Feature Article

‘Sandwich theory’ an excuse for not taking a stand: Indian academic Radha D’Souza

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 23 November 2011, 17:59 GMT]
“Those wanting to remain equidistant from state and the struggles of people. [..] actually end up legitimating the moral authority of the state by giving the state the moral authority to continue with the war on people.”, observes Radha D’Souza in an interview to TamilNet on Sunday. Dr. D’Souza, who is a reader of law at the University of Westminster and a social justice activist from India, argues that such an approach by international agencies that act as ‘peace-brokers’, ‘NGOs’, and local actors, only benefits militarist states in the final analysis. They are the other face of oppression because the other face is necessary to sustain the armed intervention, she says.

Radha D’Souza
Radha D’Souza
On ethnic questions, D’Souza says: “Vast majority of ethnic conflicts happen in societies with colonial histories. In the formation of European nation-states, they were truly nations and capitalist. In the colonies, that is not how the state structure came in to being. In the colonies, the colonizers just lumped together people in one state structure. The territorial boundaries were often the result of inter-imperialist rivalries between colonising powers – the Dutch, French, English, Portuguese whatever.

“During the anti-colonial struggles people thought that it was possible to retain the state structure to fight the common enemy and things could be worked out together after Independence. Which may have been possible, but not in the context of this overarching imperialist world where imperial economies must depend on arms and defence industry – Eisenhower’s military-industrial-commercial complex – to exist. This is why movements have to question the nature of imperialism today and the way ethnic conflicts are fuelled by the imperial war machine.

“But it cannot be endless war either. There has to be something coming out of it. Some economic benefit, some geo-political benefit... Without that, wars without end cannot be sustained. If the Tamils are finished, there’s nothing more! How will they keep the military regime going? Any militarism necessarily involves the other side - stabilizing it; otherwise it cannot comeback and refuel the whole thing. That’s why at one point Western powers were desperate for the peace process to get going in Sri Lanka. Norway thought it would be the ‘peacemaker’ but things took a different turn. It has not solved anything. After a point, it was bound to refuel. In the meantime many NGOs, peace builders, diplomats, development professionals – have made their money, careers whatever.”

The United Nations made a shift with neoliberalism from being ‘peace keepers’ to ‘peace builders’, Dr. Radha D’Souza observes.

Radha D’Souza
Radha D’Souza
“A lot of the NGOs are getting involved in these peace building measures. We are no longer living in a state system that we are used to and that existed in the past,” she argues.

“The agenda of the state is driven by international organizations.

“Words like ‘good governance’, ‘civil society’ used by the NGOs come from World Bank programmes and the language of international organizations, often linked to monetary assistance.

“In the repackaging of power structures under neoliberalism and globalisation, NGOs are a crucial part. They exploit people’s frustration with the state often funded by the international organisations or states or private interests.

“And people actually get dis-empowered because of this diffusion of power where NGOs become, in World Bank’s language, ‘stakeholders’.

“What are you a stakeholder in? NGOs are a stakeholder in the global economy and the peace processes as well. Does that give ordinary people a ‘stake’ in anything?” D’Souza asks.

Full text of TamilNet’s interview with Dr. Radha D’Souza:

TamilNet: Your writings on the ‘sandwich theory’ are highly popular in Indian activist circles. Could you elaborate briefly on the same?

Dr. Radha D’Souza: By ‘sandwich theory’ I meant the idea of equidistance between two opposed sides where one is the oppressor/aggressor and the other is the oppressed/aggressed – the idea that you can be neutral in a conflict that is fundamental to a society. It is an idea that is premised on a superior ethics that transcends oppressor and oppressed, aggressor and aggressed. It is stance that disregards the political and real consequences of one’s stand, the objective effects of one’s political position on people and society.

In India there were people saying they were against the state and also against the Maoists without taking a stand on which of these is the source of the problem. They presented ordinary people as being ‘sandwiched’ between the state and the Maoists. I wanted to say it is people who want to take the position of equidistance who were politically sandwiching themselves by believing it is possible to neutral. What appears neutral is not in reality so neutral.

It is usually the dominant power, the state for example, that frames issues in a way that pushes people to become ‘sandwiched’ between two sides because it is a very nice way for the dominant power to say that ‘we have done everything wrong but you must still condemn the other side.’ So, it is a way of dividing opposition to the state and neutralising a section of its critics.

Radha D’Souza
Radha D’Souza
On the Palestinian issue, the UN is doing the same thing. It says that the Israeli state should stop violence and the Palestinians should also stop violence as if the two were equals. They are not equals. One is an occupying, colonizing settler state that has put millions of Palestinians out of their home. For those in the middle, it becomes an excuse for not taking a stand.

The problem with equidistance is that first, it obscures questions of politics, power, justice, injustice and such. Secondly it forecloses the debate that needs to happen among the people in India today. Instead of focusing attention on the real issues of displacement, exploitation, social, economic and political deprivations, it sidetracks into violence and non-violence which is a secondary question, whatever ones’s position on it.

Instead of creating the democratic space where we can have this debate, what eqidistance does, is, it forces people to a defensive position on moral grounds. This means they do not have to answer the questions, in the Indian context, that the Maoists raise – on endemic, routinised violence that is perpetrated daily against ordinary Indians, on questions of state violence, on questions like criminalisation of politics and public life in the country.

Thirdly, by distancing themselves from the state it absolves those wanting to remain equidistant from the state from any responsibility for the kind of state we have. The state is not an alien. This is our state. Where did it come from? The theory allows you to distance yourself from it and also from the fellow citizens who are fighting to raise fundamental issues about Indian society, whether one agrees with them in their entirety or not, or whether one agrees with the ends but not the means. Instead of creating a space for a democratic debate where questions like means and ends, justice and injustice can be debated, those wanting to remain equidistant end up objectively siding with the state. It is the state that comes out as beneficiary in the final analysis.

Those wanting to remain equidistant from state and the struggles of people – where they support the ends but not the means - actually end up legitimating the moral authority of the state by giving the state the moral authority to continue with the war on people. You can’t have war against a section of the people and also have the democratic space for a debate at the same time. It is a nice way of wriggling out of taking a position on the issue.

TamilNet: You have criticized organizations like the Observer Research Foundation which claim to adopt a supposedly neutral position but are actually partisan in practice. In the context of Sri Lanka, the ORF and other such organizations put across the argument that the LTTE used ‘innocent civilians’ as ‘human shields’. Do you see parallels in this?

Radha D’Souza
Radha D’Souza
D’Souza: If you notice some of these arguments, they are being used everywhere. It is used in Palestine, Sudan and other places. It is as if someone was photocopying these ideas and circulating them. You should understand what is entailed in globalisation if you want to understand the genesis of these so called ‘autonomous’ research organization. Globalization is about rolling back the state. But what is it rolling in?

Neoliberalism is about dispersal of power to a number of bodies/entities that are independent from the state and often international.

Think-tanks are a very important part of globalisation.

Neoliberalism institutionalizses think-tanks and so called ‘experts’.

The key point is that this is fundamentally undemocratic. There can be people who have expertise in fields but fundamentally different views than you. What makes your expertise more privileged than someone else’s? It allows you to get a seat in any of these global organizations and not someone who holds the opposite view?

There is a fundamental restructuring of power in the global system. Power is restructured and dispersed to fundamentally undemocratic organizations and institutions and such think-tanks play an important role in the new regime.

How issues are presented and how issues are framed comes through these networks of privileged institutions. Sri Lanka, India, Sudan it is the same language; it’s obviously coming from the same source.

TamilNet: You ascribe value to the agency of the subject in radical movements. But the problem here with Sri Lankan civil society in recognizing the agency of the Tamil ‘civilian’ would mean that they would then have to concede equal legitimacy to the movement led by the LTTE, i.e for a sovereign state for the Tamil people.

D’Souza : As far as agency is concerned, all human beings have agency, have always had it. Agency is the capacity and will to do something.

For us in the third world, agency is not a theoretical discourse, it is a real thing. It is what people really do on the streets. And that is why it is so frightening. One of the most frightening things is the agency of the dispossessed. It has always been so.

The oppressed, the poor, the subjugated whatever, are OK as long as we can talk about them in ‘compassionate’, ‘humanist’ terms.

The poor are nice because they help salvage our sense of ‘humanity’ by not challenging us. When they start saying ‘hey, we have a view on this’, it becomes very frightening. When they challenge the dominant powers, there is a confrontation between the ideal, and its materialization as a reality. It looks nice as an ideal but frightening when the ideal becomes real. And by its very nature, someone’s agency means another person’s compromise.

Radha D’Souza
Radha D’Souza
As far as political issues like self-determination, sovereignty are concerned, democratic idealism says these are negotiable within a democratic framework. In theory you could ask ‘do the Tamils want absolute sovereignty’, ‘why do they want it’, ‘is it an irreconcilable problem’, ‘is it possible to live together’, ‘if so, what would be the conditions’ etc etc.

And in theory agency means not only agency of the Tamils but also of the Sinhalese.

Their agency requires that they are able to say that ‘we don’t care about the politics of the state’, ‘we want a society where we can both live together’.

I am not saying that this is the right way or that is the right way. I am not trying to prescribe a solution for the Tamils or the Sinhalese.

My point is that agency in theory means that people should be able to talk about these things. Whatever the conclusions. They may in the end say that we have opted for sovereignty. Or they may come together and say that this state system is not working for both of us, we need to find another alternative. That’s the debate that needs to happen among people.

For me, the conditions for agency, the conditions where people can negotiate are important.

What happens often is that the state becomes proxy agent for the population, it acts in all our name. And sometimes it sides with one section of the population against the other. What are those people who benefit from the state being on their side, what are they to do?

Agency is no longer a hypothetical, theoretical question. The State is an institution and it subsumes the agency of everybody.

We need to bring it back to where it belongs, to the people. Do the Sinhalese have agency? Or is it an illusion? A subterfuge for state power?

TamilNet: But what about conditions where things have gone to the point that the agency of one community depends on denying the same to the other, i.e., their freedom is fundamentally an infringement of the freedom of the other. Should we respect the agency of such a community?

Radha D’Souza
Radha D’Souza
D’Souza: This is where the relationship between the state and a section of the population is important. In many of these ethnic conflicts, the state says we are working for one section and the others are coming in the way of your well being because they are taking away your jobs, they are taking more than their share, the sons of the soil argument etc. This is the state’s discourse.

It is possible that there is identity between the state and majority community. But the state and the dominant community are not one and the same thing. It is possible that they have chosen to be together because of false ideological reasons. No society is homogenous.

Political leadership is about managing conflicting interests, divergences and not letting things take this kind of dualist form.

The problem is what to do when that kind of visionary leadership is not there anywhere in society?

Because our political lenses, our ideological frames, our understandings of society and indeed life, are skewed? In that case there would be no other solution than to say that we want to completely break away and be free. But we can’t prescribe it as a solution without trying out other options. There can’t be a fundamentalist or essentialist view on this. What is fundamental is the agency of the people and their right to determine their future, whether it is together or separately.

TamilNet: How would you rate the role of NGO’s that use terms like ‘good governance’, ‘citizen activism’ in conflict torn regions?

D’Souza: I don’t think words like ‘good governance’, ‘civil society’ come from the NGOs. These are words from World Bank programmes and the language of international organizations, often linked to monetary assistance.

In the repackaging of power structures under neoliberalism and globalisation, NGOs are a crucial part.

They exploit people’s frustration with the state often funded by the International organisations or states or private interests. And people actually get dis-empowered because of this diffusion of power where NGOs become, in World Bank’s language, ‘stakeholders’. What are you a stakeholder in?

NGOs are a stakeholder in the global economy and the peace processes as well.

Does that give ordinary people a ‘stake’ in anything?

UN made a shift with neoliberalism from being peace keepers to peace builders. A lot of these NGOs are getting involved in these peace building measures. We are no longer living in a state system that we are used to and that existed in the past. The agenda of the state is driven by international organizations.

TamilNet: You write that such groups balk at the fundamental question, the political question. But in situations where systemic violence is intense, such groups put forth the argument that they at least ameliorate some suffering of the subject population.

D’Souza: In any conflict there are always some humanitarian responses. The kind of humanitarian approach of individuals from within communities is different from organized interventions that are specifically committed to certain kinds of models of development and politics.

They come in and say that ‘we are providing you some kind of relief’ but they are actually not providing relief out of ‘humanitarian’ intention but due to a larger political agenda.

Radha D’Souza
Radha D’Souza
The way power is diffused in globalization is very often not visible. You have 50 different NGOs, 50 different people juggling and talking this nice language... It is our responsibility as members of society living in a neoliberal society to differentiate between genuine humanitarianism, which very often is local, not global in outreach, and these kinds of interventions where their claim to be humanitarian is only the other face of armed intervention. There can never be only stick, there has to be carrot too.

TamilNet: So you would say that they are the other face of oppression?

D’Souza: They are the other face of it because the other face is necessary to sustain the armed intervention.

TamilNet: Organizations like the International Crisis Group set paradigms that reduce parity between state actors and non-state actors, especially in conditions of negotiations. The balance is always tilted in favour of state actors, where state violence may be frowned upon but is still considered legitimate whereas the violence of non-state actors is condemned in absolute terms.

D’Souza: This works by isolating one dimension of the conflict. It isolates violence. It says that violence is bad, yes there is poverty, yes there is structural violence, but you cannot challenge it in overt forms, you can challenge it only in passive ways. It isolates the violence of the warring sides from the structural violence. By doing that it actually prevents people from taking a stand on fundamental structural issues.

Instead of the main issue of routinised structural violence it focuses on reactive, defensive violence which is a secondary issue.

TamilNet: In the context of globalization and states like Sri Lanka, the same advanced capitalist countries that fuelled the war-machine against the Tamil nation now promote the ‘peace and reconciliation’ industry with extensive funding.

D’Souza: Vast majority of ethnic conflicts happen in societies with colonial histories. In the formation of European nation-states, they were truly nations and capitalist. In the colonies, that is not how the state structure came in to being. In the colonies, the colonizers just lumped together people in one state structure.

The territorial boundaries were often the result of inter-imperialist rivalries between colonising powers – the Dutch, French, English, Portuguese whatever.

During the anti-colonial struggles people thought that it was possible to retain the state structure to fight the common enemy and things could be worked out together after Independence. Which may have been possible, but not in the context of this overarching imperialist world where imperial economies must depend on arms and defence industry – Eisenhower’s military-industrial-commercial complex – to exist.

This is why movements have to question the nature of imperialism today and the way ethnic conflicts are fuelled by the imperial war machine.

Radha D’Souza
Radha D’Souza
But it cannot be endless war either. There has to be something coming out of it. Some economic benefit, some geo-political benefit... Without that, wars without end cannot be sustained. If the Tamils are finished, there’s nothing more! How will they keep the military regime going?

Any militarism necessarily involves the other side - stabilizing it; otherwise it cannot comeback and refuel the whole thing.

That’s why at one point Western powers were desperate for the peace process to get going in Sri Lanka.

Norway thought it would be the ‘peacemaker’ but things took a different turn. It has not solved anything. After a point, it was bound to refuel.

In the meantime many NGOs, peace builders, diplomats, development professionals – have made their money, careers whatever.

TamilNet: The peace process here weakened the Tigers more than the government. But in a so-called ‘postwar’ scenario, where there is still violence perpetrated on Tamils on a systemic level, doesn’t the peace industry give a sort of moral and political legitimacy to a militarist regime?

D’Souza: It does. The peace industry also had to take a position. And what is their position? Equidistance! ‘Sandwich theory!’

Now they are critical of the government on their role in the last phases of the war in Sri Lanka, the treatment of people in camps etc because that gives them the opening, the foothold to intervene and remain an actor on the scene.

Now if they said that all the government did was correct, there would no way of entering in.

This is a method of intervening and keeping both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils in check, where nothing is resolved, and it brings in foreign economic and political forces and keeps them active on the ground. No self determination for Tamils or Sri Lankans! The story of the arbitrating monkey and the warring cats!


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External Links:
MRZINE: Sandwich Theory and Operation Green Hunt
CounterCurrents: The Economics, Politics, And Ethics Of Non-Violence

 

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