Security Narratives in South Asia


This initial discussion paper is provided as part of a call for papers by Prof Ajay Darshan Behera, Security Challenges Editor, South Asia, on Security Narratives in South Asia. The paper is intended to elicit both research and debate.

Traditional Security Narratives

South Asia, a distinct geographical entity of eight states – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – is home to nearly one-fifth of the global population. As a region, it has three important characteristics. First, it is arguably, Indo-centric in character. India occupies a central place both geographically and in terms of socio-cultural continuities, imperial and colonial histories, and economic infrastructure. The second characteristic is its asymmetric and hierarchical power structure. India occupies a pre-eminent position in South Asia in terms of its population, natural resources, economy, industrial, technological and military power. These two characteristics make India the proverbial “Big Brother” in South Asia with all its negative connotations. Third, it is also one of the most ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse regions in the Indo-Pacific.

Due to these characteristics, South Asia is a region of complex security dynamics. The region grapples with many traditional and non-traditional security concerns, each with distinctive security narratives. Understanding security narratives in South Asia is crucial for comprehending the challenges and opportunities for regional stability and, indeed, global security.

South Asia has a history marred by colonialism, post-colonial territorial disputes, ethnic conflicts, religious tensions, and cross-border terrorism. Traditional security narratives in South Asia predominantly revolve around inter-state conflicts, border disputes, and the threat of war. Central to these narratives are territorial disputes, particularly the enduring conflict between India and Pakistan over Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), and boundary disputes between India and China.

The India-Pakistan rivalry, which has resulted in four wars—three over Kashmir—has been a central theme in South Asian security discourses for many years. The Kashmir issue is not merely a territorial disagreement. It is imbued with issues of identity, self-determination, and regional aspirations. J&K involves claims of on-going sub-conventional or hybrid war but also issues relating to control of strategic resources, including water.

This longstanding conflict continues to remain a persistent flashpoint between India and Pakistan, fuelled by nationalism and religious sentiments, and has shaped the security narrative for both countries, leading to wars and continual military build-ups, influencing and influenced by domestic politics, and resulting in high-risk strategic posturing. Pakistan’s security narrative is heavily influenced by its historical post-colonial rivalry with India, viewing itself as the defender of Muslim interests in the region. Furthermore, Pakistan argues that it faces security threats from India’s military capabilities and accuses India of meddling in its internal matters, specifically in the restive province of Balochistan. Currently, India-Pakistan relations are at a standstill, particularly due to the issue of cross-border terrorism. The last two decades have witnessed a few audacious cross-border strikes by Pakistan-based terrorist groups, and India’s response to them has evolved over the years.

In 1998, India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests reshaped the region’s strategic dynamics. Despite being nuclear powers, they fought a war in Kargil in 1999. This war arguably highlighted the limited effect of nuclear deterrence in preventing conventional warfare. In December 2001, terrorist attacks by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) on the Indian Parliament resulted in a massive military mobilisation by the Indian government to force Pakistan by a “compellence strategy” to crack down on terrorist groups like the JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Eventually, India withdrew without much gain. The Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 carried out by the LeT, which resulted in the death of more than 166 civilians, have been a sticking point between the two countries. India demanded the trial of the perpetrators, and Pakistan has stalled the trials by asking for more evidence. In September 2016, following a terrorist attack on an Indian Army base in Uri, J&K, India carried out cross-border “surgical strikes” on terrorist launch pads in Pakistan’s territory. These strikes aimed to deter future attacks and to exhibit India’s capability and readiness to respond militarily. In February 2019, a suicide bombing in Pulwama, J&K, by a Pakistan-based group killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel. India responded with a targeted airstrike on a terrorist training camp in Balakot by what it called as “pre-emptive, antiterrorism action.” Pakistan reacted with retaliatory airstrikes near Jammu, J&K, but both sides avoided further escalation.

In 2018, the then COAS of the Pakistan Army General Qamar Javed Bajwa articulated a new narrative on security popularly referred to as the “Bajwa Doctrine.” The doctrine expanded the definition of national security beyond protection from external and internal threats to include human security, national progress, and development. The doctrine emphasised creating synergy through connectivity, peaceful coexistence, and resource sharing in South Asia to combat hunger, illiteracy, and disease. The emphasis on peace, particularly with India and Afghanistan, was a key component, with General Bajwa calling for a fresh start with India. Moreover, the doctrine underscored the necessity of internal stability in Pakistan, including combating domestic insurgency, such as operations against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It also stressed the importance of economics, connecting peaceful coexistence to the socio-economic development of the populace, and emphasised the cost of unsettled disputes on human development and regional potential. Emphasising the need for peace in the highly tense South Asian environment, he felt it was time to “bury the past and move forward.”

In theory, the Bajwa Doctrine offered a comprehensive approach to national security, prioritising economic stability, social cohesion, and political unity. It sought to ensure internal stability and security while maintaining a strategic balance in external relations, especially with neighbours like India and Afghanistan. This new approach was a refreshing change from traditional security narratives heavily tilted towards the military, reflecting a more holistic understanding of security and an earnest call for internal reform and regional collaboration. Coming from the Chief of the Pakistan Army, the Bajwa Doctrine marked a significant shift in perspective but sounded too good to be true. The military articulating a vision of non-traditional security may find hard acceptance: it is not even clear whether there was any consensus within the military on the vision Bajwa was articulating and that there appears to have been no ownership of this vision after General Bajwa retired suggests there are no takers for this new vision.

The Bajwa doctrine has had no impact on the security narratives of the countries in South Asia. It has had no impact on India-Pakistan relations. Since the Kargil War, various attempts at dialogue and peace processes have been initiated. However, significant and enduring improvements in relations remain elusive. Despite a ceasefire being in place since February 2021, India’s position has been that an environment free of terror and hostility is necessary for the resumption of talks. A lack of effective communication channels adds to the complexity of the relationship. Without any significant improvement in their relations, the region is beset with an atmosphere of unstable deterrence, which has profound implications for regional security.

South Asia’s security narratives also extend to the involvement of external powers like the US, USSR/Russia and China. These actors have played and play a pivotal role in shaping the security narrative through direct intervention or as strategic partners, competitors, or peace brokers. The USSR and US involvement in Afghanistan unleashed Islamist forces that have spread terrorism globally and destabilised the region particularly. More recently, the rise of China and its strategic geo-economic and geo-political moves in South Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal have significantly impacted regional dynamics. One narrative around the BRI and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) sees their impact as a ‘game changer,’ but increasingly, that narrative, as BRI faces implementation problems, is itself being contested.

India, arguably, finds itself in a challenging strategic environment due to the CPEC and China’s deepening bilateral relationship with Pakistan. It has forced India to think of a possible two-front military threat and balance China in the Indo-Pacific. India-China border disputes, particularly in the wake of the Doklam incident in 2017 and the Galwan Valley clash in 2020, have resulted in a resurgence of a state-centric narrative around national security. Despite the continuing economic engagement with China, this narrative stress the importance of military preparedness and the imperative of balancing and strategic alliances. This has led to a deepening of the strategic partnership with the US, not least in the Quad and with that mini-lateral’s other members, Japan and Australia.

India’s dominance in the South Asian region and the predominant focus on the India-Pakistan rivalry has overshadowed other important regional security issues, impeding regional cooperation and conflict resolution efforts. Most of the other smaller states of South Asia have not been involved in inter-state wars. India, due to the nature of the region’s geography – none of them shares borders with each other – and its size and resources loom large in their security calculus. Their perception is also influenced by India’s capabilities for military intervention, which has, in the past, taken place in East Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Despite the perceived external threat, the South Asian state’s traditional security narratives have largely been internally focused. Over time, security issues linked to ethnicity and sub-nationalism have gained prominence. Various violent secessionist movements have emerged among diverse groups, such as Bengalis, Baluchis, Nagas, Mizos, Chakmas, Assamese, Sikhs, Kashmiris, and Tamils. The insurgencies in Northeast India and the Maoist rebellion in Central India continue to form a significant part of India’s security narratives. The narrative on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism in India is largely due to the proxy formations of the Pakistani state and its military intelligence wing, the ISI. These groups remain active in J&K and have made occasional forays beyond, though the intensity, effectiveness and frequency of attacks have considerably diminished.

Sri Lanka’s security narrative has been dominated by the Civil War which ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE. However, the end of the civil war did not signify the end of ethnic tensions. The underlying grievances that gave rise to social and political instability and terrorism in the first place continue to exist. Moreover, both sides have been accused of human rights violations and war crimes. The international community has also raised concerns about the lack of accountability for war crimes. Efforts to combat terrorism have led to serious human rights concerns, including alleged extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. The government’s struggle to balance security imperatives with human rights has been a major issue. The Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka – a series of coordinated terrorist suicide bomb attacks that occurred on 21 April 2019 – serve as a grim reminder of the threat posed by extremist ideologies.

Since the 1990s, terrorism has surged in South Asia, with the Afghanistan-Pakistan region becoming a global epicentre, causing significant civilian casualties and displacement. The narrative surrounding terrorism, especially post 9/11, became increasingly prominent in South Asia’s security discourse, fuelled by the persistent presence of militant groups like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, LeT, JeM, and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), and further exacerbated by sectarian violence. Even while participating in the US war on terror, Pakistan continued to support some extremist groups. Pakistan has itself faced the threat from Islamist extremism in the form of the rise of the TTP and the continued attacks from separatist groups like the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and continuing militancy in its ‘tribal areas’. Afghanistan’s security narrative has been shaped by decades of conflict, with a complex web of domestic, regional, and international factors. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 has not improved Afghanistan’s security environment. The Taliban’s grip over Afghanistan has wide-ranging implications for Afghans and regional security and also raises significant human security issues, not least for women and minority groups such as the Hazaras.

In recent years, Bangladesh has experienced a rise in violence, with a surge in attacks on religious minorities and threats against secular and liberal intellectuals. After the serial bombings of August 2005, there has been containment of radical groups like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B). While acts of terrorism have virtually disappeared from the Bangladeshi scene, radical Islamist formations continue to engage in violence, on some reports and intelligence with the collusion of the opposition, creating a constant threat to the stability of the state. On a smaller scale, Bhutan has also faced terrorism from Nepali migrants.

Non-Traditional Security Narratives

While traditional security narratives dominate the region, non-traditional security narratives remain largely marginalised. In the post-Cold War period, the nature of security threats has undergone a profound transformation, propelled by globalisation and evolving patterns of conflict. This transformation has given rise to transnational concerns such as organised crime, human trafficking, drug trade, pandemics, environmental degradation, the unregulated proliferation of light weapons, and refugee crises. Traditional security measures have often failed to protect individuals, and the narrative on human security has not found much traction. Whilst the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been irrelevant to the major, traditional security issues in the region, it has been and may be relevant for some of these non-traditional issues. In general, however, and disappointingly, South Asia’s post-Cold War security discourse in this regard remains largely stagnant. 

It is essential to recognise that even in South Asia, climate change, resource scarcity, and population displacement are significantly exacerbating regional security concerns. This region stands as one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as evidenced by the frequency and intensity of natural disasters like floods and cyclones. Each South Asian country has recently experienced the ravages of climate-induced disasters. Rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, and extreme weather events could lead to mass migration, water scarcity, and food insecurity, exacerbating regional tensions. Maldives is the only country whose dominant security narrative is on climate change.

In the prevailing security discourses, economic security should have also acquired a critical narrative. But it has not. Despite noteworthy economic progress, the region is home to the largest number of the world’s poor. Poverty, income inequality, inadequate access to healthcare and education and underemployment are critical human security challenges in South Asia. Some countries’ precarious economic conditions have increasingly led to external economic dependence. These states have reasons to raise questions about their economic policies and management. In contrast, Bangladesh’s economic transformation is yet to figure in the security narratives.

Additionally, the region confronts grave issues like human trafficking, child labour, and rampant gender-based violence, including child marriages. Human trafficking networks have thrived due to weak law enforcement and porous borders. The issue of forced migration and refugees as seen with the influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan, the Nepalis fleeing Southern Bhutan and the Rohingya exodus, does not get adequate focus in the security narratives. Ethnic conflict between the Buddhist majority population in Myanmar and the Muslim Rohingyas has been going on since 2017. The military crackdown has led to a steady exodus of the Rohingyas. The Myanmar government has been accused of ethnic cleansing. These issues have security implications as they foster social unrest, illegal migration and in some cases, provide breeding grounds for radicalisation and terrorism.

Another critical aspect that merits scrutiny is the tension between security imperatives and human rights in South Asia. Governments in the region have often used “national security” as a pretext to suppress dissent and curtail civil liberties. The securitisation of dissent poses a threat to democratic principles and can exacerbate social unrest and political instability. Journalists, activists, intellectuals and marginalised communities have faced increased surveillance, harassment, and arrests under the guise of combating terrorism or maintaining order. Enforced disappearances have been a major human rights issue of concern for decades. This securitisation of dissent raises serious concerns about the erosion of democratic values and the rule of law in the region. Efforts to enhance security must be balanced with respect for human rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms. Failure to do so can lead to a vicious cycle of grievances, radicalisation, and insecurity.

The dominance of state-centric narratives invariably overlooks these human security issues. Policies designed to enhance state security sometimes do so at the expense of human security. Further, the security narratives often fail to capture the complex interconnections between traditional and non-traditional security issues. For instance, climate change could exacerbate interstate water disputes and increase migration, triggering societal and state-level security issues.

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