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Conflict Resolution: The Social Sciences as Force Multipliers

POSTED ON MARCH 26, 2009

AJAI SAHNI
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR CONFLICT MANAGEMENT, NEW DELHI

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 be used towards that end (resolving conflict), the costs of not employing this discipline are unacceptable. 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.

Historical amnesia, the near complete absence of institutional memory, continues to afflict 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. Since the commencement of India’s first insurgency soon after independence – in Nagaland in 1952— 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. Astonishingly, the literature on these many internal wars is minuscule; and strategic and tactical assessments of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaigns, negligible.

There has been no systematic effort to document and analyse the enormous cumulative experience of campaigns since Independence. 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, there has been no attempt in this regard. These problems are further aggravated by policies of task allocation and transfer that do not value continuity of experience. As a result, 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.

Academicians have been reluctant to ‘soil their hands’ with research in troubling subjects, and the limited efforts in this direction have been deeply flawed. By and large, academics have not committed themselves 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. There has been little effort or courage to challenge received wisdom or settled orthodoxies – except in the language or idiom of another such orthodoxy.

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. While several institutions with the requisite mandate do exist within Government, 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.

In the absence of a coherent body of 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.

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.

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.

There should be a re-dedication 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.

(Abridged version of the key note address delivered by the author at the National Workshop on "Can Political Science be a Tool to Understand and Resolve Conflicts? The Case of India's Northeast " held in Guwahati on March 16, 2009).