Do be sure
To be secure of fate
Before you embrace
The subtle curvature
Of time and space.
– Nadeem Rahman in History
Uncle Sam is more engaged with Southasia today than ever before. Before taking even routine decisions, Hamid Karzai looks towards Washington for a nod of approval. General Musharraf swears his loyalty at every opportunity—he went to the extent of dismantling a Pakistani idol, and his own “hero”, Abdul Qadeer Khan—to remain in the good books of the Pentagon. Together, Karzai and Musharraf have taken it upon themselves to let Americans have a free run of the Hindukush region on the pretext of a combined hunt for Osama bin Laden.
In the Nepali Himalaya, US military personnel are getting ample opportunities for some on-the-ground experience of tropical mountain warfare. The Maobaadis may not like it, but the government in Kathmandu is only too happy to let the Eagle land in any part of the kingdom in lieu of the advice of a few counter-insurgency consultants who have parachuted in, plus some military hardware.
Saffron Bharat is so pleased with the neo-cons in Washington that it is ready to soft-peddle on the issue of ‘outsourcing’ (shifting white-collar jobs from the US to the Subcontinent, among others), which remains a major concern of the cyber-coolie outfits operating from the Bangalore-Bombay-New Delhi triangle. Likewise, the Dhaka elite may complain in private about the conservative policies of Washington towards even a moderate Islamic state like Bangladesh, but in public they do not utter anything that might jeopardise their garment export quotas. Meanwhile, in Colombo, policy wonks fall over each other in their endeavour to get closer to the visiting dignitaries from American think tanks. Given the clamour for American approval all over Southasia, you would think that the region does not deserve more than a mere nod from the minders US foreign policy. The reality, however, is quite the opposite. The Americans are cultivating Southasians with an ardour never before seen.
In February, the Asia Foundation (TAF) hosted a roundtable in Dhaka where representatives of civil society from India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in addition to Bangladesh, discussed the role of the United States in Southasia. Based on the proceedings of the roundtable, TAF plans to prepare a detailed report and submit it to the new administration in Washington. The Fulbright Commission is organising a similar meet this month in Colombo where livewire thinkers from the region are expected to assemble and hear former US Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth before making their own recommendations for increased US engagement in the region. Hello? What’s happening here? A hunter preaching to his prey that being hunted is in their own best interest?
Even though it is more than half-a-century since the last colonials left Southasia, our collective ‘yes sir’ disposition remains intact. The culture of conformism manifests itself in three ways. First, we accept the official version without questioning it—the authority is always right. Second, experts are revered as modern avatars of interpreters of scriptures, they are our new priests. To question an expert—whatever be the merit of his or her expertise—is tantamount to sacrilege. Third, even the wayward opinion of one sahib—meaning someone from the First World, regardless of gender or nationality, but of the right colour of skin—is equivalent to at least five reasoned analyses presented by people of our own kind in English or the vernacular. Outside players desirous of influencing Southasian policies press all the three buttons to keep opinion makers here under their control.
After the ceaseless bombing of Kandahar and the repeated blitzkrieg over Baghdad, no government in the world is going to consider it worth its while to question the intentions of the Pentagon top brass. After all, Osama bin Laden was not found in Kabul and no trace of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) were found anywhere in Iraq. But the ‘War on Terror’ declared upon the world by the first hyperpower in history continues regardless. Whatever the neo-con cabal in Washington decides, it becomes the official viewpoint of nearly every government in the world. In the short term at least, the United States need not fear the unfavourable outcome of any election. If Brazil and Spain can be made to see the merit of silence and acquiescence, polls in Sri Lanka and India are unlikely to challenge the what is beginning to look like the forthcoming US dominance of Southasia.
To keep the desi experts kowtowing, the Americans have been courting the Southasian media and its intelligentsia in a massive way. Sponsored articles are written to justify the inevitability of free market, merits of US unilateralism, and the benevolence of the Washington Consensus. News reports are slanted to show US adventures in positive light. Dial-a-quote academicians in each of the Southasian capitals and the regional metros fall over each other to endorse whatever position the American government is taking.
As recently as the early eighties, it used to be academically fashionable to oppose US policies. But a lot of dreams died in the debris of the Soviet Union. This demise of the CCCP became an important factor in establishing the intellectual hegemony of Boston Brahmins who shuttle between the Ivy League and Wall Street with practiced ease. However, there is another factor often overlooked by the analysts of the Global South: nearly 75 percent of think tanks in the United States, most of them engaged in promoting the neo-con agenda, began operating after the 1980s. The act of ‘manufacturing consent’ spread out of the business kulak archipelago in Manhattan to engulf the entire world.
Most of these think tanks—funded by foundations, churches, financial institutions, MNCs, INGOs, and even the US government itself—claim neutrality. Rather than openly advancing their point of view, they goad ‘native’ intellectuals into endorsing their agenda through a deceptively simple modus operandi—put them together, wear out their resistance by feeding them an endless stream of propaganda prepared by friendly academicians, and then end up with vague conclusions that could be interpreted in any way you want. Most of the regulars of the seminar circuit know the trick, but they play along regardless. Not to do so would lead to intellectual irrelevance, because competing forums are conspicuous by their absence.
But, no …
It is the Southasians who should themselves be taking the initiative to formulate a regional consensus about what we want from the new US administration not taking the floor at American-organised talk fests. If Southasian intellectuals were to prepare a wish-list on their own accord to submit to the incoming occupant of White House, it would probably include, but will not be limited to, the following suggestions:
- The US role in South Asia needs to be proactive and not reactive as it has always been. Being proactive also implies connecting with people, not just the metro elite.
- The US should support democratic movements in all the countries of Southasia, including Afghanistan, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan and inside big India. Mouthing platitudes for human rights alone is pointless, for respect for human rights and adherence to democratic norms is inextricably linked.
- Rather than incessantly harping on free-market principles, the US should broaden the access of Southasian products into its market and, for example, facilitate the export of garments and carpets from Bangladesh and Nepal.
- The US should shift its focus from strengthening the military to the institutionalisation of democracy in the countries of Southasia.
- The US should increase development aid, which is at an almost inconsequential amount at present, to the countries of Southasia. The ‘root cause theory of terrorism’ is not as vacuous as it has been made to look by the phalanx of neo-con commentators currently flooding the media.
- Freer movement of Southasians into the United States needs to be ensured without jeopardising the host’s immigration policies.
- Hunger, health and education are the real challenges of Southasia, not Pakistani missiles, Indian nukes and Bangladeshi Islamists. The US must correct its priorities.
Now, these recommendations are unlikely to emerge from any seminar, workshop or roundtable sponsored by the American foundation. Southasians need to develop their own mechanism to produce knowledge and undercut, if not challenge, the US hegemony. Technology can be transferred, capital investment can be lured, men and material can be brought from elsewhere, and even management can emerge gradually. But it needs vision, and long-term commitment to manufacture knowledge. Ultimately, it is neither money nor the military might that decides the winner. All conflicts are basically ideological, and to resolve them, manufacturing knowledge, not consent, is of paramount importance.
The concept of Southasian foundations funding think tanks in the region is not as far-fetched as it sounds in the first instance. There are enough Southasians in the North who stand to benefit from better ties between their region of birth and their countries of adoption. Software billionaires of Bangalore, garment tsars of Dhaka, tea tycoons of Colombo, and manpower moguls of Karachi, all can easily fund policy analyses institutes that sustain and support independent research in areas of common interest to all. Unless there is a future for all of us, there will be no future for any of us, and the sooner we realise it the better. Competing for Washington DC patronage individually is not going to lead Southasian nations anywhere
Even at the micro level, countries of Southasia have neglected policy studies for far too long. It is very convenient to attribute it to financial constraints, but one suspects that poverty of thought is perhaps the main cause of our poor record in policy research. The money doled out to individual parachute consultants even by countries like Bhutan and Nepal can fund independent multi-disciplinary researches by a dozen indigenous scholars.
Fate favours the prepared. As long as we need Karl Inderfurth to chart the course of future US-Southasia relations, there is no way we can grow out of the highly unequal patron-client relationship. There has been enough blaming ‘the government’ for all our woes. It is time the business, the civil society, the academia, and the media stood up and accepted their complicity is fashioning a role of subservience for Southasians to suit the US worldview, and agreed to making amends.