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An ecological response to ethno-nationalistic populism: grassroots environmental peacebuilding in south Asia

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Abstract

The geopolitical and geophysical realities of south Asia create a deep sense of paradox. On the one hand, territorial disputes and hyper-nationalism have resulted in some of the most militarized borders in the world. South Asia's international boundaries are subject to a range of conflicts, which includes high-level armed confrontations between India and Pakistan and low-level, yet deadly, incidents at the India–Bangladesh border. On the other hand, the region's ecology is inherently interlinked through shared rivers, glaciers and forests. South Asia's borders therefore present unique opportunities for environmental peacebuilding, as they are the epicentre of political conflicts as well as the source of transnational ecological connections. This article argues that grassroots processes of environmental peacebuilding can be used to build societal resistance to the rise of ethno-nationalistic populism in south Asia. Using interview data, the article tests concepts on pathways to environmental peacebuilding against underlying drivers of regional conflicts. The study suggests ways by which grassroots environmental initiatives on the Sundarbans forest between India and Bangladesh and the Thar desert between India and Pakistan can address the contemporary rise in nativist politics. The article contributes to existing literature by connecting theories on pathways to environmental peacebuilding to the ideational drivers of territorial and political conflicts. It adds to policy discussions by suggesting an ecological response to the contemporary rise of ethno-nationalistic populism in various regions of the world.
An ecological response to ethno-nationalistic
populism: grassroots environmental
peacebuilding in south Asia
MIRZA SADAQAT HUDA*
International Aairs 97:  () –; : ./ia/iiaa
© The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Aairs. This is
an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/./), which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work
is properly cited.
South Asia is beset by extremely high levels of conflict and climate risk, and low
levels of regional cooperation. It is currently one of the least peaceful regions in
the world, second only to the Middle East and North Africa on global indexes of
political violence. Peace and conflict in south Asia have traditionally been under-
pinned by three regional realities: () internal issues of civil war, ethno-religious
violence and separatism; () military conflict between India and Pakistan; and ()
political conflicts between India and the smaller states of Bangladesh, Nepal and
Sri Lanka. These political tensions have been exacerbated by the contemporary
rise of ethno-nationalistic populism. Compounding south Asia’s political conflicts
is the region’s acute vulnerability to anthropogenic global warming. South Asia
is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to extreme weather events,
and faces high levels of water scarcity and air pollution, in addition to having
low capacities for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Critical
challenges such as the melting of glaciers that sustain the Ganges–Brahmaputra–
Meghna (GBM) and Indus river basins, rising sea levels in coastal areas on the
Indian Ocean, and environmental disasters such as floods and cyclones highlight
the need to address ecological integrity in a deeply disputative region. However,
current levels of regional cooperation are inadequate to address environmental
challenges on the scale of those facing south Asia. The region’s policy-makers
are faced with the dicult task of reducing conflict and facilitating ecological
collaboration in an era of nativist politics.
Since the s, the emerging body of literature on environmental peace-
building has informed broader discourses on conflict resolution and ecological
conservation. Proponents of environmental peacebuilding argue that coopera-
* This article is part of the January  special issue of International Aairs on ‘Environmental peacebuilding’,
guest-edited by Tobias Ide, Carl Bruch, Alexander Carius, Georey D. Dabelko and Erika Weinthal.
Institute for Economics and Peace, Global Peace Index 2019: measuring peace in a complex world (Sydney, );
Rajesh Rajagopalan, ‘Evasive balancing: India’s unviable Indo-Pacific strategy’, International Aairs : , Jan.
, pp. –; Harsh V. Pant and Kartik Bommakanti, ‘India’s national security: challenges and dilemmas’,
International Aairs : , July , pp. –.
Mirza Sadaqat Huda, Energy cooperation in south Asia: utilizing natural resources for peace and sustainable development
(Abingdon: Routledge, ).
David Eckstein, Vera Künzel, Laura Schäfer and Maik Winges, The Global Climate Risk Index (Berlin: German-
watch, ).
Zahid Shahab Ahmed, Regionalism and regional security in south Asia: the role of SAARC (Abingdon: Routledge,
).
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Mirza Sadaqat Huda
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International Aairs 97: 1, 2021
tion on common environmental issues can increase trust and interdependence,
and encourage peaceful dispute resolution between states. According to this
perspective, transboundary cooperation in the realms of peace parks, international
river basin management and environmental monitoring programmes can be an
‘eective catalyst for reducing tensions, broadening cooperation, fostering demili-
tarization and promoting peace’. A small body of literature has contextualized
the theories of environmental peacebuilding within the conflictual geopolitical
landscape of south Asia. A majority of these studies have focused on interstate
relations, despite the existence of a plethora of contemporary as well as recently
concluded regional insurgencies.
Notwithstanding its relevance to the two critical challenges of conflict and
ecological change, literature on environmental peacebuilding in general and
regional studies on south Asia in particular suers from a critical limitation. While
environmental peacebuilding resonates with the constructivist view of world
aairs, the constitutive elements of conflicts that this body of literature aims to
address have not been the subject of detailed academic enquiry. The main focus
of existing literature has been on examining the constitutive elements of peace,
the end goal of environmental peacebuilding processes. This gap is more apparent
in studies that examine the ‘cooperation perspective’ of environmental peace-
building that focuses on interstate issues than in those that address the ‘resource
risk perspective’ of intrastate conflicts.
Within studies that focus on south Asia, analysts have addressed the symptoms
of conflicts, such as the Kashmir impasse or Indian hegemony, but have broadly
ignored history, religion, caste, class and other endogenic factors, which Ide and
Fröhlich call the ‘drivers’ of international disputes. The global rise of ethno-
Carl Bruch, Marion Boulicault, Shuchi Talati and David Jensen, ‘International law, natural resources and
post-conflict peacebuilding: from Rio to Rio+ and beyond’, Review of European Community and International
Environmental Law : , , pp. –; Alexander Carius, Environmental peacebuilding: conditions for success
(Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, ); Tobias Ide, ‘Space, discourse and environmental peace-
building’, Third World Quarterly : , , pp. –; Erika Weinthal and McKenzie Johnson, ‘Post-war
environmental peacebuilding’, in Ashok Swain and Joakim Öjendal, eds, Routledge handbook of environmental
conflict and peacebuilding (London: Routledge, ), pp. –.
Ken Conca, ‘Environmental cooperation and international peace’, in Paul F. Diehl and Nils Petter Gleditsch,
eds, Environmental conflict (Boulder, CO: Westview, ), p. . See also Ken Conca and Georey Dabelko,
eds, Environmental peacemaking (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center, ).
Ashok Swain and Joakim Öjendal, eds, Routledge handbook of environmental conflict and peacebuilding (Abingdon:
Routledge, ); Jan Bachmann and Peer Schouten, ‘Concrete approaches to peace: infrastructure as peace-
building’, International Aairs : , March , pp. –; Saleem Ali, ed., Peace parks: conservation and conflict
resolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, ).
Conca and Dabelko, eds, Environmental peacemaking.
Tobias Ide, ‘The impact of environmental cooperation on peacemaking: definitions, mechanisms, and empiri-
cal evidence’, International Studies Review: , , pp. –; Cedric de Coning, ‘Adaptive peacebuilding’,
International Aairs, : , March , pp. –; Finn Stepputat, ‘Pragmatic peace in emerging landscapes’,
International Aairs : , March , pp. –.
 For an overview of these two broad perspectives on environmental peacebuilding, see Florian Krampe,
‘Toward sustainable peace: a new research agenda for post-conflict natural resource management’, Global
Environmental Politics : , , pp. –.
 Tobias Ide and Christiane Fröhlich, ‘Socio-environmental cooperation and conflict? A discursive understand-
ing and its application to the case of Israel/Palestine’, Earth System Dynamics Discussions : , , p. ;
Amrita Narlikar, ‘India’s role in global governance: a Modi-fication?’, International Aairs: , Jan. , pp.
–.
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Environmental peacebuilding and ethno-nationalistic populism
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nationalistic populism in the past decade has increased the impact of ideational
issues in international conflicts, with south Asia serving as a particularly clear
example of how nativist politics can exacerbate religious and ethnic tensions
across borders. It is therefore of importance to policy and literature to connect
the pathways to environmental peacebuilding conceptualized by Ken Conca and
Georey Dabelko and developed further by Tobias Ide to the ideational drivers of
conflict in various regions of the world.
This article has two broad goals. First, it aims to connect ideational conflicts and
populism to mainstream literature on environmental peacebuilding. Second, it
examines whether grassroots environmental programmes focused on the Sundar-
bans forest between India and Bangladesh and the Thar desert between India
and Pakistan can alleviate the contemporary rise in nativist politics. To this end,
the article undertakes comparative analyses of grassroots environmental peace-
building programmes initiated by EcoPeace Middle East and the Arava Institute
for Environmental Studies.
This is one of the first studies to examine the use of environmental peace-
building to address ideational sources of conflict and ethno-nationalist populism
in south Asia. It is also one of the few studies to systematically evaluate the
implementation of educational programmes within environmental peacebuilding
processes in south Asia.
The analysis is divided into five parts. First, the article presents a review of
existing literature on environmental peacebuilding, with a particular focus on
south Asian case-studies. Second, it describes the research methodology. Using
data collected through interviews with policy-makers and subject-matter experts,
the article then assesses the ideational sources of conflicts in south Asia. In the
fourth section, the article tests empirical data on conflicts in south Asia against
existing literature on pathways to environmental peacebuilding. Finally, the
article evaluates how grassroots programmes focused on the Sundarbans forest
and Thar desert can facilitate environmental peacebuilding in south Asia.
Environmental peacebuilding: an overview
One of the earliest studies that recognized environmental issues as a potential
cause of violent conflict was the  UN report Our common future. Since then,
the links between scarcity of and competition for natural resources and violent
conflict has attracted considerable scholarly attention. In the s, an alterna-
tive theoretical field began to emerge that criticized the deterministic discourse
of literature on environmental conflict. These studies argued that environmental
problems are common challenges that are well suited to serve as entry points for
joint problem solving, conflict resolution, trust building and, eventually, peace-
 World Commission on Environment and Development, Our common future (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
); Anaïs Dresse, Itay Fischhendler, Jonas Østergaard Nielsen and Zikos Dimitrios, ‘Environmental peace-
building: towards a theoretical framework’, Cooperation and Conflict : , , pp. –.
 Marwa Daoudy, ‘Water weaponization in the Syrian conflict: strategies of domination and cooperation’,
International Aairs : , Sept. , pp. –.
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International Aairs 97: 1, 2021
making. The conceptual and empirical roots of environmental peacebuilding can
be traced to Ken Conca and Georey Dabelko’s seminal study Environmental peace-
making, which assessed ‘whether environmental cooperation can trigger broader
forms of peace’.
Conca and Dabelko’s argument rests on the conceptualization of environmental
cooperation as an independent variable that can aect several dependent variables
associated with peace. Peace as a consequence of environmental cooperation is
not envisioned solely as the absence of violence but also includes issues such as
trust, certainty and confidence and the creation of a ‘collective identity’. Conca
and Dabelko identify two pathways to environmental peacebuilding. The first is
‘changing the strategic climate’, which aims to diminish the trust deficit between
governments; the second is ‘strengthening post-Westphalian governance’, which is
based on the notion that non-state actors such as advocacy networks can transcend
the limitations of interstate cooperation by creating interdependence, fostering
new norms and building transnational civil societies.
From its initial roots, literature on environmental peacebuilding has devel-
oped into a dispersed and fragmented body of knowledge. Literature on conflict
prevention at the interstate level includes case-studies on bilateral environmental
cooperation between erstwhile adversaries such as Israel and the Palestinians, or
Armenia and Azerbaijan. Intrastate studies of environmental peacebuilding have
examined the role of natural resources in the rejuvenation of societies and econo-
mies devastated by civil wars, such as Afghanistan and Sudan. Although still
developing, the extant literature has informed the evolution of policy and processes
of environmental peacebuilding. For instance, Tobias Ide draws on a wide range
of literature and case-studies to suggest four pathways to environmental peace-
building: improving the environmental situation (pathway ); building under-
standing and trust (pathway ); cultivating interdependence (pathway ); and
building institutions (pathway ).
Environmental peacebuilding is a relatively new concept in International
Relations, and while literature focusing on south Asia is still emerging, several
important case-studies have been undertaken on the region’s transnational river
basins, wetlands and glaciers. Although interstate studies are dominant, there
have been significant contributions to an understanding of the link between
 Conca and Dabelko, eds, Environmental peacemaking, p. .
 Conca, ‘Environmental cooperation and international peace’, pp. –.
 Dresse et al., ‘Environmental peacebuilding’.
 Bruch et al. ‘International law, natural resources and post-conflict peacebuilding’; Peter A. Castro, ‘Promoting
natural resource conflict management in an illiberal setting: experiences from central Darfur, Sudan’, World
Development, vol. , , pp. –.
 Ide, ‘The impact of environmental cooperation on peacemaking’.
 On river basins, see Saleem Ali, ‘Water politics in south Asia: technocratic cooperation and lasting security in
the Indus basin and beyond’, Journal of International Aairs : , , pp. –; Mirza Sadaqat Huda, ‘Envi-
sioning the future of cooperation on common rivers in south Asia: a cooperative security approach by Bangla-
desh and India to the Tipaimukh dam’, Water International : , , pp. –. On wetlands, see Saleem Ali,
‘Use environmental diplomacy to resolve the Sir creek dispute’, in Michael Krepon, Travis Wheeler and Liv
Dowling, eds, O ramps from confrontation in southern Asia (Washington DC: Stimson Center, ), pp. –.
On glaciers, see Ashok Swain, ‘The Indus II and Siachen Peace Park: pushing the India–Pakistan peace process
forward’, Round Table : , , pp. –.
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environment and peace in south Asia through the use of diverse theoretical and
empirical frameworks. In a study on the Indus basin, Ali suggests that a focus on
common environmental aversions as opposed to common benefits may lead to
greater technical cooperation and peacebuilding between India and Pakistan.
Swain’s comparative analysis of cooperation between Bangladesh and India on
the Ganges basin and between India and Pakistan on the Indus basin finds that the
strength of democratic institutions is vital to the success of environmental peace-
building initiatives. Huda and Ali argue that an environmental peacebuilding
framework can address ecological and political conflicts associated with hydro-
electric projects in the GBM basin.
Existing case-studies on south Asia have certain limitations which are indica-
tive of gaps within the broader literature on environmental peacebuilding. The
conflicts that analysts aim to resolve through ecological cooperation are broadly
conceptualized within a vacuum, with little examination of the constitutive
elements that create, sustain and drive these disputes. In their analysis of the
Kashmir conflict or Indian hegemony, scholars do not delve into the way in which
history, identity, ethnicity and other ideational factors influence and are influenced
by such conflicts. As a result, the environmental peacebuilding processes suggested
in these studies have addressed the symptoms of conflicts in south Asia and not
the root causes of regional disputes. A notable exception is provided by Swain,
who argues that religion-based confrontation between Hindus and Muslims ‘has
been a long-standing source of tension and periodic hostilities between India,
Pakistan and Bangladesh’. Swain describes how these ideational issues influence the
outcomes of environmental cooperation in oering the following insight about
negotiation of the Ganges Treaty of : ‘Any agreement concerning the sacred
Ganges that gave a perceived advantage to predominantly Muslim Bangladesh
would have infuriated the opposition party, the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya
Janata Party.’ However, Swain does not explain how ideational issues that drive
conflicts can be addressed through environmental peacebuilding pathways.
The gaps in south Asian studies indicate that the broader literature on inter-
state studies of environmental peacebuilding, while examining the constitutive
elements of peace, has not attended to the deconstruction of conflicts beyond
the theoretical realms of ‘structural’ and ‘direct’ violence. While exclusionary
identities have been pinpointed by scholars of environmental peacebuilding as
major drivers of interstate conflicts, only a few analysts have tried to deconstruct
 Ali, ‘Water politics in south Asia’.
 Ashok Swain, ‘Environmental cooperation in south Asia’, in Conca and Dabelko, eds, Environmental peacemak-
ing, pp. –.
 Mirza Sadaqat Huda and Saleem Ali, ‘Environmental peacebuilding in south Asia: establishing consensus on
hydroelectric projects in the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna (GBM) basin’, Geoforum, vol. , , pp. –.
 Swain, ‘Environmental cooperation in south Asia’, p. .
 Swain, ‘Environmental cooperation in south Asia’, p. .
 Ide, ‘The impact of environmental cooperation on peacemaking’.
 Dresse et al., ‘Environmental peacebuilding’.
 Mark Zeitoun, Power and water in the Middle East: the hidden politics of the Palestinian–Israeli water conflict (London:
Tauris, ).
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these issues and address them from an ecological perspective. Intrastate studies
have demonstrated that environmental peacebuilding processes that do not address
ideational sources of conflicts are not successful in developing sustainable peace.
This finding has great relevance for south Asia, where religious, ethnic and histor-
ical issues dominate interstate conflict dynamics. The conflation of post-colonial
borders with the contemporary rise in ethno-nationalism in multiple regions of
the world makes the deconstruction of interstate conflicts particularly relevant.
An important counter-argument to the criticism of environmental peace-
building literature outlined above is that such processes, particularly those that fall
into the ‘cooperation perspective’ category, have a more limited goal of reducing
political tensions through spillover eects. Some may argue that expecting ecolog-
ical cooperation to resolve the ideational roots of interstate conflicts is unrealistic.
Yet two contemporary trends support a broader and more ambitious agenda for
environmental peacebuilding. First, the rise of ethno-nationalistic populism in
south Asia, Europe, North America and other regions has increased the salience
of ideational issues in international conflicts, calling for an urgent response from
environmental peacebuilding scholars. Second, some important studies of inter-
state conflicts have demonstrated that grassroots activities that engage young
people in environmental conservation can negate racial and religious stereotypes
and build resilience to xenophobic rhetoric.
Another gap in the literature on environmental peacebuilding in south Asia
is the lack of studies on cross-border resources that are less subject to political
conflict than the highly contested GBM and Indus basins and the Siachen glacier.
Despite the apparent emphasis of environmental peacebuilding theories on the
‘low politics’ of international cooperation, only a few studies have examined the
‘low-hanging fruits’ of environmental peacebuilding, such as the Sundarbans
forest between India and Bangladesh and the Rann of Kutch, a wetland in the
Thar desert between India and Pakistan.
Methodology
The methodology of this article is grounded in the constructivist approach to
social science research, particularly Given’s understanding of knowledge as not
formed of irrefutable facts, but co-constructed through mutual interaction by
researchers and participants. The methodology thus takes account of bias, which
is important in the context of undertaking research on heavily contested issues.
In addition to academic literature, this article uses data from  interviews under-
 Marina Djernaes, Teis Jorgensen and Elizabeth Koch-Ya’ari, ‘Evaluation of environmental peacemaking inter-
vention strategies in Jordan–Palestine–Israel’, Journal of Peacebuilding and Development : , , pp. –.
 Emel Akcali and Marco Antonsich, ‘“Nature knows no boundaries”: a critical reading of UNDP environmen-
tal peacemaking in Cyprus’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers : , , pp. –; Castro,
‘Promoting natural resource conflict management in an illiberal setting’.
 Tobias Ide and Amit Tubi, ‘Education and environmental peacebuilding: insights from three projects in Israel
and Palestine’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers : , , pp. –.
 Ali, ‘Use environmental diplomacy to resolve the Sir creek dispute’.
 Lisa Given, The Sage encyclopaedia of qualitative research methods (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, ).
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taken between  and . Data collected in dierent periods allowed for an
analysis of changes in regional politics over time. The interviews were undertaken
with policy-makers and experts based in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the
United Kingdom and Singapore. Of the total interviews,  were undertaken in
person, five through Skype and two via email. The respondents were chosen on
the basis of their expertise on geopolitics in south Asia, natural resource gover-
nance, and peace and conflict. Respondents were drawn from three categories:
public servants of south Asian countries; members of academia and non-govern-
mental organizations; and media correspondents.
Ethno-nationalistic populism and conict in south Asia
The territorial, religious and ethnic disputes in south Asia are rooted in the tumul-
tuous years before and after the end of almost three centuries of British coloni-
zation. At the end of the colonial period in , the subcontinent was divided
along religious lines into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority East and
West Pakistan. The Partition was one of the largest mass migrations in history and
resulted in the death of almost one million people from religious violence. The
hasty retreat by colonial forces led to the enduring conflict over Kashmir, which
has been the focus of three wars between India and Pakistan. In , supported by
India, East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh after a six-month war, during
which a large number of Bangladeshis were killed by the Pakistani army.
Since the formation of nation-states in south Asia, the religious and ethnic
dynamics of the tragedies of  and  have been exploited by ultra-national-
istic politicians, some media outlets and extremist groups to undermine regional
cooperation. However, for the majority of the subcontinent’s post-colonial
history, hate speech and nationalistic propaganda have been the language of fringe
elements, and such rhetoric has been countered by an active and independent civil
society.
In the past decade, the rise of ethno-nationalistic populism in south Asia has
changed the region’s geopolitical landscape in two ways. First, not just fringe
elements but mainstream political parties and broader social movements have
propagated nativist and populist agendas. Second, the region’s civil society, long
a vanguard of democratic principles, has either been neutralized by authoritarian
governments or willingly participated in the amplification of ultra-nationalistic
and xenophobic rhetoric. Interview respondents attributed the rise of populist
politics to the weakening of democratic institutions and increasing regional
instability. Ali Riaz has argued that the contemporary rise in ethno-nationalistic
populism has fostered an ‘age of intolerance’ in south Asia.
Bart Bonikowski’s study on the contemporary rise of ethno-nationalism
examines the interaction of three interrelated phenomena: populism, ethno-
 Adil Najam and Moeed Yusuf, South Asia 2060: envisioning regional futures (London: Anthem, ).
 Ali Riaz, ‘The age of intolerance in south Asia: contextualizing extremism in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan’,
keynote speech, South Asia Conference of the Pacific Northwest (SACPAN), Portland, Oregon,  Feb. .
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nationalism and authoritarianism. While Bonikowski’s study focuses on the
West, his conclusions resonate with the existing political realities in south Asia.
In India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which
won consecutive elections in  and , has pursued exclusionist and majori-
tarian policies, leading to the denigration of India’s secular and inclusive culture.
The demonization of Muslims by Indian politicians for short-term political gain
has led to lynchings, the normalization of hate speech and religious riots. Politi-
cians in New Delhi have attributed religious connotations to the India–Pakistan
conflict, as well as the issue of informal migration from Bangladesh, further
undermining regional cohesion. In , the BJP linked Indian citizenship to
religious identity by introducing the Citizenship Amendment Act. This Act gives
citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan
but not to Muslims, who may eectively become stateless. Given India’s size and
power, nativist agendas here have severe repercussions for religious harmony in
neighbouring states, as demonstrated by riots in Bangladesh following the demoli-
tion of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu extremists in .
In Pakistan, religious extremists have pursued the creation of a homoge-
neous Sunni Muslim identity with little or no resistance from the government.
Between  and , , members of the Shi’a community were killed by
terrorist attacks, and Hindus, Sikhs and Christians face societal as well as political
discrimination. Since coming to power in  the governing party, Tehreek-
e-Insaf, has done little to change regressive laws such as the Blasphemy Act that
discriminate against religious minorities. Farahnaz Ispahani has argued that the
Pakistani government’s policies and institutions have become deeply sectarianized,
and ‘non-Muslim representation at the cabinet-level is limited to mere symbolic
appointments’. In India and Pakistan alike, think-tanks, educational institutions
and the media have been co-opted by majoritarian governments to the extent
that many of these non-state actors have ‘furnished the principal element of
constructing the exclusionary nationalism’ that perpetuates ideational sources of
conflicts in south Asia.
In Bangladesh, the Awami League has come under increasing criticism for
authoritarian measures and undemocratic practices. In  the government intro-
duced the Digital Security Act, which criminalizes many forms of free expres-
sion and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent.
Such laws have been used to imprison and harass members of opposition political
 Bart Bonikowski, ‘Ethno-nationalist populism and the mobilization of collective resentment’, British Journal of
Sociology : S, , pp. –.
 Monamie Bhadra Haines and Sreela Sarkar, ‘Sticks, stones, and the secular bones of Indian democracy’, Engag-
ing Science, Technology, and Society, vol. , , pp. –.
 Priya Chacko, ‘The right turn in India: authoritarianism, populism and neoliberalisation’, Journal of Contem-
porary Asia : , , pp. –.
 Haines and Sarkar, ‘Sticks, stones and the secular bones’.
 Jinnah Institute, Violence against the Shia community in Pakistan: 2012–2015 (Islamabad, ).
 Farahnaz Ispahani, Purifying the land of the pure: a history of Pakistan’s religious minorities (New York: Oxford
University Press, ), p. .
 Riaz, ‘The age of intolerance in south Asia’, p. .
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parties and critics of the government. Religious extremists have also been active,
carrying out deadly attacks between  and  on minorities and proponents
of secular ideologies, indicating broader tensions at the societal level.
The rise of ethno-nationalistic populism in south Asia has exacerbated the deep
divisions of the Partition. Currently, relations between India and Pakistan are
particularly volatile. In early , a suicide car bombing in Indian-administered
Kashmir by militants allegedly supported by Pakistan resulted in the two nuclear-
armed rivals undertaking air strikes on each other’s territory. In the weeks leading
up to these actions, nationalistic fervour whipped up by mainstream politicians and
media undermined any chance of detente between the two states. In August ,
the Indian government revoked article  of the constitution, which guaranteed
special political rights to Jammu and Kashmir, leading to further deterioration in
the bilateral relationship.
While India has a very strong relationship with the ruling elites in Dhaka,
the BJP does not share the same anity with the people of Muslim-majority
Bangladesh: one senior party leader referred to Bangladeshi migrants in India as
‘termites’. The dichotomy between the relationships of political elites and of
wider populations is manifested most violently at the borders, where Bangla-
deshi migrants who attempt to cross over to India through informal channels for
economic and social reasons are often shot by the Border Security Forces (BSF)
of India. Between  and , a period during which the relationship between
political elites in Dhaka and India reached an unprecedented level of bonhomie,
 Bangladeshi citizens were killed by the BSF and  were injured. The
collaboration between the ruling elites in Dhaka and New Delhi, despite the BJP’s
rhetoric against Muslims and Bangladeshis, can be explained by a convergence of
elite interests. On the one hand, the Awami League received unequivocal support
from the BJP after winning elections widely considered controversial in  and
; on the other hand, the BJP has sought closer ties with elites in Dhaka to
counter both Islamist radicalization and growing Chinese influence in south Asia.
By supporting the political interests of elites in Dhaka, the BJP has attempted
to ensure that its rhetoric against Bangladeshis and Muslims does not undermine
bilateral relations. However, state-sponsored Islamophobia in India has under-
mined regional cohesion in south Asia through the perpetuation of xenophobic
caricatures of religious and ethnic groups.
Ethno-nationalistic populism has exacerbated underlying societal tensions and
ingrained the perception of the ‘Other’ whose identity is incompatible with that
of the ‘Self ’ and whose intentions are perpetually open to suspicion. In conse-
quence, as highlighted in the literature review above, environmental peacebuilding
initiatives involving only state-level actors and scientists may not address ethnic
and religious tensions at the grassroots level. To address the contemporary rise in
 Ali Riaz, Voting in a hybrid regime: explaining the 2018 Bangladeshi election (London: Palgrave Macmillan, ).
 Sta reporter, ‘Bangladeshi migrants are like termites: Amit Shah’, The Hindu,  Sept. .
 Odhikar, Human rights violation by Indian Border Security Force (BSF) against Bangladeshi citizens 2000–2019 (Dhaka,
).
 Riaz, Voting in a hybrid regime.
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ethno-nationalistic populism, a broader societal approach to ecological coopera-
tion is required. To this end, the next section sets existing literature on pathways
to environmental peacebuilding within the region’s current geopolitical context
to identify appropriate policy responses.
Pathways to environmental peacebuilding in south Asia: a grassroots
approach
The analysis of primary and secondary data from south Asia in light of the broader
literature on pathways to environmental peacebuilding has both confirmed and
challenged existing theories. Interview respondents stressed that trust and confi-
dence are among the key prerequisites of peace in south Asia. This finding resonates
with the conclusions of Tobias Ide, who argued that of the four pathways to
environmental peacebuilding, one of the most consequential is building under-
standing and trust (pathway ). The importance of trust was highlighted by both
state and non-state actors, which speaks to Conca and Dabelko’s dual approach
of building confidence between governments and developing transnational civil
societies. Interview data also revealed that eective leadership and organizations
were perceived as fundamental drivers of peacebuilding in south Asia. This finding
conforms to the arguments put forward by Carius as well as Ide, who emphasize
the importance of involvement by high-ranking policy-makers and eective insti-
tutions to the success of environmental peacebuilding.
On a broader level, however, the regional politics of south Asia create certain
challenges for Conca and Dabelko’s perception of peace as a ‘continuum ranging
from the absence of violent conflict to the unimaginability of violent conflict’.
Using this framework along with seminal studies by Johan Galtung, scholars have
examined how ecological cooperation can facilitate negative peace between India
and Pakistan and positive peace between India and Bangladesh. Ostensibly, this
conceptual approach is validated by the fact that nuclear-armed India and Pakistan
have fought four wars, while India and Bangladesh have never engaged in military
conflict and are unlikely to do so, owing to the power disparities between them.
However, as described in the preceding section, the conflation of ideational issues
and ethno-nationalist rhetoric has made south Asia’s borders epicentres of conflict,
a situation that calls for a broader appreciation of violence going beyond military
clashes. Between  and , , Bangladeshi civilians were killed by the
Indian BSF at the bilateral border, , were injured and , were abducted.
Applying Conca and Dabelko’s conceptualization of peace, it can be argued that
while violence towards Bangladeshi civilians by Indian security forces is neither
absent nor unimaginable, the discounting of this issue by politicians owing to
 Tobias Ide, Environmental peacemaking and environmental peacebuilding in international politics, Research Group
Climate Change and Security paper no. CLISEC- (Hamburg: University of Hamburg, ).
 Carius, Environmental peacebuilding; Ide, Environmental peacemaking and environmental peacebuilding.
 Conca and Dabelko, eds, Environmental peacemaking, p. .
 Johan Galtung, ‘Violence, peace, and peace research’, Journal of Peace Research : , , pp. –.
 Swain, ‘Environmental cooperation in south Asia’.
 Odhikar, Human rights violation.
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power disparities and the prioritization of elite interests represents a skewed view
of regional politics. Elite appropriation of discourses on violence means that the
existence of peace in south Asia is contingent on where one sits in the socio-
political hierarchy, an issue that the environmental peacebuilding literature has
not comprehensively addressed. The contemporary rise in ethno-nationalistic
populism has added to the fluidity of geopolitics in south Asia, which renders
static categorizations of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ peace problematic. Rather than
focusing on the end goal of peace, environmental peacebuilding processes in south
Asia will have greater policy relevance if they are geared towards addressing the
drivers of conflict identified in the previous section of this article. One of the
ways this can be achieved is through grassroots mechanisms such as education and
people-to-people contacts centred on environmental issues.
Drawing from the literature on ‘everyday peace’, a small group of environ-
mental peacebuilding scholars have examined how grassroots activities that facili-
tate encounters between members of hostile groups ‘can undermine polarizing
narratives and hence pave the way for a locally grounded and sustainable peace’.
Grassroots mechanisms of environmental peacebuilding are not confined to
theoretical studies, and have been used by non-state actors to address underlying
ideational causes of conflicts in several regions of the world, thereby providing
important policy narratives on both best practices and shortcomings.
This study argues that grassroots mechanisms are particularly relevant to south
Asia for four reasons. First, south Asia is home to the largest number of young
people of any global region, with almost half of its population of . billion below
the age of . Young people in south Asia are particularly susceptible to populist
and xenophobic rhetoric, and grassroots movements provide a more eective
means of reaching out to this particular demography than track  or  initiatives.
Second, as demonstrated by Djernaes and colleagues, grassroots mechanisms of
environmental peacebuilding are particularly well suited to addressing underlying
cultural and religious roots of conflicts, and can also counter xenophobic populism.
Third, bottom-up approaches may result in the replication of the anity between
political elites in Dhaka and New Delhi among their countries’ broader popula-
tions and thereby generate regional forms of identity. Finally, grassroots initia-
tives can create local constituencies that support an ecological intervention in the
increasingly volatile conflict between India and Pakistan.
Grassroots initiatives are not disconnected from existing approaches to environ-
mental peacebuilding. Broadly, the aim of such activities is to strengthen ‘post-
Westphalian governance’ through the creation of a common identity that supports
 Roger Mac Ginty, ‘Everyday peace: bottom-up and local agency in conflict-aected societies’, Security
Dialogue : , , pp. –.
 Ide and Tubi, ‘Education and environmental peacebuilding’, p. .
 Global Business Coalition for Education, 2030 skills scorecard (New York, ).
 Edward Anderson and Arkotong Longkumer, ‘“Neo-Hindutva”: evolving forms, spaces, and expressions of
Hindu nationalism’, Contemporary South Asia : , , pp. –.
 Track  refers to diplomatic interactions between formal representatives of governments. Track  takes place
on an informal level, often between members of civil society.
 Djernaes et al., ‘Evaluation of environmental peacemaking’.
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a people-centric, as opposed to a regime-centric, relationship between India and
Bangladesh. In time, by building resilience to ultra-nationalistic rhetoric, grass-
roots initiatives can change the ‘strategic climate’ in south Asia through facilitating
detente between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir conflict.
In the next section of the article, the potential contribution of grassroots
initiatives is demonstrated through case-studies on the Sundarbans forest and the
Thar desert. Comparative analyses are undertaken, examining best practices of
grassroots environmental peacebuilding programmes in the Middle East. These
particular studies were based on two factors that scholars have identified as impor-
tant to the success of environmental peacebuilding initiatives and one contextual
factor. First, the Sundarbans and the Thar desert do not face levels of political
and territorial conflict as high as those prevailing in the GBM basin or the Siachen
glacier. Existing literature suggests that environmental peacebuilding processes
have greater chances of success when the level of conflict is less intense. Second,
cooperation in these areas can be supported by existing institutions, which is
important to the success of environmental peacebuilding. Finally, empirical
studies have demonstrated that Hindu–Muslim relations in the Sundarbans and
the Thar desert are far more harmonious than in other parts of south Asia, and that
the environment plays a critical role in the sustenance of interreligious harmony in
these two areas. As such, undertaking grassroots activities in the Sundarbans and
the Thar can provide important lessons on ecological pathways to peacebuilding.
Youth engagement in the Sundarbans forest
The ecologies of Bangladesh and India are connected by the GBM basin, which
sustains the  rivers shared by the two countries and the transnational Sundarbans
mangrove forest, which covers an area of , square kilometres. Three-fifths of
the Sundarbans is in the Khulna division of Bangladesh and the rest in the Indian
state of West Bengal. The Sundarbans are the world’s largest estuarine mangrove
forest and the only mangrove tiger habitat in the world. The forest is a source
of ecological services such as carbon sequestration, sustainable livelihoods and
protection against natural calamities, and is home to a wide range of flora and
fauna, including some that are gravely endangered. Environmental scientists have
highlighted the critical need for greater ecological cooperation on the Sundarbans
between Bangladesh and India.
The Sundarbans forest is home to both Hindus and Muslims, a majority of
whom are socio-economically challenged. Dependence on the forest has fostered
a syncretic, harmonious culture between the two religious groups. Sufia M. Uddin
 Muhammad Makki, Saleem Ali and Kitty Van Vuuren, ‘Religious identity and coal development in Pakistan:
ecology, land rights and the politics of exclusion’, Extractive Industries and Society : , , pp. –; Leon-
ard Ortolano, Ernesto Sánchez-Triana, Paul Tapas and Shakil Ferdausi, ‘Managing the Sundarbans region:
opportunities for mutual gain by India and Bangladesh’, International Journal of Environment and Sustainable
Development : , , pp. –.
 Anamitra Anurag Danda, Nilanjan Ghosh, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Sugata Hazra, ‘Managed retreat: adap-
tation to climate change in the Sundarbans ecoregion in the Bengal Delta’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region :
, , pp. –.
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argues that ‘the inhospitable yet rich environment of the forest serves as a shared
sacred site for both Hindus and Muslims’. In both the Indian and the Bangla-
deshi parts of the Sundarbans, survey results indicate that in times of environ-
mental emergency, religion does not influence the great majority of households’
willingness to assist neighbours in need. The forest and its ecosystem face critical
challenges, including extreme weather events, rising sea levels, saline intrusion,
land conversion and, recently, the construction of a coal-fired power plant.
Currently, buoyed by strong political relationships, Bangladesh and India are
undertaking both track  and track  initiatives to collaborate on the Sundarbans.
In  the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on
‘Conservation of the Sundarbans’, which aimed to synchronize cooperation on
monitoring, management and conservation of resources, as well as to support
eco-tourism and sustainable socio-economic development. A joint working group
(JWG) of ocials from relevant ministries of the two countries was created to
oversee the implementation of the MoU. However, in the absence of a robust
cooperation mechanism, the two countries have made very little progress towards
implementing the MoU. Particular shortcomings of the track  process include
infrequent meetings of the JWG, non-systematic mapping, dierences in bureau-
cratic regimes and lack of capacity and training of sta.
Since , civil society participation on the mangrove forest has been facilitated
by the Bangladesh–India Sundarbans Region Cooperation Initiative (BI-SRCI).
Participants in this World Bank initiative include the International Water Associa-
tion (IWA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), along with three think-tanks
from India and one from Bangladesh. The broad goal of the BI-SRCI is to support
the implementation of the  MoU. It envisions an institutional framework
that facilitates interactions between the government ocials of the JWG and an
advisory group consisting of experts from NGOs, educational institutions and
grassroots organizations. The BI-SRCI explicitly acknowledges the importance
of the political impacts of environmental cooperation, envisioning ‘diplomacy
related to environmental issues’ as following a distinct path from conventional
diplomacy. However, the grassroots elements in the BI-SRCI’s proposed frame-
work are envisioned as part of a broader epistemic community that can facilitate
and advocate bilateral cooperation on the Sundarbans and does not focus explicitly
on building cross-cultural ties at the societal level. The BI-SRCI has made impor-
tant contributions towards engaging civil society in environmental cooperation,
but its grassroots programmes may not foster an ecological pathway to ‘everyday
peace’ owing to the lack of community participation. It is in this context that
grassroots environmental activities on the Sundarbans have the potential to yield
 Sufia M. Uddin, ‘Religion, nature, and life in the Sundarbans’, Asian Ethnology : , , pp. –.
 Ortolano et al., ‘Managing the Sundarbans region’.
 Anamitra Danda, Environmental security in the Sundarban in the current climate change era: strengthening India–Bang-
ladesh cooperation, occasional paper no.  (New Delhi: The Observer Research Foundation (ORF), ).
 ORF and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Bangladesh–India Sundarban region cooperation initia-
tive (New Delhi, ).
 ORF and IDSA, Bangladesh–India Sundarban region, p. .
 Danda, Environmental security in the Sundarban.
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certain peace dividends. Such processes can be informed by best practices of similar
initiatives in other conflict-prone regions.
The Good Water Neighbors (GWN) project by EcoPeace Middle East is one
of the earlier attempts at engaging young people in environmental peacebuilding
activities. The project aimed to break down ethnic and religious stereotypes and
create cross-cultural linkages between young Israelis, Jordanians and Palestin-
ians through training, transboundary visits, youth camps and other activities that
focused on shared water and environmental concerns. The project also facilitated
the incorporation of a water and peace curriculum into national teacher training
programmes in Israel and the Palestinian territories. This article does not aim to
delve into the specific details of the GWN project, which are available in various
project-related reports. However, I wish to highlight two key mechanisms used
by the GWN project that have policy relevance in encouraging the young people
of Bangladesh and India towards embracing inclusive forms of identity: namely,
youth engagement and training of teachers.
The GWN project organized youth interactions on several dierent platforms,
facilitating cross-border visits of  young people from Israel and the Palestinian
territories. By organizing camps on environmental issues, the project encouraged
young people to learn from and live with each other. The completion report of
the project stated that cross-border visits ‘broke down the stereotypical image
of an enemy, creating the basic foundations for lasting peace through individual
friendships’. Scholars of environmental peacebuilding who studied the GWN
project also concluded that such activities resulted in the young people involved
building mutual understanding and questioning stereotypes. Replicating such
programmes in south Asia with the Sundarbans as a focus could be a viable policy
option. Cross-border visits and youth camps should put emphasis on bringing
together young people from the Sundarbans and also from other regions of Bangla-
desh and India. Specific emphasis could be placed on attracting young people from
areas that have seen recent ethnic and religious conflict, such as Assam, New Delhi
and Chittagong. Youth camps may consist of two broad components: educational
workshops and classes on the Sundarbans; and service–learning opportunities,
where participants learn from and contribute to the local community through
providing conservation services. Cross-border youth engagement on the Sundar-
bans that focuses on environmental education and training will not come up against
either political or local resistance, and may address the existing gap in respect of
grassroots participation within the  MoU and civil society processes.
The GWN programme trained teachers from the Palestinian territories, Jordan
and Israel to help them deliver messages on environmental justice and ecological
interdependence. Such activities earned recognition and support from the Israeli
education ministry. In south Asia, education has been used by governments to
advance ethno-nationalist agendas by endorsing a politically convenient version of
 See EcoPeace Middle East, Community based problem solving on water issues: cross-border ‘priority initiatives’ of the
Good Water Neighbors Project (Tel Aviv, ).
 Friends of the Earth Middle East, Final program report: Good Water Neighbours (Tel Aviv, ), p. .
 Ide and Tubi, ‘Education and environmental peacebuilding’.
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history. Training of teachers in pedagogical tools that convey messages of ecolog-
ical integrity may somewhat alleviate the divisive historical discourses that pervade
south Asia’s educational systems. Such an approach is more politically feasible than
directly addressing textbook discrepancies, which will be met with high levels of
political resistance. Training of teachers may be undertaken through the translation
of open access online courses and textbooks on environmental peacebuilding into
vernacular languages. Teachers in Bangladesh and India can collaborate on the crea-
tion of a curriculum that highlights the necessity of cooperation on environmental
issues across international borders and between ethnic and religious groups.
Youth engagement and the training of teachers in south Asia will contribute
to the creation of what some interview respondents referred to as ‘cultures’ that
sustain and facilitate cooperation in south Asia. A research fellow from Bangla-
desh argued that ‘a greater amount of communication [between people of south
Asia] will lead to a greater amount of change in the new generation which will
ultimately lead to a change in the culture. The mixing of cultures is a big factor
in peacebuilding.’ Interview respondents suggested that such a change in culture,
buoyed up by greater trust and confidence, can address ideational sources of
conflict. A former foreign secretary of Bangladesh stated that closer interactions
will allow south Asians to ‘see the tangible benefits of working together as distinct
from many reasons that may come in the way—whether they are religious or
sectarian or security’.
The broader impact of grassroots initiatives on the Sundarbans in countering
ethno-nationalistic populism takes shape through the ‘multiplier’ eect, whereby
participants become leaders who go on to actively promote religious and ethnic
harmony and environmental conservation in their communities. As in the GWN
programme, the training of teachers should facilitate the establishment of a
network linking educators in India and Bangladesh that can sustain engagement
on conflict-sensitive education. Eective communication and outreach can also
ensure that peace overtures based on such grassroots initiatives reach broader
audiences in India and Bangladesh. In this context, UNICEF’s Peacebuilding,
Education and Advocacy (PBEA) programme in Liberia is a relevant case-study.
The programme provided training to teachers in conflict-sensitive education
and publicized its success through a documentary that included testimonies by
students, teachers and government ocials. Publicizing grassroots initiatives in
the Sundarbans through traditional and social media can send important signals
to political elites about the unsustainability of populist narratives. Scholars of
everyday peace have argued that the success of people-to-people contacts can
convince politicians of the need for more inclusive policies.
Grassroots engagement on the Sundarbans is thus relevant to Ide’s second
pathway to environmental peacebuilding, that of building understanding and
trust. The international community and regional civil society should thus provide
 Deepa Nair, ‘Textbook conflicts in south Asia: politics of memory and national identity’, Journal of Educational
Media, Memory and Society : , , pp. –.
 Mac Ginty, ‘Everyday peace’.
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the technical and financial support necessary for grassroots interactions on the
Sundarbans that can over time and iteration build the societal resilience that can
resist nativist narratives.
Tertiary education on the Thar desert
The ecologies of India and Pakistan are intrinsically linked to the glaciers and
transnational rivers sustained by the Hindu Kush Himalaya mountains. In addition
to the six rivers of the Indus basin, the two countries share the subtropical Thar
desert, which covers an area of , square kilometres. Approximately  per
cent of the Thar desert lies in the Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana,
while the rest is in the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab. Like the Sundar-
bans, the Thar is home to critically endangered species, and six areas within the
desert have been reserved for ecological conservation by India and Pakistan. It
is one of the most densely populated deserts in the world, home to . million
people, from multiple religious and ethnic backgrounds, who face grave socio-
economic challenges. As in the Sundarbans, the environmental challenges of the
Thar have played a crucial role in interreligious harmony. Makki and colleagues
have commented, of the Pakistani section of the Thar: ‘Despite dierent religious
identities, the harsh desert environment has laid the foundation of livelihoods that
have fostered positive coexistence between Hindus and Muslims, unlike many
other parts of the country that have been scourged by ethno-religious violence.’
In recent years the Thar has faced a number of environmental challenges in the
form of soil degradation, rapid vegetation loss, unsustainable grazing and farming
practices, and the extraction of fossil fuels.
Grassroots engagement in ecological cooperation on the Thar desert faces
the enormous task of circumventing the defence and security establishments in
India and Pakistan. In this context, the South Asian University (SAU) provides a
unique opportunity to use tertiary education to advance ecological cooperation.
The SAU, based in New Delhi, was envisioned as a regional centre for excellence
by the eight members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
(SAARC), and commenced student intake in . The mandate of the university
makes an explicit link between education and regional peacebuilding. One of its
formal goals is to ‘enhance learning in the south Asian community that promotes
an understanding of each other’s perspectives and strengthens regional conscious-
ness’. To promote integration among students, the university has a policy of
having those from dierent countries share accommodation. In theory, such
policies could contribute to acknowledgement of a regional identity that could
counter some of the ideational sources of conflicts between India and Pakistan.
While the SAU does not yet provide degrees in environmental sciences, it
has organized workshops and short courses with a specifically environmental
 Makki et al., ‘Religious identity and coal development’.
 Makki et al., ‘Religious identity and coal development’, pp. –.
 South Asian University (SAU), Annual Report 2017 (New Delhi, ), p. .
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Environmental peacebuilding and ethno-nationalistic populism
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International Aairs 97: 1, 2021
focus. For instance, in September  it organized, with international partners,
a winter school on ‘inclusive water governance’ which aimed to bring together
water experts from multiple south Asian countries. It also plans to establish
an Institute of South Asian Studies, which will run programmes on natural
resource conservation, energy studies, study of environmental issues, the search
for common ground and peace studies.
In , eleven Pakistani students graduated from the SAU’s New Delhi campus,
indicating that this regional university can facilitate the easing of stringent visa
restrictions between India and Pakistan, if only for a small minority of citizens.
In , it was reported that the SAU had received clearance to build a US$
million campus on the edge of the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected
forest rich with wildlife and plants that lies between Delhi and Haryana. The
Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife of India has instructed
the university authorities to foster a culture of ecological consciousness in and
around the campus. The new campus was expected to be opened in , but
this is likely to be delayed due to the COVID- crisis. Despite the potential, the
SAU has suered several controversies, including allegations that Indian citizens
have dominated leadership and faculty positions. In addition, the university is at
an early stage of developing its human resources, infrastructures and reputation.
Accordingly, to see how environmental education might be developed through
the SAU, we can look at similar initiatives in other parts of the world.
The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) is an academic and
research centre on environmental leadership in the Middle East. The broad goal of
the AIES is to produce a network of environmentalists who will meet the region’s
challenges with richer and more innovative peacebuilding solutions. The AIES
collaborates with regional universities to oer undergraduate and postgraduate
courses in environmental studies to young people from Israel, the Palestinian
territories and other countries. Four research centres of the institute focus on,
respectively, renewable energy, transboundary water management, sustainable
agriculture and hyper-arid socio-ecology.
The AIES uses formal education on the environment to inculcate empathy
among diverse social groups with the aim of fostering peaceful relations. By
getting young people from varied backgrounds to learn and live together, the
AIES has been particularly successful in overcoming deeply entrenched social
and political prejudices. Environmental peacebuilding scholars who studied the
AIES programme have expressed the opinion that the institute’s empathy-building
strategies facilitate the development of interpersonal ties that endure despite
 SAU, Events 2020, http://www.sau.int/index.php. (Unless otherwise noted at point of citation, all URLs cited
in this article were accessible on  Sept. .)
 South Asian University, Institute of South Asian Studies, http://www.sau.int/academics/centres-institutes.html.
 SAU, Annual Report 2017, p. .
 Mayank Aggarwal and Prashant K. Nanda, ‘Nod for SAARC university campus near Asola sanctuary, with
riders’, Livemint,  June .
 Asif bin Ali, ‘In which direction is South Asian University headed?’, Daily Star,  Oct. .
 Arava Institute, History and mission, https://arava.org/about-our-community/history-mission/.
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Mirza Sadaqat Huda
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International Aairs 97: 1, 2021
dierences in political ideologies. All students are required to participate in the
obligatory peacebuilding leadership seminar, which engages students on critical
and controversial issues in regional conflict. The institute also maintains an alumni
network to facilitate long-term engagement among future environmental leaders
of the region.
The educational and empathy-building strategies of the AIES provide impor-
tant context to the development of environmental courses in the SAU. However,
what is of even greater relevance to south Asia is the process by which the AIES
has linked educational activities to semi-formal cross-border environmental
initiatives. The institute has facilitated cross-border engagement between state
and non-state actors in Israel and the Palestinian territories on renewable energy,
wastewater treatment and other environmental issues. In south Asia, one potential
avenue through which education could be indirectly linked to more formal peace
processes is the development of environmental skills among SAU students that are
of relevance to Pakistan’s and India’s water and energy projects in the Thar desert.
To meet ambitious renewable energy targets, India and Pakistan are rapidly
developing solar and wind farms in the Thar desert. Currently, the Indian states
of Rajasthan and Gujarat, which share borders with Pakistan, have solar and
wind energy capacities of ,MW and ,MW respectively. Indian projects
include the Charanka Solar Park, the largest solar park in Asia, located just 
kilometres from the border with Pakistan. In October  it was reported that
desert land close to the international border with Pakistan was being considered
for the locations of GW and GW of solar and wind energy plants in Gujarat
and Rajasthan, respectively. In Pakistan, the MW uaid-e-Azam Solar Park
in Punjab is located approximately  kilometres from the Indian border. Like
India, Pakistan is planning to capitalize on its energy and wind resources, and is
considering proposals for a MW solar plant and a MW wind farm in Sindh.
In Pakistan, power from solar panels has been used to desalinate ground water,
thereby providing critical supplies to drought-stricken populations in Thar.
Despite the continuation of hostilities between the two countries, there has been
some recognition of the mutual benefits to be achieved from collaboration on
renewable energy. In July , a delegation of Pakistani experts visited India to
study the use of solar plants in irrigation, a mere six months after one of the worst
border skirmishes between the two countries.
The development of water and energy projects in Thar provides an important
opportunity for the SAU to engage Pakistani and Indian students on environmental
issues that will be of critical relevance to both countries in the near future. The
university could consider developing specialized courses focusing on renewable
energy development and solar-powered desalination in desert regions. The educa-
tional and scientific focus of the proposed grassroots programmes on the Thar and
the regional status of the SAU should facilitate political and local acceptance of
 Ide and Tubi, ‘Education and environmental peacebuilding’, p. .
 Mirza Sadaqat Huda, Promoting peace in deserts of sun and wind: renewable energy cooperation between India and Paki-
stan (Sausalito, CA: Energy Peace Partners,  March ).
 Sta reporter, ‘Pakistan seeks India’s cooperation in renewable energy sector’, Business Standard,  July .
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Environmental peacebuilding and ethno-nationalistic populism
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International Aairs 97: 1, 2021
such initiatives, despite bilateral tensions. Environmental education can also have
a strong experiential component, which facilitates extended field visits by Indian
and Pakistani students to the Thar desert. In addition to technical education, such
field visits should include service–learning opportunities, thereby highlighting
commonalities in ecological as well as socio-economic issues across borders. The
SAU could consider developing research centres that focus on renewable energy
generation and environmental conservation in arid regions. In this context refer-
ence can be made to existing research programmes run by the AIES.
Several interview respondents mentioned that cross-border engagements are
crucial to the promulgation and spread of liberal norms in south Asia. A former
adviser to the government of India stated: ‘It is important to change the orthodox,
security-oriented thinking in regard to borders in the government and ministries.
Borders must be recognized as opportunities.’ Yet to date, the lack of cooperation
between India and Pakistan and the high level of bilateral conflict have resulted
in an intractable status quo. One Indian research fellow described the relation-
ship between cross-border cooperation and peacebuilding as a ‘chicken and egg
scenario’, wherein regional stability and collaboration are mutually constituted.
A Nepali academic described the lack of cooperation and existence of violent
conflict as a self-reinforcing ‘loop’. He stated: ‘Somewhere we have to make an
intervention on the loop of no collaboration and no peace. Once collaboration
happens then we can get the ball rolling towards peace.’
Tertiary education on the Thar can raise awareness about ecological interde-
pendence among Indian and Pakistani students at the SAU. However, countering
ultra-nationalistic rhetoric and breaking the ‘loop’ of discord between India and
Pakistan will require engaging a broader group of stakeholders. One ‘multi-
plier’ eect of the SAU proposal could be the development of similar courses
on environmental cooperation in national universities across India and Pakistan.
Eective social media strategies can be used to connect the importance of such
educational exchanges with a growing consciousness among south Asian youth
about renewable energy and environmental conservation.
The proposed grassroots initiatives on the Thar desert broadly speak to the
third and fourth pathways suggested by Ide, those of cultivating interdependence
and building institutions. Support from the international community to enhance
the capacity of existing institutions will be of critical importance to the success of
these grassroots initiatives. In the long run, the link between the everyday peace
created through grassroots engagements and more formal peace overtures takes
shape through the development of leadership. The SAU’s mandate stresses the
creation of ‘quality leadership’, which interview respondents have highlighted
as fundamental to the development of peace in south Asia. In the context of
environmental education on the Thar desert, the development of leaders who
understand the need for cross-border collaboration on water and energy may
facilitate ecological pathways to peace between India and Pakistan.
 SAU, Annual Report 2017, p. .
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Mirza Sadaqat Huda
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International Aairs 97: 1, 2021
Conclusion
Addressing the underlying ideational sources of conflict in south Asia and the
contemporary rise in ethno-nationalistic populism requires multiple eorts
towards achieving everyday peace. Existing studies on environmental peace-
building in south Asia have prioritized technical cooperation on highly contested
regional resources. These processes may not address the root causes of political and
territorial conflicts. As demonstrated by the case-studies on the Sundarbans forest
and Thar desert presented above, environmental education on less contentious
regional resources can instil ecological awareness, break down ethnic and religious
stereotypes, and build societal resistance to nativist agendas. Such initiatives have
the potential to create leaders in south Asia who prioritize environmental inter-
dependence and socio-cultural syncretism above cleavages of religion, ethnicity
and nationality.
When designing grassroots programmes, emphasis must be placed on taking
account of social, religious, gender, class and ethnic inequalities which, if left
unchecked, can determine who can and cannot participate in such initiatives.
Practices in everyday peacebuilding in a deeply divided south Asia must look
beyond the most obvious problem of the Hindu–Muslim conflict to account for
multiple levels of socio-political hierarchy. In countering the exclusionist agenda
of ethno-nationalistic populism, grassroots programmes should ensure that they
do not replicate existing inequalities, thereby undermining the eectiveness of
environmental peacebuilding projects.
While scholars of environmental peacebuilding warn against external interven-
tions driven by neo-liberal frameworks, the grassroots initiatives discussed above
can benefit greatly from international collaboration. Research on environmental
peacebuilding processes in neglected areas such as the Sundarbans and the Thar can
inform the development of innovative policies that address ecological conserva-
tion, energy transition and conflict resolution. On a broader level, environmental
peacebuilding literature may consider engaging more deeply with the ideational
issues that drive violent conflicts around the world.
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Religion, nature, and life in the Sundarbans
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Ortolano et al., 'Managing the Sundarbans region'.
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Anamitra Danda, Environmental security in the Sundarban in the current climate change era: strengthening India-Bangladesh cooperation, occasional paper no. 220 (New Delhi: The Observer Research Foundation (ORF), 2019).
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Danda, Environmental security in the Sundarban.
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  • Mayank Aggarwal
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Mayank Aggarwal and Prashant K. Nanda, 'Nod for SAARC university campus near Asola sanctuary, with riders', Livemint, 29 June 2015.
In which direction is South Asian University headed?', Daily Star
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Asif bin Ali, 'In which direction is South Asian University headed?', Daily Star, 24 Oct. 2019.