Just a just Southasia

Hope for regional coperation springd not from the state but from the independent non governmentel sector,which seeks to protect theweak from the strong all over. what is required, above all is a commitment to justice.

For reasons that are quite obscure, chronological turning points, no matter how arbitrary, mobilise and channel human aspirations. The special feature of this particular millennial moment is globalisation, an   extremely powerful global I trend that is both a unifying and a fragmenting force. It is a force whose claims of  ever-expanding human  prosperity are countered by the experience of disintegration, violence, overpowering of local realities, and diminution of the scope of human freedoms.

In human society, the glue for sustained cooperation and integration is provided by the ideal of justice. Unfortunately, this is an ideal that has been wrung out of the political society over the last century, leaving cynicism, violence and corruption in its wake. The central organising ideologies of the region during this period — sequentially, colonialism, development and globalisation—have been based on the justification of injustice. They have inevitably produced fragmentation and exclusion, not cooperation and harmony.

The alternative loci for the invocation of justice, meanwhile, have moved out of the mainstream political arena into such movements as environmental conservation, poverty eradication and human rights. These movements therefore offer some fundamental insights into the possibility of regional cooperation in South Asia.

Systematic injustice

South Asia is a unique region —the oldest of the world´s major religious groups, Hinduism, and the youngest, Islam, met here. And indeed, the encounter of these two with an even younger religion that dares not call itself a religion yet: modernity. This is a region where the cultural synthesis of such an encounter is dominated by intense and irreconcilable fragmentation. Instead of harmony and synthesis between these overlapping sources of cultural identity, the experience is one of division between warring camps that base their self-definition on the explicit denial of at least one dime-nsion of this encounter.

The desire of the Pakistani state to deny the Hindu elements of its past is fairly well known and well-recognised, as is the ideology of the current Indian state and state-supported historiography to deny the Islamic elements of its past. Equally well known, though less often criticised, is the shared desire to place the period of colonial rule outside of history, indeed to treat it as pathology.

As a result of this intolerance, South Asia has become a region of stunning contrasts. It proclaims itself as the cradle of non-violence, yet is one of the most violent places. It takes pride in being a home to diverse cultures, religions and beliefs, yet is one of the most intolerant places. It is one of the oldest civilisations on the planet, yet increasingly uncivilised in its norms, behaviour and practices. Its culture has long been an articulate exponent of justice and fair play, and yet its society has become one of the most systematically unjust in the world. Given that the encounter with modernity came directly through colonialism, it acquired all the trappings of colonial rule, namely, to use Ranajit Guha´s felicitous phrase: a political system based on dominance without hegemony.

Today, the ideals of justice and fair play serve to obscure and mask extreme and systematic injustice and repression. As in the colonial period, democracy has become a means of neutralising and bypassing the electorate rather than enabling it to participate effectively in collective decisions. Development provides the justification for a dual society in which extreme poverty is tolerated alongside an affluent and self-satisfied elite. Development, indeed, is the continuation of colonialism by other means. And globalisation, in the most recent phase of social experience, is the continuation of development by other means.

Colonialism, development and globalisation provide an ideology to create a self-justification among the elite for championing a process of change that sustained and exacerbated inequality, disenfranchised and expropriated local communities of their rights and assets, and helped create a centralised, corrupt, and alienated political system.

South Asia has experienced 100 years of injustice. For a century, its political system responded to anxieties of the vulnerable groups with disdain, impatience, and outright repression —Muslims in pre-independence India, Bengalis in pre-1971 Pakistan, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Sikhs in the 1970s and 1980s, tribal populations always and everywhere, the list is endless. This systematisation of injustice has produced a diverse set of pathologies in the entire region — widespread and massive corruption everywhere, criminalisation of politics in Pakistan, capture of the state by intolerant, fundamentalist groups in India, polarisation and stalemate in Bangladesh, and endemic civil war in Sri Lanka. The result is a deep-rooted and growing lack of trust between the state and the citizen, between states, and between individuals.

As the world enters the phase of globalisation, South Asia is embarked on an accelerating trajectory of fragmentation that continues the patterns established before Independence. This fragmentation is the inevitable consequence of a political system rooted in injustice. During that earlier period, the ideal of justice was externally infused into the system, upheld and protected only by the strength of will of a few individuals-Gandhi, Jinnah, Liaquat Ali and Nehru. With the passing of these individuals, the ideals also disappeared from the political arena. Individuals with such ideals have almost completely abandoned the political space today, leaving it in the hands of instrumental mafias. The result is a growing alienation of the state even from a minimal commitment to justice.

Fortunately, another public space has emerged for the exercise of vision-making and ideal-setting, a space still inhabited by individuals with a fundamental commitment to justice. This is the public space commonly referred to as the ´independent sector´, or non-governmental organisations. It includes activism on environmental rights, human rights, minority and women´s rights, rights of the poor and the vulnerable, and the rights of the weak against the strong. This public space has also replaced academia as the font of knowledge. It has given rise to the class of the activist- academic, whom I call the A-team: Ashis Nandy, Asma Jahangir, Arif Hassan, Aly Ercelawn, Aban Kabraji, Anil Agarwal, Ashok Khosla, Atiq Rahman, F.H. Abed. And it has many individuals whose names do not begin with the first letter of the alphabet: Shoaib Sultan Khan, Zia Mian, Dipak Gyawali, Ponna Wignaraja, Praful Bidwai, Smitu Kothari, Vandana Shiva, Rehman Sobhan, Ramachandra Guha, Muhammad Yunus and many others.

This is a distinct development in South Asian culture over the last half century, and should be noted with approval and hope. Not surprisingly, these individuals have been able to collaborate and cooperate on a large range of actions. For example, through the Ring of Sustainable Development Institutes, the IUCN membership and other networks, the poverty eradication and sustainable livelihoods networks, and research on women´s rights; global advocy on climate change, trade liberalisation, TRIPS, poverty eradication, and biodiversity; regional and national advocacy on women´s rights, anti-nuclear concerns, and human rights. They have organised conferences, meetings, and workshops, including the first major India-Pakistan conference in 1989, the South Asia NGO summits, and the people´s summits.

The fundamental link that binds together these seemingly disparate actions and diverse individuals is their common commitment to justice and to the protection of the rights of the weak against the strong. Such cooperation has also helped in other ways, even in the inter-governmental system. The best example is the formulation of the South Asian Biodiversity Action Plan, the only one of its kind in the region, and the report of the Poverty Commission.

Three planks
The nature of environmental action in the region is championed in virtually every country by the independent sector, and is indeed a plank in the broader struggle for justice. Broadly speaking, such action has taken three forms. The most common is the integration of environmental and povertyrelated concerns. This is evident in the work of several community support organisations, which have increasingly incorporated natural resource conservation into their work with poor communities. Given that the poor rely almost exclusively on the biomass economy, the sustainability of their livelihoods depends critically on the conservation of biological diversity and natural resources.

A second plank of environmental action is what may be called the ´quality-of-life agenda´. While this is equally relevant to urban and rural areas, it has expressed itself most forcefully in the former. It involves improvements in water supply, sewage disposal, and other forms of environmental health, with the aim of increasing life expectancy and reducing infant and maternal mortality. Even though this has been an explicit goal of social policy, progress has been quite slow. Increasingly, the independent sector has begun to get involved in this area, especially in seeking to bring the informal sector into a better partnership with the municipal agencies, and to advocate and lead programmes of community health and health education.

The third plank is aimed mainly at the large-scale industrial (and energy) sector. It involves pollution abatement and waste minimisation in industry. In South Asia, it has relied more than in other countries on cooperative and partnership programmes established with the active partnership, and often the leadership, of the independent sector.

Environmental programmes in the field are linked to other social agendas, and are not stand-alones. Even programmes of afforestation and protected area management have significant components of social mobilisation and institution of participatory practice —for example, through social forestry programmes. These programmes generally involve a considerable degree of partnership and collaboration between sectors that do not have a strong history of collaboration: in particular the indepenent sector, the private sector and the government.

The programmes have more than the minimal degree of transparency and participation. They have pioneered public hearings, participatory planning (e.g. on the Bangladesh Flood Control Plan), roundtables, consultative drafting of legislation and policy recommendations and others. They have involved considerable learning and exchange of ideas across geographical borders.

Environmental action in South Asia has become the arena for principled politics, politics that is driven by the desire for justice, as opposed to the more instrumental variety that prevails in the mainstream political arena. It has pioneered instruments of cooperation and participation across various domains of life and across frontiers. Environmental action has established formal and informal structures of cooperation that can provide a model for other areas of collaboration in the region.

There is much that the advocates of regional cooperation can learn from the environmental movement in South Asia. This includes the experience of cooperative work by individuals and institutions both within and between countries, the formal and informal structures established to enhance such cooperation, and the partnership between the state and civil society and between the elite and the poor.

Underlying all this, and the factor without which none of this collaboration would have been possible, is the fundamental commitment to justice and to the protection of the weak against the strong. Unless such commitment is brought back into the mainstream political arena, regional cooperation on a broader scale will remain impossible. Indeed, without such a commitment, it would be impossible to stem the current trends towards polarisation and fragmentation within and between countries of South Asia.

Were such a commitment to become manifest in the larger political domain, it can be provided the basis for cooperation and collaboration on a regional scale. This is an essential condition as well for carrying the environmental agenda into the next phase, where mutual learning, common advocacy on global issues, collaborative programmes, shared goals, and wide-ranging collaboration becomes possible. Indeed, environmental conservation and regional cooperation are not two distinct agendas. They are one, and behind it lies the need to make a civilisation committed to justice.

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Himal Southasian