Twenty-three years after its creation, SAARC remains hostage to a state-centric understanding of Southasia, and continues to operate as an inter-governmental body engaged in functional cooperation on specific issues. Civil-society actors’ attempts to carve out alternative Southasian mechanisms have also not made much headway. The explanation for this perhaps lies in assessing the far-reaching impact of realist traditions on the understanding of international relations in Southasia, which lack the intellectual tools to fashion such an understanding.
The study of international relations in Southasia is hemmed-in by three sets of ‘givens’: the infallibility of the respective states modelled after the Westphalian nation state; a thorough internalisation of the philosophy of political realism; and a ‘positive’ faith in the wisdom of modernity. Bound by these assumptions, academics have been unable to come to terms with the region’s pre-Independence past, or to comprehend the contemporary realities that go beyond the statist framework. The study of international relations in Southasia is underpinned by two critical unstated assumptions: theorising in this field means producing scientific knowledge; and as the Bengali historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, Europe remains the theoretical basis of all histories. With its constitutive ideas and practices rooted in Eurocentric experiences, international relations is bound in a manner that Southasia’s various ‘traditional pasts’ became de-legitimised as a possible source of knowledge creation in the field.
The positivist enterprise has precluded debate on what issues of inquiry could be included in international relations, and how its key concepts of nation state, nationalism, sovereignty and territoriality could acquire different meanings. For instance, several conceptualisations and critiques of nationalism by Mohandas K Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, M S Golwalkar, V D Savarkar, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Sri Aurobindo Ghosh were at play in the political arena in pre-Independence India. Ghosh visualised the nation as a mighty shakti, comprising all the shaktis of the millions of units that make up the nation. Savarkar argued that the Hindus are not only a nation but a jati, meaning a brotherhood, a race determined by a common origin, possessing a common blood. He rejected the idea of a nation state based on an abstract social contract with individualised citizens dwelling within administrative frontiers. From a very different vantage point, the Gujarati text of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj makes a significant distinction between a genuine nation formed as praja, and a nation of individuals merely held together by state power, characterised by the rashtra.
Many of these ideas, especially the spiritual connotations of nationalism, could be dubbed as metaphysical formulations that have no place in the rational and scientific world of international relations, and thus be dismissed. This illustrates the ‘epistemic violence’, to borrow a term from the literary critic Gayatri Spivak, of political realism. “The episteme”, Spivak quotes Foucault to point out, “is the apparatus, which makes possible the separation not of the true from the false, but of what may not be characterised as scientific.” A positivist enterprise deploys this kind of ‘apparatus’ to exclude various understandings of Southasian-ism from the domain of international relations. Unlike other social sciences, which study their ‘traditional pasts’ to understand their respective notions of the ‘present’ and as a legitimate source of learning, international relations takes the state as a given starting point of all of its scholarly endeavours. It has no ‘pasts’ to look into because they have been discredited or rendered irrelevant.
The main propositions of political realism, which broadly constitute the subject matter of international relations, are as follows: states are the primary actors; domestic and international politics abide by distinct logics; developments ‘inside’ the state do not concern international relations, and what lies ‘outside’ is defined in terms of anarchy. In other words, there is no need to critically analyse the political character of the state because international relations is mainly concerned with power struggles among states. Its fundamental failure to historicise the Westphalian state does not allow for the recognition that the neo-realist notion of the state is that of a European nation state. The ground realities in Southasia are fundamentally different.
This outlook also lacks historical contextualisation, since it ignores the fact that the contemporary state system is a modern invention. For a large part of history, humanity has existed without states in the sense of territorially defined, exclusive political identities that claim the monopoly of legitimate force. However, the study of international relations in Southasia does not delve into the ontological origins of its respective states, in terms of the social and political formations in the pre-Independence period that would show that the state is not a given but is rather a historical product. And that too of a particular kind, because Southasia followed a different trajectory, that of experiencing colonial rule. For this reason, it is intrinsically different from that of the historical Westphalian state that ubiquitously forms the bases of all realist analysis in international relations.
By understanding the state from a Westphalian perspective, scholars of international relations in Southasia have refused to rethink the rationale of the state, and contend with the possibility that their security dilemmas are linked to the very character of these states in the region. What is needed is to create an alternative understanding of international relations in Southasia, by drawing in insights from other intellectual traditions such as postcolonialism, hermeneutics, development theory, critical theory and feminism. Sociological and geo-cultural reflection is integral to evolving a truly alternative toolbox for understanding Southasia.
~ Navnita Chadha Behera is a political scientist based in Delhi.