SAARC may be beyond repair, but are the non-governmental ´friend´s friend´ networks doing any better?
Two incidents occurred in quick succession in the last two months that had a bearing on more than two South Asian countries. The first was the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane and the second was the expelling of a Pakistani diplomat by the Nepali government on charges that he was involved in the circulation of fake Indian currency.
The first event was accompanied by jingoistic reporting by the Indian media which portrayed Nepal as a “security liability” for India, a terrain supposedly infested with Pakistani ISI agents. Counter reportage in the Nepali media meanwhile speculated that the hijacking itself was the doing of agents of the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, and the event and its reportage in the Indian media were all part of an Indian grand scheme to incorporate Nepal within a extraterritorial Indian “security arrangement”.
The second incident, that involving the diplomat, was described by the Pakistani ambassador in Kathmandu as one in which all diplomatic norms had been violated by Nepal. As far as mutual trust among these three South Asian countries were concerned, it seemed to have hit a new low. In this scenario, it is pertinent to question what role the scores of intra-SAARC initiatives at confidence building have had in fostering South Asian cooperation and whether the record so far give us much reason to be hopeful?
In terms of visibility, the largest initiative thus far toward cooperation in South Asia has been the interstate official organisation, SAARC. Even before its founding in 1985, various exercises had been held regarding the potential benefits that would accrue to the entire region after the realisation of such an association. The potential of SAARC seemed so promising that its enthusiasts overshadowed its sceptics. However, 15 years down the road, SAARC languishes amidst the pomp generated by its own formal activities and organisational inefficacy. It is now seen by many, as Jawaharlal Nehru University academic Kanti Bajpai put it in the last issue of Himal, as “beyond tinkering and rehabilitation”.
As a way to transcend the limitations of official SAARC, other initiatives have been alive in the region for much of the last 10 years. These activities, earlier described as “non-official SAARC exchanges” are increasingly being referred to as Track-II initiatives. While there is no complete agreement on the definition of Track-II, these initiatives include meetings of ex bureaucrats, retired military personnel, businessmen scholars, journalists, NGO workers, activists and various other professionals in cross-South Asian forums. There are some though who would like to distinguish Track-II initiatives (where state officials sometimes appear in their personal capacity) from others they call Track III (meeting of purely nongovernmental types), but I make no such distinction in this analysis.
A 1997 study noted that there were more than 40 different types of Track-II “dialogue channels” in South Asia. The number is much higher now since the growth rate of Track-II initiatives has increased since the study.
Who are these people?
Large amounts of money and intellectual energy are being spent on organising these Track-II meetings and on the establishment of corresponding regional networks. Communication between participants has recently been facilitated by email. The overall visibility of Track-II individuals, institutions and networks, seem to be on the rise. Despite these achievements, the participants seem to be not very successful in building robust rapport among states, civil societies, media or for that matter, the people of South Asia.
I say robust in the sense that it would, for instance, obviate the kind of hostile reportage generated by the Indian media against Nepal and Pakistan in connection with the recent hijacking. In other words, if Track-I has failed to show results, is the record of Track-II initiatives any better? Or are Track-II people simply “pests”, as recently described by the Indian columnist Swapan Dasgupta?
Some self-reflection amongst Track-II participants regarding these questions is evident, for instance, in the various papers presented in the June 1999 dialogue on confidence-building measures (CBMs) organised by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Colombo. One could also find evidence of it amongst participants at a recent Track-II meeting held in Kathmandu during which Smitu Kothari of Delhi-based organisation Lokayan stated that when it comes to Track-II initiatives, it is not easy to answer what the exact constituency of each participant is: who is representing whom and how is that made possible?
Unfortunately, adequate time was not given to this question during that meet. Unfortunate because it could have perhaps provided some clue as to why Track-II initiatives have so far failed to deliver. I believe Track-II has been ineffective in part because no one has bothered to really find out how current participants have arrived in the scene. We do not know how active, competent and effective Track-II participating individuals and institutions are in their respective primary terrain within the various countries of South Asia. At the current stage it is very likely that those invited to participate in Track-II initiatives might simply be those with access to such meetings through one or other means old boys´ networks, personal friendships with meet organisers, incestuous referencing, Internet presence based on facility with English, etc. The repetitive appearance of a group of people in all kinds of initiatives — from peace to environment to human rights to water rights to CBMs to other themes — suggests that these connections are indeed at work.
Given this, it is very likely that those inside Track-II are themselves not the most competent or effective individuals or institutions in their respective countries. They are not necessarily the agents who have built confidence in their own civil society. Participated in by individuals who are non-optimally effective in their own turf, it is not strange to find out that Track-II has thus far failed to build effective confidence across South Asian countries.
As someone who has watched the scene from Nepal, I take it as significant, and cite as an example in support of my argument, that two of the most important public intellectuals in Nepal today, Khagendra Sangraula and S.K. Lal, have never been invited to participate in any south Asian Track-II initiative outside of Nepal. Sangraula, a leftist writer with no party affiliation, is considered by many to be an institution by himself. Lal, a sympathiser of the Nepali Congress, is a civil servant engineer, a bilingual (English and Nepali) columnist and until recently, radio commentator. Between the two of them, they produce an amazing number of write-ups each month that represents what I would call the best social analyses from the ´progressive´ and ´democratic´ platforms, respectively, in Nepal. Their effective presence in the world of public discourse in Nepal and their non-presence in Tariq Banuri´s A-team of “activist-academics” (see last issue of Himal) is an indication of the problem that besets Track-II processes. And in their case, facility in English is not even a problem.
The history of Track-II processes is such that it has been much easier for the likes of Dipak Gyawalis and Kanak Mani Dixits from Nepal to hob-nob with the Ashis Nandys and Smitu Kotharis from India, Imtiaz Ahmeds and Iftekhar Zamans from Bangladesh, Tariq Banuris and LA. Rehmans from Pakistan and so on, than for them to forge effective and long-term alliances with the likes of Sangraula and Lal within Nepal. Too many biographical and social histories, one could say, have kept these variously brilliant Nepalis disjointed in their efforts to build an effective civil society inside Nepal (and, I am sure, the same can be said of other countries as well). The investment —intellectual and organisational—necessary to bridge the apparent and real chasms separating them within Nepal is of a much larger scale than those currently creating and sustaining Track-II initiatives. Unlike perpetual sceptics, I am not against the Track-II process. In fact I am for it. However, the easiness of Track-II hob-nobbing has stunted its own potential as an effective force in the region.
That said, the process of self-reflection by Track-II participants must continue at a much more vigorous level. Current and future participants, both individuals and institutions, must be asked to demonstrate better credentials of work done at home before claiming Track-II membership. In other words, substantially more homework must be demanded from them and from the organisers of Track-II meets and networks.
In addition, for countries like Nepal with infant modern civil society institutions, it might be appropriate to also ask whether some of the intellectual energy now being spent on regional networking could be better used to build more effective intra-national civil society platforms. Such efforts will eventually enhance the confidence of civil society inside Nepal, and enable it to be a real champion of social justice vis-a-vis the diabolic tendencies of the state, the market and the extremists, both of left and right orientation. It will upgrade Nepali competence and bargaining position in South Asian initiatives of all tracks.
The worthiness of Track-II participants can only be gauged by how much more effective they have become, as a result of participation in regional initiatives, in their own home turfs.