In 2012, Asia overtook Europe in arms spending. Five Asian countries were among the world’s top arms importers of which two, India and Pakistan, belonged to South Asia. Others in the league were China, South Korea and Singapore. Since 2012, the world registered a decline in overall military expenditures, yet Asia marked a 62 percent increase in defense spending. Rising military expenditure in South Asia has been an area of concern for a long time and has been reflected in the defense-versus-development debate: while directing ever higher levels of national resources towards defense, both India and Pakistan continued to figure towards the bottom of the Human Development Index.
Many studies on militarization focus on its economic effects, highlighting the link between defense spending and underdevelopment. Relatively less examined is the overlap between militarization for external defense and the use of the military for domestic repression. Indeed, over decades, rising military expenditures within three major South Asian democracies – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – has reflected the increased use of the military within state borders.
Postcolonial countries in South Asia replicated their colonial masters in the consolidation of military power in order to strengthen the enterprise of nation-building.
Military consolidation for external defense, however, paralleled the rise of powerful popular dissident movements within the nation; and led to the creation of domestic conflict zones where organized violence became the means to overcome any popular challenge to government authority and legitimacy. For instance, India’s emergence as one of the world’s top arms importers during the 1980s and early 1990s intersected with the emergence of a Kashmiri movement for self-determination. Similar struggles for greater autonomy, most notably in Nagaland and Manipur, were already under way in the northeastern region during this period. In Pakistan, a state-led ‘war on terror’ post-9/11 justified the purchase of vast arsenals of military hardware, especially during the rule of Pervez Musharraf.
This military expansion was concomitant with a renewed phase of nationalist struggle for greater sovereignty in the natural resource-rich albeit poverty-stricken Balochistan, and the rise of armed Islamist militant groups opposed to the state. In Bangladesh, military rule and consolidation bolstered a government-backed Bengali settler policy in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), violating the rights, livelihood and dignity of its indigenous population. In each instance, the consolidation of military power for external defense went hand in hand with the use of the military for domestic repression against ethnic minority populations unwilling to submit to the centralized hegemony of their respective nation state.
Indeed, South Asia presents convincing empirical evidence of the inverse relationship between national military spending and the protection of human rights. As nation states sought to resolve political challenges through military means, they created a gross imbalance of power between citizens and the state. For example, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all have domestic zones of conflict with millions of citizens living under conditions of relentless repression and the denial of fundamental rights and liberties.
From the extraordinary denial of the universal right to life, to citizen security and justice, the empirical realities of South Asia point to a systemic crisis, in which a situation akin to martial law exists within these conflict zones, without the government-in-question needing to declare it as such. As narratives of ‘national security’ justify militarization for both external defense and domestic repression of citizens, the resultant shift of power to the military facilitates regulation of the social order by the latter, and the rationalization of extra-legal security practices, especially in times of mass rebellions against the state. This creeping power of the military, as Mark Neocleous argues, marks “a shift from the regulation of the military within the state to regulation by the military of the social order on behalf of the state.”
This creeping power of the military marks “a shift from the regulation of the military within the state to regulation by the military of the social order on behalf of the state.”
If democracy has anything to do with people, the human condition in South Asia’s conflict zones calls for greater attention to the overlap between state-centric constructs of national security and the states’ use of militarily-backed repression including terror, torture, rape, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing.
Democracy is widely acknowledged as the Indian state’s singular and most enduring achievement. This particular claim is rooted in a normative, macro-view of India as the most credible democracy in a South Asian region characterized by military intervention and authoritarian rule; and more recently, in constructs of India as an emerging economic power. Such a claim successfully masks the persistent and deepening inequality between citizens and marginalized social groups and elides the reality of a range of anti-state dissident movements by ethnic minorities.
Also obscured by the narrative of India-as-emerging-power are the extra-legal practices and methods of repression used by security forces against civilian populations including terror, torture and rape. Legitimising the state of repression in conflict zones in India is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – a piece of legislation providing impunity to security forces for human-rights abuses committed during security operations. In their written deposition to the 58th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) noted that:
India is awash in legislation that restricts fundamental liberties. Laws purporting to safeguard national security and public order have been employed to counter ambiguously defined threats. Applied over large swathes of the country – including Jammu and Kashmir and the north-east – these Acts contain provisions that are incompatible with the principles that form the basis of a democratic State.
If India uses legislation to provide a carte blanche to security forces for human-rights abuse, Pakistan’s response to domestic challenges is mediated by a prolonged dominance of the military establishment that consistently undermined and impeded democratic processes and the strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan. As a result of this history, Pakistan’s popularly elected governments remained weak and vulnerable to subversion by the military and its powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The disproportionate influence wielded by the military on politics in Pakistan is further apparent in the inability and/or unwillingness of the civilian government to end support for a range of militant groups cultivated by the military. As Pakistan was threatened and attacked by these very same domestically cultivated militant groups, the weakness of successive civilian governments became manifest in their inability to protect the lives of their citizens, especially those belonging to religious and ethnic minorities such as the Shia Hazara Muslims and Christians.
United in repression
The state of grave human-rights abuse indicates the abysmal record of South Asian countries in protecting the rights and dignity of its ethnic minorities. A culture of impunity protects the armed forces from prosecution for crimes against citizens. Necessary as it is to revoke special legislation providing immunity to security forces, it would nonetheless be an error to view special or emergency legislation itself as the source of the problem. The legalized tyranny of the legislations justifying terror, torture or rape by security forces is but a manifestation of a profoundly undemocratic cosmology unwilling to acknowledge, much less respect or accommodate, political difference.
Halting the human tragedies in South Asia’s conflict zones is contingent upon state acknowledgement of ethnic grievances, and respect and accommodation for the difference that produced them. In effect, it means discarding the assimilative ‘national’ cosmology in favor of a democratic imaginary informed by the non-national values of accommodation, tolerance, respect and coexistence with ‘different’ people nurturing different political imaginations.
Simultaneously, South Asian states are beset with a long-standing crisis of legitimacy that is particularly stark in conflict zones. As the military encroaches into arenas of civil governance, this incursion augments its already extraordinary powers of social control. The language and lexicon of ‘security’ advanced by national militaries across South Asia justifies political practices that gravely erode the legal basis, and by extension, the very foundation of the state; it also simultaneously fosters and rationalizes a social climate of disrespect and contempt for democracy, civil liberties and human rights. Mark Neoucleous made the following observation with reference to Western democracies that is equally valid for the democracies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh:
…the reason martial law has not been approved by the executives of most liberal democracies is because there is absolutely no need for it: whatever might be desired through martial law can be achieved through the rhetoric of security and emergency.
As national security discourse devours democracy there is no need for formal declaration of martial law by those presiding over this destruction.
~ Seema Kazi is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS). She works on gender and conflict and is the author of Between Democracy and Nation: Gender and Militarization in Kashmir.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Leader, a leading weekly of Sri Lanka. Click here to go to the original. A longer version of this article appeared in Himal Magazine, a leading publication of Nepal.