Contested Lands by Sumantra Bose

Barry Lenser

Bose seeks out solutions to five festering territorial disputes, not scapegoatsm. His intellectual honesty and sense of even-handed purpose holds steadfast admirably.

Contested Lands

Publisher: Harvard University
Subtitle: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka
Author: Sumantra Bose
Price: $27.95
Length: 336
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0674024478
US publication date: 2007-05

Sumantra Bose laudably deploys Contested Lands as a platform for reconciliation, not indictment. His even-handed treatment of five irredentist hotspots, from Bosnia to Kashmir, seems the work of a noble diplomat in academic clothing. Bose is a Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, and his credentials show. The comprehensible histories of each conflict and the analyses of their global ramifications bear a scholar’s prints. But his rejection of narrow blame gaming is altogether exceptional, especially in light of the volatile subject matter and the obviously political nature of his post.

This equitable tack is essential to Contested Lands’ introductory function. Such a work must be approachable, and not embroiled in vitriolic charges. Even if he falls short of their solutions, Bose wants to augment awareness of land conflicts outside the fractious bane that is Israel/Palestine. Bosnia, Cyprus, Kashmir, and Sri Lanka are all locales of their own bloodied, identity-driven hostility. And Bose demonstrates that, in this “flat” world of globalization and supra-national authorities, the spillover effects of these disputes extend far beyond the parochial. Turkey’s embattled presence on the island of Cyprus has dramatically undercut its prospects for EU-accession. Additionally, the contest for Kashmir between India and Pakistan dangerously contains a nuclear dimension, the ripples of which inform policy-work from Beijing to Washington, D.C. Appropriately, Bose views such consequential insights which supercede any myopic political agenda.

Perhaps his most necessary, yet self-evident, observation is that guilt dwells with all parties to a land conflict. In the section on Sri Lanka, it is not with a martyr’s affection that Bose labels the oppositionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) “the most prolific practitioners of suicidal warfare in the contemporary world.” But he’s equally undeterred about condemning the majority Singhalese’s legacy of chauvinist ideology. And so it goes with the various Bosnian sub-groups (Muslim, Serb, and Croat) and the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine. Blame is ubiquitous yet its assertions regularly intersect with notes of sympathy. Edward Said’s astute remark, that the “ ‘Palestinians … are the victims of the victims’ ” succinctly captures Bose’s fair approach to this most persistent and documented of Near East sticking points. Both have suffered, often at the hands of one another, but a common ground does exist.

While the heart of Contested Lands beats loudly for the uprooted and the anguished, it never bleeds gratuitously. Bose pays dutiful respect to those visited by tragedy and wrongful oppression but doesn’t piously dwell on the mournful details. He is too keen on efficiently highlighting the dominant issues. The very deliberate structure ofContested Lands facilitates this goal. Bose begins each section by establishing a workable context, typically through an episode that hones in on the complexities of the struggle, the mini “revolution” that rocked Cyprus as the vaunted “Green Line” fell in 2003 or the 2005 opening of a cross-Line of Control bus service in Kashmir. From there, he traces the development of “war,” citing the historical origins of the conflicts and how each has morphed through time. Lastly, Bose concludes with his own prescription for a durable peace. This procedural formula lends a precisely calculated air to the book, which militates against needless sentimentality.

In these peace-seeking proposals, Bose most thoroughly unveils his passions and intellectual acumen. He concedes the entrenched difficulty of such clashes (“intractable but not insoluble” is his characterization) and, accordingly, calls for solutions rooted in equitable pragmatism. These measures typically entail territorial autonomy for ethno-national peoples, “consociational” (i.e. structural power-sharing and allocation of certain resources) elements of government, and incentives for cross-border interplay (economic, cultural, etc.). The endgames are sensible of their own fragility and wholly sensitive to the myriad demands from vested parties. Here Bose is at his peak, propounding fluently on theories of government and displaying a stalwart grasp of the ground realities in each case.

These stark conflicts necessitate local cooperation. But, as Bose insists, this is inadequate. Third-party engagement, whether through the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, or regional players, appears indispensable to the cause of reconciliation. He writes: “International influence can be decisive in overcoming domestic obstacles to peace processes, especially those erected by spoiler groups.” At a juncture when American shows of power justifiably raise tremors of wariness from without, Bose again reveals a sober, level-headed mind in reminding of the United States’ sustained efficacy, especially in the context of Israel/Palestine. President George W. Bush has maintained often troublingly staunch ties with Israel yet publicly has called for a two-state solution and has articulated democracy’s spread as the keystone of his presidency. Whether this involvement yields lasting fruit in the Near East or presses forward as aggressively into other “contested lands” is unknowable. But Bose is too practical to dismiss the U.S. outright and, more generally, perceives a wealth of aid in the interventions of interested global actors.

This devotion to positive change stands as the hallmark of Contested Lands. Bose is neither an idealist nor a partisan nor a cynical realist. He does not purport to possess the panacea for disputed territories. But, throughout this precarious moral terrain, his intellectual honesty and sense of even-handed purpose admirably hold steadfast.






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