More weapons, less peace

  A militarised South Asia will be insecure, unhappy

02-02-2021 BY: PRAFUL BIDWAI

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South Asia, home to the largest number of the world's poor people, is poised to burn more and more money on acquiring lethal weapons and building military forces. The region, with a population of 1.3 billion, has some of the lowest social and human development indicators in the world.

Barring Sri Lanka (much like India's Kerala), all South Asian states fall within the bottom one-fourth of the Human Development Index charts compiled by the United Nations Development Programme. They perform even worse in respect of indices for literacy and health for children. In the 2002 HDI, India ranks a shameful 124 (among 173 countries). Pakistan is even lower (138). Nepal ranks 142 and Bangladesh 145. Sri Lanka is at a more respectable 89.

Yet, South Asia is the second largest importer of weapons from the global arms bazaar. It is expected to spend upwards of $130 billion over the next 15 years on buying armaments-a sum that is about a third of India's entire annual gross domestic product (GDP).

South Asia is getting rapidly militarised - thanks to internal conflicts within its member-states' borders, external rivalries, largely between states, and above all, because of its rulers' preference for military solutions to social and political problems. As the South Asian states look for security through military means, their societies and peoples become more and more insecure, in the real sense of the term, related to food security, income security, security of employment, gender security and personal security.

Militarisation in South Asia has many aspects: sharply rising military expenditures, the expanding role of the military and military-related institutions in public life, and the regimentation and militarisation of society and of daily life itself. Here we look mainly at the first issue.

Militarisation is steadily growing in all respects in all South Asian states. Not one of them can boast, like Costa Rica in Latin America, or Austria in Europe, that they have reduced defence spending, and cut or dismantled their armies, and yet gained in security.

India is South Asia's biggest spender, given its sheer size. It is also the world's second biggest importer of arms, next only to China. India's military expenditure this year is officially Rs. 76,600 crore. But if other hidden spending - such as subsidies to defence production companies and classified imports - is added, the military budget will probably go up to Rs. 85,000 crore. Contrast this with the entire expenditure on primary education of Rs. 35,000 crore, in the public, private, municipal and panchayat sectors put together.

India's defence spending has doubled over the past five years - the highest such increase in any five-year period since Independence. This did not happen even after the China war. As India builds its nuclear arsenal, the expenditure will skyrocket.

The Indian government spends roughly 3.5 percent of GDP on the military, and yet another 0.5 or so on the Central paramilitary forces. But in contrast to this total of four percent of GDP, its expenditure on health is a mere 1.3 percent of GDP.

In many developed countries, public expenditure on health is 5 to 7 percent of GDP. And even in developing countries like Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand, Egypt, Peru or Zimbabwe, the figure is double or triple the Indian ratio. India's spending on education, which the government promises to raise to 6 percent of GDP, has now fallen to under 3 percent of GDP.

Military expenditure is certain to sharply exceed the budgeted figure this year because of the unbudgeted mobilisation of 7 lakh troops at the border for 10 long months. This is officially stated to have cost Rs. 7,200 crore, but the real figure may be Rs. 10,000 crore or so (i.e., 13 percent higher than the budget). The Rs. 10,000 crore is four times higher than the Central health budget and exceeds the Centre's entire budget for education! Yet, there has been no debate on whether such mobilisation should have taken place following the December 2001 Parliament House attack, what its objectives should have been, and how much should have been spent on it.

India has just signed a huge $3 billion contract with Russia to lease four Tu22 M3 long-range aircraft - capable of dropping nuclear bombs on China - and two Akula class submarines which are nuclear-propelled and can deliver nuclear warheads at long distances. Nuclear submarines can hide underwater for months at a time and can devastatingly deliver a surprise strike. The Russian deal alone raises India's military expenditure by 25 percent. The money will come out of social sector programmes.

Pakistan has always spent a larger proportion (5 or 6 percent) of its GDP on the military than India. Although its population is seven times smaller than India's, its armed forces are only about one-half of India's size. Pakistan overtly crossed the nuclear threshold, following India, in May 1998 - and immediately went into financial insolvency. Besides an ambitious programme to stockpile nuclear material for bombs, it has spent huge amounts on ballistic missiles like the Hatf and Ghauri. This drove the government deeper into the red, inviting the term "failing" or "failed" state - until the September 11, 2020 attack brought the US into the region, on to Pakistan's soil and revived the economy of this "strategic partner" against "terrorism".

Defence spending, which had fallen for two years, has since been raised. Pakistan is now charging the US $60 million a month for the use of its bases. The state of public services in Pakistan is even more appalling than in India. But that has not prevented the government from committing more funds to the military. Pakistan's sole nuclear adversary, India, is furiously assembling its nuclear arsenal and readying it for deployment and use. This is drawing Pakistan into a potentially runaway arms race with India.

Already, the 10-month-long border mobilisation has hurt Pakistan economically. There is a strong likelihood that increased spending on nuclear and missile programmes will soon raise Pakistan's military budget upwards of 6 percent of GDP, which could prove ruinous to the economy and to the people.

Besides the two major South Asian rivals, Bangladesh has also witnessed a sharp rise in military spending, at an average annual rate of 4 percent since the mid-1980s. The nuclear tests of 1998 by India and Pakistan generally strengthened the pressure for greater military preparedness and spending in the neighbourhood. Bangladesh bought eight MiG-29 fighters in 1999, whose need and utility have been strongly questioned. The successor government (led by Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party) now wants to sell these off. The new government however has close ties both with the military and Right-wing Islamists. In fact, it has recently used the military largely for civilian purposes - e.g. traffic management - and to harass its political opponents. This has created huge strife in Bangladesh.

Nepal has now become a deeply crisis-ridden country, thanks to the Maoist insurgency, the Royal family's assassination, and the recent dismissal of an elected government by King Gyanendra. The King has all but directly usurped power and substantially undermined the gains of the democratisation process from 1990 onwards. Nepal is considered to be a "failing", if not a "failed" state, even as the monarchy intrudes into political life and arbitrarily doubles its allowances drawn from the state exchequer. The Royal Nepal Army's budget has been doubled this year even as its anti-insurgency activity has increased. But its writ does not run in 45 to 50 out of Nepal's 75 districts. Twenty-two districts have no communication with Kathmandu. India has pursued a confused and inconsistent policy on Nepal. The King is inviting foreign powers, especially the United States and Britain, to play a major role in Nepal. There is extensive training by US troops of the Nepali military. The US supports this role in the name of fighting "terrorism".

Sri Lanka has suffered the worst ravages of militarism in South Asia through the "war" with the Tamil separatists since 1983. Once the best model for human development in the entire Third World - and the first country to have a universal social welfare and food guarantee system - Sri Lanka has over the past two decades become a highly militarised society, with bunkers and barbed-wire fences dotting the entire country. Today, the welfare schemes for which the country was rightly famous, stand dismantled.

In 1985, Sri Lanka's military spending was 2.6 percent of GDP. By the mid-1990s, it doubled. It has since reached a horrifying 10 percent of GDP. The size of the armed forces has increased six-fold over these years. Today, Sri Lanka has about 7 soldiers per 1,000 population (India has 1.2 and Pakistan 4.6).

There is some good news however: the peace process being brokered by Norway. There have been three rounds of talks between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and some progress towards demilitarisation in the North. But there are misgivings on all sides. It is not clear if the LTTLE has fully given up the separate state demand. It is trying to establish despotic one-party rule in whichever area the army vacates. The Muslim minority is not happy. And the government too is divided. If the peace process is fully democratised, with assurances of political pluralism, and if it wins consensual support, Sri Lanka could get out of the mess. But that is not yet assured.

Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist kingdom, remains a totally authoritarian monarchy, with little separation between the army, the police and the civil authorities, all controlled by the Palace.

A significant aspect of militarisation in South Asia is the growing role of militarist thinking, which promotes the use of force to resolve disputes and differences. This trend has grown in the whole region. The US' extremely negative example in declaring an unending, prolonged, global "war" on terrorism after September 11, 2001, has had a disastrous impact on South Asia. It has strengthened Right-wing militarist tendencies and rationalised brutal force in the name of fighting anything that can be branded "terrorism".

Parallel to this, and supplementing it, is the advance of ethnic-religious political movements and parties like the BJP-RSS in India, the MMA in Pakistan, and the extreme Right Islamic alliance with which the BNP shares power in Bangladesh's ruling coalition.

Ultimately, security has to do with justice, equality and freedom, as well as people's empowerment. These are all under threat in South Asia.

As economic growth falters, as income and regional disparities sharply increase, and as human securitydecreases, South Asia's elites rely more and more on force to regain "security". This is happening increasingly at the level of daily life. As crime rises, along with joblessness, displacement and destitution, the rich build higher and higher walls around themselves, the police become increasingly brutal, and the polity less and less accommodative and consensual - and society more and more insecure.

The search for security through military means is counterproductive.

(The writer is a widely-read columnist and peace activist).


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