The inevitability of bilateral multilateralism

The self-realisation of Southasia as a single, cohesive space inhabited by multiple peoples took a beating with the partition of the Subcontinent in 1947. 'Nation state-ism' arrived along with that great divide, straitjacketing identities by citizenship. The national establishments that emerged in every country thereafter championed, nurtured and calibrated a particular type of chauvinism that is now up to regionalism to undo.

While providing a powerful sense of national identity and purpose at the 'centre' of each country, the separate exclusivist nationalisms have not always served the interest of the larger populations, particularly the millions living in the peripheries in relation to the capital regions. A formula has yet to be found in which the particular genius of the Southasian (the majority of them 'Indian' before 1947) peoples is allowed to become dynamic. Such a formula surely resides in a political and economic evolution of the Subcontinent (and the island of Sri Lanka) in which the nation states and their individual sovereignties would remain inviolable, yet where the people would be able to engage with minimal restrictions, allowing an instinctive remoulding of identities. This would energise society and usher a kind of socio-economic advance that can only be imagined.

Southasian cohabitation is the ideal, but despite the ongoing Indo-Pakistani rapprochement, the trend today is towards a blocking-off of borders, with barbed wire fences as the barrier of choice. The nationalist animosities reside just under the surface, ready to be exploited by the ultra-nationalist, often fundamentalist, phalanxes in every country. There is no doubt that the people at-large would welcome a crossborder opening with wide arms, were it not for the tacit collaboration of the capital power elites and the national rightwing in every member state.

It is important to seek a formula for regionalism in Southasia that would not threaten individual, sacrosanct sovereignties, and yet would bring together people from across borders as a natural outcome of their shared histories, religions, worldviews, sensibilities, tastes, languages, accents, habits and even gestures. The setting-up of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 1984 was a search for just such a formula. In Dhaka that year, under the guidance of can-do leaders, in particular Gen Ziaur Rahman, the governments of the seven countries decided to bond. Their association would meet every year at summits, while a secretariat in Kathmandu would be manned by bureaucrats from the seven foreign ministries. It was a good beginning, as far as it went.

Unfortunately, two decades and a dozen summits on, the region remains marked by active mistrust between many of the SAARC members. Proof of the failure of SAARC regionalism is starkly presented by the hundreds of miles of barbed wire fencing put up by India along large stretches of its borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan. There are growing rigidities along the frontiers everywhere, where there should be loosenings. How can you have a multilateral friendship when there are bilateral animosities?

Meanwhile, the SAARC organisation has itself grown into an unresponsive foreign office project. The SAARC Secretariat is often used by the individual foreign ministries to put their unwanted senior officers out to pasture. The seven 'country directors' are given charge of portfolios regardless of competence or interest. While its miniscule annual budget is just over USD 1.5 million, the Secretariat engages in a host of aimless activities when it should be acting as a diplomatic catalyst for regionalism. Required to get the go-ahead from seven capitals even to lift a finger, the appointed-by-rotation secretary-general and his staff have to their credit: an unhappy audiovisual exchange of documentaries, broadcast on state television; a toothless poverty commission; some cooperation on tuberculosis; an information centre, and so on.

SAARC's work on a preferential (subsequently 'free') trade area for Southasia has enormous potential, but progress has been affected by excessive ambition and unrealistic goal-setting.

SAARC was started as a copycat organisation, attempting to mime the European Community and ASEAN. But it has been dragged down by ultra-nationalist postures in each of its member countries, most importantly in India. There, bureaucrats, international relations scholars and geopolitical strategists are unable to develop a high-mindedness commensurate with the great power status they aspire for their country. The very term 'Southasia' is only now grudgingly being accepted by New Delhi's media and academic elite. After years of prevarication, they have come to realise that no other term can today represent the whole region, certainly not 'India' or 'Indian'.

Because it is there

While being unequivocally critical of SAARC's lack of imagination, its feeble Secretariat, and the ambivalence and occasional opportunism of its member states, there should be little doubt that the organisation does serve a purpose. "Better to have it than not to have it" goes the refrain – and truly, at least one version of regionalism is kept alive through SAARC's very presence. This inter-state forum allows admittedly irregular opportunities for Southasia's political leadership to meet collectively. The diplomatic requirement for interpersonal decorum among the heads-of-state and government is itself a worthwhile aspect of an organisation like SAARC, for which reason alone it should be propped-up and kept going.

SAARC's existence also presents an established philosophical commitment to regionalism that challenges the rightist, ultra-nationalist – sometimes militaristic – establishment in each country. Indirectly and directly, under the cover of its professed multilateralism, SAARC also puts the stamp of state recognition on across-the-border camaraderie. In short, the organisation legitimises recognition to a left-liberal mindset that would otherwise be regarded as subversive by some and impractically idealistic by others. From that perspective, the ideals of SAARC are in fact in tune with the principles that seek a secular, non-chauvinistic regionalism in Southasia. That said, however, it is indeed a sad case that any organisation, particularly of the scope of SAARC, has to be appreciated merely "because it is there".

SAARC's larger failure has little to do with its staffing, budget or the dynamism of the Secretariat. The failure has everything to do with SAARC having been structured as a regional grouping of states as though there is symmetry in the size, power and reach of the member states. Unless this is understood and a solution sought, SAARC as an organisation need not have any ambition beyond organising the occasional summit and acting as postman between capitals whenever there is a multilateral matter to discuss. If the organisation is to be something more than this, then the 'SAARC intelligentsia' active in each capital – even imperious New Delhi – must think catalytically to give SAARC and regionalism a whole new direction.


SAARC's historical fact-of-life is the asymmetry among its member states. India is an enormous entity within Southasia in terms of its land area, population and economy, as well as its suddenly amplified clout in global affairs. This mammoth bulk continuously gets in the way of regionalism – by simply being there at the centre of it all, as a unitary, not-very-federal state. The very fact that India borders every other country of Southasia – while none of the others have any territorial contact with each other – vastly enhances India's 'centrality' to Southasia. SAARC is a regional organisation whose membership includes one country with a population below 300,000, one below a million, two below 30 million, two below 200 million, and Big India with 1100 million. More than 70 percent of the land area of the region is made up of India; within itself, that country already encompasses what is also the larger region's demographic diversity, geographical spread, climate zones and so on.

Almost all of SAARC's highest-ranking members, including the upcoming host Begum Khaleda Zia, have openly admitted that the organisation has not been able to fulfil its own expectations or potential. At the 12th SAARC Summit in Islamabad in 2004, the leaders emphasised the need to turn the organisation around and for increasing "mutual trust". One could not agree more. But can we expect the leaders and bureaucrats to catch the bull by its horns? If they want it to be more than a regional inter-governmental messenger, will they look into the structural challenges of SAARC?

The most realistic way to turn the high rhetoric that came out of the Islamabad summit into reality is to let the messenger service remain as a SAARC activity – but also to redraft its Charter and reorient the organisation so that it starts considering the bilateral frontiers as all-important points of contact for building regionalism. It is enough to ask that the organisation address the neglected 'crossborderlands' where two countries meet.With Southasia's official, intergovernmental attempt at regional cooperation now entering its third decade, it is time for such an imaginative re-approach. As Bangladesh's Foreign Minister M Morshed Khan said recently, the thirteenth summit in Dhaka needs to usher in "a decade of implementation, rather than mere declarations." Well, here's a thought for implementation.

Complementary visions

There is certainly more than one alternative vision for Southasian regionalism; no one idea needs to be exclusive. One critical shift would be the understanding that cooperative structures do not always need to rope in the entire region simultaneously and always require a seven-country platform. BIMSTEC is a good example, where the countries of the Subcontinental northeast have decided to engage with their neighbours in Southeast Asia. There is also a thus-far-unarticulated need for subregional cooperation between the countries/regions that make up the northern Indus-Ganga-Brahmaputra (Jamuna) belt. Much of the problems, challenges and cooperative potential – not to mention the population – of the Subcontinent actually reside in this belt of 'northern Southasia'. Similarly, in the future there can be cooperation between all the countries/regions of the Himalaya-Hindukush, including the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

It should not be impossible to imagine that a New Delhi-Islamabad thaw would lead northwestern India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to put at least some of their eggs in one economic basket. Others, meanwhile, have suggested a regional grouping consisting of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean; there may come a time when south India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Malaysia, Thailand and Mauritius are able to forge collaboration across the waters.

Occassionally, there is a murmur of disapproval when a state seeks out other groups, but no member of SAARC need fear the dilution of the organisation just because alternate regionalisms are being pursued.

There are also ways to tinker with a SAARC superstructure itself, and there is no reason why the seven-nation state membership has to be written in stone. One possibility would be to expand the reach of the organisation, bringing in the TAR, Burma and Afghanistan – all of which may reside on the so-called outer-edges of the Subcontinent, but which are more Southasian than they are East, Central or West Asian. Indeed, in the wake of India's stepped-up relations with Afghanistan, SAARC foreign secretaries in late-September agreed to consider positively President Hamid Karzai's request to ponder Afghanistan's inclusion as the group's eighth member.

One of the most significant departures of Southasian regionalism would be to go to the heart and configuration of the Indian state. If indeed India encompasses a large portion of Southasia, then practical, far-reaching regionalism would inevitably be ushered in if India were to become a federal union both in constitution and spirit. This is an issue not debated nearly enough within India, where centralising economic and political forces are coalescing around New Delhi, even as the regional parties are said to be emerging to take power away from the Centre.

The argument for federalism in India, of course, is made first and foremost for the sake of India's people, but it would definitely serve the cause of broader regionalism as well. But if India's consituent states were to increase their own power while simultaneously reducing New Delhi's, a new closer-to-the-ground dynamic of self-government would emerge. This would allow others to engage with this humungous country not only as a unitary state, but also as a collection of self-governing regions, with their separate interests in social, cultural, economic and developmental interaction.

As with India and New Delhi, increased federalism would be a way to ratchet down the centralised nationalism in Pakistan and Islamabad. Federalism would allow more power than is currently enjoyed by the provinces of Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and NWFP. Such a dynamic would hardly lead to self-destruction of the state that the Quaid-i-Azam created, but it would allow more space for a Southasia-wide regionalism to flower. The Sindh of a federated Pakistan could interact with great vibrancy with Gujarat, Rajasthan or Chattisgarh of a federated India.

Umbilical regions

These various options for regionalism, from SAARC multilateralism to complementary subregionalisms to internal federalism, are bound to evolve over time. This will happen as the individual, capital-centric nationalisms of Southasia mature and are able to countenance other structures beyond a straitjacketed SAARC – which presently supports the minimalist foreign policy agenda particularly well. In addition, none of the options are as yet ripe for the picking; SAARC as an organisation and a process, on the other hand, already exists. The simple approach to energise SAARC and to rejuvenate the broader concept of Southasia is, therefore, to invigorate bilateral contacts between the countries of the region – not capital-to-capital, but across the land (and sea) borders.

For now, SAARC remains a communication medium between the seven capitals – Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad, Kathmandu, Male, New Delhi and Thimpu. Let that channel remain and become more robust by the day. But let us jumpstart cultural and economic interaction between the border-regions – Calcutta with both Khulna and Dhaka, Amritsar with Lahore and Islamabad, Ahmedabad with Karachi, Multan with Jaipur, Kathmandu with Lucknow, Patna and Benaras.

The capital-based national establishments may all rally against such an approach, or try silently to sabotage it. New Delhi could be fearful, for instance, of how a Punjab-Punjab camaraderie could undermine its own sense of control. The same could hold true for Islamabad. But Fear of Punjab is hardly an auspicious excuse for the two capitals to finally see eye-to-eye. The various economic and political vested interests that have blossomed – even in the subregions – over the last half-century may also create similar roadblocks for a crossborder opening. For example, the mindset in Assam against 'foreigners' would work against breaching the Bangladesh-Northeast frontier with the beginnings of commerce and peoples' movements. Anxious power elites in Kathmandu, Dhaka and Colombo will probably not welcome the idea for their own selfish purposes. Crossborder openings could be seen as diminishing the importance of the individual national establishments. But it should be possible for these capitals to maintain their links with New Delhi, while simultaneously allowing linkages between the non-capital cities and regions with counterparts across the borders.

Under the current SAARC-led concept of Southasia, encouragement of transborder contact would be termed 'bilateral'. Hence, it would theoretically not be a regional exercise and hence fall outside the organisation's purview. But there is another way to look at it. The coalescing of a critical mass of crossborder interactions would deliver a Southasia-wide movement of empathy and openness. This crossborder, bilateral approach would, cumulatively, help to build and strengthen SAARC/Southasian multilateralism as a whole. Initially, the primary focus would be to promote crossborder commerce, cultural interaction, and transfrontier travel for the intelligentsia and lay people alike. But unlike SAARC's multilateralism, this 'bilateral multilateralism' would take off on its own, as people would be the ones taking the initiative, rather than the governments. Such an opening would be a runaway success, because it would be true to the history of the Southasian peoples rather than to the history of the Southasian states and governments.

This 'SAARC bilateralism' could be criticised for giving inordinate importance to India, given that all the border regions touch those of the latter country. Capital elites may in fact feel they're being belittled for being asked to look to the outlying regions of India, rather than be and act as equals to powerful New Delhi. That is not the suggestion. SAARC capitals must necessarily consider New Delhi as their equal and sovereign counterpart on national matters; but they must also make up for the neglect of their border regions, where each of their countries meets the border regions of India.

Outside of the simple fact that the region's inherent geography puts India in contact with all other countries' land or maritime frontiers, however, such qualms would be short-sighted. Developing bilateral relations along the borders of Southasia would, if anything, loosen New Delhi's grip over its own 'peripheral regions' and make more independent their links with neighbours. Why should Calcutta await the facilitation of New Delhi for its dealings with western Bangladesh and Bangladesh as a whole? Why should Amritsar or Chandigarh not independently develop fraternal links with Multan and Lahore?

Certainly, the risk-averse bureaucrats and diplomats would not be the ones to promote this concept of developing ties between the pre-1947 umbilical regions. It will be up to visionary politicians to make such a suggestion, in particular those who are active in the states of India. When Amarinder Singh of Punjab State actively pursues links with Punjab Province, we need to regard that as a healthy, SAARC-friendly exercise which promotes the larger regional agenda.

The capital-based fears of runaway collaborations and conspiracies between separated regions are exaggerated – if anything, the new realities would only help to create enhanced cohabitation, and strengthen each member state. Already, for instance, the two Punjabs are straining to come together, an urge that clearly should not be obstructed. Likewise, the northeastern states of India may do well to be cautious of the Bangladeshi business and demographic juggernaut; but it will be possible to find local means to promote economic, social and cultural interaction without an inundation. Rigidity is the way of the centralised nation state. The fluidity of subregionalism is a plus-sum game, in which the nation states gain from the energising of their provinces.

In May 2004, in his first interview after becoming prime minister, Manmohan Singh suggested, "We need soft borders – then borders (will not be) so important. People on both sides of the border should be able to move freely." In April of this year, President Pervez Musharraf spoke of the opening of the bus route between Muzzafarabad and Srinagar as "the first step towards … a soft border." If these topmost two officeholders are now willing to speak in a language that was once thought to be the preserve of romantic peaceniks, perhaps the Day of the Crossborder Opening is not really so far away. The catalyst for such a day in every region would be the dynamics of the Pakistan-India frontier – and here we are not even talking of the Kashmir LoC.

Even as we look ahead to an era of transfrontier relaxations – and even as the prime minister and general-president wax rhetorical about soft borders – the earth-bound reality is, unfortunately, that we are being taken in the opposite direction. Rather than softer, the borders are being made ever more rigid. Steel columns set in concrete, barbed and concertina wire, floodlights and service roads … these are the barriers that have come up and are being extended along the lines that separate Bangladesh from India, and India from Pakistan.

People-to-people barriers

There is one Southasian frontier where a 'soft border' is a daily reality – not an unsanctioned porousness like the Afghan-Pakistan border, but officially recognised as such by two countries. The Nepal-India border was mandated 'open' by the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries. The treaty has been lambasted by many for being an unequal agreement between a dying autocratic Rana regime and the youthful, independent India of Jawaharlal Nehru. But this open border between a non-colonised Nepal and independent India much more closely resembles the age-old grey frontiers of Southasia. Regardless of history and questions about the openness of this border (in both Nepal and India), here is a workable, official, open borderland that allows the intermingling of peoples, while keeping intact sovereignties – especially of the smaller, geopolitically weaker neighbour.

It is critical to remember this open border at this time, because the state-centric establishments in Islamabad and Dhaka, for instance, would not like to countenance or proffer such a solution. The New Delhi government, meanwhile, is hellbent on its fencing campaign that, although enriching barbed wire merchants and steel and cement traders, creates drastic people-to-people barriers – the socio-political ramifications of which will become evident after the damage has been done. On India's western frontier, the fence between Punjab the State and the Province is meant to control infiltration by militants; the illuminated line is visible to sharp-eyed travellers at night from transcontinental airliners. On the eastern side, the fence is said to have been erected to control the flow of economic migrants.

But these fences are band-aid solutions, the kind favoured by national security bureaucracies which prefer ever-sharper borders. They have no understanding of the need to go to the sources of geopolitical stress ('Kashmir'); nor of the economic needs of large urban spaces, regardless of the xenophobia of a few ('Bombay'). In their short-term vision (lasting until retirement, or sometimes longer) the generals, inspector-generals, secretaries and under-secretaries only see a fence that can prevent infiltration. On the ground, they do not consider the separation of villages, communities, families and markets. At the provincial level, they do not care to understand how a fence will prevent the softening of a frontier as a longer goal. Meanwhile, the divided communities will begin to live ever-more-separated lives. Without a fence, at least they could interact 'illegally'.

Nobody suggests that the India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh frontiers be as completely open and unregulated as exists between Nepal and India. Still, there is a desperate need to ease interaction for border peoples, lest their histories diverge beyond the point of no return. The interests of West Bengal or Punjab need not coincide exactly with that of New Delhi. Simply put, it is easier to conceive of peace (and prosperity) in our times when there is a relaxation at the borders.

Coupled futures

A softening of Southasian borders would result in an economic, cultural and social rejuvenation for these multiple, interconnected regions. No crossborder rapprochement would be more important for this process than that of Punjab-Punjab. In his three years as chief minister in Chandigarh, Amarinder Singh has overseen a slew of activities promoting inter-Punjab exchange. From Punjabi language conferences, to greatly increased cross-border interactions, to a televised cross-border wedding – these are all indications of Punjab straining towards Punjab. Reopening direct road and rail links between Amritsar and Lahore would offer these two regions significant opportunities for cultural and commercial collaboration. The cultural vibrancy of Lahore would also energise all of Indian Punjab, challenging Delhi's cultural supremacy in a way that has not happened since Partition.

Unlike the fears of some, Punjab-Punjab amity would not weaken the respective nation states. In fact, it would provide the necessary balm for the fractured psyches on both sides. If it is true that the Punjab-based scars and subsequent animosities have provided the demographic foundation for the India-Pakistan hostility, then why should not the two Punjabs make-up on the basis of shared history, culture and language? The divergence in worldviews and identities that have developed in five-and-half decades are strong enough for each region to stay firmly within its parent state and economy. Seen in this light, the renewed contact within the Land of the Five Rivers would not only be important for Indo-Pakistani rapprochement, but would be a marker for the future of Southasian regionalism as a whole.

In the other frontiers of Southasia as well, there are tentative moves towards engagement at the borders. Mostly, they begin with travel, with possibilities left open for trade. In early-October, Pakistan's commerce minister invited proposals for new trade routes with India other than through the Wagah-Atari Punjab border point. Bus and train links between Sindh's Khokrapar and Rajasthan's Munabao will finally reopen in early-2006, for the first time since 1965. Meanwhile, the best that Sindh and Maharashtra/Gujarat can currently pin their hopes on is the mid-September announcement that a ferry service will start "soon" between Karachi and Bombay. That timeframe should coincide well with the January reopening of the Indian and Pakistani consular offices in the Southasian financial capitals of Karachi and Bombay – for the first time in more than a decade.

While West Bengal-Bangladesh cultural linkages have always been strong – and now being made stronger by crossborder Bangla-language satellite television – recent years have seen increasing interaction between elected officials in India's Northeast states and Dhaka authorities. Meanwhile, one of the most significant changes to have come about in Kathmandu Valley has been a heightened regard by the ruling establishment for the tarai region, in particular its Madhesi plains inhabitants, who have deep ties across the open border in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. As it evolves, this new amenability will hopefully make Nepal's decision-makers keener to establish and develop social, cultural and economic contact with the crossborder regions of the Ganga plains, with whose development Nepal's own future is also tied. Unfortunately, the deployment of Indian paramilitary forces along the Nepal border in response to the perceived threat of Maoist activities gives pause to those who would want this frontier to remain unrestricted.

SAARC's Symmetry

 IndiaPakistanBangladeshNepalSri LankaBhutanMaldives
Population*1,084,700,000 (100%)162,420,000 15%133,377,000 12%27,677,000 3%19,400,000 1.8%734,000 0.07%290,000 0.03%
Area*(land mass) (km2)2,973,190 (100%)778,720 24.4%133,910 4.4%136,800 4.3%64,740 2.0%47,000 1.4%300 0.0091%
GDP (purchasing power) (USD)3.32 trillion347.3 billion275.7 billion39.5 billion80.6 billion2.9 billion1.3 billion
Exports (recorded, USD)69.18 billion15.07 billion7.48 billion568 million5.31 billion1.54 million90 million
Imports(USD)89.33 billion14.0 billion10.03 billion1.42 billion7.26 billion196 million392 million

*Above: figure for given nation

Below: as a percentage of India

Nuclear-tipped region

Making the matter of crossborder exchanges a part of regionalism should become an agenda of Southasian 'off track' activism, whose players have thus far preferred to go by the SAARC-mandated definition of seven-countries and seven-capitals. There is, after all, no need for Southasian civil society to be bound by this definition, unless it seeks to remain under the thrall of capital-centricism. But let the scholars and activists explore other definitions of regionalism – federalism, an expanded SAARC, new extra-regional or subregional grouping. At the same time, let them work to define the most practical and feasible means of energising crossborder flows. If the leaders of SAARC themselves are willing to make a new departure – just as did their predecessors two decades ago by creating the organisation – then let them bring the bilateralism of transborder openings within the SAARC agenda.

Southasia is now a nuclear-tipped region, where the need for peace is even more pressing than when the SAARC was chartered. As such, there is a need to urgently create new realities so that existing regional flashpoints (India-Pakistan) are defused post haste and potential flashpoints (such as Bangladesh-India) do not get to develop in the first place. While this can be done by creating top-down economic linkages – promoting cultural links, and so on – those dynamics will organically generate themselves by the simple act of re-establishing opportunities for interaction between the populations on the two sides of the 1947 borders. When economies and communities are allowed to interact naturally, as they were meant to, the likelihood of frightened nationalistic or religious fervour leading to potential largescale conflict would be greatly reduced.

When we begin to move in such a direction, we may ask – demand – a change of guard at the Wagah-Atari border point. The exaggerated, aggressive posturing of the soldier-gatekeepers during the flag-lowering ceremony at the end of the day must be replaced with the sedate choreography of civilians. With a softening of borders, the stomping of boots must be replaced by easygoing handshakes at dusk. We no longer need the ear-piercing clanging of the iron gates being slammed shut at the end of the ceremony. Those gates could simply be left open.

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Himal Southasian