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The everydayness of conflict, and of peace-building

In the 21st century, conflict is everywhere, no longer playing out on battlefields alone, but in forests and mohallas, over control of water, food and livelihoods. As a result, writes Sumona DasGupta, the way we respond to conflict has also changed: it requires not just ending violence, but also changing unjust structures of society. Building a positive peace requires state diplomacy as well as engagements by individuals and communities at all levels

There has been a dramatic change in the nature of conflict in the 21st century. Contemporary conflicts are no longer only about large wars or about starting such wars. They are also about struggles for life and livelihood; about competing and contending lifestyles brought on by recession or globalisation. Conflict today manifests itself through struggles over water, food and environment. It is sometimes violent, at other times non-violent. While conflict per se is not necessarily negative and non-violent conflict can well be a catalyst for positive change, violent conflict can become dysfunctional, divisive and devastating.  

Violent conflict is no longer an industry necessarily fought with nuclear science or fighter bombers, but equally with petrol bombs, shrapnel and landmines. It is not only fought by soldiers in uniform, but also by non-state actors. There is no longer a fixed battlefield with a frontline and a rear line. In the 21st century, violent conflict can well be played out in gallis and mohallas, in mountains and forests. There is no separation between combatants and non-combatants. The so-called ‘rules of war’ do not apply here. Many of the people who are killed are not soldiers, but ordinary civilians and non-combatants -- children, women, and men caught in the crossfire.

There is then no doubt that the nature, the texture and the context of contemporary conflict has changed. What we witness now in many parts of India is a ‘neither war nor peace’ situation. As conflicts around life and livelihoods multiply all around us -- as farmers commit suicide despite our much-publicised growth rate; as community trust breaks down in areas where adivasis have traditionally lived because of a peculiar form of state intervention where groups are pitted against each other in the name of village defence; as the idea of ‘the commons’ is unceremoniously obliterated by new idioms of development which impatiently brush aside questions of who that development is for; and, more dramatically, as the lived experiences of people living in militarised areas like Jammu & Kashmir compel us to rethink our neat categories of war and peace -- we slowly begin to make sense of the now canonical statement that peace is not just absence of war.

Because of this ‘everydayness’ of violent conflict, because it is so pervasive and has entered all spheres of our lives, peace-building cannot happen exclusively in the anterooms of technocrats and experts who use an alienating technocratic language of security to isolate many matters from public scrutiny. The idea of citizens engaging in peace-building because of its pervasiveness in life is an idea that we need to stand by.

In many ways, Jammu & Kashmir reflects the larger changing trajectory of international conflicts and how these have been analysed. Till 1989, the conflict of Kashmir was largely seen as a problem between India and Pakistan. It was acknowledged as a problem ‘in’ Kashmir only when there was an armed rebellion against India and the deep alienation of the people of the Kashmir valley could no longer be brushed under the carpet. The frame of reference and engagement also changed in 1989 -- from viewing it as a traditional territorial conflict between two nation-states, India and Pakistan, it was now seen through the lens of the so-called ‘new conflicts’, calling for a fresh set of analytical tools to understand it.  

In the early-1990s, following the outbreak of the armed conflict, the immediate reaction of the Indian government, as we all know, was to send in the armed forces. While the Indian army has been present in Jammu & Kashmir after 1947 along the border, the 1990s marked the first time they were asked to step in with a counter-insurgency mandate that marked a qualitative change in their role. The conflict trajectory has changed a lot since then, but the legacy of the violence and the endemic militarisation of state and society has not disappeared, especially as the roots of discontent and anger persist. And that is why we see ebbs and flows -- sometimes violence is high, sometimes it is low. Of course this is not the only ‘no-war, no-peace’ zone right now in India, but it certainly figures as a dramatic case in point.

Insurgency and counter-insurgency in any part of the world set in motion a cycle of violence that is very difficult to break. In Jammu & Kashmir, August 2008 and the summer of 2010, for instance, marked periods of intense and dramatic violence. In 2008, when the Amarnath land row became the centrepiece of reportage, it raised issues that went beyond just ‘land’. It brought into sharp focus the plethora of diversities and divergences between different communities within Jammu & Kashmir, and their different political aspirations. How do we bring all these complex divergent aspirations to the negotiating table and to the process of dialogue so that it is inclusive? This is the challenge of peace-building.

Peace and conflict studies

The recognition of the everydayness of peace and conflict issues is of course a recent phenomenon. As a field of study, peace and conflict studies was the legacy of the Second World War and Lewis Richardson’s decisive work in 1960, Arms and Insecurity: A Mathematical Study of the Causes and Origins of War, was in many ways indicative of the manner in which the domain was conceptualised in the early days. Conflict studies in the 1960s and 1970s  predictably continued to reflect the dominant security architecture of the Cold War. Threats to security were defined primarily in military terms and always in terms of nation-states.

The dominant global discourse shapes the way in which we frame a conflict; the way we frame the conflict also opens up -- or constrains -- the possibilities for mediating and finding solutions. Very much in sync with the typical Cold War architecture of security in 1947, the Jammu & Kashmir conflict was defined primarily in terms of competing claims to territory and accompanying competing nationalisms.   

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the field of peace and conflict studies underwent a tectonic change as ethnic explosions engulfed Kosovo, Palestine, Congo, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Chechnya, Angola, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Columbia and Sudan. The 1990s was a decade of dramatic changes following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the uprisings in Afghanistan. The movement for self-determination in Kashmir could hardly remain untouched by these global developments in the 1980s and 1990s.

Responding to these changes, security analysts began to accept that threats to security were increasingly emanating from within national boundaries and nation-states themselves were not necessarily protectors and guarantors of the security of the people who lived within their boundaries. The concept of human security -- security of the people -- made a decisive entry into the field of conflict studies in the 1990s. This acknowledgement also helped bring into the mainframe the humanitarian dimension of the Kashmir issue and the people of Jammu & Kashmir rather than only the territorial interests of India and Pakistan.

Conflict analysis

Conflict analysis, as has been pointed out, is not necessarily about learning new things about the conflict. It is about understanding the same thing in different ways. It helps to identify the main actors, main issues, main factors, the earlier attempts at the resolution of the conflict, the phases of the conflict, and in the process throws light on the balance of power and the state of relationships.

In workshops that we have conducted over the years with young people, one tool of conflict analysis that has yielded rather interesting insights on Kashmir is the timeline approach, which involves identifying some important benchmarks in time and reflecting on what the same benchmark could mean for different people and stakeholders. For instance, what does 1947 signify for third-generation Pakistanis, Indians and Kashmiris on either side of the line of control? When we do this exercise together with a group of Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris on both sides of the line of control it helps build a shared understanding of certain events. There is greater empathy that comes out of an understanding that my view doesn’t cancel out yours; my truth is not more important than yours.

Another kind of conflict analysis that can be very interesting in the context of Jammu & Kashmir is conflict mapping, which is essentially a visual technique that maps power relationships between multiple actors with different interests. It helps one understand the multiplicity of stakeholders in this conflict, not just the state actors -- India and Pakistan. It involves visually representing the larger and more powerful actors in larger circles and less powerful actors in smaller circles, and mapping the web of relationships between them by a series of single, double or broken lines depending on the level of trust and interaction. Sometimes, participants in this exercise find that there are so many stakeholders that they can think of that one chart paper is not enough to map them! It is a telling commentary on the complex web of relationships involved in the Jammu & Kashmir conflict.

A sociological theory that we found speaks well to Jammu & Kashmir and allows for interesting insights from young people to emerge based on their lived experiences is the ‘basic needs theory’ by social psychologist John W Burton, whose central postulate is that all human beings have the same basic needs -- material needs, social and cultural needs, security needs, the need for belonging somewhere, need for settlement, for freedom and for distributive justice. These are non-negotiable. An important element is identity, because Jammu & Kashmir can also be seen as a space where there is a clash of identities and identity politics. In a conflict zone, identities are in conflict, and they become militarised. It is interesting to understand at what point of time a particular identity marker (be it religion, culture, etc) becomes militarised and how it is used to mobilise people.  

Responding to conflict

We respond to violent conflict differently. Conflict management, conflict resolution and conflict transformation present somewhat overlapping but, at the same time, significantly different ways of understanding and responding to conflict.

In conflict management the basic assumption is that conflict follows patterns, human beings are basically rational, we can anticipate the ways in which the conflict will happen and therefore design ‘interventions’. It does not rule out the possibility of the use of force. In many ways, the approach of the Indian government in Jammu & Kashmir in the early-1990s was one of conflict management.

Conflict resolution on the other hand looks at a range of non-violent approaches -- negotiation, mediation, facilitation -- typically used by state actors to ‘end’ conflict. The visible tangible outcomes of conflict resolution are the much-publicised peace agreements or pacts, such as the pact between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah in the 1970s and Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah in the 1980s. Invariably, these are tenuous and shortlived as they are essentially nothing more than power-sharing arrangements rather than transformatory in nature.  

Conflict transformation, advocated forcefully by scholar-activists like John Paul Lederach, changes the entire architecture of the question by asking: What is it that you are building, instead of what is it that you are ending. Conflict transformation is seen as integrating the emotional and psychological aspects of peace-building with the more substantive structural aspects. Most importantly, it believes that not just state diplomacy but also engagement of civil society and people at all levels has to be part of the transformation. The transformation has to happen at different levels -- at the level of individuals, communities, social structures, state. It assumes that in our highly atomised and globalised world, we need human dignity, respect, affirmation -- these are universal values. Clearly, conflict transformation in Jammu & Kashmir is an idea whose time has come.

Many years ago, in a completely different context, Johan Galtung had alerted us to the structural and cultural dimensions of violence and in the process we were reminded of the difference between negative and positive peace. The shikharas sailing on Dal Lake are routinely floated as the iconic snapshot of ‘normalcy’ returning to the valley. As people engaged in conflict transformation one might need to ask oneself the difficult question: Is violence fatigue a sign of peace or even of normalcy? Bringing about a positive peace is a very, very difficult task. It is not just about ending violence; it is also about changing certain structures of society which are violent, but not always visible. The political economy of violence that is invariably built up in a zone of protracted conflict like Jammu & Kashmir means that there are a large number of state and non-state actors with vested interests in keeping the violence alive because they gain from it.  


Different approaches to responding to conflict remind us that peace-building is a complex web of processes that incorporates different roles, strategies and interventions. It employs a range of processes -- peace agreements, more long-term effects of transformation, mediation, relationship-building, peace education, non-violence training, etc -- and a range of actors, not just governments -- conflict resolution professionals, non-violence trainers, government officials, journalists, NGO workers, businessmen, justice advocates, etc.

Peace-building is not just for ‘post-conflict’ societies but for all societies as a way to prevent violence and satisfy human needs. It is about creating just social structures. Justice becomes a part of peace. Peace without justice has no meaning. And sometimes when we are doing justice work we have to deal with people who are angry and alienated.

Peace-building has many dimensions. Research, conflict analysis, emotional and relational skills, commitment, values -- all have to come together before we have a culture of peace-building. There are so many different actors, so many different priorities, it is understandable young citizens feel lost. Where do they locate themselves? What is their skill and passion? Where would they fit in the peace-building matrix?

Lisa Schirch, a scholar of peace-building and the author of The Little Book on Strategic Peace Building, has provided a very interesting map of peace-building which might help this process of finding one’s way.  One circle relates to waging conflict non-violently, through advocacy, direct action and civilian defence. The second circle of peace-building is how to reduce direct violence: when violence is high, there is no dialogue. Therefore, in this circle, one deals with justice and the legal systems, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, military interventions, ceasefires, peace zones, etc. The third circle of peace-building is to look at how one can play a role in building capacity. Can one engage with training, development and research? The fourth circle looks at transforming relationships. So justice and conflict transformation work, governance and policymaking are important here.

It is also interesting to observe that Harold Saunders, a career diplomat from the US, has been the one to advocate what he calls a public peace process that emphasises citizens as actors in politics, and affirms a larger political process that is citizen-driven and that can work with the formal negotiation process. It is based on the assumption that conflict is not just a clash between institutions; it is ultimately humans who can change conflictual relationships through a process of sustained dialogue.  

In many conflict zones, including Jammu & Kashmir, even as stories of youth unrest have been in the news it is important to note that there are also stories of youth reaching out to build bridges of peace. This unfortunately does not make headlines. Today, we talk increasingly about people-to-people contact at multiple levels and among multiple constituencies. It is only when the ‘everydayness of peace-building’ is recognised and peace-building is no longer seen as the sole prerogative of the state that we can move towards building a culture of dialogic engagement.  

(Sumona DasGupta is an independent researcher based in New Delhi. She writes on issues related to peace, conflict, democracy and dialogue. This article is based on her talk for CCDS-Open Space’s ‘Keeping the Peace’ lecture series)

Infochange News & Features, October 2011