically. For a small farmer who owns one or two acres of land, cutting down his apple trees is disastrous as far as his livelihood is concerned.
In coastal areas fishermen have seen their fish catch drop dramatically as a result of the warming of the sea waters. In the Dharavi Bed community near Mumbai the 150,000 community has seen their fish catch drop from 15,000 tons to 2000 tons in just a few years.
In the Sunderbans Islands near Calcutta the Indian side has 54 Islands. A larger number of Islands are in Bangladesh. The 54 Indian Islands will go under water in the next 25 years or so. Five million people live here, and they will all be displaced.
Floods, cyclones and droughts have become a regular pattern leading to a huge drop in food production, in addition to destruction of homes and livestock.
In the next 30 years the Himalayan glaciers would have melted, partially drying up seven major rivers that flow into China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. Hundreds of millions of farmers are likely to be displaced, creating enormous waves of Climate refugees.
Climate Change will create tremendous social unrest. The construction of peace in this context entails the development of mitigation and adaptation strategies locally, nationally and internationally. In the local and national situation there has to be a shift towards a paradigm of development that is more and more carbon neutral. Local communities must also know what varieties of crops will grow in very dry conditions, or flooded conditions etc.
South Asia has its usual lot of unresolved conflicts like Kashmir, the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka, the instability caused by Maoists in Nepal, and the growth of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Apart from the longstanding conflict with India over Kashmir, Pakistan is today being seriously threatened by the rise of the Taliban and religious fundamentalism. At the behest of the USA the Pakistan armed forces are waging an unwinnable armed struggle against religious extremists, which threatens the very existence of Pakistan. Pakistan also has about 80 nuclear bombs, and there is the constant fear that these may fall into the hands of extremists.
Of course Islamic fundamentalism cannot be defeated unless root causes like the humiliation and oppression of the Palestinian peoples are addressed.
In India there is a lot of work to be done to promote liberal, pluralistic and multicultural varieties of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.
In Sri Lanka, the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers has led to a kind of Singhala triumphalism, where hundreds of thousands of Tamil people are placed in detention centres, behind barbed wires. A just resolution of the Tamil problem is still a distant dream, and one cannot discount the development of other forms of Tamil resistance against an insensitive Sri Lankan state.
Of course Irenees cannot address all the problems that India and South Asia are facing. But a few areas can be realistically dealt with in the next few years:
Ongoing discussions on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and strategies to promote socially engaged and pluralistic versions of religion.
Developing a debate among Hindu intellectuals and activists to promote a more Gandhian version of Hinduism, rather than the intolerant variety called Hindutva.
Looking at the threats posed by Climate Change and exploring what mitigation and adaptation strategies can be put in place.
Seeing how programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme can be effectively implemented so that poor farmers are assured 100 days of work a year. (Suicides of farmers have declined in areas where this programme has been implemented properly).
Organising a meeting between the Tamil and Singalese peoples of Sri Lanka to begin a reconciliation process after the bitterness of war.