During the early 1970s – before Bangladesh was born, or SAARC was incepted; before Sikkimisation and the many other events that are the signature tunes of Southasia in its present construction – India Meets China in Nepal, by the Indian journalist Girilal Jain was essential reading. This book appeared at a time when the 1962 Indo-China ‘conflagration’ was hardly ten years old. Today, no matter how the book’s content appears in retrospect, the title alone is retroactively futuristic, as the two emerging Asian superpowers need to facilitate their bursting service, trade and commercial awesomeness at home in Asia. Nepal could virtually serve as the new pan-Asiatic Silk Route.
Where do I stand as a Southasian? When I climb to the terrace of the Kathmandu newspaper at which I work, I watch jetliners land and take off at the nearby airport. But very few of them are from Southasia itself; today, more traffic is generated from distant destinations. Even though the only international airport in Nepal is dismal rather than dynamic, I am virtually at the centre of things in Asia. I am in Kathmandu, practically in the middle of Nepal, and Nepal is dot-on in between South and North Asia. Kathmandu and Nepal could be that unique catalyst in Greater Asia, the Asian pivot. But alas, that is not to be. Therefore, let me forsake the greater dreams as sour grapes and settle myself, as I am, in the north of Southasia, and look at the rest of the region from Kathmandu.
Southasia, to begin with, is surrounded by bad dreams. To its west is the volatile Iran and Afghanistan. In the north, Tibet and Xinjiang are stirring. In the east, we have Burma with all of its tragedies. Within Southasia itself, there are today more divisions than ever before. The Bengalis are bifurcated into Bangladesh and West Bengal. The Biharis are in Bangladesh and India. The Punjab is partitioned, Sindh is sectioned off; Kashmir is knifed in two, and the Tamils are separated by the Palk Straits. Nepalis live in Nepal, India and Bhutan. My own people, the Lepcha, live in three Southasian countries. These displaced Southasian nationalities are subjected to divided loyalties and disjointed senses of belongingness.
Southasia is a violent region almost without parallel. Ruling royals have been massacred, prime ministers and presidents hanged and assassinated, political contenders gunned down, constructive competition snuffed out, and coups and conspiracies fomenting all the while. The founder of a country is murdered, and new dictatorships proliferate even in democratic environs. Civil-war-like situations and insurgencies are rampant in each of the SAARC member states.
Southasia has reached such a nadir that only theodicy – reconciling the existence of god with the existence of ‘evil’ – seems today to be the last possibility. This is all the more when one considers the region’s multitude of world religions. But their variously dichotomised faiths and beliefs, their schools of thought, interpretations and approaches, some with bulldozing methodologies, are birthing such deities that there is now no recourse but to file righteous complaints to the many almighties amidst the daily roar of existence of each Southasian, whether in Kathmandu, Kandy, Kandahar, Kodaikanal or Kanpur.
But, even then – and here is the real tragedy – the acts of god called tsunamis, floods, landslides, earthquakes, famines, droughts can be mitigated by the ancient wisdom, grassroots commonsense and modern collective will of Southasians. But Southasia remains a chronic basket case because, to paraphrase the then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s keynote address to the Commonwealth Conference in Kuala Lumpur, there is nothing common about the wealth of the member states, not even a common pool of information. Forget about concerted action. Mahathir could have been hurling these words at SAARC.
This is so because Southasia is full of village explainers and epic dreamers, who meet polemically at its multi-country caucus called SAARC, but which is actually bilateral in its vision and intent. Otherwise, the Bhutani refugee issue would not have arisen in the first place; Nepal’s Maoist question would have been resolved long ago; Nepal’s Kosi River would not continue to be ‘Bihar’s tears’ every rainy season; the waters of the Ganga would be equitably shared between India and Bangladesh; India’s thirst for water and its hunger for electricity would not need to be so alarming, with Nepal’s rivers flowing right next door. What is so impossible, among the hundreds of commonalities, about food security and conservation and resource sharing in Southasia? Why was the Gujral Doctrine so quickly consigned to the dustbin? Why is Kuldip Nayar still looking so sad and aghast at the Wagah border? Why can’t I visit my birthplace, Shillong; my old hometown, Darjeeling; my Karthak clans in Sikkim? Why is the civil war in Sri Lanka not resolved by SAARC?
Southasia is closed, that is why. Southasia is cocooned in itself, and prohibits its denizens from visiting and asking after each other’s health. Southasia is on the map, yes, but it is not on any Southasian’s mind. SAARC was envisaged as a common bond, but it is no ASEAN, EU or NAFTA. As such, it is far easier for me to hop on a flight straight to Bangkok or Singapore for my onward travels. These Southeast Asian cities do not hassle me. But the same cannot be said of, say, Kathmandu, Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta.
I am an unhappy and unfulfilled Southasian, perhaps because I am from the extreme north. But I am not pessimistic; I am realistic. In a typical Indian English expression, I fear that the fulfilment of my Southasian dream is ‘not going to be happening’ in my lifetime. Will there be peace, cooperation, harmony, prosperity in Southasia? I don’t think so, at least not in general terms – at least not so long as SAARC remains bilateral in its multiplicity. War and tension will always be on the India-Pakistan agenda, simply because Pakistan will never forget the caesarean birth of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan, as midwifed by India.
But we Southasians do have reasons to hope. Almost coinciding with the then-distant dream of Girilal Jain in his book on Hindi-Chini détente, I wrote a novel that had a pan-Himalayan character. His persona would suggestively pervade the Ganga plains, to reach across the Vindhya and Nilgiri ranges in the south, and north beyond the Tibetan plateau, and even touch the Hindukush and Pamirs in the west. There are many projects underway today that offer help to younger Southasians to know each other and to bond – something that did not happen in their predecessors’ time.
~ Peter J Karthak is a senior copy editor at The Kathmandu Post/City Post.