In this fractured region where fault lines are preserved by politics, the study of international relations and security are framed largely by national perspectives. “What serves my country’s interest best?” – not necessarily “my country’s best interest” – has been not just the standard foreign-policy lens, but also the most common framework in regional analysis. The 1980s and 1990s seemed to offer new openings for regional cooperation, but developments in more recent years appear to have reversed the promise of those initiatives.
In 1983, the declaration for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was signed, and the organisation was founded in 1985. The idea of ‘South Asia’ felt at once familiar – a new, more neutral name for the region that was historically referred to as ‘India’ – but also like an import. ‘South Asia’ was already being used in American academic and policy circles to avoid conflating the region with India. The funding of regional collaborative projects by American foundations may have reinforced this impression, creating, especially in India, a lingering distaste for the term.
Through the 1980s, there was growing excitement about cross-border travel and multi-country projects like the Ford Foundation-funded ‘Problems of Governance in South Asia’, which was housed at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi but owned equally by think tanks across the region, with each country producing a country volume, a regional volume and related anthologies. The output included some of the first texts for regional perspectives on a range of issues from poverty to ethnic conflict to democracy. This first generation of publications, which included comparative studies, such as Urmila Phadnis’s Ethnicity and Nation-building in South Asia, and early publications by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Kandy and Colombo, laid the foundation for a new way of understanding regional politics: the countries and peoples of Southasia are separate but connected, different but similar.
The idea for the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) was born at a regional conference which discussed the need for an organisation that would facilitate collaborative work and dialogue. At that point, both the challenges of obtaining visas and high costs limited cross-border travel and multi-state projects. This new centre, it was decided, would be located neither in India nor Pakistan but in a country to which all SAARC nationals could travel with ease. It would present regional researchers with an opportunity to work and think together about shared problems, to deepen existing links as a way of sidestepping nation-state barriers.
Sri Lanka was chosen to house the new organisation. The RCSS board was largely Sri Lankan but had an International Research Committee drawn from around the region, as well as some scholars from outside Southasia, to guide its work. The post of executive director, with a three-year tenure, would rotate through the countries of the region (Afghanistan, Bhutan and the Maldives remain as yet unrepresented in this position).
Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, a small group of academics specialising in Southasian international relations travelled from across the region to Kandy. Lok Raj Baral, S D Muni, Baladas Ghoshal, Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, Iftekhar Zaman and Stephen P Cohen (who was a scholar-in-residence at the Ford Foundation in New Delhi) were among those who met Shelton Kodikara, an eminent Sri Lankan international-relations scholar, to imagine, shape and launch the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
The academic discourse on security was beginning to change in the West. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 suggested to academics that there was more to international relations and security than national interest as had been narrowly defined by the Cold War. Barry Buzan’s classic, People, States and Fear, written in 1983, was influential. Conferences and journals debated the meaning of ‘security’, the scope of the field and its context. The international-relations journal of the London School of Economics, Millennium, published a special issue on feminist critiques of international relations in 1988, throwing down another gauntlet to traditional thinking. By 1993, the United Nations Development Programme was preparing its landmark ‘Human Development Report’ on ‘human security’, which it defined as “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want”.
Within Southasia, there were already individuals and organisations that were generating empirical and policy work in new areas. In the western flank of the Subcontinent, territorial and national security concerns dominated the research and policy agenda; India’s and Pakistan’s mutual concerns made this inevitable. On the eastern flank, water was the main issue: sharing of the water from Himalayan rivers that ran through India, Nepal and Bangladesh; the Farakka barrage and the problem of siltation down-river; and the annual flooding of the Brahmaputra that eroded arable land, caused migration and also changed local maps as the river changed course. Displacement and migration were common, and brought their own political challenges. The flow of water paid no heed to nation-state boundaries, and an early motivation for SAARC was that solutions to such challenges could only be multilateral. Think tanks and scholars working in Bangladesh, Nepal and the Northeast recognised this complexity, and the early articles in Himal (the bimonthly that later became Himal Southasian) written by experts reflected these concerns. The RCSS brought this policy and field expertise to bear on how the conversation was being framed.
Earlier in May 1993, a residential workshop on ‘Security, Technology and Arms Control’ (STAC) had concluded in Bhurban, Pakistan. This brought together young academics, journalists, government officials and activists from India, Pakistan, China, Nepal and Sri Lanka for two weeks of lectures on security, weapons systems and international regimes for arms control. An unintended consequence of this was the unofficial discussions between the participants, especially from India and Pakistan, and the networks of friendships that began here.
In 1997, the RCSS held a residential workshop on non-traditional security themes – ethnicity, migration and environment. Structured along the lines of the STAC workshop, it drew expert faculty and participants from every country in the region. Moreover, the participants came from diverse locations: smaller cities in the region like Thiruvananthapuram, Rajshahi and Peshawar were represented along with the capitals and metropolitan cities. The STAC workshop, too, migrated to the RCSS after a few years, and the two were billed Summer (STAC) and Winter (Non-traditional) Workshops and run for several years.
The workshops created a robust alumni of several hundred participants across the region, who were trained to work on security and strategic issues with a regional perspective, influenced not just by the expert lecturers but also the personal connections that were forged at these fora. These connections made it possible for alumni to propose transnational collaborationsm whether through the RCSS or outside its framework. The early opportunity to find common ground with others across contentious and friendly boundaries created, at the minimum, some shared values and, at best, solidarity on common concerns. An early (possibly first) example was Women, Security, South Asia, a 2005 anthology co-edited by Farah Faizal and me on women and security in Southasia, whose core questions arose during after-dinner chats at the STAC workshop in 1993, and whose editorial team shared a room during the 1997 Kandy workshop. All but one contributor came from these gatherings.
Among the earliest measures instituted by the RCSS were the Kodikara and Mahbub-ul-Haq research awards. The first was open to any young Southasian researcher who wanted to work on Southasian strategic studies. The second supported a collaborative project featuring a pair of researchers from two different Southasian countries on a topic of common interest. While the first created a body of scholarship from a fresh regional perspective, the second cemented friendships that had formed during the many residential workshops hosted by the RCSS over the years. Some early themes of the Mahbub-ul-Haq studies reflected other common issues: comparative studies of defence expenditure, globalisation, small arms, maritime cooperation, and several works connecting democracy to violence. A quarter century later, the RCSS alumni are opinion leaders and policy-makers in their own right – perhaps enough reason to celebrate the organization as a success.
What, however, was the fate of all this path-breaking research? Initially, some co-edited volumes were published by commercial presses and made available in regional bookstores. The fellowship papers were largely published in-house by the RCSS, but their distribution appears to have declined over time, mostly likely for financial reasons. Digital copies are sometimes accessible, sometimes not. The lack of access to this collaborative research is amplified by the national-security thinking that dominates today’s policy discourse. It is further reinforced by the monopoly that government-backed or ex-bureaucrat-run think tanks have over access and influence in policy circles – essentially, closed discursive circles. Thus, even within the region, discounting the politics of global academic inequality, it is hard to assess the impact of the RCSS scholarship beyond what individual scholars gained from it.
The indifferent and on-off outreach of the RCSS has also played a role. Predating social media, the RCSS has not kept its alumni network alive. There is not even a mailing list, leave alone a showcasing of alumni – ergo the RCSS’s – achievements, though they now occupy leadership positions across the region. Neglect on one side has created apathy on the other. The truth is that while we value the relationships it brought into our lives, the RCSS has become irrelevant to us.
The organisation changes leadership every three years and with successive changes, collective, institutional memory has eroded. It turns out that three years – designed to prevent the creation of fiefdoms – is not enough for an executive director to make their mark on the founding vision, find the resources and build lasting programmes. There are few connections left between the alumni of the earliest years and the present office. There is no one to bridge the gap between the young people who have joined recently to manage communication networks now and those who have come and gone before. In recent years, there have been attempts by newer staff members to compile a directory, but too many years have lapsed.
Whereas in its first years, the organisation was small but extremely well-connected, a shrinking resource base has now confined its reach to the local, ie, within Sri Lanka. But Sri Lanka does not need another think tank; Southasia needs an institutional leader to shape regional thinking on peace and security issues.
Outside the RCSS, the region has also changed. Our countries and especially the capitals are mostly better connected than before – a successful SAARC project. More of us travel for work or family vacations and transact businesses across regional boundaries. We watch dubbed television serials and root for cricket-league matches across the region. Younger Southasians – the majority – do not remember the old days when international travel was prohibitively expensive and, in some cases, an impossible dream. Social media and communication technologies have effaced dividing lines at one level, so that I can text message or WhatsApp friends from Chennai to Islamabad, or someone in Thimphu can set up a Facebook group that all of us can join or follow.
On the other hand, old issues remain unresolved, and, sitting plum in the centre of the region, India continues to have difficult relationships with all its neighbours. Some of the problems that the RCSS winter workshops highlighted then, now occupy centrestage in our headlines – displacement and climate change, for instance. Our sense of being a single region remains fraught and we do not seek common solutions. The plight of the Rohingyas illustrates this. It should be possible for us to sit together and devise mutually acceptable measures that will end their misery, but it is not.
SAARC is still seen as ineffectual and the idea of Southasia is still hazy, perhaps natural given that the process of selling the nation-state ideal itself is still incomplete within our countries. Ironically, the very factors that make this region a natural zone for cooperation and free interaction – a conducive geography where physical features bind rather than separate, civilizational linkages, communities that live, remember and identify across borders, and a shared legacy of colonial laws and institutions now replicated locally – undermine the separations that nation states enforce. We cannot live together, but it seems we have difficulty coming apart. Thus, national governments, tasked with creating and consolidating themselves as ideas and territories, are anxious about regional initiatives that work in the opposite direction.
If anything, even as the region becomes more and more integrated as a market for goods (Pakistani fabric in New Delhi), services (Indian banks in Colombo), ideas (microcredit courses from Bangladesh) or entertainment (film and television through internet services), the notion of civilisational commonality remains contentious, and those who speak of regionalism, peace and cooperation remain marginal – either dismissed or mocked. A common market is the first step towards a regional identity, and functional cooperation is the first step towards political community. But the European Union, still negotiating between the centrifugal and the centripetal, illustrates why a journey of constant renegotiation only begins here.
In Southasia, not much has changed at the level of ideas. After more than three decades of SAARC, regional teaching and scholarship on Southasia feels nascent and is driven primarily by a narrowly defined approach to international relations. Resource-strapped and politically hamstrung, regional academics are seldom leaders in creating knowledge about Southasia. For some governments in the region, even as they work together on technical issues or attend summits, regional peace politics are an instrument, rather than an intrinsically important sphere of foreign policy. Institutions like the RCSS seem like relics from another era, barely managing to keep up.
Yet, in the decade to come, all of us will struggle with rising levels of violence within our societies, growing inequality, unsustainable development and climate change, erosion of democratic freedoms and human rights, with stubborn nation states governed by majoritarian ideologies. The ideals of cooperation, dialogue and peace still need solidarity and hardy shelters in some form. In the glow of a thousand virtual conversations every day, we forget the value of the face to face. Celebrity crossings obfuscate the reality that visas and travel costs continue to be prohibitive challenges. Many Southasians will perhaps never get to meet someone from another country, even as a small lucky elite nurture regional consciousness and cosmopolitan tastes. The RCSS silver jubilee this year is an occasion to reflect on a vision that seems to have been abandoned halfway, and what led to that.
I am proud to have witnessed the beginnings of this imaginative regional experiment. It is easy to organise one regional seminar or one issue of a journal. But to found, build and sustain an institution is really hard. Survival for 25 years through the vagaries of regional geopolitics, war in the host country, global economic challenges and, now, the shrinking channels of support to civil society institutions, is in itself a reason to celebrate.
In 1993, the RCSS gave institutional form to the promise of regional cooperation and collaboration in one sphere: strategic studies. In 2018, speaking about this anniversary to friends associated with the network, the most common reaction was one of embarrassment. That embarrassment may have related to the lost promise of the organisation or the regional vision that animated it; or that I was foolish enough to be enthusiastic about an idea they have given up on. Perhaps, I, too, should let this go; acceptance that all things change and pass is after all a shared Southasian idea.
Is this article then more of an epitaph for a regional vision than a celebration of its survival? The hope is that it will serve as a clarion call to the RCSS alumni and to those who support the Southasian vision, to come together, reimagine and breathe new life into a platform whose work is far from redundant.
~Trained as a Southasianist and security-studies scholar, Swarna Rajagopalan now runs Prajnya, a Chennai organisation working on peace and gender equality, and is part of the Women’s Regional Network, a network of women peace activists in the region. She tweets @swarraj.