Ordinary Rebels: State Toleration and Armed Organizations in South Asia
Both in and out of conflict, armed groups play many of the most important roles in politics. As a result, their internal politics shape how conflicts are fought and resolved, which civilians are endangered or protected, and how states develop. Past research on armed organizations has asked how armed leaders maintain discipline and unity within an armed movement, but these works leave out half of the story. Armed leaders can institute disciplinary processes, but discipline is shaped just as much by which recruits self-select into service. A rival leader may lead a mutiny, but a movement is not fragmented unless soldiers or recruits decide to follow. My book project, then, asks: why do rank-and-file soldiers decide to take up arms and which leaders to follow — and how does this shape armed organizations from the inside out?
I argue that rank-and-file recruits and soldiers make their decisions in the shadow of government toleration or crackdown. Civil conflicts are often imagined as total wars, with little cooperation between armed actors. Yet most governments spend substantial time and effort cooperating with rebels in order to reduce violence. Peaceful coexistence, however, attracts low-commitment rebel recruits and encourages militant recruits to defect to ideologically-moderate factions. Periods of toleration, then, leave long-run legacies for armed movements, both during and after conflict. While toleration allows armed groups to grow richer and more powerful, it also sows indiscipline and fragmentation. Periods of toleration, then, leave long-run legacies for armed movements, both during and after conflict. While toleration allows armed groups to grow richer and more powerful, it also sows indiscipline and fragmentation.
The book relies on two main research strategies, implemented over seven months of fieldwork in and around six armed movements in South Asia. The first is an innovative survey experiments with nearly 400 likely militant recruits in separatist regions of Northeast India, exploring how different types of recruits decide to mobilize under crackdown and toleration, and which leaders they prefer to follow. The second is 75 in-depth interviews with current and former armed leaders, rank-and-file militants, and civilians who operate alongside rebel organizations, tracing the trajectories of four rebel movements in and out of toleration.
With both theoretical and empirical innovations, the project demonstrates the unexpected influence ordinary militants and shows how armed actors are shaped by transitions between war, peace, and the gray space in between.