Sunday, January 27, 2008

Are Youth Bulges the Root Cause of Terrorism?

Arundhati Roy has a new article published in Outlook (it says it is an excerpt of her lecture). This one is not only longer than her previous write-up ‘Scandal in the Palace’ (which was debated on this blog) but extends much further as she launches into one long and uninterrupted rant against much of modern society and civilization. Even though her moral opprobrium (which I naturally share) of state-sponsored/ abetted genocide is justified whether it is the one orchestrated against Armenians by the Ottoman empire or against Muslims in Gujarat, and her pacifist view that all wars and armed interventions are driven by an atavistic human desire to commit mass murder is a noteworthy sentiment, she takes the analogy much further. In her characteristically acerbic style, she vents against all symbols, indeed the very idea of progress. No one is spared - in her worldview, middle-class materialism and a cultivated indifference to larger socio-political concerns are apparently signs albeit early ones of a predilection for (future) genocide, the SC has partaken in ecocide which is again a prelude to genocide and SEZs are a present-day version of the Nazi notion of lebensraum (‘living space’, i.e., displacing ‘more primitive/defeated peoples’ to make way for the superior German race). Amidst all the vituperative rhetoric, I was unsure where her peregrination was headed until the very end – apparently, she concludes by defending naxalism (?!) which, in case she failed to notice, is only a recipe for more armed conflict and according to her own perspective, genocide! The shock value of her remarks perhaps owes more to the fact that we do not have that many well-educated liberals in India penning English commentaries (at least in the mainstream media) extolling old-fashioned nihilism (the trendy, up and coming nihilists prefer to conduct their discourses on seedy websites and their lingua franca is often south asian vernaculars or Arabic).

That aside, the purpose of this post is not so much to respond to her fulminations but to elaborate on another article by Gunner Heinsohn that came out a couple of months ago regarding the impact of the ‘youth bulge’ on genocide (I only mention Roy because her talk of genocide reminded me of this). Heinsohn is a professor of comparative genocide at the Raphael-Lemkin Institute, University of Bremen. To begin with, the term ‘youth bulge’ as defined by Goldstone (who works in the field) stands for an unusually high proportion of 15-24 year old youths (Heinsohn extends it up to 29) relative to the total adult population. He says that ‘Most major revolutions—the English evolution of the seventeenth century, the French revolution of the eighteenth century and most twentieth-century revolutions in developing countries—have occurred where exceptionally large youth bulges were present’. The reason? ‘Rapid growth of youth can undermine existing political coalitions, creating instability. Large youth cohorts are often drawn to new ideas and heterodox religions, challenging older forms of authority. In addition, because most young people have fewer responsibilities for families and careers, they are relatively easily mobilized for social or political conflicts.’ None of this is really news – our own political leaders are quite familiar with this idea which is why, on internal security matters, they often hold forth on topics like ‘bringing the disaffected youth back to the national fold’, youth employment schemes, etc. Heinsohn not only cites other related reasons for this phenomenon but takes the argument further. Caldwell summarizes his basic arguments succinctly:

“In Mr Heinsohn's view, when 15 to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence tends to happen; when large percentages are under 15, violence is often imminent. The "causes" in the name of which that violence is committed can be immaterial. There are 67 countries in the world with such "youth bulges" now and 60 of them are undergoing some kind of civil war or mass killing.

The problem, rather, is that in a youth-bulge society there are not enough positions to provide all these young men with prestige and standing. Envy against older, inheriting brothers is unleashed. So is ambition. Military heroism presents itself as a time-honored way for a second or third son to wrest a position of respectability from an otherwise indifferent society. Societies with a glut of young men become temperamentally different from "singleton societies" such as Europe's, where the prospect of sending an only child to war is almost unthinkable.”

He applies this model to various conflict-ridden countries across the world such as Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Sudan, Pakistan/Afghanistan etc. (click here and here for links through Wikipedia to documents he has authored). Thus, according to him, Palestinian violence is not explained by the Israeli occupation, poverty or humiliation but by the rapid growth of its population (which of course fits neatly with the neoconservative worldview and I suspect, is the reason why his article figured in that magazine); civil war that began in the mid-‘70s and raged through the ‘80s in El Salvador was not driven by poverty or hunger - in fact, the conflict was preceded by a 27% increase in per capita income – but because of the youth bulge; the internecine bloodletting in Iraq is the result of an uninterrupted chain of youth bulges since 1950 and is being run by ‘superfluous’ males who are no longer involved in war or organized genocide… and so on. He scoffs at the notion that poverty and radical Islamic rhetoric are to blame for Pakistan’s current predicament:

“Pakistan’s growing wave of internal terror that led Pervez Musharraf to assume dictatorial powers on November 3 is commonly blamed on the country's poverty. Such an assessment, however, is not supported by the facts. Between 1979 and 2007, per capita income in Pakistan jumped from 600 PPP-$ to 2,600. Other observers blame Pakistan's domestic chaos on religious leaders preaching hatred. But why would Pakistanis respond to radical rhetoric at a time when prosperity is improving their quality of life? However, prosperity itself may stoke the fires of civil conflict when it is accompanied by a "youth bulge"…”. His explanation of the cause:

“General Musharraf was born in 1943. In his cohort of 60 to 64 year olds, Pakistan has just 1.6 million men. However, in the prime fighting age cohort of 20 to 24 there are 8.6 million potential warriors who are followed by 10.7 million boys aged 0 to 4. This rapid upsurge, which I call demographic armament, translates into every 1,000 pensioners being followed by 5,400 men of military age, who in turn will one day be replaced by 6,700 boys. The United States, by comparison, is in demographic neutrality. Every 1,000 older American men are succeeded by 1,570 young men, who will in turn be succeeded by 1,540 boys. The United Kingdom is in demographic decline: 1,000, to 1,186, to 970. My native country Germany provides an example for demographic capitulation. It goes from 1,000 via 1,150 to 820.”

And his prediction for the future of the region: “Pakistan's bloodletting will not be ending soon. A burgeoning population of young men shares the Taliban's dream of a nuclear-armed Islam, with a united Afghanistan and Pakistan as its core territory and led by a new Caliphate. Although the fertility rate among Pakistani women has declined from close to six in 2000 to an average of four children each in 2007, their sisters in Afghanistan are still having close to seven. That is why in the Hindu Kush every 1,000 pensioners are followed by 5,570 men of best military age and 11,130 boys aged 0 to 4. This means the troubles in Pakistan and Afghanistan will be with us for at least 20 more years.“ European pacifism as a policy, in his view, is a direct result of the millions of individual decisions in those countries to not have children. This also explains the marked reluctance of NATO member-nations in Europe to contribute more troops or to take more active part in combat operations in Afghanistan as has been reported recently.

Thus, he says that religion is only a pretext to ‘cloak bloodshed in respectability and honor’. “The cruelties of terrorism are not caused by pious books, or by those who might abuse those books. They are caused by people who do not want to appear as common killers. They are the ones who feel the urge to dust off the sacred texts. Therefore, the rage of young Islamic males cannot be assuaged with explanations of the “actual” or “really intended” contents of the archaic volumes. The unceasing flood of articles about the evil influence of radical Islamic teachers simply reverses cause and effect. Where at first there are no suitable masses, even agitators of genius achieve practically nothing. And even where it can be shown that Islamic schools manage without terrorism in their curriculum, this does not prevent their graduates from fighting for a new Caliphate.” And quoting an example of Spanish conquistadores from medieval history (which I will not repeat here for reason of space), he suggests that political compromise or even capitulation will not be enough to satiate this urge for violent adventure.

The concept is attractive and has created quite a buzz. Yet, it has also been criticized as supporting an ethically questionable hands-off policy to deal with on-going conflicts. He however seems to suggest that that is not what he means, only that no workable political approach has emerged so far.

Is his claim true for India as well? Being such a heterogeneous subcontinent with a number of historical and localized conflicts, surely the truth of his propositions could be tested here. Henrik Urdal who has written upon this question in relation to conflicts across the world has also conducted one such study in India. His report, based on a compilation of conflict-related data from across the country, concludes that 'youth bulges increase the risk of armed conflict, particularly in states with large male compared to female populations'. He finds the same result to be true for other forms of violent political events. He does not however look into this feature in troubled spots individually which, given their own unique situations and characteristics, may throw more light upon this question. Surprisingly, I could find no studies of that nature. Nevertheless, looking at the census data of some of the conflict-ridden states gives us some idea about the issue (Heinsohn uses fertility rates which are not readily available for the early decades; population growth rates ought to work as a reasonable proxy):

Decadal Population Growth Rate






Jammu & Kashmir

























Applying a 15-20 year lag between the peak of the insurgent movement and the zenith of the annual population growth rate curve provides interesting insight.

Jammu and Kashmir: The J&K population growth rate probably peaked in the early-to-mid ‘70s, so the impact of the youth bulge would be expected to be most intensely felt in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s which is exactly around the period when violence was at its height; its subsequent decline could also be attributed to the fall in growth rate. It has however not ended despite a considerable decline in the growth rate, a fact that may be attributed to the high absolute rate (despite the decline) as well as other factors such as external infiltration.

Punjab: A similar profile is seen here. The growth rate probably peaked by 1971 and the effects of the bulge would be expected by the mid-‘80s which again matches the timing of the violent aftermath of Operation Blue Star (in light of this, is Blue Star which is routinely blamed for the escalation the paramount cause of it after all?). The falling growth rate may have been instrumental in its demise by the early ‘90s.

Nagaland: The stubborn persistence of this conflict through the decades could also be attributed to incessant series of youth bulges through the decades. The trend, if this theory is true, indicates that no resolution must be expected in the near future which may lend support to the Center’s continuing ceasefire with the dominant I.Muviah faction.

Assam: In case of Assam however, the growth rate was in inexorable decline through the ‘70s which ought to have translated into a peaceful ‘90s which was not the case – there was considerable violence through the early ‘90s and ULFA, though no longer as potent, continued to retain enough potential for mayhem even through the first decade of the 21st century.

Mizoram: This case is more problematic. The population curve must have peaked in the early ‘70s, a fact that would have favored the greatest likelihood of violent conflict in the mid-80s which, contrary to that expectation, was precisely when the Mizo accord was signed (1986) bringing the whole saga of militancy to an end. In a sense, the accord represented the Center’s capitulation by acceding to a long-standing demand for statehood; yet if this analysis and Heinsohn’s theory were correct, violence being an end in itself, the prospect of such an accord ought to have met with outrage, rejection and the voicing of other maximalist demands to frustrate it failing which rebellious youth would have derided it as a ‘sell-out’ and continued their ‘resistance’. Reality was however otherwise and the theory clearly cannot account for it.

In summary, it appears that youth bulge is an important factor in sustaining violent conflicts and preventing the restoration of political stability. However, such problems are multidimensional and it is only one (albeit an important one) amongst several factors. Heinsohn’s idea of it as the nidus upon which all else coalesces to create the storm may therefore not be quite accurate. For the same reason, political efforts can play an effective role though they may not succeed in every instance.

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