India realising Southasia

India realising Southasia


Image: Bilash Rai

India has been the latecomer to 'Southasia'. As the most populous and powerful country, at the very centre of the region, after 1947 India assumed for itself the mantle of historic, civilisational 'India' without a thought to what the others lost in terms of heritage, identity and governance. A large nation-state both by virtue of its size and the history at its command, India has been locked for too long in a small-country mindset. As such, it has alternated between being the regional bully (remember Farakka) and the munificent squire (the Gujral Doctrine). The xenophobia and blinkered nation-statism of newly formed political elites impacted each Southasian country, and most importantly Big India, long keeping the region of Southasia from being realised. Regionalism would be impossible so long as the country that hosts 1.1 billion of Southasia's population of 1.5 billion – and more than two-thirds of the subcontinental expanse – were to insist on going it alone because it felt it did not need the others.

While Bangladeshis first got excited about 'Southasia' back in the time of Ziaur Rahman, postcolonial India's interest simply did not spark. Indians were reluctant participants at the SAARC table, mostly in the unkind belief that the others were ganging up on them. But all this has been changing over the last handful of years, and Indians are suddenly to be found agreeable to regionalism to a surprising degree. India's chairmanship of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), starting with the scheduled summit in New Delhi in the first week of April 2007, is an opportunity to put a definitive stamp on the Indian discovery of Southasia.

As New Delhi seeks a place at the table of the global powers, it realises the need to have a tidy home turf. Its economic growth since the mid-1990s has also given India the confidence to be more broad-minded. This accelerating transformation is noticeable in the very acceptability of the term Southasia among the mainline Indian intelligentsia. It only came upon this term in the late 1990s, whereas Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Nepalis had picked it up more than a decade earlier. And so, for example, the proprietary reference to 'Indian Subcontinent' in New Delhi's seminar halls was dropped for simply the 'Subcontinent' – until, at long last, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, speaking in early February 2007 to a group of regional editors at a curtain-raiser to the upcoming 14th SAARC Summit, referred to the "South Asian Subcontinent".

Whether New Delhi's bhodrolok takes ownership of Southasia would be an academic question if regionalism were not of utmost relevance for the well being of the mass citizenry of Southasia. The fact is that a 'Southasianism' which adds an accessible layer of overarching identity to existing and acceptable cultural and national identities, will directly and indirectly better the quality of life across a region that houses a fifth of the world's population – and a majority of its abjectly poor. A regionalism that can hearken back to cultural commonalities and a long, shared history will raise the threshold for conflict and promote intellectual and commercial give-and-take that will enrich all, especially those in today's beleaguered crossborder regions. That Indians are opening up to Southasia, and that New Delhi's foreign-policy establishment maintains its commitment to regionalism is dictated by self-interest, means that, two decades after the establishment of SAARC, the hurdles are cleared to realising 'Southasia'.

Himalayan confidence

Other than the sheer impossibility of escaping the blighted neighbourhood, it is the economic progress made by a globalising India that has given New Delhi's power elite the rationale to address the region. This newfound confidence is actually most obvious in the lowering of paranoia with regard to the Himalayan rimland. The 1962 border war with China in India's north and northeast raised a national-security sensitivity in connection to the high frontier that had bordered on the unreasonable. With the recent jettisoning of Sino-Indian tensions – ushered in by Beijing's 2005 recognition of the Sikkim annexation, the high expectations of economic relations with China, and the acceptance of the Himalayan ridgeline as no longer a strategic buffer but a porous economic frontier, India has finally lowered its guard on the Himalaya.

Proof of this departure is available in New Delhi's willingness to live with the presence of a United Nations arms-monitoring mission in Nepal, and in the treaty revision with Bhutan of early February 2007, which released Thimphu from New Delhi's foreign policy and security umbilical. The dynamics in the Himalayan rimland are emblematic of a more general lowering of crossborder suspicions by the New Delhi foreign-policy establishment. Though the Kashmir issue has many complicated facets, the reduced Himalayan paranoia will clearly also impact on the one problem that fuels India-Pakistan acrimony, which in turn impacts on Southasian regionalism as a whole.

The self-confidence evident in New Delhi's Himalayan dealings is found elsewhere as well, including in India's relations with Pakistan. There was a time, not so many years ago, when one militant attack would be enough for nervous politicians and diplomats in South Block to scuttle talks with Islamabad, even pushing them back by a year or three. But in 2005 and 2006 India stayed the course with Pakistan, despite an attack on a Hindu shrine in Benaras, another in a crowded marketplace in the Indian capital, a serial blast in Bombay's suburban trains, and a series of incidents in Jammu & Kashmir. Despite these horrific attacks, New Delhi did not fall back on the rejectionist jingoism that had marked the earlier era. In fact, its dogged pursuit of what is known as the 'composite dialogue', which has continued also after the attack on the Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express of 18 February, proves that the rapprochement with Islamabad is indeed now built on the foundation of mutual need. This, in turn, firms up the basis for regionalism in general, which has been held hostage for too long by hostility across the Wagah-Attari frontier.

Saran and Menon

Serious Indian academics, who have heretofore shunned the study of Southasian regionalism in favour of relations with the West, or restricted themselves to the tense India-Pakistan theatre, have begun to turn their focus onto the larger neighbourhood. The fact that South Block and the Indian foreign-policy establishment is in 'Southasia mode' means that the region will be taken seriously by a circle of strategic analysts beyond just the 'track-two romantics' – those regularly derided by the powerful analysts who reside within New Delhi's Ring Road. South Block's new approach is also linked to the fact that the big boss today is an economist-prime minister, who comes with little geopolitical baggage and speaks from the heart about making borders irrelevant. Manmohan Singh's oft-repeated quote relates his dream of having breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. 

If proof were needed of the evolved mindset of South Block apparatchiks, it can be read in the bowing-out speech by the immediate past Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, delivered before the Indian Council of World Affairs in September 2006. Saran proposed 'interconnectivity' as the primary focus of India's 'look regional' policy (see Himal October 2006, "Connectivity as India's foreign policy"). Current Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon maintains that India's focus on Southasian regionalism is realistic, and should be believable because it is based on New Delhi's political and economic self-interest. Speaking to the Southasian editors gathered in Delhi in early February, he added meaningfully, "After all, this is our Southasia!" Menon believes that Southasia's countries had to become comfortable and confident in their own nationalisms before they could embrace regionalism – a process now nearly complete.

Shyam Saran's push is to propose interconnectivity through reviving links, as well as developing new grids – rail, road and air transport, transmission lines and natural gas. His emphasis is also on recognising that India's border regions, particularly those adjoining Nepal and Bangladesh, are among its most underdeveloped.

In essence, New Delhi's neglect of the neighbourhood has been reflected in the neglect of its own borderlands. There is now a multi-crore rupee programme underway to upgrade all of India's border points, including customs infrastructure from the Burma-Mizoram border, all the way west to the Punjab-Punjab frontier. New Delhi is also concentrating on upgrading highways in these regions, recognising, for example, that the highway from Calcutta to the Petrapole border point on the road to Dhaka is an embarrassment to India, beyond restricting movement and trade with Bangladesh. The same can be said for roads and connectivity elsewhere within the Indian 'periphery'

The Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi seems to be coming around to the understanding that communications between the border states and neighbouring countries must be encouraged, not controlled by an imperial New Delhi fearful of fissiparous tendencies. It is known that the New Delhi bureaucracy has been uneasy with Punjab state Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's contacts with his counterparts from Punjab province in Lahore. And it is unclear whether South Block's growing enthusiasm for crossborder interaction is shared by the intelligence agencies under the Ministry of Home Affairs in North Block. However, a senior Indian diplomat in New Delhi confirms: "There is now less and less resistance to letting the border states develop their own relationships across the international borders."

SAARC v Southasia
Over the years, the vision of Southasia has been weakened by excessive reliance on the SAARC model of seven capitals trying to work in unison (soon to be eight, with Afghanistan's membership), which has made India at once the most powerful and least interested in Southasia. It is also necessary to distinguish between the somewhat stunted organisation of SAARC and its secretariat located in Kathmandu, and the many-layered entity that Southasia is and can be. A concept of regionalism complementary to that of SAARC would be one that constitutes the cumulative total of bilateral relationships, including the crossborder relationships between India's and their immediate neighbours.

This latter, alternative view of regionalism jives with the apparent willingness of New Delhi to 'let its border regions go' – ie, to develop their individual crossborder relationships. Simultaneously, such a version of regionalism would in one stroke also make irrelevant the biggest knot in the evolving Southasianism: the overwhelming asymmetry presented by the sheer geostrategic and economic power, physical expanse and population of India – a country in the centre of the region, bordering all other countries, none of which adjoin the others (other than Pakistan and SAARC newcomer Afghanistan). The Indian Union taken as a whole would never feel the urgency to develop a sense of regionalism, because most parts of its larger economy and society would not reap the advantages of regionalism the way the bordering states would.

It would be naive to believe that India's neighbours will rush to welcome India's discovery that there is a 'region' out there. Just as India long felt that SAARC was an attempt by the smaller countries to gang up against it, so now, with India going regional, the neighbours may regard New Delhi's turn of attitude as merely strategic – an increase in stature with which to throw its weight around in the international arena, and even manage a seat in the Security Council. Most importantly, India's discovery of Southasia will be seen as an attempt by New Delhi to infiltrate the neighbourhood's economies for the benefit of Indian multinationals. Indeed, India's current agenda seems to be not so much the promotion of people-to-people contact as that of opening to commerce through a liberalised trade regime. Pakistan is wary of being swamped by Indian goods; and Bangladesh, which is already seeing a strong Indian multinational presence, may be alarmed enough to implement harsh protectionism.

But it would be backward-looking to regard India's regionalism as guided only by economic hegemonism. Such a view would deny the smaller neighbours any agency in understanding and countering conspiratorial designs of the Indian behemoth. Further, surely there are establishmentarian and commercial interests in India as well that will be threatened by a loosening of trade regimes.

It would also be important for New Delhi's foreign-affairs managers to be aware of the deep suspicions that will greet even their well-intentioned initiatives. How should New Delhi respond? In the economic arena, according to one senior Indian official, "India can allay suspicions by being unexpectedly magnanimous, by not demanding reciprocity for the trading concessions it provides. The Southasian trade is such a small part of India's portfolio that we would not hurt, while we would certainly be able to puncture the envelope of suspicion." That might be easier said than done, however, as the Indian sectors that would lose out in a liberalised regime would surely lobby to halt such a process.

Small countries are always suspicious of large neighbours, and Southasia is no exception. Here, tactical anti-Indianism is the recourse of politicians in the countries surrounding India, particularly when in the opposition. While such wariness of Indian designs exists across the board, the most significant worries about hegemonic India tend to be harboured by the intelligentsia in Bangladesh and Pakistan – and that is where scepticism about India's regional turn would also be deepest. But given the fact that Bangladesh has been the most consistent promoter of SAARC since Gen Ziaur Rahman mooted the idea of the organisation in the mid-1980s, it will be Islamabad that will need the most convincing – also because it has thus far been the most protected from Indian commerce. In the case of Pakistan, rapprochement is also complicated by the matter of Kashmir, which in turn impacts on the entire fabric of Southasian regionalism.

As the Indian policy-shift towards regionalism accelerates during the year it chairs SAARC, what model will New Delhi choose? The core idea connected to regionalism is obviously that of loosening borders, in terms of both commerce and people-people contact. Here, the example of Nepal to the north and Sri Lanka in the south will be instructive for India and the other Southasians. Nepal has had an unregulated open border with India since the signing of a 1950 treaty on peace and friendship. Over time, this frontier will probably evolve into a regulated open border, at which point it will provide the model for the increasingly straight-jacketed Southasian frontiers regime. Sri Lanka's relationship with India has evolved as economically the most mature, based on a bilateral trade agreement that many say can set an example for other economies of Southasia.

Despite all the possibilities that beckon, however, India's own intentions are not yet perfectly clear. While it may be that some Indian diplomats hold grand visions, there are various players in the Indian state, with different and shifting agendas. All of which is exemplified by the fact that, even while Manmohan Singh talks of opening borders, his government pushes ahead with the massive project to fence the boundaries with Bangladesh and Pakistan. It is not clear who benefits from the fencing, other than producers of concertina wire and cement. The kind explaination to such contradictions is to suggest that North Block is yet to imbibe the new approach proposed by South Block, just across the yard on New Delhi's Raisina Hill. If such is the case within India's own ministries, the neighbours should be forgiven their suspicions.

The three layers
Once India accepts its presence and role in 'Southasia', and a workable Southasian model is found – one different from but complementary to the capital-centric and diplomat-led SAARC formula – it is then that Southasia the region will become a full reality. How will it transform, and how should it? Southasian regionalism is of limited use if it is to be nothing more than a talisman or a marker of identity for the people of the Subcontinent and Sri Lanka. Regionalism must deliver a 'peace dividend', as well as the advancement of the social and economic potential of the mass of Southasia's citizens. Barring incidents that will derail or delay the process of regionalisation, for now the fact that India is on board for reasons of its own self-interest, and is pushing interconnectivity and economic interaction, indicates that the focus on and rationale for regionalism are where they should be.

Southasia may change in ways inconceivable today, and at this stage there is no need to wax utopian about a Southasian passport, a Southasian seat at the Security Council, or a Southasian currency. It is enough to have modest horizons – of a SAARC counter at airport immigration, or of visas on arrival, as Nepal gives to all visitors and Sri Lanka to all Southasian nationals.

As for longer-term integration, the region will benefit massively if India allows its constituent border regions to interact with its neighbours. Simultaneously, given that India makes up much of the Subcontinent's land area and population, regionalism will go part and parcel with true federalism within India. Though some will consider this too open a definition of regionalism, there is no doubt that Southasia will come into its own only when India – and Pakistan, and the other countries in their own ways – becomes truly federated. It should not be forgotten that parts of India, too, are parts of Southasia!

Southasian regionalism will be impossible at this delicate preliminary stage, however, if it is seen to harm national identities and establishments. But it will thrive when we are able to acknowledge our identity as being attached not only to the national, but also the local and regional. It is the wresting of this last layer of identity in the mid-20th century which harmed the populace in ways that run so deep. Aside from wars fuelled by un-tempered ultra-nationalisms, it has kept Pakistanis, for example, from claiming as their own much of what India celebrates as its history.

Regionalism has the potential to deliver economic and social progress to all corners, through a many-spangled peace dividend, and the activation of commerce and comparative advantage. As the most powerful country in Southasia, said now to be focused on the pragmatics of avowed self-interest, India's leadership of SAARC during the coming year must see the acceleration of regionalisation. Southasia has waited for this – for India to be truly on board – since SAARC was founded in 1985. India was the sleeping giant amidst Southasia thus far, but it seems to have woken up. Let it not return to its derisive slumber.

~ Kanak Mani Dixit is Editor and Publisher Himal Southasian

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