Of all the separatist movements in the country, the one in Assam attracted the least repressive response from the Indian state, argues a top US-based scholar in a study of secessionist movements across the world.
The insights provided by Ahsan Butt in his masterly work ‘Secession and Security: Explaining state strategy against separatism’ are based on study of secessionist movements across four continents over the past 200 years.
Butt, who teaches policy and governance at USA’s George Mason University, has presented his core argument that those separatist movements perceived as having a high degree of hostile foreign support attract the most repressive response.
“That is why the movements in Kashmir attracted such heavy repressive measures from the Indian state as compared to Assam. Even Nagaland and Mizoram witnessed greater repression than Assam because the guerrilla groups there enjoyed direct Pakistani and Chinese support,” argues Butt.
He said the Sikh separatist movement in Punjab initially did not attract much repression but only after India began to suspect strong Pakistani involvement did Delhi respond fiercely with ‘Operation Blue Star’.
Butt says the Indian state slowly accepted the core Assamese concern of illegal migration and began to treat it as a matter of national concern.
“Even the military operations against the ULFA lasted only a few months and the ferocity was nowhere near what we witness in Kashmir. Punjab would be somewhere in between, the response less hostile than Kashmir but more than Assam,” Butt opines.
Butt says that the splits in the ULFA only reinforced the India state ‘s perception that the influence of the anti-national elements were limited in Assam and the process of negotiation and dialogue would help more than a heavy handed military response.
He brings up the religious factor to explain the ferocity of state response in Kashmir where the predominant Muslim population is suspect and seen as pro Pakistan, especially after the rise of the Hindu right in India, though they had opposed raiders from across the border in both 1947 and 1965 and sided with the Indian Army on both occasions.
In contrast, the Sikh terrorists in Punjab or the Assamese separatists were seen as misguided children who would ultimately return to the fold.
Butt looks at Pakistan’s contemporary history to prove his point.
He says the genocidal response of the Pakistan army in East Pakistan stemmed from racial perceptions as the Bengali Muslims were seen as impure and disloyal and highly influenced by Bengali Hindu culture and thought processes.
“Pakistani military officers saw Mujibur Rahman as an Indian puppet and his autonomist movement as a cover for linguistic separatism. They felt his becoming Prime Minister of Pakistan would undermine the very character of Pakistan,” says Butt.
Even the large presence of Hindu teachers in schools and colleges in East Pakistan was suspect in Pakistani eyes as they were seen as corrupting the Bengali Muslims in the formative years of their youth and turning them against Pakistan.
Butt says that though the Baloch revolt against Pakistan in 1973-77 lasted much longer than the Bengali insurrection, it was not seen as an existential threat for Pakistan and hence the state response was more targeted at militants and not guided by the kill-all, rape-all policy seen in East Pakistan.
“That is because the Baloch rebels got no real support from India or the Soviet Union and only little help from the Daoud regime in Afghanistan. Iran backed the Bhutto government wholeheartedly because it has to reckon with its own Baloch population. So Pakistan deployed 80,000 troops to quell the Baloch uprising but the brutalities were nowhere near what we saw in East Pakistan,” argues Butt.
Butt’s core argument that state response to separatist challenges are largely conditioned by whether they are seen as an existential crisis for the state and whether they are backed by hostile foreign countries is an important contribution to the study of secessionist movements and state responses.
It is a two way traffic – the heavier and more ruthless the response of the state, the stronger the movements become because they tend to get greater popular support from a beleaguered population which is left with little option but to fight.
But the success of such movements depends as much on foreign backing as on the popular support and the objective basis to back separatist sentiments.
Butt is also right to point to geographical factors – the presence of India on three sides of East Pakistan and the faraway location of Balochistan is an example of the success of one separatist campaign and the failure of the other one.
He quotes the legendary RAW officer B Raman as saying it was impossible to supply the Baloch rebels by sea in the mid seventies.
That should be kept in mind by some present Indian functionaries who threaten to foment trouble in Balochistan to avenge Pakistani involvement in Kashmir.
The chances of success are remote.