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Ethnicity, Security and Separatism in India

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BY MAYA CHADDA

NEW YORK: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1997

286 PAGES

This book posits that Indian foreign policy has been analyzed up to this point through one of two lenses: India is either attempting to gain hegemony over its neighboring states, or it is a helpless giant and is forced to take the actions it does by circumstances beyond its control. Chadda proposes a different framework within which to examine Indian foreign policy, namely, that of relational control and interlocking balances. It is a more nuanced view of these matters than previously attempted, and sheds some important light on issues of regional conflict, domestic politics, multinational states, and the impact of subnational populations which live on both sides of an international border.

Many people have pointed out that postcolonial states in Asia and Africa have boundaries which were drawn mainly for the convenience of their colonial rulers, and that the successor states have had to deal with the fallout of these borders throughout their existence. This is very apparent in South Asia, particularly in regard to the Indo-Pakistan and Indo-Bangladesh borders. Drawn in secrecy at the last moment before partition in 1947 and then suddenly revealed, these borders cut through heavily populated areas which contained groups of people who had, at least until shortly before that time, considered themselves to be of one community. The attempt of the political movement of the Muslim League to get Indian Muslims to make their Muslim identity paramount to any other prior identity (Punjabi, Bengali, Indian, or of a particular sect) led to the partition of two of India’s most populous provinces (Punjab and Bengal). The fallout from this partition continues today, and is one of the major topics of Chadda’s book.

Chadda examines the Nehruvian approach to dealing with ethnic demands, contrasts it with the approaches of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, and those of India’s non-Congress government, and finds some common threads and some significant differences between the various approaches. But she argues that the underlying motive for all Indian governments was to maintain “relational control,” meaning the ability of the Indian state to maintain its own security vis-à-vis its neighboring states, and to keep other powers (the U.S., Russia, China) out of South Asia.

While focusing exclusively on the Indian case, this book could be a useful reading for any class focusing on ethnic conflict, international relations, or post-colonial states. The cases Chadda studies cover all of these areas, and give concrete examples. These examples would be very useful for discussion in undergraduate level courses and possibly in some high school classes. This book provides an alternative framework for discussing “ethnic conflict” to what is often heard in the media, i.e. that wars such as those in the former Yugoslavia and in Central Africa are the outcome of “age-old” conflicts. Rather, as discussed by Chadda, they are often the outcome of actions taken by governments which do not have the desired effect.

The weaknesses of this book include Chadda’s too-forgiving attitude to the Indian government’s heavy-handed approach to the insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir, as well as a need for closer proofreading to catch not only typographical errors (of which there are many) but errors such as this: “Raju Thomas calls this the ‘Rodney King’ complex: anxiety for status and a nagging sense that India has not received its due as a major regional power” (p. 206) [italics added]. I believe the Rodney to which she wishes to refer is Dangerfield.