Saturday, August 18, 2012

Assam, Sun Tzu, SMS, and the geography of conflict

The economic violence occurring in Assam (due to land disputes), though labelled ethnic (between Bodos and Bengalis, the latter who are also noted as Muslim), and the violence now gripping other urban areas in India where, according to reports, Muslim groups are targeting those who look "Northeastern."  Retaliatory strikes on a group for violence done elsewhere in the country is nothing new, but the geography of conflict is represented in the way these attacks were organized using SMS and MMS messaging services.  Mass text messaging had (has) such an important role in the organizing of riots targeting "northeasterners" in the cities that Delhi announced a 15-day ban on 18 August.

But that's not the end of the story, in addition to this revelation of almost instantaneous transmission of photo- and video-graphic evidence from conflict zones hundreds if not thousands of miles away (a concept which most governmental and military types have trouble grasping), some percentage of the photographs and videos distributed by text were fabricated.  And it seems that some of these "altered"/"morphed" photos and videos were uploaded in Pakistan.

Taken together this is a very dangerous development for internal social stability, particularly in free media societies. Perhaps Indian Muslims are more inclined to read and get news from Pakistani websites, but where does one draw the line between honest mistakes (uploading the wrong photo or typographical errors) and disinformation/propaganda, where does these altered photos and videos fall? It seems that Government of India considers them to be the latter.

I don't know the whole story (obviously) but one question is - are these websites run by or associated with the Government of Pakistan? If so, then the implications are even more significant - it would amount to officially sanctioned information warfare. Even if these websites are run and maintained by concerned citizens with no ties to the government the overall affect of the disinformation is the same in India - riots, killings, and an environment of instability.

Consider: if you enemy is too busy fighting himself, then you probably won't ever have to. And that, dear readers, is Sun Tzu at his finest.

So what does this mean for the geography of conflict? The ongoing Assam 2012 conflict case is instructive.  How do we bound the conflict? Where is it taking place? Certainly not only in Assam, it has now spread to urban areas throughout India. In addition, the number of actors has expanded and the nature of the conflict is even more complex. An economic conflict over land rights continues and now runs alongside urban riots targeting a racial community, basing its information (and its subsequent actions) on disinformation partially coming from an inimical neighbor. The Army is involved in the former, while the police (presumably) are involved in the latter. Then there is the media and political groups confounding the voting public with their own narratives for the conflict, calling it ethnic, religious, or because of immigration.

Thinking more deeply about this case, the basis for conflict seems fundamentally unchanged - there is still the Clausewitizian trinity of goverment, people, military. However, as I just demonstrated we sometimes forget the importance of the interlocking relationship between these three actors during conflicts. Americans forgot the lesson in Vietnam, when an astute enemy remembered and won. Democracies are probably most sensitive to the People portion of the trinity, take the public will in a democracy out of conflict and you win. The U.S. typically separates the military and civil side of conflict (much to its detriment) but as the Assam case clearly shows, you cannot.  The Assam conflict is much more than its roots, which is (again) LAND DISPUTES.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Assam: India's very own basket case

...and this has absolutely nothing to do with illegal immigrants.  Really.

Some political parties (I'm looking at you BJP) are riding the long-dead horse of illegal immigration into the next election coming up in a few years (ask the Republicans in the U.S. how that works out).  For all the vitriol coming from some certain political parties you would think that India has a major illegal immigration problem.  In terms of comparison, the United States (population about 300 million) has approximately 11 million (not even 10% of the population) illegal immigrants from Mexico. India (population  over 1,000 million) recorded less than 100,000 persons (not even 1%) who could be considered illegal Bangladeshis over a three year period from 2009 to 2011 (says the Times of India).

So why blame illegal immigrants? The same reason Americans do, its politically expedient. Even some Congress politicians think they can garner favor with their constituents by blaming illegal immigrants.  I'm no expert on corruption, but I'm willing to be that if these politicians spent more time fixing broken economies with what money they do receive (rather than doling out favors to businesses and buying votes) the economic situation would actually improve.  Though I believe border management is largely a farce (seal the border! is a laughably stupid idea from, you guessed it, the BJP) meant to gather additional funds from Delhi, supporting local economies and cross-border trade would go a long way in righting the imbalance.

The continual harping on illegal Bangladeshi migrants (who just happen to also be Muslim) is also threatening to turn the ethnic violence narrative into a religious violence narrative as riots broke out in Mumbai (killing two and wounding scores more) following protests over the victimization of Muslims in Assam.  Copy cat attacks are now spreading to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and elsewhere in Maharashtra, forcing the government to issue an advisory to various states asking these governments actually protect the citizens of India. What a novel idea!

Despite this very worrying development, I wouldn't call the Assam violence a pogrom, yet, since the Chief Minister of Assam (finally) revealed a few weeks ago that the conflict occurred over land rights and admitted that there are "no Bangladeshis in the clash."  But hats off to the BJP and the media for its sensationalism and abhorrent oversimplification. One hopes that the Indian media will wake up and stop painting the conflict as ethnic or religious in nature, not to mention the xenophobic Hindutva/Bharatiya Janata Party (HJP perhaps?).  Framing the conflict in this way obscures politically relevant solutions (like land reform and anti-corruption campaigns) for waste-of-money-and-time proposals like sealing off the border (seriously, if the U.S. can't do it in a desert, India certainly can't do it a geography dominated by hills, greenery, and waterways.

Update (literally minutes after I post):

STOP CALLING IT ETHNIC VIOLENCE TIMES OF INDIA. And yes, it is unfortunate because no one has really decided to investigate what the real problem is. Its much easier to just blame sectarian violence, because if you actually confronted the real problem - one would realize that it takes a bit more work (and money) than extra policing.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cultural Sub-Regions

Currently reading: The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier (1204-1760) by Prof. Richard M. Eaton. Absolutely fabulous read from a cultural and historical geography perspective.

As the title implies, it tracks the development of Islam in Bengal from the early Turkish conquest (with the requisite discussion of Buddhist/Hindu religious underpinnings).

Chapter 1 includes a discussion of the ancient Bengal sub-regions without a decent map to show how these coincide with modern boundaries.

So I bring to you gentle readers, a map!

The shaded districts are noted in Eaton's text. I included circles to drive home the idea that the "unshaded" districts are likely part of the same cultural region. So why bother with this?

No less than two cultural sub-regions were split by British partition activities. Varendra (i.e. North Bengal) and Vanga (i.e. Central and southwest Bengal).  As Eaton points out in his text, historical development (meaning population, economic, political, cultural) flowed from west to east in Bengal. Thus, the Bhagirathi-Hooghly Basin which could arguably be conceived of the heartland of Bengal is situated wholly within India.  Meanwhile, the second heartland (Vanga) got split.

Samatata and Harikela, according to Eaton's text, were initially underdeveloped and hardly "Bengali." Samatata had more in common with the Arakan states and looked to oceanic trade as its actual lifeline.

That continued violence occurs in both Vanga (think Khulna) and Varendra (think Rajshahi) we may hypothesize that the continued split in the cultural region is partly to blame.  Though analyzing current events using data from the 13th century is tenuous in some ways, we should pause to reflect. Perhaps this isn't purely coincidental?