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Conflict Resolution: The Social Sciences as Force Multipliers

Keynote Address
Workshop on
Can Political Science Be A Tool To Understand And Resolve Conflicts?
The Case of India's Northeast
Organized by
Centre for Development and Peace Studies
in collaboration with British Deputy High Commission, Kolkata


1. Knowledge and power

1.1 In what has been widely described as the information age, in which knowledge is increasingly regarded as the principal source of wealth and power, it is indeed astonishing that we should ask such a question: 'Can Political Science be used as a tool to understand and resolve conflicts?' The answer is simple and inescapable: not only can political science so be used, the costs of not so employing this discipline are unacceptable.

1.2 The critical question, indeed, is why political science in particular, and the social sciences in general, have not been applied to secure a better understanding and more efficient resolution of contemporary conflicts, and how can this be remedied.

2. Historical Amnesia

2.1 A historical amnesia, the near complete absence of institutional memory, afflicts much of the Indian security establishment and its perspectives and understanding of the country's overwhelming wealth of experience - both of success and failure - in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist campaigns. The first of India's insurgencies commenced soon after independence - in Nagaland in 1952 - and since then there has been a continuous succession of 'wars within borders', culminating in the multiplicity of contemporary irregular conflicts and movements that have come to afflict, in various degrees, an estimated 271 of India's 630 districts.1 Astonishingly, the literature on these many internal wars is minuscule; and strategic and tactical assessments of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaigns, negligible.

2.2 With no systematic effort to document and analyse the enormous cumulative experience of campaigns since Independence, Force commanders at all levels are virtually abandoned to their own devices, repeatedly required to reinvent the wheel, despite the fact that a long history of both successes and failures across theatres, as well as in the specific theatre of their current deployment, could yield a wealth of wisdom, of strategic and tactical best practices, and excellent counsel on the many pitfalls that can and must be avoided. These problems are further "aggravated by policies of task allocation and transfer that do not value continuity of experience. The result is that there is little opportunity for the development of long-term perspectives and a knowledge base that may help in an authoritative and informed assessment of emerging or ongoing emergencies."2

2.3 "A good and decent society", it has been remarked, "needs good politics. Good politics requires good theory. Good theory requires good methodology."3 The same dictum applies, without qualification, to good policing, to good counter-insurgency policy, strategy and tactics, and to good conflict resolution. Bad theory and bad methodology yield bad practices, as Administrations and Forces muddle along, learning slowly 'on the job'. Such practices impose tremendous costs in wasted resources, wasted efforts, but most significantly, wasted lives. And the index of 'wasted lives' cannot accurately be constructed out of data on fatalities or casualties in insurgent conflicts; it must accommodate the millions of other lives that are fractured and destroyed by the lack of development, the loss of opportunities and employment, and the despair and desperation that widespread violence, intimidation and terror create.

3. Barriers to Reason

3.1 Within the Indian system, regrettably, powerful obstacles have been gradually erected against the evolution of 'good theory and good methodology' in the spheres of conflict studies in general and of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency policy, strategy and tactics, in particular. Academicians have been reluctant to 'soil their hands' with research in these troubling subjects, and the limited efforts in this direction have been deeply flawed. By and large, academics has not committed itself in sufficient measure to the documentation and study of issues relating to terrorism and insurgency. To the extent that there has been some academic writing, it has chosen 'safe areas' - such as discourses on the definition of terrorism, the 'root causes' of terrorism, and the distinctions between terrorism and 'liberation struggles'; or politically correct 'meta-issues' - such as human rights and political violence - that do not demand engagement on the ground or unpleasant field research in the affected areas, or fractious interactions with uncooperative civil and police bureaucrats. Current scholarship appears to be insulated from the more demanding and crucial aspects of the conflicts, and from the areas of risk, while reductionism and an entirely doctrinaire approach dominates most such analyses.4 The academic discourse has also been variously distorted (as has thinking in governance) by intellectual inertia, by passing fashions of thought, and by the tyranny of public opinion and media endorsement. There has been little effort or courage to challenge received wisdom or settled orthodoxies - except in the language or idiom of another such orthodoxy.5

3.2 Governments and their various agencies, on the other hand, have failed to establish internal mechanisms and institutions to carry out these necessary tasks of documentation, analysis, assimilation and dissemination of counter-insurgency and conflict resolution experience in various theatres. In passing, it is useful to note that several institutions with the requisite mandate do exist within Government. However, their state of health and the availability or profile of human and material resources for mandated tasks remains poor. More significantly, they enjoy little prestige within the official hierarchy, particularly in comparison with 'executive' posts and departments, and have generally had no more than marginal impact on official policy or practice.

3.2.1 In the absence of vigorous institutional instrumentalities to carry out these tasks, fitful efforts and an absence of focus tend to characterize the approach of executive agencies who may be tempted, from time to time, to take up such an undertaking. Specifically, the executive duties of these agencies themselves constitute a near-insurmountable obstacle to any systematic and adequate enterprise of documentation and analysis.

Events crowd one another too rapidly. Technology matures too quickly. Crises succeed each other too abruptly. Coping with a demanding present and confronting an ominous future, few current civilian and military leaders seem willing to indulge in systematic reflection about the past.6

3.3 The criticality of concurrent documentation and field research in the theatres of strife, and at the time of the various campaigns, needs enormous emphasis in this context: "Bland statistics and banal secondary sources cannot replace the understanding that comes through engagement in field research at the time when the conflict is current."7

3.4 In the absence, then, of a coherent body of internal (official) or open source documentation and analysis, the national discourse on terrorism, insurgency and other patterns of major political conflict, has remained polarized and overwhelmingly moulded by political and partisan sympathies, rather than any information or understanding that reflects the realities of the ground. It has been muddied, moreover, by a polemical, rather than practical, obsession with the most extraordinarily obtuse dichotomies that have dominated the largely incestuous debate on conflict: 'law and order approaches' vs. 'addressing root causes'; 'military solution' vs. 'developmental solution'; 'criminals, extortionists and brigands' vs. 'our children' or 'our brothers and sisters'; 'terrorists' vs. 'freedom fighters'. These conceptual opposites have done little to inform or shape policy, but have imposed a measure of paralysis on the state's institutions, constraining the evolution of effective strategies to confront and neutralize India's multiple insurgencies.

3.5 It is not possible, here, to document the range of pseudo-histories and false sociologies, and the extensive scope of the tyranny of political correctness that has obstructed rational assessments of, and policies in response to, terrorism, insurgency and other patterns of contemporary mass political violence. There is the irrational quest for a 'perfect definition' of terrorism; the ludicrous affectation of the claim that 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter'; the simulated and unprincipled discourse over demands for ethnic or communal separation, autonomy and 'self-determination' - ideological bullock-carts that are irreconcilable in a globalising world order that shares universal values of equality and human rights; and the perversion of democratic processes to further the power and interest of democracy's most unwavering enemies. It is clear that policy prescriptions based on abundantly falsified theoretical perspectives and mistaken popular beliefs contribute directly to terrorist butchery and to the persistence of movements of extremist violence across the world.

4. A Re-dedication to Reality

4.1 The success or failure of any enterprise depends substantially on the measure of clarity that attends its conceptualization and execution. The responses to major contemporary conflicts, including terrorism and insurgency, have been greatly inhibited by an absence of clarity, enormous confusion over the concept, a partisan debate, and deliberate obfuscation by at least certain entities.

4.2 Crucially, no real scientific progress can rely purely on conceptual paradigms or theoretical science. This is as much the case with the hard as with the social sciences. In the hard sciences, real progress depends as much on developments in pure theory as it does on the material and applied sciences, on engineering and technological advances, and on applications, right down to the levels of technicians who assist in the transfer and dissemination of technologies to the end user. Each link in this chain, from the conceptually highest to the lowest levels of application, is integral to the outreach of the benefits of science to mankind. To the extent that the social sciences have distanced themselves from this model, focusing overwhelmingly on the meta-theoretical levels, and on secondary analysis, rather than on the primary datum of experience and on the imperatives of policy and practice, they have marginalized their relevance and are, as a result, themselves poorer, even as society and governance has been deprived of informed and objective feedback that is integral to efficient and, crucially, democratic functioning.

4.3 We need, consequently, to enormously re-dedicate ourselves to reality, to the study of the specific circumstances in which movements of political violence emerge, and in which they end; to the creation of vast and over-lapping data-bases on conflicts; and on the documentation of specific strategic and tactical initiatives that have succeeded or failed, and the circumstances within which they have secured these outcomes.


  1. Maoist afflicted: 194 districts; J&K: 20 districts; Northeast: 57 districts (Assam: 27 districts; Tripura: 4 districts; Meghalaya: 3 districts; Manipur: 9 districts; Arunachal Pradesh: 3 districts; Nagaland: 11 districts). Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal

  2. Ajai Sahni, "Social Science and Contemporary Conflicts: The Challenge of Research on Terrorism", in Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, Volume 9, July 2001, New Delhi: ICM-Bulwark Books, p. 147.

  3. Larry Reynolds, "Sociological Theory in the 21st Century", Archives of the Transforming Sociology Series of the Red Feather Institute for Advanced Studies in Sociology, No.133.

  4. Ajai Sahni, "Social Science and Contemporary Conflicts: The Challenge of Research on Terrorism", op cit., p. 144.

  5. Ibid., pp. 144-145.

  6. Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, "Introduction", in Murray and Sinnreich (Eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 1.

  7. Ibid., p. 154.

(March 16, 2008)





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