THE HIMAL ROUNDTABLE ON RE-CONCEPTUALISING SOUTH ASIA (18-19 NOVEMBER 2001)
Why do the people of South Asia, who constitute more than one-fifth of all humanity, remain so overwhelmingly, materially poor? Why do our children continue to toil by the million, and women continue to die unnecessarily during childbirth? Why are we so unconcerned about the sharply widening economic disparity within our societies? And why do 1.4 billion South Asians matter so little in the world?
It could be that the very ‘structuring’ of South Asia and its individual countries is inadequate to meet our aspirations. It could be that this keeps our self-identity and native genius from flourishing. For a region of overwhelming demographic and geographic diversity, the growth of the sequestered state-centric national consciousness has not always favoured social, cultural and economic advancement of all the people.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, was a state-sponsored effort at rapprochement even before ‘civil society’ had woken up to the need for regionalism. But SAARC remains a bureaucracy-led effort of seven governments, a social solidarity designed to promote controlled management. Meanwhile, the regionalism espoused by ‘civil society’ has been well-meaning but unproductive. Despite the numerous pan-regional conferences, seminars and workshops of the last decade, there is less peace and equity all over. Our economies, education, public health and cultural wellbeing remain under attack without adequate response.
Part of the problem may be linked to the insistence on the kind of regionalism that emphasizes the unitary identity of all South Asia, one that is adequate for generic classification but cannot energise the people. Learning from the last half-century of experience, we must explore a new basis for defining South Asia, one which reaches beyond the nation-states on the one hand and regionalism as understood on the other–indeed, a concept of South Asia that highlights the garden of identities rather than asserts a superficial oneness that fails to inspire.
While SAARC is a necessary forum that will continue to evolve, those outside the governmental arena must thus begin to conceptualise a different regionalism. ‘South Asia’ has already become more than a foreign ministry project, and we must devise more pluralistic ways of organising the people of the different regions and countries of South Asia. It is important, as the Eleventh SAARC Summit happens in Kathmandu, for the rest of us to look beyond SAARC as well as the obvious limitations of the present brand of regionalism.
To delve deeper into the issues of nation-state, identiy, sovereignty, and regionalism, and to ponder over the notion ‘India’ and the meaning of recent earthshaking global events for South Asia, Himal organised a roundtable of thinkers, on 18-19 November 2001. The purpose of the exercise was to chart a course for the future in which national boundaries become less important, where culture, history, economy and livelihoods receive more attention, and where the penumbra between regions is better appreciated. The idea of ‘South Asia’ must be reconsidered to reflect more closely the identities and aspirations of 1.4 billion individuals.
The following pages contain under different headings an edited transcript of the two days of discussions, as well as individual presentations by the scholars and theorists of South Asia who participated In the Himal Roundtable. The headings are: Regionalism, SAARC, 11 September Afghanistan, Poverty, India and the Indian intelligentsia, identity and Sovereignty.
Harts Gazdar: The size of India is one thing that makes South Asia an ‘improbable region’. All of the surrounding countries have bilateral contests with India and all of these countries, even when taken together in terms of their demography, political weight in the world and economic strength, are all very small when compared with India. There is suspicion on the part of smaller countries about institutionalising a region in which India will play the role of natural leader, institutionalizing a region of Indian hegemony. At the same time, for India, it is very difficult to take the region seriously because any regional forum, no matter how it is organised, very quickly becomes a trap for her. It becomes a forum in which the others will raise their bilateral issues with India, and club together to use their collective strength to bash up India.
There is also a structural problem, which becomes obvious when you place South Asia into the context of world politics and economy. Because external powers can quite easily cultivate one of India’s smaller neighbours to gain a foothold in the region, it allows others a very easy leverage in the region.
Madhavan Palat: We make an assumption of a common past over this territory, but this may not necessarily so. You have as much of a common past between north India and Central Asia as between north India and south India. In the second millennia AD, the Afghan region was ruled from Delhi, whose dominion stretched further westward and northwestward. Peninsular India was not part of that structure. Assumptions that we have a civilisation in common, or that we have a common past, are questionable. There is of course the regionalism of Punjab, which cuts across national lines; of Bengal; of Sindh; Tamils; of the Nepalis—these are all cases where a kind of regionalism could work. Nation-states get nervous about it because it may undermine their authority. But that is exactly the fear India expressed at the time of the reorganisation of its own states, that the country would break up. In fact the opposite happened. Promoting regions of this kind could therefore be a kind of South Asian strategy. Also, these regions feel more comfortable in a larger unit, such as Wales and Catalonia in Europe, precisely because in the larger unit the coercive presence of the existing nation-state is relaxed. This is why regional identities are flourishing in Europe, under European Unionism.
We all have our sporting meetings as national engagements: India versus Pakistan, and so on. Why can’t we have a Punjabi team, or a Bengali team? We could have an Andhra team meeting a Punjab team. Why does it always have to be India vs. Pakistan? If each region can promote itself, we might have a completely different level of mobilisation politics and attachment emerging from it, which would be completely South Asian. After all, next to war, sport is one of the most important mobilisers. Instead of having the events along national lines, they could be done along regional lines.
Tasneem Siddiqui: Education is another area where commonalities can be developed so that there is a sense of healthy regionalism, particularly because of the demonization of neighbours that has taken place in education. For example, in Bangladesh, those who have written the curricula had as their starting point the nationalist movement during the Pakistan period. Therefore you very often find hidden sorts of anti-Indian feelings in there. Then again, from a lot of Indian books studied in Bangladesh in the English medium schools, we find that history constructed from a particularly nationalistic point of view is also present. There is a sense of “we are much better than others” or “they are not as good as us”. It should be possible to take a conscious step to pursue a more objective ‘South Asian’ text in the books. Even games for example, cricket has become politicised and I do not know whether this kind of regionalism is a good thing. But perhaps it is a good idea if the sub-regions of South Asia play each other rather than nation-states. But there are practical considerations that will prevent this from happening at this time.
CK Lal: Being recent creations, a strong rhetoric has been built around the states of our region, and they are aided by the power of the market, the power of military, and the power of state institutions. The state has always considered nationalities as a challenge, and it has expended no small effort to suppress them. A region needs some kind of homogeneity to define itself. South Asia does not have a religious homogeneity, ethnic homogeneity or economic homogeneity. The homogeneity is that of geography. So what brings us together is that we are a part of geographic South Asia.
Imtiaz Ahmad: Geographically, South Asia is explicit and viable as a concept, in so far as we are bounded by the sea. But it is less so if you look at the other sides. And, in terms of history, the problem South Asia’s viability is dependent upon what kind of a history you are willing to invoke; because there is not one history but multiple histories with multiple memories. So I think that if at all the concept of South Asia is a viable one, it is so sociologically. We spend far too much time discussing ethnic or social identities, ignoring the fact that there is also a thing called regional identity. South Asia has historically been what I would call concentric circles of identities of a regional nature, bounded by water.
Now, it would seem to me that there is in fact a boundedness to the region going by civilisational patterns, trade routes, the caste system, or whatever. So there is viability. But this sociological viability has to be juxtaposed with our recent political history. My contention is that whatever has happened in the recent political history – and I am not talking of the last 50 years but of the period before that— has tended to distort this scenario completely. To a certain extent and informally, the civilisation exists. But the mapping, the cartography of the colonial regime, has undercut or eroded the foundations of our regional inter-linking. This is why, while sociologically we have existed as a region, as a definable entity, we find ourselves divided into nation-states.
Ashis Nandy: For the first time, we are at a point where each of the nation-states of our region has more or less acquired a certain stability and recognition. The most uncertain is the case of Pakistan, because its self-definition seems to be incomplete. But on the whole, these nation-states have acquired autonomy and self-definition. Even more importantly, they can live without each other, apparently. Consider the fact that more than 95 percent of Indians have never seen a Pakistani in their lives. They see Pakistanis in the news photographs and on television. And probably more than 95 percent of Pakistanis have not seen an Indian, except on television and movies. On the whole, we have a new generation with little memory of the pre-1947 South Asia. But this also means that they are less encumbered. And I am very hopeful that members of this less encumbered generation will relate to each other as if they were people from any two nations, and will be a little bit more sceptical of the state, and will have more confidence and less fear of dissolution of the self.
Siddharth Varadarajan: Until certain transformations take place in individual countries to create the conditions for South Asia to emerge, little can be expected to occur at the Subcontinental level. Critiquing history is very useful as an entry point, because, for me, nation-states are absolutely central, absolutely crucial for any project in South Asia.
Madhavan: In international politics, at all levels, it will be important to assemble a ‘South Asian’ position. That is a singularly political task. The obvious pre-requisite for this is that the Indo-Pakistani confrontation has to convert to a collaboration. Strategic co-ordination must take place. They must see themselves as creating a common strategy for a South Asian future. Now, this is not entirely utopian, and the absence of the Cold War provides that opportunity. We must seize the opportunity precisely because it has been provided.
Haris: At one level, the window of opportunity for constructing a South Asian identity has closed. The period between the Cold War and 11 September was that period of opportunity, but the Indian and Pakistani states and the others could not make use of this opportunity. But now, there are new challenges but also opportunities, such as to build alliances across Asia and across the developed world. We must actually link the South Asian identity with the demand for a more just economic and political order in the world.
Imtiaz: On the one hand, we have a discourse developing in favour of the South Asian alliance, the South Asian conglomeration. But we also have an equally powerful discourse against hegemonic designs that are state-centric. I think of contemporary politics and political developments in South Asia, with some notable exceptions, as running contrary to the idea of a South Asian identity. For the immediate future, therefore, South Asia remains a constructed notion.
Tasneem: I feel that within this South Asian context, there are certain problems, common issues, which need regional solutions for which we can draw upon the European experience, such as that you cannot vote for economic integration without making certain reforms within your own system. While there are many issues that we cannot resolve because of the state
structure, perhaps we should focus on those that can be tackled because they are in the arena of economy, environment, or public health, such as the cross-border issues related to hydropower, irrigation, pollution and arsenic poisoning. There is need for a common approach, as well as for accumulating resources collectively that we may not possess individually.
One-legged stool of the omnivore elite
(Dipak Gyawali, Techno-Economist, Kathmandu)
WHY DO we need a South Asian regional “something”? Whose idea or interest is it anyway? Is it just the “ASEAN envy” of a few bureaucrats and politicians in the age of globalisation? Or is there a deeper need for it?
Popular imagination equates globalisation with the rapacious design of multinational corporations, but there have actually been three phases of globalisation, and the reaction at Seattle represents the transition to the third phase. The first wave came about with the League of Nations and reached its apogee after the Second World War with the formation of the United Nations. This was the globalisation of national bureaucracies. With the legitimacy of its nominal support, the Bretton Woods system of global financial control was what allowed national companies to set up transnational subsidiaries and ventures. This led to the second wave of globalisation in the 1960s and 1970s, that of MNCs which really could not be classified as being under chaperoned by any one bureaucracy. However, neither the procedural fetishism of a globalised bureaucracy nor the freewheeling profiteering of the egocentric market could make a dent on global inequity or the plundering of the environment. And so a third solidarity- the egalitarian civil society-emerged with globally networked activism. This, finally, completed the “three-legged stool” of a properly contested global policy terrain. In truth, had it not been for the globalisation of egalitarianism, many of the issues debated today would not have seen the light of day.
Leaving aside the intriguing question of what the pathway of global evolution will be, let us come back to South Asia and look at our institutions at the regional, national and local levels. How do we treat the different solidarities in our midst? Essentially, South Asia is a one-legged stool dominated by the hierarchic bureaucracy where other solidarities— genuine market and civil society— have been almost driven underground. Our markets function mainly in the informal sector, and when that informal profit-making activity increases in scale or attempts to work across national or administrative boundaries, it is labeled “illegal” by the hierarchy which has yet to show any interest in regularising this important South Asian activity.
Genuine civil society, one that is guided neither by the profit motive nor by the need for control but exhibits voluntariness for some ethical cause, also functions underground. In Nepal, traditional guilds, farmer-managed irrigation systems, and other community-based organisations still cannot function openly in an environment where the laws facilitate rather than control the hierarchy of rent-seeking opportunities. Educational establishments should have been the founts for such values of voluntarism, but in the name of modernity, South Asia has gone the way of “business schools”, which are mere training grounds for building contractors. All non-profit and non-control oriented disciplines (those that would be termed “liberal arts”) have now been left to the Sanskrit pathshalas, the madrasas and the telegurus. The modern universities of Europe evolved out of monasteries where both science and theology engaged each other to provide a new equipoise to society. In South Asia, modern educational institutions cater to the upward mobility of a globalised omnivore elite, while the traditional ones help stoke the anger of the marginalised.
Does SAARC in its current limited frame even discuss these things? Sadly, it does not show any inclination to do so and has thus remained merely a “foreign ministry project” of the respective bureaucracies where tokenism is the space provided for others. Informal merchants and producers need a “business SAARC” that allows them a better market and security for their investments. South Asia’s activists need a “civil society SAARC” to address their concerns about ethics and equity across the man-made borders. Not giving them space will mean that policies made sitting on a one-legged stool will invariably lead to unexpected and unpleasant surprises.
CK: You cannot deny that when you have two people, conflict is inevitable. The purpose of every institution is conflict resolution, starting from the institutions of marriage and family. The problem with the official SAARC is that it starts with the premise that it is not to address conflict resolution. No bilateral issues are to be discussed. That is why it has become a sort of redundant organisation. SAARC has to be re-conceptualised as a platform for conflict resolution. The term does not have to mean negotiations— just raising issues can also be a step towards the direction of resolution. We must begin by looking for the strands that bind us together as the starting point for re-conceptualising South Asia.
Afsan Chowdhury: SAARC fails because the nation-states themselves are major failures. So seven failures cannot make one successful construct. Even within SAARC, there is this argument that it should be split into two groups, and this is an official stand of some delegates. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are more developed within SAARC. Whereas Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan— the Maldives does not figure in too many discussions— should be put together. And there are indeed two kinds of realities within SAARC– it is itself already splitting up into two identities.
Future of a fragmented legacy
(Madhavan K. Palat, Historian, New Delhi)
I LOOK forward to South Asia coming together in different ways and at multiple levels without our having to think of a single state or even a confederation of states. This should not in any way compromise the “unity and integrity” of any of the member states of SAARC. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are already fragments according to their formative political traditions. The Indian intelligentsia sees itself as the legatee of what is known as the National Movement. But India today is a fragment of what they had imagined before 1947; in an important sense, India has not been united since 1947. Pakistan is assumed to be the product of the Muslim League. But the League itself was a constituent of that national movement to which independent India lays a dubiously exclusive claim, and it matured on the premise of an undivided India until the final few years when the Pakistani option was suddenly exercised. Pakistan, like India, was bequeathed a fragmented legacy, and it splintered thereafter in 1971. By the same logic, Bangladesh must affirm the double fragmentation of its political traditions. Sri Lanka today is a virtually divided state. We are all splinters and, to a significant degree, victims of splintered pasts.
What then is to be the basis for a common future? It is the intelligentsia’s common engagement with modernity as they experienced it in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the interpenetrating common politics that has developed over the 20th century. For that reason, both Central Asia and Southeast Asia have been excluded from the common modern projects despite the extraordinary intimacy of previous centuries between different parts of South Asia and these two regions. In modern times, South Asia has constituted itself as a region that is integrating itself through paradigms of politics and social movements that are becoming increasingly common despite, and because of, the numerous tensions and conflicts between the sovereign states of the region. The vision of a new South Asia is oriented to the future that may be fashioned, not to a past that has vanished. Let me suggest Tree major processes as strategies to be pursued to bring us together outside of and independent of the action of the sovereign states.
The first is regionalism. The experience of the Indian Union has demonstrated that regionalism has contributed to the unity of the Indian Republic in a manner that is both stable and democratic. It began with the Indian National Congress resolving itself into linguistic units in 1920, which blossomed in 1956 into the linguistic reorganisation of the Indian Union. That was a major act of statesmanship. It is an experience that could be productively used to bring South Asia together. There are many regionalisms that cut across the boundaries of the sovereign states. Each of these could be promoted without undermining the integrity of the states in question. The obvious ones are Kashmiri, Punjabi, Bengali, Sindhi and Nepali regionalisms. They foster a level of difference and of competition other than of the states. With Afghanistan included, the Pathans would be the source of just such a regionalism that is common to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is especially pertinent since the Pathans played a significant role in the national movement in the first half of the twentieth century.
This regionalism could be pursued in all the non-state spheres of civil society, including all forms of academic and cultural gatherings and joint undertakings, the common political pursuits of economic liberalisation, women’s and children’s rights, media, human rights, the environment, entertainment and so on. Among these, the most important may be sports, which is the greatest popular mobiliser beside war itself. Supranational regional sporting teams, or even exclusively city teams, would fuel popular enthusiasms into channels other than the confrontations between the sovereign states. Sports enjoys the added advantage of being able to attract big money and sponsors. That should perhaps be the starting or focal point alongside the entertainment industry.
The second is the pursuit of democratic electoral politics. This would be essential to mobilising popularly conceived regional identities, and there could be no regionalism without such democratic politics. Defining regions more sharply, but democratically, is more of what happened in India since 1956.
The third is a South Asian assertion in the world. If South Asian identity and strategy are to be pursued, they have to be recognised elsewhere in the world: they cannot remain private or local obsessions of the population of South Asia. There is nothing to prevent sundry non-state actors, each in its own sphere, from acting jointly in international fora as representatives of South Asian or regional movements, rather than only as movements of particular nation-states. That self-assertion would be a measure of the potency of civil society in South Asia. One of the essential conditions for such self-assertion now exists, and that is the end of the Cold War, which also allows the possibility of seeing an end to the permanent confrontation between India and Pakistan. It is an opportunity that the popular initiatives of civil society must seize.
11 September and Afghanistan
Haris: The entire brunt of the American military campaign after 11 September is being borne by the people of Afghanistan. We must realise that the whatever you actually do inside Afghanistan is highly contingent on the domestic politics of Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and even what kinds of relationships these countries enjoy with Russia. Similarly, the internal politics of Iran are being drawn in, and you actually have very well-worn arguments around how the micro-politics of the Pashtun in Afghanistan are very closely linked to what is going on in South Asia between Pakistan and India. The official Indian position certainly makes use of this issue factor, that these are the same jehadis active in Kashmir.
Madhavan: On the one hand we have lost an opportunity, and on the other hand we will find a new one following the events of 11 September. You may yet recover the collective struggle similar to the one that was once raised against colonialism. But perhaps we are reading too much into 11 September, and the primary reason for such an evolution of a revived cause may actually have to do with the end of the Cold War. Is the presence of potential American bases somewhere in the South Asian neighbourhood going to be the fact that makes all the difference? Surely the end of the Cold War is the biggest change that has occurred.
Haris: If we are actually looking for positive channels or positive areas on which solidarity and identity can be constructed, I would say that it is almost akin to the fight against colonialism. We are about to re-enter that era, and I am extremely concerned that the re-colonisation of Asia is only being opposed by a band of discredited Sunni militants.
CK: 11 September is being made out to be more important for us than it probably is. The one who gets to define the problem is seldom bothered about what is the solution, because whatever the solution will be, it will be in his interest. 11 September is being defined as a problem that concerns all of us, but it concerns us in South Asia not because of gas lines and pipelines and energy, but because Afghans, our brethren, are suffering. They may not be part of SAARC, they may claim themselves to be part of Arabia or Central Asia, but we all know that historically and emotionally they are our South Asian brothers. So we should see Afghanistan from a perspective which is different from the perspective of Western groups.
Ramchandra Guha: Haris said that 11 September has fundamentally altered the world and South Asia. CK Lal believes 11 September is irrelevant to what is going on. That is obviously the difference between a person speaking from Karachi and one speaking from Kathmandu. Here in this lovely, isolated valley, there are no bombs and no Osama bin Ladens, while Karachi is much closer to the conflict, and has borne its brunt for the last fifteen or twenty years and will continue to bear it.
Siddharth: Imagine a situation after 11 September, where the BJP government in New Delhi had told the Americans: “Look, we ourselves are victims of terrorism. We are victims of the Taliban, and we condemn what happened in New York and Washington. But we believe that as per international law, as per what is good for our region, you should not attack Afghanistan. As a country, we are going to take a stand against your attacks on Afghanistan.” What would that kind of stand by New Delhi have produced? I think it would have put a lot of pressure on General Musharraf, and it would have been very difficult for him to have gone along with the American agenda. It might have actually created a path at the popular level for some India-Pakistan rapprochement, and created a very different scenario in Kashmir. This is all speculation, but if India had not taken this very predictable, narrow-minded idea of its national interests and thought in South Asian terms of how use the turn of events to create fresh momentum for relations with Pakistn, there might have been some good in of all of this.
Imtiaz: Indeed, when India reacted to the war in Afghanistan, it did not do so as a South Asian state or as a nation. It reacted as a unitary nation-state in a context of international warfare. And because of the very strong sense of rivalry with Pakistan, India wanted actually to be in the centre stage, where Pakistan happened to be.
Siddharth: The response of the United States to what happened on 11 September was to use it to push its military presence into our region. Now there is going to be a sharpening of conflicts over resources and trade routes. All of this makes the project of South Asia a much, much more urgent one. But unless we link this to projects within our individual states for the democratic transformation within, nothing much is going to happen.
Afsan: While doing some research on the perception of identity among the Hindu minority of Bangladesh, I learnt that they did not see themselves as Bangladeshis. They saw themselves as Hindus. And many of them were migrating. So I asked if they saw themselves as Indians, which they did not. They saw themselves as Hindus. So I asked some more questions, and learnt that their self-identification as Hindus was a counter-identity, as someone who was not a Muslim. Essentially, therefore, they did not see themselves as having any identity. So I asked, “Who are you, then?” And they said, “I am poor.”
When the Muslim poor were asked whether they thought of themsleves as Bangladeshi, I found that they did not. I asked “Are you Muslim?” And they did not see themselves as Muslims. I am talking about the extreme poor, which is about 50 to 60 percent of the population. Yes, they did have certain cultural practices, but this was not the dominant part of their identity. So I asked, “Who are you?” And again, they see themselves as poor. Being poor is the most dominant identity of South Asia. But the people who discuss ‘identity’ cannot imagine poverty. Because poverty itself has been marginalised out of the elite’s imagination.
All of the identities we construct- such as those we have been discussing— are not identities that have anything to do with the majority of the people. The crisis of 11 September does not mean anything to them. The poor do not have a crisis in the sense that they do not have a way of getting out and constructing a new identity, of being less poor for example. And therefore, our discourse probably is about us rather than about the majority of South Asians who are not a part of and probably cannot be a part of this kind of identity formation.
Tasneem: On this question of being poor as an identity, perhaps that identity does exist but it is definitely subsumed when political events overtake them, when even the poor pick up a political identity. In the end, no matter what, the national identity wins. The national identity can be exploited. You can become a Bangladeshi Muslim or a Bangladeshi man when you want to take over your sister’s property. You are a Bangladeshi Muslim when you wrest property from a Hindu Bangladeshi. All of these interests feed into the national identity.
Dipak Gywali: What is bothering me in this exchange is that if you look at states right now, all of them claim to be speaking for the poor, all of them claim to have poverty alleviation programmes, and poverty itself has become an industry. However the poor may like to see themselves, they have been defined and they have become part of the state’s politics.
Ashis: Somebody in an obituary of Foucalt, wrote: “You have taught us the indignity of speaking on behalf of others.” So I do not want to speak on behalf of the poor and oppressed of South Asia. I think it is very undignified to do so. We have two-dimensionalised millions in our countries, calling them poor and oppressed. As if there is no culture, no knowledge, no folk tales, as if their grandparents did not tell them stories, their mothers did not sing them lullabies. Calling them only poor and only oppressed, we get the right to engineer them and push them like so much cattle towards the future.
Identity, migration, regionalism
(Tasneem Siddiqui, Political Scientist, Dhaka)
AS AN individual I hold many identities. In gender terms, I am a woman; ethnically, I am a Bengali; religiously, I am a Muslim. I was born and bred in Dhaka, educated in a missionary college and am Bangladeshi by nationality. Due to historical reasons, my Bengali national identity has appealed to me the most. But over the years, the experiences of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Northeast India and the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka have made me realise that each layer of identity of a person or community is important and nationalist identities can only be sustained when they accommodate other identities. In the same vein, a South Asian identity can only be strengthened when it grants space for other identities, including national ones.
The ongoing European integration process is perhaps the only concrete example of the successful evolution of a supra-national regional identity, which retains identities based on nation-states. In Europe, the states have been the driving force in promoting regional integration, and the proponents of European integration were able to convince people of diverse nationalities that the process would ensure peace and economic prosperity. It took more than fifty years to establish a single market in Europe, and while the formulation of common foreign and security polices remains to be made, the region has progressed in respect to social policies.
Here in South Asia, too, the SAARC effort at regionalism is a state-driven initiative. Like the initial European project, SAARC has also concentrated on noncontroversial issues. However, it appears that states themselves have become weary of the SAARC forum, and are increasingly making use of bilateral mechanisms. At SAARC, even when pursuing non-controversial matters, not much progress has been made. This is hardly the way out, however, given the enormity of the regional dimension of the problems that South Asia faces– from environmental protection, to harnessing water resources, human development, human rights, minority rights and migration.
To speak only of the cross-border movement of people across the porous borders that divide South Asian countries, we all know that the systems of fences and border guards will not work. A South Asian future has to be designed knowing that there is going to be migration when there is demand, for example, for Bangladeshis who travel to different parts of India and Pakistan to work using a chain of human smuggling. The numbers are quite significant, and they enter India and Pakistan by choice, with specific jobs in mind. In the case of India, the Bangladeshis cross over to fill the demand for seasonal agricultural and construction labour and domestic help. In the case of Pakistan, Bangladeshis get absorbed into the shipping and fisheries industries in Karachi, and work as cooks, guards, household help and cleaners. A large number of Bangladeshi migrants are women, as is also the case with Nepali workers in India.
The irregular movement of people from Bangladesh is a major area of concern for India and Pakistan. In some states of India, this is a highly charged political issue, particularly when migrants are used as vote banks. Periodically, the migrants are pushed back, causing major strains in bilateral relations. Meanwhile, successive governments in Bangladesh have refused to recognise that such movements exist. The porous border and movement of people and goods across it is an emotive issue used by opportunist political forces in both Bangladsh and India. What is clear is that the movement across the borders of a region that has historically had open or porous frontiers is inevitable, and imposing restrictions will not have any result. Rather than try and do the impossible, therefore, one could follow the European example and simply work towards developing a method for orderly movements of people and goods across the borders. This can only be done through a regional approach.
India, Indian intelligentsia
Ramchandra: I think the fly in the ointment of South Asian regionalism is not just the size of India but the cultural arrogance of India. This presumption of hegemony, the idea that India is the natural leader of the region, is an idea that is articulated not just by the political elite but also the intellectual elite of India. One of the remarkable aspects of Indian political commentary of the last decade is how little dissent there was on questions of foreign policy. In this respect we are becoming like the United States. There is dissent enough on questions of domestic policy- on liberalisation, globalisation and affirmative action- but the dissenters on Indian foreign policy are even more marginal than Noam Chomsky in the US. This presumption of hegemony leads to a foreign policy consensus, and to the feeling of injured innocence whenever there is disagreement, just as in the US. So, if India and Bangladesh disagree, it will all be Bangladesh’s fault— we are always right, they are always wrong, they are always evil or backward or misguided or selfish or corrupt or whatever. We must keep in mind, however, that such a situation of external arrogance comes from the relative internal robustness and self-confidence of Indian democracy, the creation of a system of federalism and decentralisation.
CK: This is an interesting proposition, that Indian arrogance comes out of its belief in federalism. In my reading it is quite the contrary. It is precisely because Indians do not have enough faith in their federalism that they are afraid to deal with their neighbours on an equal footing. Take some concrete examples: if they support Tamils in Sri Lanka, will it complicate matters with Tamils in India? Once, they were fearful that support to Bangladesh may affect the faith of the Bengalis of India. A strong section of the Indian intelligentsia still harbours this kind of fear. If you let go of Kashmir, will the Indian federal structure come tumbling down? And this intelligentsia has a great influence on Indian foreign policy, though less so in domestic politics. I think the arrrogance referred to earlier has more to do with the Brahminical hold on the Indian national polity than with the democratic achievement of India- the sense that modern India has inherited the mantle of ancient India and is on a civilizing mission.
Siddharth: In trying to understand any country’s national arrogance, one should guard against over-theorising. After all, arrogance is simply an exercise of power. I think this so-called Indian arrogance is simply a product of Indian democracy and federalism reaching their outer limits in terms of their ability solve societal problems. India is at a turning point where the limitations of the Western democratic model are becoming obvious.
CK: To exhibit its superiority, in dealing with Pakistan the Indian intelligentsia uses the argument of being more secular. In dealing with Sri Lanka, it presents itself as more linguistically tolerant. In dealing with Bangladesh, more democratic. In dealing with Nepal, more civilised. These are all pretenses that come out of lack of faith in the system. In fact, the Indian intelligentsia has not reconciled itself to the Indian nation. This is obvious when you meet a Gujarati who finds himself on the streets of Kathmandu. He would not like to put himself in the same pedestal as the Bihari there who sells vegetable on a bicycle. Rather than say, “We are Indians,” he will say, “I’m a Gujarati and he is a Bihari.”
Imtiaz: While it is true that the 55 years of democratic experience has drawn in backwards classes and groups that were outside the pale into political participation, the question re- mains as to whether this has contributed to a deepening of democratic values. You will find that the profile and discourse of the political parties that have been instrumental in bringing the relatively marginalised groups into the political process are structured on a strong nation-state identity. My own feeling is that India’s deepening democracy actually reinforces the nation-state model rather than question the idea. The idea of a strong nation-state is one that is held powerfully by the middle-classes as well as by those who get integrated into this democratic process.
Ashis: This arrogance we have talked about is very fragile. In psychological literature, there is nothing called a superiority complex, only something called an inferiority complex. When I first entered the discipline, this puzzled me, but then I learnt that what we call superiority complex is invariably associated with feelings of inferiority. The person who is self-confident, sure of himself, does not have to pretend to be superior. It is when the acceptance of self is absent that the problem begins. It is remarkable to look at, say, the nuclear policy or foreign policy-making bodies— the ultra elite— in which there is a preponderance of exactly those communities which have been perepherialised by the democratic process during the last 50 years. They are communities that have ‘lost out’. The Bengali babu, the South Indian Brahmin, the Brahmins of Maharashtra, and some sectors of Punjabi Chettris and others.
Siddharth: A large obstacle to the democratization been achieved in the last five decades, is the refusal of the state and of political parties to deal with rights as a basis of citizenship, and of the extremely narrow views of national unity and integrity. We must have an approach that respects the aspirations of people, particularly regional aspirations. These aspirations should not be regarded as a law-and-order challenge, or as a problem of terrorism that has to be repressed by the police or military. In fact, these aspirations, and grievances, can lay the foundation for re-considering the Indian Union on a more democratic basis.
The United States of South Asia
(Ramchandra Guha, Sociologist, Bangalore)
IN AT least two vital respects India is to South Asia as the United States is to the Americas. Within its borders, it is more reliably democratic than its neighbours. Outside, it acts with an impatient arrogance that is born out of its belief that it is of right the region’s superpower. Many thinkers of what I call the Himal School of Thought tend to underestimate the strengths of Indian democracy. The argument often aired by this school is to the effect that, “The governments of India and Pakistan are bad, but the people are good.” But the fact is that Indian politics is nourished by much stronger traditions of democracy and federalism than any of its neighbours. Most of the states of India have autonomous and vigorous traditions of cultural and intellectual life. In political and ideological terms, the Hindi ‘heartland’ is much weaker than, say, the Punjab in Pakistan.
Perhaps the relative strengths of Indian democracy are an accident of history. Nehru, the committed democrat, was at the helm for seventeen years, whereas comparable figures such as Jinnah, Koirala and Mujib died too soon. However, there is no question that, relative to its neighbours, there is a robustness to India’s democratic traditions that even the chauvinist Sangh Parivar cannot undermine. At the same time, India has become increasingly insensitive to the needs and interests of its neighbours.
The last fifty years of Indian foregn policy can be divided into three segments: the stage of ‘neighbourliness’, which continued until 1970; the stage of ‘realpolitik’, which ran from 1970 to about 1985; and the stage of ‘attempted hegemony’, which is where we are now. As in the case of the United States, there is an organic link between democracy at home and hegemony abroad. It is the strength of their democratic traditions that imbue both Indian and American opinion-makers with the necessary self-confidence that, when translated into relations with other, less democratic nations, transforms into an unnecessary arrogance.
An optimist would hope that this would change with the coming of coalition politics in India. Since the BJP and the Congress cannot hope to rule alone at the Centre, they are obliged to be far more respectful of smaller regional parties than they ever were in the past. Can this form of regional coalitions ruling at the Centre serve as a model for South Asian relations? Perhaps, but I doubt it. At least in the short term, the prestige attached to the term ‘democracy’ in the post Cold War world will make India even more insolent with its neighbours, to claim that it is the ‘natural’ leader of this part of the world, just as the United States is the ‘natural’ leader of all parts of the world.
(Imtiaz Ahmad, Sociologist, New Delhi)
SOUTH ASIA in an ‘invented’ nation. It is one of those ‘inventions’ that elites have imposed upon others to consolidate positions of power and authority. Statesmen, administrators and many intellectuals view South Asia as a very real entity, with a clear and definable past and a palpable future. A subset of this group— supporters of what has come to be called the SAARC process— hope that the present is a prologue to an even more promising future: a supranational order bringing peace and prosperity to all member nations. Equally, an opposed group, whom we might refer to as the SAARC sceptics, holds that such a consummation would be fatal to democratic national sovereignty and the power of citizens to determine their political destinies.
Contemporary debates about the meaning of South Asia are unquestionably tied to current political, economic and intellectual preoccupations. But they have behind them a recent history of the use of language in presenting and controlling political history. It is a part of that history that we should reflect upon, as well as cartography: the descriptions of land and water and their reduction to spoken and written words and images. South Asia is not part of Asia so much as it is presented as an extension of it. Even the map-makers have confined the meaning of the term to the peninsula, separated from the rest of the continent we call Asia.
The first naming of South Asia took place in the context of colonisation by Europe. Our colonial mentors used the term to demarcate disparate geographical territories into a geo-political entity, often grouping and regrouping socieities into divided sovereignties in order to consolidate their political sway. Decolonisation, no matter how imperfectly the concept was constructed, continued the legacy of the colonial mentors. What constituted a geographically Subcontinental entity ended up becoming a condominium of nation-states, each with the symbolic paraphernalia of international borders. One consequence of this legacy, easily accepted and justified by the elites in each of the countries, has been the recent historical experiences of political distrust, mutual antagonism, social conflicts and violence, and neglect of myriad problems of the common masses. VS Naipaul has called this process somewhat exaggeratedly as the arrested histories of the oppressed people.
Against this backdrop, the notion of South Asia stands in need of re-invention, to be relevant in a world order whose dominant and domineering impulse goes under the elusive title of globalisation. One possible choice is to outgrow the narrowness of outlook imposed upon geography and cartography by the colonials and link South Asia to a widened Asian identity. Perhaps, the meaning and significance of such a broadened vision can be seen in the discourse of the war in Afghanistan. Rather than responding to that catastrophic development from the perspective of its future implications to this part of the world, the clamour of at least two South Asian states has been the desire to be at the centre-stage of the alliance with the United States.
The second alternative is to reinvoke the idea of South Asia as a civilisation characterised by a universalism, whose hallmark has historically been acceptance of diversities and a spirit of accommodation. Thus, South Asia, though not separate from Asia, would establish a Subcontinental heartland in which all frontiers, physical or cultural, are essentially indeterminate. South Asia would then move from being a geo-political entity to a civilisation.
Ashis: We must accept the reality that our identities are not exclusive— they have never been in this part of the world. We have always lived with multiple selves. When I was young, which was a long time ago, in the medical college in Calcutta, there were people from Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal. They were very proudly Sri Lankan, Malaysian or Burmese— but they also thought of themselves as ‘Indian’. Today, the problem with the political identity of South Asians is that it is negatively defined. Anything that refers to cooperation arouses the fear in them of losing their identity. An Indian going to Lahore was advised by a Pakistani friend, “Do not overdo this you-and-I-are-the-same business, because in Pakistan the idea is we are not like you, that is why we separated”. The crux of the problem is this fear of crossing borders and in the process losing your precariously held separate self. Our problem is not that we are different: our problem is that we are too much alike. That is why we have to keep affirming that we are different. Nepalis will not allow it to be said that they are no different from Indians. It is something common to all seven countries.
Dipak: Essentially, it is the question of how much of this identity is of our own choice and how much of it is imposed upon us. The ‘South Asian’ self-identification perhaps will survive and grow simply because it is the least harmful and least damaging. It is much easier to go out and say, “I am South Asian, 1 come from this part.”
Ashis: The Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda are said to be two tribes which are ethnographically the closest, just as Hindi and Urdu are the two languages of the world that are grammatically identical. What is true of language is also true in other areas, and this multiculturalism could have been built on. But we have not done it. We have this capacity to live with multiple selves without becoming schizoids. This is a personality feature in our part of the world that psychologists and psychiatrists have elaborated on, but we have not built on it. Instead, we try our very best to be exclusive and hierarchically organised.
Imtiaz: Any identity gets eccentric when it does not have a counter-reference. For a strong South Asian identity to develop and to be reinforced, it must be placed into the context of two points of reference. One would draw from the nation-state and the other from the wider entity called Asia. Because singly on the basis of a South Asian identity, we may end up no where. We may all say that we should have a South Asian identity, but it does not acquire a meaning.
Ashis: The South Asian nation-states are all negatively defined, because they have not organically grown out of our societies’ political experiences. The only state which was not negatively defined was India, which was seen as a cosmic soup. India was what others were not. Now that is changing. India is no longer the cosmic soup, and it is getting to be what Pakistan is not. This is a new role, which we have learned from Pakistan.
Haris: You go into a village in Sindh in Pakistan, and the first question people ask is, “Who are you?” You say, “I’m an economist.” They say, “No, we want to know your caste,” which is like saying, “We want to know whether you are a potential person or not.” The only non-parochial identity in the villages is when political parties organise and people say, “I am a member of the People’s Party, my political identity is that I put up a flag, and I have a photograph of Benazir Bhutto.” This is the only identity that transcends my being a Sunni, Shi’a, or Bihari, Punjabi or Sindhi. All of a sudden, it is a different form of identity. The political party of South Asia is a very important marker of identity and is absent from most discussions.
Cohesion from above, below
(Siddharth Varadarajan, Journalist, New Delhi)
GIVEN THE internal political and economic structure of each country in South Asia, SAARC cannot function as a cohesive, democratic regional entity and it is futile for us to look wistfully at the experience of the European Union, ASEAN, or Mercosur. The real purpose of the EU is not to foster continental unity in terms of social solidarity but to build Furope – and European capital – as an economic and political counter to other glob., power centres, notably the United States, Japan and China. Of course, pan-European political institutions have arisen but not all of these have led to an expansion of people’s rights. There is a European Parliament and a European Court of Human Rights, but there is also now a European Central Bank, which has effectively taken monetary (and even fiscal) policy out of the hands of national and even pan-European electorates. As for Mercosur and ASEAN, these have a higher degree of economic cohesion than SAARC because they are not dominated by one country’s economy in the way that South Asia is.
For economic reasons, India (and Indian big business) will always be the most eager in South Asia for SAARC countries to develop greater cohesion. This allows Indian capital greater room to expand in its ‘natural habitat’ and compete better with other capitals. Precisely for this reason, but also because of the manner in which Pakistan and Bangladesh were created, any advocacy of pan-South Asianism from New Delhi will always be viewed with suspicion in Islamabad and Dhaka. Unless the initiative or impetus comes from Pakistan or Bangladesh, SAARC- or South Asianism from above- is doomed to still-birth. And Pakistan will never take the initiative as long as Islamabad’s and New Delhi’s approach to the Kashmir issue remains unchanged.
What about South Asianism from below? This can work only if it is closely linked to political struggles for democratization and the broadening of rights at the national level. Without this link, pan-South Asian advocacy will not have any real and direct political, influence except insofar as it would hopefully broaden the political horizon and understanding of those who take part in conferences and seminars.
What are the domestic tranformations that will help lay the ground for the rise of South Asia as a mutually beneficial economic and political area for all? Apart from striving for egalitarian economic structures, there has to be a shift in the kind of nation-building projects being pursued.
In India, the refusal to deal with rights as the basis of citizenship, and the obsession with an extremely narrow and self-destructive notion of “national unity and integrity” has to make way for an approach which deals with regional aspirations and grievances not as a law and order problem but as the foundation for the reconfiguration of the Indian Union on a more democratic, federal basis. In Pakistan, the ‘Two Nation Theory’ reached the outer limits of its usefulness as the basis for nation-building a while ago and is actually undermining the future prospects of Pakistan and its people. Now is the time when democratic rights, citizenship and a federal polity have to form the cornerstone of the Pakistani nation.
Rhetoric for secular regionalism
(CK Lal, Engineer/Columnist, Kathmandu)
FIRST, IF a nation is to be self-defined as a political and cultural identity, and acknowledged by others as such, then South Asia has two major nations with religion as their defining feature – Hindu and Muslim – and several other relatively smaller nations centred on language or caste. Frequently, these identities overlap. Nation-states are facts of South Asia, but none of them is a reality: all nations extend beyond the political boundary of a single state and all states are multi-national. Even Bhutan, despite its Lhotshampa population, is a multi-national state. The term ‘nation-state’ reflects the desire of its ruling elite more than anything else.
Second, since nation-states are not realities, they are mere projects of elites. The powerful sell the dream of Pakistan as being for Indian Muslims, Sri Lanka for Sinhalas, Bangladesh for Bangla-speaking Muslims, and India a Hindu-dominated polity
Third, since the ‘states’ in this region are themselves in the process of being formed (Nepal has the longest history, though still less than 150 years), this makes the concept of the supra-national region seem not just novel, but contradictory to the immediate task of ‘nation-building’. India fears the concept of regionalism as a challenge to its predominance in the region, while all others fear Indian hegemony if an integrated region were to become a reality. This is reflected in SAARC’s failures, though it at least serves as a platform for discussion.
Fourth, regionalism may not be a fact as yet, but it is a hard reality. If identity is not just what one defines herself to be, but how others see her too, then the South Asian identity has become a reality beyond South Asia. Whether one is dismissed as a ‘Paki’ or ridiculed as ‘Indian’, people from all over South Asia have come to be identified with curry, qawalli, cricket, Hindi films, and a distinct variety of imperial English. This identity has been historically known as ‘Indian’, but after the partition of the Indian Subcontinent, India ceased to be geographical-cultural expression and became the name of a structural political formation. Hence no other state of the region now likes the appellation, which points to the need to redefine this distinct regional identity, and the geographical name ‘South Asia’ was the least unacceptable.
Fifth, the problem with ‘South Asia’ as understood is that it is incomplete without Afghanistan in it. Jambu Dwipe Bharat Khande may have been the mythological identity, as recited in the Hindu shloka at pujas all over South Asia, but it is linked to Hinduness and it cannot now accommodate the cultural aspirations of the Muslim and resurgent Buddhist population. South Asia as a geographical expression becomes valid only with the inclusion of Afghanistan.
Sixth, regionalism has a compelling economic justification – nations seldom rise, it is regions that do. Re-conceptualising South Asia as a functional region around a network of urban nodes can revitalise the economies of all nation-states by controlling waste and streamlining resource use. The most extreme example of waste is Pakistan, which imports Indian goods via South Africa.
Seventh, the cultural justification for the renaissance of ‘nations’ within nation-states is no less compelling. Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Maithili and Nepali represent language-dominated cultural communities that can immensely benefit by working together across frontiers of two or more countries.
To conclude, economic and cultural reasons exist for the political regional identity of South Asia. But it needs a rhetoric built around secular symbols that do not threaten ‘national’ identities. Some such symbols are: Lord Buddha, whose appeal goes beyond his religious followers; the heritage of Indus Valley Civilisation; the Himalaya mountains; the Monsoon rains; and the two symbols of British legacy— cricket and South Asian English. The challenge is to build a common identity around these and other secular symbols.
Ashis: If you add up the total number of dead from man-made killings over the last century, the figure comes to a little over 200 million. That is 200 million! 20 crores we have killed! Out of this number, despite what you may presume, only eight million died in religious violence. 169 million have died at the hands of their own state, which tells you something. When South Asia’s colonised societies became independent, we wanted nation-states just like everybody else. Even today, if you give them half a chance, all the separatists in the region who fight against the oppression of the nation-state —from the Chakmas to the Kashmiris and the Tamils of Sri Lanka — will create their own nation-states. Exactly the kind of structures they are opposing today. But that is human nature. This cannot be explained by politics or economics, it is something do to with the way categories or ideas catch hold of us and drive us.
The record of the nation-state has been particularly dreadful in our case. In the five instances where specific accusations of genocide have been made in this part of the world, all except one involves our own states–whether it is the Pakistani army killing Bangladeshis in 1971 or the Indian state sponsoring and colluding in the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, or the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka against Tamils. Even the Baloch activists talk of genocide. Except for the Partition violence, in all other cases it is one’s own state that was the perpetrator. We South Asians have to have a minimum amount of scepticism about the nation-state.
Afsan: When you attack the state and the notion of sovereignty, you have to produce a competitive product. Otherwise, it is like the Indian car industry, where the Ambassadors just keeps getting manufactured because no one introduces competiton. The same is the case with sovereignty, where we will say, “OK, let us keep this going for another five years while we try and improve things.” Unless we shut down the assembly line, there is no sense in arguing for a change while retaining the state structure. That is no challenge to the Sovereignty Mafia. Unless we say, “We do not even want this product,” there can be no improvement.
Siddharth: Whether it is in India or Afghanistan, the state enjoys sovereignty over the citizen rather than the other way around. The state and the constitution create citizenship rather than citizens giving rights to the state. Nation-states today are expressions of power over the citizen, despite the existence of political processes that may be more or less democratic and more inclusive here or there. This is the part that is most problematic, which is why the notion of sovereignty must be diluted vis-a-vis the external world.
Ashis: The concept of nation-state was consolidated in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia and it is more than 350 years since. Even the Dark Ages in Europe did not last more than 200 years. The British colonial regime did not last more than 200 years. But the concept of nation-state has lasted 350 years— that is more than enough. I mean, hardly an institutional arrangement in human affairs has lasted that long. There were states in Europe before that, there were states in this part of the world before that; there will be, I dare to presume, states after the concept of nation-state dies a natural or unnatural death. And I do think there are indications that the golden days of nation-states are over globally. If we were less burdened by the notion of nation-state here in South Asia, I suspect we might be able to go further. Just a glimpse of what could be possible: what would happen if each Kashmiri was given three passports, three kinds of citizenships? I do not think the world would collapse. Neither the global nation-states system nor the Indian nation-state system would disintegrate. It would be a new experience. Maybe someone will think of two passports for every Tibetan. Tibet would be a different kind of nation-state, where the sovereignty of China is not threatened but Tibetans would have a little bit more play.
The Enlightenment need not be the last word in human affairs. And all other civilisations outside of the West are not destined to be only footnotes in the Book of the Enlightenment. I know that under-developed countries are not supposed to have any visions of the future, because their visions of the future are the present day West. And the West is supposed to know our future better than we do because they are living it. And our present at the moment is also the West’s past. We are only a kind of anachronistic, redundant, obsolete representation of their past. That is what history has done to us.
(Ashis Nandy, Psychiatrist, New Delhi)
THE IDEA of South Asia is an artificial one. It emerged in the 1970s and acquired more serious status in public discourse in the 1980s, because by that time other names – Hindustan, the Indian Subcontinent and Bharatavarsha- had become ideologically loaded. India’s neighbours are uncomfortable with a geographic nomenclature that invokes Indian dominance. Anything ‘South Asian’ carries, therefore, a touch of artificiality and space has to be created for it by offsetting it not just against merely other regions but also against something like ‘British India’. Thus, while reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, a young Pakistani reader is likely to be confused when in the context of Lahore, Kipling discusses Indianness and Indianisms. These cannot be easily reinterpreted as either Pakistani or West Punjabi identity, and talking of British-Indianness in this context sounds culturally meaningless. The personality traits and cultural features Kipling describes cannot have vanished with the disappearance of the British Empire, and something called India had entered the South Asian imagination by the time British India splintered into a number of nation-states.
So, South Asia is yet to enter our consciousness, and it may or may not do so in the future. Its real status is akin to that of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in India. You can meaningfully talk of Biharis, Tamilians and Bengalis, but you cannot in the same sense talk of Uttarpradeshis, Andhrapradeshis, or Madhyap- radeshis. These terms have a touch of the comic about them. If you are an Uttarpradeshi, you usually identify yourself either with a city (you are a Lucknauvi or a Banarsi) or with a region (Awadhi or Purabhiya).
Let us admit that the idea of South Asia has emerged as a compromise of neutral terrain. The usage of ‘South Asia’ has frozen a cultural region geographically. In doing so, it has torn asunder countries like Afghanistan, which has played a crucial role in the region from epic times, and has virtually handed over to the Indian state the hegemonic right to the Indic civilisation, forced other countries in the region to seek a different cultural basis for their political cultures or to disown important aspects of their traditional cultural repertoire. Finally, it has made important civilisational strains look subservient to the needs of nation-states- Islam has become the responsibility of Pakistan, Hinduism that of India, and Buddhism of Sri Lanka, as f these faiths could not take care of themselves.
Some may find it particularly painful to admit that the idea of South Asia that has entered our conscious-ness actually stands for India in its larger sense. This is the India AL Basham identified with the Indic civilisation, which of course is another way of describing only a partly territorial entity that has been the point of convergence of a number of civilisations and cultural areas. Strangley, this other India and its inhabitants – known for more than a millennium as Hindis- have subversive potentialities. Though some try to resolve the contradiction by talking of India as a civilisational state, Hindustan or Hind is actually in constant tension with the Indian nationstate. For the aim of the India nation-state is nothing less than to change the ground rules of the civilisation according to the needs of the nation-state and engineer the ordinary, change-resistant, cussed, backward-looking Indian into a proper modern citizen of a state that, idea-wise, is only a pirated edition of a 19th century European nation-state.
When our governments talk of SAARC, they have in mind a compact among these nation-states to live together- or rather fight together-within the format of the global nation-state system, not within the format of the cultural system within which they have survived for centuries. That is why they all fear the free exchange of news, information, ideas, literature, art, films and, most strikingly, the free circulation of free-thinking human beings.
The Indic civilisation is an inversion in this process. Being an edifice built upon layers of civilisations and a plethora of cultures, it is actually a confederation of lifestyles and life-support systems. The different strands within it are telescoped into each other so that none can be described adequately without reference to the others. South Asian nation-states, on the other hand, are exclusive by definition. They are all basically the same and yet have to pretend to be different. They are built on the lowest common denominator of our cultural selves. These states are presumptuous enough to claim to be the guardians of the people who inhabit the seven countries in the region, but they would be happy to get rid of their peoples and populate the space with various local versions of human beings that periodically catch their fancy- once the diligent Japanese or socialist Russians and today the national-interest-minded Americans of today And when they run out of proper secular role models, they begin to work towards turning their people into proper Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists.
The state, the child, and sovereignty
(Afsan Chowdhury, Journalist, Dhaka)
IT IS often said that the platform for South Asian regionalism is shared history and culture, but it seems that while many people of this zone have some common experiences, their histories are contrary, contradictory and sometimes downright hostile to each other. Yet ‘South Asia’ is a conglomerate of nation-states constructed on the reality of a perceived history. A regional reality is sought to be built on myth.
Whether it is the post-colonial state or the post-monarchical state, the nation-state has become the dominant or primary reality. All political action and policies are all defined around the parameters of the ‘metaphysical core’ of the nation-state. The nation-state, which is the most applied form of the state, becomes the womb of history, which then is constructed as a singular narrative. The South Asian failure to advance may actually be rooted in the nation-state.
The idea of a common memory is untenable: India was partitioned in 1947 while Pakistan became independent in 1947 and Pakistan was split in 1971 while Bangladesh was born in 1971. With these kinds of contrary, hostile narratives, the notion of common history can never succeed in South Asia. The past is therefore irreconcilable for most. We have come to accept the history of state formation as the dominant history, and we accept the state as the dominant construct.
States are by definition sovereign, and sovereignty thus becomes the ultimate moral quantity, the prime recipient of all loyalty, and it manifests itself through a variety of concrete socio-political institutions. It becomes the unquestionable reality by which all other realities are measured and all inequities justified. Because it is not questioned, we fail to note that the idea of the state is actually a very fundamentalist concept. Religious fundamentalism is sometimes accused of challenging the state, but by definition both varieties operate using the same system.
Just as religious ideas are protected by dogma, with its metaphysical sources, the state provides its own metaphysics through a series of political, economic, ethnic or idea-centric aspirations rooted in history and nationalism born of the colonial era. This includes the notion of internal colonialism, internal imperialism, and external and internal oligarchies that may appear later. Previous histories, always singular and never questioned, justify this process. Yet few would claim South Asia to be successful in any endeavour except that of mutual hostility, rooted in expanding the reality of the nation-state.
It is common nowadays to hear the criticism of the nation-state, especially in South Asian seminars, but fortunately for the states, these critics do not matter. If threatening, the critics are marginalised by the conviction of the ruling classes regarding the canonical reality of the nation-state. Besides, the most important recognised ‘thinkers’ of South Asia are part of the Sovereignty Mafia.
But how can we argue against the (nation) state if we cannot think of an alternative? This, of course, is the position of the convenienced, the one who gains from the state’s being. A lack of substitutes becomes the justification for accepting injustice. We tend to forget that sovereignty is also an idea and no more, a concept and no more, which exists because we endorse it, because we gain from the idea. Our refusal could dilute it.
Is there a functional alternative, a political alternative to the idea of the nation state? What is the other idea that can claim the status of sovereignty comparable to the state? I believe that idea is that of the sovereignty of the Child. It is only the idea of the Child as the supreme reality that can challenge the total domination of the State. The idea affects almost everyone and can become the new justification, the test for all actions. All actions can therefore be tested to see if they are respectful of the sovereign Child instead of the sovereign state.
The notion of the State and sovereignty barely exists outside the main municipalities and not even in every country. It is sustained by the Sovereignty Mafia, those who gain from the existence of the state. The poor of South Asia hardly appreciate the idea of the state, but they all believe in the Child. Because this idea does not have any historical connotation, the chances of being opposed by citizens are less.
If we agree that the sovereignty of the Child could be a better alternative than that of the state in South Asia, then it would be good to start doing something about it. By not acting, we agree that the present construct is the appropriate one. And we agree that the Child is not in conflict with the State. That fairly invalidates the idea that the South Asian Child is in crisis. That also means the South Asian mosaic of the nation-states is doing fine.
The recolonisation of Asia
(Haris Gazdar, Economist, Karachi)
THE QUESTION of South Asia’s identity remains pertinent, but the context in which this question may be raised has undergone dramatic changes since 11 September, which has thrown into sharp relief a new but retrograde vision of the world. These events have placed new and unprecedented challenges before the peoples of all regions, including South Asia.
One of the key defining statements of this post-11 September era was the choice that President Bush placed before the world: “Nations have to decide whether they are with us or with the terrorists.” At one stroke, an attempt was made to reverse the philosophical underpinnings of the “globalisation” of the 1990s and revert back to the political mindset of the late 19th century. “Nations” now have to decide whether they stand on one side or the other, and “nations” have to bear collective punishment for standing on the wrong side. Overnight, the US Presidency became the foremost enemy of the globalisation ideology of the 1990s- an ideology that called for the erosion of the nation-state and the elevation of the individual, the market, and the corporation.
One minute the nation-state was fading away into obsolescence and the next minute it was back, as the primary vehicle of decision making. The Pentagon became the bastion of an idea that had seen its day. The US military needs the nation and the nation-state, not only at home but also everywhere else. The world makes sense to the military mind only if all agency can be restricted to the militarised nationstate, be it an ally or an enemy. And of course, what President Bush really meant when he referred to ‘nations’ having to make the fateful decision of where they stood was not the people, but the military-political leaderships of nation-states all over.
The fact is, the militarised sectors of the US state and their counterparts elsewhere have no moral standing to lead the response to 11 September. After all, what the master criminals who carried out the attacks showed was the hollowness of the entire military doctrine pro pounded by the US military over the last 50 years. The present military action might even be regarded by cynics as a crude attempt at burying the question of past failures, including those of Bush Senior from 1988 to 1992, underneath the debris of Afghanistan.
The carnage of 11 September warrants a radically different response, and we must try and envision a world where large sections of humanity are no longer marginalised from the global economy and polity. The fate of all of Asia and its four major regions- South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia, and to a great extent also East Asia- is being determined in the desolate mountains and plains of Afghanistan and western Pakistan. A militarised occupation by United States and European forces is on the cards, for it is thought that those who control Afghanistan and Pakistan will control the nature of economic development in Asia as a whole. Afghanistan and Pakistan are at the geographical and cultural crossroads of the four major regions of Asia. Two of these four regions are the largest sources of energy, while the other two are the largest future users of energy.
It is possible, however, to envision a radically more benign scenario, one where the four major regions of Asia become factors for growth and stability in the world. A world where the response to terrorism is not more militarisation but more just economic development and civil democracy. The people of South Asia must wake up to this attempt to recolonise the Asian mainland. The fight to safeguard Asia’s future cannot be left to a fanatical band of Sunni militants, and the “fight against terror” cannot be left to the discredited military establishments of the US and its allies.
(Kanak Mani Dixit, Journalist, Kathmandu)
IF EVER we wonder why SAARC does not spark, the answer should be there at the Kathmandu summit, staring us in the face. It is completely state-centric. The non-governmental South Asian efforts at regionalism do not light either, because all are similarly premised on the seven-country formula that does not reflect our history, geography, or cultural reality.
SAARC started out as a feel-good exercise of kings, presidents and prime ministers, a copycat attempt to emulate regional groupings of the more advanced countries. While it is a necessary organisation, over the years SAARC has not managed to incorporate South Asian specificities.
It was to try and fathom these necessary specificities that we called the Himal Roundtable on 18-19 November, and as organisers we found our own views on the inadequacies of current regionalism reconfirmed by the thinkers gathered in Kathmandu.
South Asia is of course much, much more than seven nation-states. To begin with, these are a Disparate Seven, distinct in size, orientation, location. The equal-weightage ‘consensual’ model of SAARC is appropriate in-so-far as it defines the limited expectations of the member governments. But how do we, in a sense, take seriously an organisation that gives equal billing to a country of less than 300,000 population and others with a billion plus, 140 million plus, 130 million plus, 23 million plus?
A workable regionalism must also find a way to tackle the overwhelming presence of India. This massive country is both centre and torso of South Asia — incomparably powerful economically and geopolitically, and touching all South Asian countries, none of which on the other hand border each other. Not only has this country managed to monopolise the historical name ‘India’, even satellite imagery of the region gives us the recognisable coastline of India alone.
You could hardly call, India a country, actually. Going by its girt (economic, geographic, demographic), it is a region — a proto South Asia even, depending on how it evolves. As India goes the way it must (federalism, devolution, internal regionalism) so will regionalism in this part of Asia come into its own.
In SAARC, the member governments have created an unwieldy structure that is cramped by the insular requirements of the political, bureaucratic and military establishments of each country. This regionalism of SAARC can remain the turf of governments, but the people must at least think of South Asia differently. They (we) must consider South Asia as comprising not the seven members but the more than a dozen regions which would have constituted themselves into nation-states had colonialism not intervened. These are units defined by geography, economy and language, and translate loosely into, for example, the states of India that have been demarcated linguistically, or the provinces of Pakistan.
SAARC, as a non-symbiotic coming together, can only be a stepping stone into this other kind of conception, which emphasises the ‘neighbourhood’ rather than ‘region’ of South Asia. And, as long as we define it correctly now, over time this neighbourhood will be one where adjacent areas interact, where local languages get priority, where borders are porous if not open, and where the capital cities and their establishments would be less important.
All the best to SAARC. But let us develop a different kind of regionalism. Let’s think neighbourhood.