The Global Peace Index (GPI) 2013 identifies South Asia as the least peaceful region in the world. Though the region had, as a whole, displayed a slight increase in peacefulness since 2010 when peacefulness was at its lowest, the current level of peacefulness was still lower than what it had been in 2008.
It is difficult to paint a uniform picture of the ‘peacefulness landscape’ in South Asia. Its nations span the whole spectrum of peacefulness levels in the index, ranging from very low (Afghanistan and Pakistan) to low (India) to medium (Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) to very high (Bhutan). The same is true with South Asia’s performance on the ‘Positive Peace Index’, where factors such as well-functioning government, sound business environment, and equitable distribution of resources were taken into account. However, regionally speaking, South Asia scored quite low on ‘internal peace’ indicators as opposed to ‘external peace’ indicators, which mainly focus on peace in inter-state relations. This trend in itself is not unique to the region; the GPI records a global fall in ‘internal peace’ over the six-year period from 2008-2013. However, South Asia’s relative lack of internal peace has a distinctive feature in that it can be attributed primarily to two factors: terrorism and political instability. All the nations of South Asia, with the notable exception of Bhutan, score low on internal peace due to the presence of one or both of these factors.
Internal peace in South Asia: An Audit
The GPI began in 2007, and has a dataset covering only the past six years. However, if one were to consider the state of peace in South Asia over a longer period of time such as a decade, one would be able to observe a marked improvement in the level of peacefulness. While Afghanistan faces many challenges, it is no longer in an open state of war as it was in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion. Sri Lanka has successfully ended its 3-decade civil war via military means, while Nepal has brought its long-standing Maoist insurgency to a halt through political negotiation. While the peace gains from some of these events would no doubt have been captured by the GPI, their true magnitude in relation to the low levels of peacefulness that prevailed for several decades in these countries would have eluded it.
Secondly, the GPI does not seem to take note of the qualitatively different nature of the internal violence caused by terrorism and intra-state conflict, and that caused by other factors such as organised crime. While intra-sate conflict is usually of a territorial nature thereby limiting its violence to a particular geographical area, the violence caused by organised crime has no territorial dimension and is socially and geographically pervasive. Thus, violence in South Asian nations was often limited to particular areas of the countries, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan and the North-East regions of both Sri Lanka and India, while life went on relatively peacefully in other regions. By contrast, criminal activity in Latin American and Caribbean nations seems to have no geographical limits, and seems to place their entire societies in a state of fear. Therefore, the GPI reading of ‘internal peace’ in South Asia might not be without problems.
External Peace: The India Factor
With regards to ‘external peace’, it is important to note that India, the largest and most powerful country in South Asia, scored lower on external peace indicators this year. It would be a truism to state that a decline in India’s external peace indicators would have a highly negative impact on the regional external peace levels as well. However, the GPI based its lowering of India’s external peace score primarily on its increased defence spending. It might be plausible to argue here that the Indian military build-up could be attributed more to a desire to expand its military muscle in keeping with its growing economic power, rather than out of an explicit and immediate security threat from any of its neighbours. Therefore, South Asian external peace might not be under any direct threat from the Indian military build-up.
A final point in favour of South Asian peacefulness is that, in terms of economic expenditure on containing violence, the region spends far less in absolute terms than other regions. Even in relative terms, all South Asian nations except for Afghanistan spend only between 4%-7% of their GDPs on the containment of violence, in contrast to societies such as the UK and US, which spend 6% and 11% of their GDPs on the containment of violence, respectively. Furthermore, though India is ranked among nations such as Libya, Colombia, and Israel in the overall GPI, it nevertheless spends far less per head on defence than any of these other nations. Thus, it is clear that the picture that the GPI paints of South Asian ‘peacefulness’ is not entirely accurate.
South Asia’s levels of peace may be far from ideal, but it is not as bad as the GPI points it out to be.