The BBC has decided to pull the rug from under its South Asia web portal, even as the 17th SAARC Summit got underway in Addu Atoll in the Maldives. The Corporation seems to have felt that a regional outlook was no longer a paying proposition – and well might it have thought so, given that its managers do not live here and do not have to think about building a Southasian future. But for those of us who do, Southasia is an increasingly real proposition, and done to be nurtured and developed to match the evolving times and accompanying economic, cultural and geopolitical possibilities.
Himal has always proposed that Southasia be understood as something more than the SAARC formula of seven (and eight, since Afghanistan joined) nation states. It is a matter of definition, and our proposition has been that this vibrant, diverse, vast Subcontinent should not be restricted to a single classification. The moment one goes beyond a single characterisation – and seek to reflect the historical, perhaps, or the geographical, demographic and economic realities – Southasia begins to become a real, exciting place.
Speaking of diverse definitions, let us start by reaching out to the Southasian penumbra: Chinese-ruled Tibet, which is indeed also part of East Asia while being Southasian, and the newly democratising Burma, which can simultaneously remain a member of ASEAN while being one of us. Let us challenge the unwieldy centralised nation states of India and Pakistan, and demand that the states and provinces of these countries be given more federal powers, to be free to make and learn from their own mistakes.
There is no reason why a bilateral, trilateral or quadrilateral collaboration should not fall under the rubric of a full ‘Southasian’ activity. Meanwhile, the smaller countries must not feel demeaned in developing links with the neighbouring states of India – sovereignty can remain sacrosanct even as Nepal develops links with Bihar or the various parts of Uttar Pradesh, for example. The most important consideration for Southasian regionalism, after all, is that it would deliver a more efficient economy, and lead to prosperity, particularly where the land borders meet: Nepal-Bihar-Purvanchal, Bangladesh-Indian Northeast, Rajasthan-Punjab/Punjab-Sindh and so on.
Only when the larger countries become less centralised will there be a proper structure for Southasian regionalism, where internal governance is more accountable and inter-regional links securer. As such, a truly federal India and Pakistan are the key to regionalism in Southasia. Creating truly federal structures in these countries would deliver the kind of units and entities – sovereign and otherwise – that can work closely together.
Another key to Southasian regionalism is the importance of local-level governance, from the provincial/state level right down to the grassroots. Hence, the end-November proposal by the Mayawati-led government in Lucknow for a four-way division of Uttar Pradesh is to be welcomed from the perspective of a more real Southasia. Not only is the massive size and
strength of India a matter to consider in the attempts to build regionalism, so too is the sheer size of Uttar Pradesh (a state that would be among the largest countries in the world if it were sovereign).
Stretching across the region
We must somehow find a way to rise above the petty ultra-nationalisms and beggar-thy-neighbour attitudes that drag down the entire regional economy. Six decades after Independence, the ruling establishments of the region’s larger countries now have an urgent need to mature, in action and outlook. New Delhi and Islamabad must shed their animosities, knowing that a rapprochement will do wonders both for themselves and for the rest of Southasia. This one amelioration of tensions alone will result in a multi-faceted peace dividend: in trade, people-to-people flows, developmental exchange and economic efficiencies. Once the concept of Southasia begins to kick in, the entire Subcontinent will begin to experience a level of global clout that, currently, we can only imagine. Let us also recognise that the region is nuclearised, and that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan will drag all of us up with the mushroom clouds. Indeed, the animosities of Southasia are primarily to be found in North Southasia, in a straight line from Quetta to Chittagong.
|Photo: Adam J West|
The people of Southasia must learn to function collectively: for example, working together to seek the departure of NATO from Afghanistan, which would require a regional plan for tackling al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The fact that drone warfare is being experimented with in our region should give us all pause. The presence of Western forces in the northwestern theatre is a destabilising element that puts a spanner in the plans – or even impetus – for Southasia to sort out its own problems. The quicker that the international forces leave, the better for all of us.
To build a practical, energetic regionalism, India will need to resist the temptation to throw its weight around. Every other country, meanwhile, must desist from the automatic, self-defeating anti-Indianism that is currently worn like a badge. In the new and effective regionalism that we seek, the idea is not to supplant the nation state but to complement it by giving the people and the polities an additional dimension to their identities – a dimension that is both historical and psychologically energising. As Southasian regionalism grows with a multi-faceted, realistic formula, the region will be increasingly able to respond to and collaborate with the superpower that China is destined to become. It is not the Indian but the Southasian Elephant that would engage the Chinese Dragon, in ollaboration and in competition.
The global recession has jostled the economies of Southasia, enough for each country to realise the need to open up its borders. Sri Lanka and India showed the way as far back as 1998, when they signed a free-trade agreement; since that time, their economies have interlinked in such a way that the smaller country has benefited without losing any of its sovereignty. The last two years of rapprochement between India and Bangladesh similarly herald great changes for the larger Brahmaputra-Ganga basin, including the Indian Northeast, West Bengal (Paschim Banga), Bhutan and Nepal. Subregional activities too, including those of the BIMSTEC grouping, can energise different parts of Southasia.
In the 15th year since Himal became a Southasian magazine (after ten years as a Himalaya-focused publication), we remain bullish on Southasia. The BBC, meanwhile, may just have missed the boat on this one. Perhaps this was because the BBC insists on spelling Southasia as ‘South Asia’. We mean this only half-facetiously: South Asia signifies a geographical placement of the region, a name given to us by others. We can convert this to our own purpose by keeping the spelling of our region as Southasia – a name we can clutch closer to our hearts and an identity we can all create together.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).