Research Blog

2 interesting articles on Assam’s politics

One on the 1980s/early 1990s, the other on contemporary Assam:

Alex Waterman, “The shadow of ‘the boys:’ rebel governance without territorial control in Assam’s ULFA insurgency,” Small Wars and Insurgencies:

This article leverages data from an oft-overlooked case of rebel governance – India’s United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) – to demonstrate the importance of de-centring territorial control as a prerequisite for rebel governance. ULFA neither controlled territory nor developed formalised bureaucratic institutions, yet its ‘parallel government’ held considerable sway over Assamese public life during 1985–1990, underpinned by its social embeddedness, influence upon media discourse and crucially its subversion of state structures, until its ability to limit state repression collapsed. The rise and fall of ULFA’s rebel governance illustrates the hybrid socio-political terrain upon which rebel governance is often laid.”

Neelanjan Sircar, “Religion-as-Ethnicity and the Emerging Hindu Vote in India,” Studies in Indian Politics:

“Religious division formed the basis for the subcontinent’s partition and has continued to be a major social cleavage in local relations. Yet remarkably religious parties have rarely been successful in India. This may be changing with an ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party mobilizing the Hindu vote. Accordingly, this article seeks to explicate the conditions under which successful religious parties may emerge. In order to do so, I conceive of electoral mobilization on religion as a form of ethnic mobilization, what I refer to as religion-as-ethnicity voting. I argue that religion-as-ethnicity voting emerges when the religious group meets certain spatial demographic criteria (density and pivotality) and when a governing party representing these interests can use state power to reify boundaries between religious groups. I use this framework to explain the emergence of the Hindu vote in the Indian state of Assam.”

India’s Communists go to Moscow

The Wilson Center has a great Digital Archive, including a valuable Cold War International History Project. I’ve been trying to learn up on the Indian Left during the Cold War, and came across a couple fascinating documents from a 1951 visit by a group of Indian Communists to Moscow. They’re quite long but really worth reading, as they try to figure out how to best apply concepts like “national bourgeoisie” to the Indian context, seek guidance on navigating their own internal disagreements (i.e. over the priority to be placed on armed struggle), and answer questions from Stalin about conditions in India.

  1. “MEETING OF TOP CPI AND CPSU COMRADES” (a key focus of this one is resolving the situation Rao describes – “serious differences have emerged among us regarding the political line of the party. The disagreements have resulted in a situation wherein the work of the party has come to a standstill”):
    “Delegation representing the Indian Communist Party, including Rao, Ghosh, and Dange, discusses the internal disagreements within the ICP following the party’s Second Congress, stemming largely over the question of armed struggle. Also touches on how the ICP should react to foreign policy issues, including US involvement in the Korean War.”

2. “RECORD OF A CONVERSATION BETWEEN STALIN AND REPRESENTATIVES OF THE INDIAN COMMUNIST PARTY”

“Meeting in Moscow between Stalin and Indian Communist Party representatives C. Rajeswara Rao, S. A. Dange, A. K. Ghosh, and [M. Basava] Punnaiah. Stalin responded to a series of prepared questions from the representatives.”

Stalin offers lots of advice; for instance:
“It is very much to your advantage to neutralize the big bourgeoisie and split off nine-tenths of all the national bourgeoisie from it. You don’t need to artificially create new enemies for yourself. And so you have many of them. The big capitalists’ turn will come, too, and, of course, then their turn will come. The problems of a revolution are decided in stages. All stages cannot be lumped together”

and

“They tell us there [in India] that partisan warfare is completely sufficient to achieve the victory of the revolution in India. This is incorrect.  Conditions in China were much more favorable than in India. There was a trained People’s Liberation Army in China. You do not have a trained army. China does not have such a dense rail network as India and this is a great convenience for partisans.  You have fewer opportunities for successful partisan warfare than China. India is more developed than China industrially. This is good from the point of view of progress but poor from the point of view of partisan warfare. No matter what detachments and liberated areas you would create they would still remain little islands. You don’t have such a friendly neighboring country on which you could rely as a backbone as the Chinese partisans created, having the USSR at their back.

Afghanistan, Iran, and Tibet, where the Chinese Communists cannot yet reach…This is not such a rear area as the USSR. Burma? Pakistan? These are all land borders and the rest are maritime. Therefore you need to look for an alternative [vykhod].

Is partisan warfare necessary? Unquestionably, it is.

Will you have liberated areas and a people’s liberation army?

Will there be such areas and will there also be the possibility of having such an army? But this is insufficient for victory. Partisan warfare needs to be combined with revolutionary actions by the workers. Without this, partisan warfare alone cannot have success.. . . .

The Chinese way was good for China.

It is insufficient for India where a proletarian struggle in the cities needs to be combined with the struggle of the peasants”

and

“I cannot consider Nehru’s government to be a puppet. He has his own roots among the population nevertheless. This is not the government of Bao Dai…Bao Dai is really a puppet. Hence it follows that partisan war in India cannot be considered the main form of struggle; maybe it needs to be called the highest form of struggle? “

4 books and a special issue to read together

  1. Victor Cha, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. American strategies to restrain its new Cold War allies in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, fusing together management of international and domestic politics. An IR book with an important comparative politics angle.
  2. Wen-Qing Ngoei, Arc of Containment: Britain, the United States, and Anticommunism in Southeast Asia. How leaders in Malaysia and Singapore maneuvered to build an “arc of containment” against communism both at home and abroad, including skillful manipulation of outside patrons.
  3. Taomo Zhou, Revolution in the Time of Migration: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War. Wonderful book on the intersection of transnational and international influences with domestic political cleavages in Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s.
  4. Christopher Goscha, The Road to Dien Bien Phu. A fascinating history of the DRV in its early years, organized with a blend of theme and chronology I find particularly well done. Kind of an interesting pairing with Cha – the 1940s and 1950s on each side of the emerging regional political competition.
  5. Eva Hansson and Meredith Weiss edited a special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Asia on “Legacies of the Cold War in East and Southeast Asia.” They also edited a great selection of shorter selections from the issue in the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia that is freely available to the public; great example of making scholarly work accessible to those without expensive subscriptions or the right university library.

Some book news

Late last year, Ordering Violence was released by Cornell. For purely scholarly books, there then seems to ensue quite a long lag before anything happens. That lag is now coming to an end. A couple of pieces of news:

  1. In a Perspectives on Politics Critical Dialogue, I reviewed Ioana Emy Matesan’s excellent The Violence Pendulum, she reviewed Ordering Violence, and we responded to each other. You can find my review of The Violence Pendulum here, and Matesan’s review of Ordering Violence here.
  2. Ordering Violence won the Giovanni Sartori Book Award from the Qualitative and Multi-Method Research section of the American Political Science Association. The committee’s commendation is here; the list of past winners here. Sartori’s 1970 article “Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics” has had a huge impact on how I think about social science, so I was particularly thrilled.
  3. Ordering Violence won the Book of the Year Prize from the Conflict Research Society. The shortlist is full of excellent books, and it was honestly quite a surprise to have won. Please check out the shortlist/honorable mentions for both awards – great books.

Novels on “Cold War Asia”

I’m working on a new book and something I like to do at this stage is read novels about the topic (for instance, the last project included Manto and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss). I’m doing this now for the project, which focuses on how international geopolitical competitions refract into domestic politics of smaller states.

I asked on twitter for recommendations of novels on the broad theme of “the Cold War in Asia” and got a bunch of recommendations directly (see the thread here) and then via email and DM. They ended up ranging pretty broadly, including before and after and maybe not totally all that much about the Cold War, which is a lot of the fun.

Here are some of them:

  • Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
  • Graham Greene, The Quiet American
  • Tan Twang Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
  • Andre Malraux, Man’s Fate
  • Christopher Koch. The Year of Living Dangerously
  • John Le Carre, The Honourable Schoolboy
  • Duong Thu Huong, The Zenith
  • Duong Thu Huong, Novel Without a Name
  • Duong Thu Huong, Paradise of the Blind
  • Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War
  • Eugenia Kim, Kinship of Secrets
  • Ha Jin, War Trash
  • Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
  • Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes
  • Paul Yoon, Run Me to Earth
  • McCarry, the Tears of Autumn
  • Neamat Imam, The Black Coat
  • Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
  • Tahmina Anam, A Golden Age
  • Intizar Hussain, Basti
  • Jing Jing Li, How We Disappeared

Rethinking “Control” in civil wars

Territorial control has long been a central focus of policy analysis and scholarly research in civil wars, maps of Viet Minh influence in French Indochina to Stathis Kalyvas’ foundational 2006 book to a current generation of micro-level work in which the spatial distribution of control is, at minimum, a necessary control variable. But what exactly is control and how should we think about how it varies?

This is a provocative new think piece, inspired by Afghanistan, by Ibraheem Bahiss, Ashley Jackson, Leigh Mayhew and Florian Weigand on the complexities of “control.”

It’s full of useful insights but this is, to me, the most interesting takeaway:

“Territorial markers of control tend to be misleading, as many armed groups
exercise control over populations beyond areas where they are physically
present, shaping and influencing civilian life in the economic, social and
political spheres deep into areas thought of as ‘government controlled’.”

Give the whole thing a read.

Interesting documents on Abhilekh Patal

Covid has made travel for archival research tricky, plus I have two small kids so leaving Chicago for more than 3 hours is a byzantine logistical balancing act. I’ve been using online archives a lot (like the Cold War International History Project, FRUS, CIA FOIA records, etc), and want to highlight a useful, if admittedly constrained, source for accessing documents from the National Archives of India.

The Abhilekh Patal portal has some serious interface limitations (for instance, I can’t figure out a way to get a stable hyperlink to specific documents and the search engine can be exceptionally noisy – I end up filtering heavily by collection/type and then scrolling), but nevertheless hosts some very interesting digitized documents. It’s heavily colonial-era, but there is also a lot – largely uploaded in and since 2019 – on post-independence politics, especially foreign affairs. I am mainly interested in China/Nepal/Tibet/Burma dynamics for a current project, but there is also some fascinating stuff on relations with the US, assessments of the Northeast, and some on Kashmir. The View Full Screen option makes a huge difference in viewing, though requires fast internet for the bigger documents. For more open sources on India, see this twitter thread by Manoj Saxena.

A few documents I found interesting are below, with hopefully enough identifying information that others can find them:

1. “China Foreign Policy After Mao,” 1979, File No. HI/102(6)/79) – assessment of future trajectory of Chinese foreign policy and implications for India

2. “Indian Foreign Policy toward South East Asia,” 1976 (File No. HI/103(5)/76) – very interesting echoes of today

3. “Nepal-China (i.e. Sino-Nepal) Border,” 1980/88, File No. HI/107(i)/80

4. “Note on Sino-Nepal Boundary Protocol, 1979,” 1980, File No. HI/102/14/80 – both of these center on Indian assessments of Nepal-China interactions

5. “Indo-US Relations,” 1972, File No. WII-103/17/7

6. “Discontinuation of U.S. to India,” 1972, File No. WII/230/1/72 – about post-1971 war relations with the Nixon administration

7. “China-Indo Relations,” 1975,  File No. HI/121(1)/71

8. ” Setting up of an inter-departmental working group for studying building problems in Indo-Burmese relations,” 1958,  File No. 3(1)-BC(B)/58

9. “Notes prepared by the Ministry of External Affairs on Bangladesh,” 1973, File No. HI/103/12/73 – one of several documents on Indian assessments of dynamics in Bangladesh

10. “Foreign involvement in insurgency in North Eastern India- Preparation of white Paper on the subject by the Ministry of Defence,”  1972, File No. NII/102(33)/72

11. “Declaration of Naga National Council Federal Govt. of Nagaland and Naga Army etc. as unlawful- Original documents (Exhibits) returned by the tribunal,” 1975, File No. 14015/4/75-NE – lots on the Naga conflict

12. “Records of Discussion,” 1981, File No. Wii/122/31/81/VOL-II – anodyne title but full of meetings with Reagan administration officials.

13. “Statehood for Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya and connected problems of North-Eastern Region,” 1970, File. No. 10(31)/70 – 645 (!) pages of materials on the Northeast.

14. “Deployment of S.S.B. on the border along with Border Security Force,” 1980, File No.III-11039/18/80.G&Q.

15. “Tibet Policy: Top Secret notes on India & China on Tibet,” 1952, File No. 7 (1)P/52.

16. “Political Notes prepared by the Historical division Parts I, II & III,” 1971, File No. HI/121(1)/71.

17. Finally, there are numerous large files with monthly reports from various embassies – wording is often something like “Reports of other than Annual from Kathmandu (Nepal)” – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Afghanistan all appear at least occasionally, and tons from US, China, USSR, and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Enforced disappearances in Bangladesh

This is a very good, sobering report on enforced disappearances in Bangladesh by Ali Riaz, published by the Centre for Governance Studies:

“In the past decade, Bangladesh has witnessed a growing number of incidents of enforced
disappearance, that is ‘the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of
liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the
authorization, support or acquiescence of the state.’ At least 522 people have become
victims of enforced disappearance between 2009 and 2018, according to various human
rights organizations. This project gathered detailed information including the names and
professions of the victims, places of disappearance, and alleged involvement of law
enforcement agencies of an additional 71 cases between 2019 and 2021″

The Politics of Opposition in South Asia

Milan Vaishnav and I have been editing a series of essays on the politics of opposition in South Asia. Opposition in this context is meant very broadly, from hard-line anti-government insurgents to mainstream political parties to civil society. It’s an effort to broaden our discussion of regime and opposition dynamics in general, and to bring a set of cases, countries, and authors into the US policy/analytical discussion on South Asia that are too often ignored.

You can find the three essays thus far here on the Carnegie site, examining the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh, the TTP in Pakistan (also the subject of my last blog post), and the Brihat Nagarik Andolan in Nepal. There are several more essays lined up for the months to come, so please keep an eye out. And many thanks to the authors who have written or agreed to write!

Two recent pieces on the TTP

The Taliban seizure of power in Afghanistan has opened many questions about the trajectory of the TTP, which operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here I want to highlight two recent pieces analyzing the group and its political context:

  1. Abdul Sayed’s essay for Carnegie South Asia examines the history of the TTP, its resurgence, and where it goes from here. This is part of a series that I am co-editing with Milan Vaishnav on the politics of opposition (expansively defined) in South Asia; more on this series in the coming days.
  2. Asfandyar Mir’s piece for the United States Institute of Peace focuses on how the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP will affect Pakistan, the Taliban’s broader relationships in the region, and US counterterrorism in the region.