Rumela Sen joined SIPA in fall 2020 as a lecturer in the discipline of International and Public Affairs, having recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Columbia’s Department of Political Science. Originally from India, Sen received her PhD in comparative politics from Cornell University.
Her research focuses on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction in South Asia, particularly in India and Nepal. At SIPA, she teaches the core course Politics of Policymaking: Comparative Politics (Developing Countries), and is slated to teach two classes next semester: Persistent Problems in the Global South and Politics and Policies in South Asia.
Sen recently spoke to SIPA News about the ideas behind her forthcoming book and her experience at SIPA to date.
What brought you to SIPA?
I came to Columbia as a postdoctoral fellow in 2017, the year I finished my PhD. I later applied to work at SIPA. I had friends who attended the school as students, so I had heard good stories about how much they enjoyed it.
The academic job market is competitive and there aren’t many available positions, but I wanted to teach at a policy school. My work has always been policy-oriented, so I was lucky that it was a good fit.
How did you develop your research focus on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction?
I joined my PhD program right after the recession hit, around 2009, when there was an overwhelming interest in political economy. I was interested in those issues too, but it was also around this time that the Maoist insurgencies in India and Nepal were in the headlines.
I was originally interested in writing my dissertation on technology and politics. I followed left politics in South Asia closely, so I wrote a game theory paper on the Maoist insurgency. I enjoyed exploring the insurgency literature and when it came to the dissertation I thought, “well, why not this?”
Could you give a brief overview of the conflict landscape that you focus on in India and Nepal?
In India, the Maoist movement goes back to the 1940s, before Indian independence. A faction of the Indian communists were following Mao’s experiments in China, and wanted to apply them in India, in almost real time. The Indian state promptly crushed the 1940s uprising in southern India. It wasn’t until 1967 that they rose again in the form of an armed agrarian uprising in West Bengal, in eastern India. The leadership was made up of primarily urban, upper-caste, upper-class, and college-educated youth. The Indian government crushed this movement too by the early 1970s, after which the Maoists went underground again. They disappeared from national news for three decades to resurface again in 2004 as the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The CPI (Maoist), now backed by a guerrilla army, led many brazen attacks against the Indian state. The prime minister of India at the time, Manmohan Singh, called them the biggest internal security threat the country has ever faced.
In Nepal, many Maoist leaders from the country’s 1996-2006 civil war and Maoist insurgency were either trained in India or had deep connections to the Indian Maoists. The country’s monarchy fell and transitioned to democracy in 2008. The conflict literature recognizes Nepal as a “success case” for peaceful democratic transition of an insurgency, particularly because the Maoist leaders gave up arms and participated in the electoral process. But over the years, many feel that these Maoist leaders made so many compromises to be part of the democratic government that they completely betrayed the revolution and the sacrifices people made. As a result, some Maoist factions are rearming themselves. In another attempt to turn the clock back, other groups are holding pro-monarchy marches in Nepal; they want to reinstate a constitutional monarchy and reconstitute Nepal as a Hindu state. Nepal is definitely in a flux. In my research, Nepal is an out-of-sample case to test if my findings in India work there.
In South Asia today, the primary axis of conflict has become religion, and you might wonder why we should care about Maoists. But if we take a long view of the history, and if we know anything of the Maoists, we know they never disappear—they only go into “strategic retreat” to resurface later.
I understand you have a book forthcoming, Farewell to Arms: How Rebels Retire Without Getting Killed.
The book is about how rebels leave an insurgency or an extremist organization. A lot of the existing literature on this subject is written from the perspective of policymakers, who ask what they can do to lure rebels out of insurgent groups. It goes in with the assumption that if we give rebels something—for example, jobs, vocational training, or cash—we can just wean them away from insurgency.
But to me, it seemed if I wanted to find out why and how rebels quit, I should ask the rebels. I was curious about how rebels decided to leave an insurgency, and the existing literature said nothing much about what goes on before the surrender of arms.
This book was born in the field. I looked at the data and realized that a lot of rebels quit the Maoist insurgency in the southern conflict zone in India, while very few left the same group in the North. I went to the field to find out why. I interviewed current and former rebels in both conflict zones in India and later in Nepal. One of my main findings is that many rebels could not quit even if they wanted to because they were concerned about their personal safety. They were afraid of being killed by their former enemies, like local landlords or upper-caste moneylenders, or by their former comrades.
Rebels fear that they would die in the process of disarming, while the state would lose nothing if it failed to protect them. I show this is a problem of credible commitment. In the absence of institutional mechanisms to address this problem, retired rebels shared how they started reaching out to their own personal networks of family and friends, who would mobilize secret and semi-secret ties to police, politicians, and activists with an aim to keep retired rebels and their families safe. I show how these ties collectively constitute informal exit networks and how these networks resolve the credible commitment problem. What’s most important to rebels in whether or not they leave insurgent groups is if they are able to build these informal networks.
What’s the most eye-opening aspect of your work?
One paradoxical finding is that where Maoists are strongest and most successful—in Telangana in South India—is where rebels quit more. I show how the popular insurgency there also strengthened the same democracy that it wanted to overthrow. As part of mass mobilization, Maoists created many frontal organizations that did not use violent means, like women’s organizations, Dalit [“lowest”-caste] organizations, revolutionary writers’ and poets’ groups, and so on. These organizations energized other grassroots civic associations.
Many ordinary people became members of these organizations while simultaneously keeping their day jobs and working as parts of various civil-liberty and human-rights organizations that worked within democracy. This has created a gray zone of state-insurgency overlap in the region. The civic organizations often disagree with the insurgency’s violent methods, while recognizing the structural violence against the poor and fundamental injustices that democracy isn’t solving. They slowly increased democratic accountability and participation by pushing various Maoist issues into the democratic arena, pushing for the administration or electoral politics to address these Maoist issues.
In places where the Maoist mass base was strongest, this network of grassroots organizations is strongest too. It’s easier and safer for rebels to quit and return to the mainstream in these places because the civic associations nurture the informal exit networks. In the book I show how these networks grow stronger in some conflict zones and not others; and how they ensure safe return of the rebels.
What is something you feel is misunderstood about your field?
People often misunderstand the role of repression and the use of police or military force by the government. Often the argument is that rebels quit when repression by the state scares them enough. But research shows that repression can often have the exact opposite effect. Rebels who take up arms have already made a disproportionate amount of sacrifice. They always knew they might be hounded or killed by the police.
The other misunderstanding, I think, is that if people take up arms due to poverty, unemployment, and lack of a good life, then offering incentives like jobs or cash should lure them back. I argue that’s not the case—rebels care about their lives more than livelihood.
What are you currently teaching at SIPA?
This semester [fall 2020], I’m teaching Politics of Policymaking: Comparative Perspectives. I focus on developing countries. Next semester, I’m teaching two classes. The first is a seminar on Politics and Policies in South Asia. The other is Persistent Problems in the Global South, a core class for the Economic and Political Development concentration. For this course I cover theoretical literature on problems like poverty, inequality, hunger, diseases, and corruption, and then examine how these issues played out in case studies from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I haven't taught this one before, and I'm always excited when I'm teaching something for the first time.
How have you enjoyed your time at SIPA so far?
The students are amazing, particularly this semester. I cannot appreciate enough how some students are waking up at two o'clock or four o'clock in the morning for class, and they’re still ready to learn. It’s very, very inspiring. Every time I go to teach, I remember the amount of dedication from these students and I know that I have to bring my A game.
I came to academia, basically, because I love to read about a lot of different things. Teaching, for me, is an opportunity to do that and then share what I’ve learned. When students’ eyes light up—when they show that something made sense to them during lecture, that something seemed to fall in place—that’s a huge reward.
Fortunately, teaching is very valued at SIPA. I come from a culture where sharing knowledge is often referred to as a gift, or “dan” [दान]. It connotes giving and generosity. I love to teach, and I am lucky to earn a living doing what I love.
This interview, conducted by Aastha Uprety MPA ‘21, has been edited and condensed for clarity.