Situating Political Transformation in South Asia

From the Series: The Politics of “Postconflict”: On the Ground in South Asia

Photo by Sara Shneiderman.

Addressing the conflicts in this series under the regional rubric of South Asia expands the parameters for disciplinary discussions of the afterlives of conflict and violence beyond the longstanding scholarly focus on Partition and its postcolonial legacies of communalism in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Sites such as Kashmir, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan are often treated as isolated peripheries from a South Asian studies perspective that foregrounds mainland India, rather than treating integral and interconnected parts of a broader regional whole. By bringing experiences in these locales into conversation with each other, we are better able to mirror regional policy conversations that take place through organizations like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the circulation of professionals through multilateral organizations like the United Nations. Clarifying how postconflict conceptualizations circulate at the regional scale creates an important level of analysis between the global and the national.

We offer here a very brief introduction to each of the situations our contributors engage, in order to better consider how policy interventions intended to engineer positive social transformation can be contextualized within the specific socio-historical parameters of each conflict.


Afghanistan has been in various states of conflict since the Saur revolution of 1978 overthrew President Mohammad Daud, a cousin of Zahir Shah, the monarch Daud ousted in 1973. Backed by Soviet troops, the communist regime was attacked by various groups of resistance fighters. Using primarily American and Saudi funds administered by the Pakistani government, the most extreme groups gained strength during the anti-Soviet mobilization. Instead of unifying after the Soviet withdrawal in 1986, these groups turned on each other, starting what is widely referred to as a civil war (see Anila Daulatzai’s piece for critical engagement with this term). Splintered, corrupt, and losing the support of many local Afghans, these groups were shoved aside in the mid-1990s by the Pakistani-backed Taliban, whose ideology many in Afghanistan rejected, but whose ability to provide stability made them the only option.

Before September 11, 2001 and the Taliban’s decision not to hand their guest, Osama bin Laden, over to the Americans, the Taliban controlled some 95 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. Following an extensive air campaign, but with few international troops on the ground, former resistance groups rapidly retook territory from the Taliban who, without local support in many areas, simply put down their weapons and returned home or to tribal areas in Pakistan.

Due to America’s increasing focus on Iraq and Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s failure to build a strong government that local communities supported, members of the Taliban were able to rally local fighters and retake ground over the first few years following the American invasion. Aided by both international fighters perceiving Afghanistan as once again the frontline of a global jihad against the West and by young Afghan recruits marginalized by a struggling government and dependent economy, the Taliban reclaimed territory across the country. U.S. President Barack Obama’s “surge,” which sent tens of thousands of troops to rural areas across southern Afghanistan, resulted in a dramatic increase in local violence through 2009. As international troops begin to withdraw in 2014, it remains to be seen whether violence will decrease or whether rearmed local groups will turn on each other with international troops no longer acting as referee.


The former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir has been the site of three conflicts between India and Pakistan since 1947. Since 1948, the Line of Control has been the de facto border separating Pakistani-controlled Kashmir from Indian-controlled Kashmir. The two countries have engaged in three wars over Kashmir in 1947, 1965, and 1971, as well as the “limited” Kargil War of 1999 and other border skirmishes that have become routine.

Since 1947, hundreds of thousands have lost their lives, millions have been displaced, and an entire population has been subject to violence as a part of state anti-insurgency pacification policies. Citizens of the disputed areas have had very different experiences depending on which side of the Line of Control they live on. The Pakistan-administered state of Azad (“free” or “liberated”) Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) is not constitutionally a part of Pakistan, which has more or less abided by the 1949 UN resolution that it will temporarily oversee AJK’s international status, including communications, defense, and currency. Pakistan considers AJK a high-security zone, and residents are subject to surveillance and coercive forms of political control. India, on the other hand, considers Jammu and Kashmir an Indian state on the basis of the instrument of accession signed by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1947, which was reinforced by the Jammu and Kashmir constituent assembly vote of 1954. After reports of a rigged election in 1987, proindependence and, later, pro-Pakistani armed groups waged an armed struggle against the Indian state from 1988 to 2002. The region continues to be heavily militarized, despite claims by the Indian state that levels of insurgent activity have steadily declined in recent years.

Over time, the erosion of autonomy provisions fueled frustration among the largely Muslim population of the Kashmir Valley. Since 1989, Kashmiri mujahids (militants) from both sides of the Line of Control, who have been joined by Pakistani and Afghan fighters, have fought the Indian state in a struggle to free Kashmir. Kashmiris reject the narrative that the Kashmir conflict is a border dispute and argue that they are fighting for political self-determination. The motivations of these militants are not universally shared, highlighting the fragmented aspirations for freedom and self-determination in Kashmir. In 2003, a ceasefire was brokered to end conventional weapons exchanges between India and Pakistan along the Line of Control.


Nepal’s decade-long civil conflict between Maoist insurgents and state forces ended in November 2006 with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This opened the most democratically contested chapter of the state restructuring process, which has been ongoing since Nepal’s Rana oligarchy fell in 1950. During the conflict, which was at its height from 2001 to 2006 as the Maoist People’s Liberation Army fought the then–Royal Nepal Army, up to 16,000 people were killed by both sides and some 1400 disappeared. An interim constitution was promulgated in 2007, transforming the country from a Hindu monarchy to a secular, democratic federal republic. King Gyanendra Shah was deposed, ending the 250-year-old Shah dynasty.

Elections in April 2008 for the country’s first-ever Constituent Assembly resulted in a Maoist plurality (not a majority) and an assembly hailed as the most diverse and representative governing body that Nepal had ever seen. Although the assembly’s original two-year mandate was extended, the assembly was ultimately dissolved in May 2012 without promulgating a new constitution. The impasse stemmed largely from an inability to agree on the role of ethnicity in delineating new federal boundaries, reflecting the core issues of ethnic and caste inequality, along with economic and political disenfranchisement, which had in part fueled the conflict. Elections for a new Constituent Assembly in November 2013 yielded a significant swing to the right, with the Nepali Congress securing the most seats, a royalist party gaining several, and the assembly being overall less diverse.

Sri Lanka

Until 2009, the Sri Lankan state was embroiled in war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) in the country's north and east, and the nationalist Sinhalese Marxists party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front; JVP) in the south. The loss of life in these conflicts is estimated to be between 120,000 and 200,000. Undergirding these conflicts were grievances regarding exclusion and discrimination, state power and violence, and resource distribution.

The ethnic dimension of the conflict in the north and east emerged from the colonial production of racialized majority and minority communities and discrimination against minorities by predominantly Sinhalese-majority postcolonial governments. An ambush of thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers by the LTTE and the death of between 400 and 3,000 Tamils in reactionary riots in the south marked the official beginning of the civil war in 1983. The 1987 Indo–Sri Lanka Peace Accord brokered the first ceasefire, which conceded local governing autonomy in the newly merged North Eastern Province, the recognition of Tamil as an official language, and withdrawal of Sri Lankan troops, which were replaced by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). In an attempt to demobilize Tamil militant groups, the IPKF engaged in full-scale war with the LTTE from 1987 to 1989.

In the south, the Sri Lankan state faced two insurgencies led by educated, unemployed Sinhalese youth mobilized by the JVP. The initial 1971 insurgency was quickly and violently squashed, with an estimated 20,000 dead. The JVP garnered initial support for its second insurgency due to state authoritarianism, violence, and corruption, which led to poverty and lack of opportunity for rural youth, as well as antigovernment sentiment over the Indo–Sri Lanka Peace Accord. This era (1987–1989) is known as “the terror” (Bheeshanaya), with an estimated death toll between 40,000 and 10,000, and with thousands disappeared.

From 1989 through 2003, there were three failed ceasefires between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state. The crucial turn of events was the 2004 split between the Northern LTTE (Prabhakaran) and the Eastern LTTE (Karuna) factions. In 2006, the newly elected president Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped up the government offense. In 2009, the killing of LTTE leader Prabhakaran by the state ended the war. Both the Sri Lankan military and insurgents have been accused of systemic violence toward the civilian population caught in the crossfire during the war’s final stage. Provincial elections have since been held in the north, but the government has focused more on infrastructure development than community development or peace and reconciliation. The state maintains an authoritarian grip on the country with heavy surveillance, intolerance for political dissent, and continuing marginalization of minorities.