The enduring nexus between poverty or economic deprivation and violent identity politics could not be stressed enough. The lingering identity-based violence in some parts of India’s North-East, to consider one example, graphically bears out this causative link.
At first blush the continuing violence in India’s Manipur state is traceable to inter-tribal hostilities but when the observer penetrates below surface appearances she would find that the root causes of the violence are economic in nature. On the face of it, plans by the state authorities to go ahead with extended economic quotas for the majority Meitei tribal group, for instance, who are considered the economic underdogs in Manipur, have intensified hostilities between the rest of the tribal groups and the Meitei.
It is plain that perceptions among the rest of the tribal communities that they are being unfairly treated by the state are accounting in considerable measure for the continuing ethnic tensions in Manipur. That is, the fear of being deprived of their life-chances on the part of the rest of the communities as a consequence of the new economic empowerment measures being initiated for the Meitei is to a considerable degree driving the ethnic violence in Manipur. It would be reasonable to take the position that economics, in the main, are driving politics in the state.
Sri Lanka, of course, is no exception to the rule. There is no doubt that identity issues propelled to some extent the LTTE’s war against the Sri Lankan state and its armed forces over three long decades.
However, it was perceived economic deprivation on the part of sections of the Tamil community, particularly among its youthful sections, that prompted the relevant disaffected sections to interpret the conflict in ethnic identity terms. In the final analysis, economic issues drove the conflict. If Lankan governments had, from the inception, ensured economic equity and justice in all parts of the country the possibility of ethnic tensions taking root in Sri Lanka could have been guarded against.
Even in contemporary Sudan, the seeming power struggle between two army generals, which has sowed destruction in the country, is showing signs of taking on an ethnic complexion. Reports indicate that the years-long confrontation between the Arab and black African communities over land and water rights is resurfacing amid the main power contest. Economic issues, that is, are coming to the fore. Equitable resource-sharing among the main communities could have perhaps minimized the destructive nature of the current crisis in the Sudan.
Sections of the international community have, over years, seen the majority of conflicts and wars in the post-Cold War decades as being triggered in the main by identity questions. Identity politics are also seen as bound up with an upswing in terrorism. In order to understand the totality of the reasons behind this substantive change one may need to factor in the destabilizing consequences of economic globalization.
The gradual dissolving of barriers to international economic interactions that came in the wake of globalization in the eighties and nineties brought numerous material benefits to countries but in the case of the more traditional societies of the South, there were deeply destabilizing and disorienting results. This was particularly so in those societies where the clergy of particularly theistic religions, such as Islam, held sway over communities.
In these comparatively insulated societies of the South, unprecedented exposure to Western culture, which came in the wake of globalization, was seen as mainly inimical. Besides, perceived alien Western cultural and religious influences were seen by the more conservative Southern clergy as undermining their influence among their communities.
A Southern country that reacted quite early against the above forces of perceived decadence was Iran. Iran’s problems were compounded by the fact that the Shah of the times was following a staunchly pro-US foreign policy. It was only a matter of time before there was an eruption of militant religious fervour in the country, which ultimately helped in ushering an Islamic theocracy in the country. Needless to say, this revolutionary change in Iran impacted drastically the politics of the Middle East and beyond.
Militant Islam was showing signs of spreading in Central Asia when the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan occurred in 1979. This military incursion could have been seen as an attempt by the Soviet authorities to prevent the spread of militant Islam to Afghanistan, a state which was seen as playing a principal role in the USSR’s security.
However, radical Islamic opposition to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan came in the form of the Mujahedin, who eventually morphed into the present day Taliban. However, as could be seen, the Taliban presence has led to the spread militant religious sentiment in South and South-West Asia.
Fortunately, there is substantive political science scholarship in South Asia currently which helps the observer to understand better the role poverty and material backwardness play in sowing the seeds of religious fundamentalism, or identity politics, among the youth of the region in particular. A collection of papers which would prove helpful in this regard is titled, ‘Civil Wars in South Asia – State, Sovereignty, Development’, edited by Aparna Sundar and Nandini Sundar, (SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd.) In some of its papers are outlined, among other things, the role religious institutions of the region play in enticing impoverished youth to radical identity-based violent politics.
While there is no questioning the lead role domestic poverty plays in the heightening and spread of identity politics and the violence that goes hand-in-hand with it, one’s analysis of these questions would not be complete without factoring into the situation external military interventions, such as those of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have aggravated the economic miseries of the ordinary people of those countries. There is an urgent need for in-depth impartial studies of this kind, going forward.
Russian ambassador’s comments
The Russian ambassador to Sri Lanka in a response to my column of May 18th , 2023 titled, ‘Containment Theory returns to West’s ties with East’, takes up the position that the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, beginning 1979, was not an invasion but an operation that was undertaken by the Soviets on the invitation of the then government of Afghanistan. This amounts to contradicting the well-founded position of the majority of international authorities on the subject that the Soviet push into Afghanistan was indeed a military invasion of the country. This is the position that I have taken over the years and I do not have any reason to back down from it.
The subsequent comments made by the ambassador on my column are quite irrelevant to its thematic substance and do not warrant any replies by me.