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July 08, 2018


Palestinian protesters face tear gas as smoke billows from burning tyres at Gaza border on May 14, 2018 | AFP
Palestinian protesters face tear gas as smoke billows from burning tyres at Gaza border on May 14, 2018 | AFP

In the last 70 years, according to Ahsan I. Butt, author of Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy against Separatists, there have been 163 civil wars. The sheer number of uprisings, which were either ideologically or ethno-nationalist based, has motivated political and social scientists to undertake empirical research of the phenomenon and come up with their theories. Butt confines his research to ethno-nationalist secession movements as, according to him, “about half (75 out of 163, or 46 percent) secessionist movements led to full blown war” and “are the chief source of violence in the world today.”

The author laments that the theories of others cannot explain the phenomenon because of their entire focus on domestic factors. Accordingly, he develops his theory on the international system which exerts pulls on domestic policies as well as leads to shifts in the balance of power. Butt builds his theory on two independent variables — the likelihood of future war and third-party support — to explain the extent of response by states to threats of secession. According to his theory, when the perception of future war is high and border change not acceptable, the extent of a state’s response — ranging from policing and militarisation to collective repression — will depend upon the level of third-party support to the threat of secession. In reverse situations, when the likelihood of future war and border changes are acceptable, secessionists are offered negotiations and concessions.

To test his theory, he selects ethno-nationalist secessionist movements in seven countries: Pakistan (Bengal and Balochistan); India (Assam, Punjab and India-held Kashmir); the Ottoman Empire (Armenia); the Middle East (Palestine); Czechoslovakia (Slovakia); Scandinavia (Norway) and the United States (the secession of six Southern states from the union, which is commonly called the American Civil War).

A political scientist theorises why some secessionist movements lead to brutal state repression and others not

Butt forcefully argues that secessionist movements between 1971 and 1977 in Bengal (former East Pakistan) and Balochistan were dealt with under the security threat of India and, as such, acquiescing to border changes was anathema. The difference in the state’s response depended only on the extent of third-party support given to each movement. In the case of Bengal, the level of response turned from Hindu-specific to outright massacre as Indian support to the movement turned into direct Indian army attack on Pakistan. However, state response to the movement in Balochistan remained limited to policing and militarisation between 1973 and 1977 as, except for some moderate support from Afghanistan to the movement, the global and regional powers — particularly Iran — were supportive of state action.

The author extends the same argument to the Indian state response in Assam between 1985 and 1992, Punjab between 1984 and 1993 and India-held Kashmir between 1989 and 1994. In the case of Assam, Butt argues that Indian response remained confined to policing primarily because of lack of external support to the movement that had been spearheaded by the United Liberation Front of Assam. As regards Punjab, the author claims that the movement was started by rural Sikhs who demanded concessions which were accepted by Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 because Pakistani support to the movement at that juncture was muted. However, when the third-party support became more robust, a harsher strategy of militarisation was adopted.

As for the movement in India-held Kashmir between 1984 and 1994 triggered by fraudulent elections in 1987, Butt ascribes it to the Indian perception that Pakistan was behind the rebellion and the Indian state acted “as the theory proffered in this book would predict, with heavy-handed repression, with both emotional and materialistic effects of high third-party support operative.”

The Ottoman Empire’s responses to Armenia’s secession received an accommodating response from the Young Turk Movement in 1908 with the promise of administrative reforms. However, after the outbreak of World War I, Turkey joined the Central Powers. Russia, being in the opposite camp, gave strong support to the Armenians. Because of this third-party support, the Ottoman Empire switched from negotiations to genocide in 1914-15.

Turning to the Middle East, the author describes how, after its creation in May 1948, Israel used repression to drive Palestinians out to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Both Palestinian territories fell to Egypt and Jordan. After the Six-Day War in 1967, in some of the territory where Palestinians lived and which was not incorporated into Israel proper, Israel continued to exercise administrative authority and occupy the land for settlements. A mass uprising known as the first intifada took place in December 1987 to liberate Palestinian land from illegal Israeli occupation and to establish an independent Palestinian state. As there was no third-party support, Israel’s response was confined to policing.

However, after the 1995 Oslo Accords signed between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation headed by Yasser Arafat and then prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, were renounced by Rabin’s eventual successor Benjamin Netanyahu, and the second intifada erupted in 2000 — after the failure of talks at Camp David arranged by then American president Bill Clinton between Arafat and Netanyahu’s successor Ehud Barak — the Israeli response was a militarisation strategy. The Palestinian struggle again had no third-party support, but Butt believes that this strategy was adopted because of deep security concerns in Israel because of the rise of the religious and nationalist settler lobby in Israel.

The author cites two cases of amicable settlement that led to a “velvet divorce.” One was Slovakia’s secession on Jan 1, 1993. According to Butt’s theory, this was made possible since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany and the end of the Cold War rendered the region’s environment wholly benign. Similarly, Scandinavia experienced a peaceful separation when Norway and Sweden became independent states in 1905. This was facilitated because of the non-belligerent posture of both parties, eschewing security threats to each other, and their common policy of keeping away from international power politics.

Although the author’s theory is confined to empirical research of secessionist movements based on ethno-nationalism, he extends his theory to explain the declaration of secession of six southern American states from the union on March 4, 1861 as well. The formulation of a constitution and formation of the confederate government in February 1862, resulted in the outbreak of war because of the fear within the northern states that there would follow a “recognition of [the] Confederacy by the United Kingdom.” He bases it on qualitative data gathered by him and subsumes under it the causes of division on the issue of abolition of slavery and the sharp differences on economic policy between the union and southern states.

Although Butt develops his security theory of secessionist conflict based on international factors, he does not analyse the much bigger question of the abnormal increase in secessionist conflicts since 1946. Is this acceleration further inspired, supported and rooted in former American president Barack Obama’s policy of ‘Smart Power’, which was put in place in 2010 to take secessionist movement to fruition? Is it fuelled by the geo-politics of the world powers who possess plentiful resources, sophisticated weapons and advanced cyber technology to dissolve and create states consistent with their aims — a practice resorted to before and after the two World Wars?

The author holds the view that secessionist movements are started by sub-nationalist minority groups in any state. This assertion does not apply to Bengal (East Pakistan) in the ‘old Pakistan’ which constituted a majority ethnic group. Was it because of the fact that, since the very inception of the country, the West Pakistan leadership — in league with the establishment — had decided not to hand over the reins of government to Bengal and used all types of machinations to keep Bengal away from power?

As for the current conflicts in India-held Kashmir, Palestine and Balochistan, the author’s third-party support theory falls short of explaining the continued repression by India and Israel respectively and a conciliatory policy in Baluchistan by Pakistan. At the conclusion of his book, Butt dwells at length on the subject of the uprising in India-held Kashmir after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen ‘commander’ Burhan Wani in 2016; India responded with collective repression rather than the mild response of policing despite the absence of aggressive third-party support from Pakistan. Similarly, Israel’s policy of “collective repression” in Palestine from May 14, 2018, cannot be explained by Butt’s theory. As for the current uprising in Balochistan, Pakistan’s response has been comparatively mild despite indications of support from India and Afghanistan, as evidenced by Indian spy Kulbhushan Jhadav’s arrest and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public statements extending full support to the Baloch movement.

The reviewer is the author of Pakistan Under Siege

Secession and Security: Explaining State
Strategy Against Separatists
By Ahsan I. Butt
Cornell University Press, US
ISBN: 978-1501713941

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 8th, 2018