It may be too early to organise a requiem for SAARC, but the region’s future lies beyond its vacuous flag-waving.The future of the Subcontinent cannot be a state project.
The latest saarc summit concluded in Colombo on 31 July in the wake of the India-Pakistan nuclear tests – without discussing the tests. The “heads of state or government” gave their wordy speeches, but nobody was listening. This was definitely the most dismal summit in the organisation´s tortuous 13-year history, notwithstanding the balmy breeze on Bentota beach.
By living the lie of soppy multilateralism and ignoring the immediacy of bilateral rivalries and conflicts in the Subcontinent – in particular between New Delhi and Islamabad – saarc had confirmed its reputation as an organisation long on words and short on deeds. After years of unrequited hope, the realisation was now complete that little else can be expected from an organisation that revolves entirely around the need-to-pontificate of prime ministers and presidents.
Barred from discussing the here-and-now issues such as nuclear warfare, refugee flow, and migrant labour, the leaders who gathered in Colombo played safe. They trotted out a laundry list of commitments that were easy ´ to agree to because they were so easy to forget, on halting women´s trafficking, banning child labour, lowering travel barriers, enhancing trade, and so on.
Colombo provided definitive proof that this organisation of regional states is not headed anywhere, but did this also apply to efforts to bring South Asia´s people together? Was a “South Asian community” still worth fighting for? Among the scholars and journalists interviewed immediately after the summit (see box), there was healthy scepticism about romantic notions of historical togetherness, and doubt that Subcontinental camaraderie could be rekindled at the wave of a wand.
At the same time, these experts believed, by and large, that there was no other way forward but to continue to expand the space for people-to-people involvement across the borders of South Asia, well outside the realm of government. It was important to continuously keep opening more doors, most importantly between India and Pakistan, for that frontier and that rivalry had the potential of foreclosing all other possibilities.
Waste of time
The scepticism of scholars may at first seem surprising, given the many cross-border and South Asia-wide activities taking place. The last decade has seen a mushrooming of regional dialogues initiated by a wide variety of organisations, from development NGOs to chambers of commerce, research institutes, activist groups and donor agencies. There have been South Asian book fairs, theatre, film and dance festivals, artist camps, student tours, and so on and on. A decade ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the ease with which people from the various countries are meeting today. Nearly every day, somewhere in a South Asian capital or city, or even outside the region, a South Asian meeting of some kind or other takes place.
And yet, the separation of national societies remains significant, and the fact of the matter is, after decades of nationalistic separation, the rebuilding of trust requires not scores, not hundreds, but thousands of self-igniting initiatives.
Some of the pessimism regarding a South Asian coming-together has to do with the misperception of the role of the SAARC organisation in bringing about ´togetherness´. There is, indeed, the unfortunate trend of equating South Asia with SAARC, even though one is a region and all that it encompasses, while the other is an inter-governmental organisation with all the restrictions that the term connotes.
There was, in fact, a time when observers fawned over SAARC, saying that at the very least the SAARC summits forced the leaders to meet once every year or two to mouth support for peace, regionalism and development. After 13 years of such pontification, the point has been made, and the public is tired. The organisation´s institutional profile remains sterile, and the so-called “SAARC process” is choked by treaty congestion. Commitments are rushed through at ceremonial summits and ministerial meets in an enthusiastic ballast of rhetoric, to be promptly ignored no sooner than the delegations get back on national terra firma.
For example, a couple of years ago, the seven minister-level delegations which met in Rawalpindi saw no problem in grandly announcing, inspired by Unicef, that “all hazardous forms of child labour” would be abolished by year 2000, and, further, that “all forms of child labour” would be abolished by 2010. At the Male summit of 1997, one delegation proposed telescoping plans for the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) from 2005 to 2002. Some of those present were incredulous at the audacity of the suggestion, but the prime ministers and presidents (and king) came up with one better the next day: safta by 2001! The SAARC organisation must – but as things stand, it cannot – rise above the lowest common denominator agenda it has set for itself. It is required to look beyond the pompous declarations, the expert committees, the focal points for this or that, the poverty commissions, and other soft-focus subjects that promise but do not deliver. A secretariat that is hostage to the desires and procrastinations of seven different foreign ministries, with practically no authority for independent action, can hardly be expected to direct the organisation.
If the rude awakening of a suddenly nuclearised South Asia had been expected to force the 1998 summit to a higher plane, that hope was belied by the attitude of insecure governments unwilling to discuss the matter in public fora. The credibility of the organisation hit rockbottom with its inability to discuss nukes barely weeks after the India and Pakistan blasts. The very body language of the Indian and Pakistani delegations was enough to make one despair over this bilateral enmity which was holding the interests of 1.3 billion people ransom.
The widening fault line across the Attari Wagah border sucks in the whole region, and there is no one among the leadership of the other South Asian states with the moral stature to take a public stand against Pakistan or India, more particularly the latter. The nuclear tests, followed by the breakdown of the India-Pakistan dialogue, will echo (at the official level) for years to come.
In the middle of all this, Mian Nawaz Sharif was heard saying that his meeting with Atal Behari Vajpayee was a “waste of time”.The Pakistani high commissioner in New Delhi was sent in to fill this diplomatic breach, to ingeniously explain that his prime minister had not meant the obvious, but instead had meant that it would be a “waste of time” to resume the dialogue unless there was in the first place an agreement on how to con duct the dialogue.
Peaceniks vs nuclear-mongers
In the most polluted pond, a lotus flower blooms. And so it was with the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan, which, so we were told by the papers and television, led to an outpouring of joy on both sides. Actually, much more spontaneous and significant was the upsurge of anti-nuclear protests held by tens of thousands of citizens in the two adversary countries, and picked up by many in the neighbouring countries.
Thus, while the suddenly-nuclear enmity of India and Pakistan did definitely paralyse the SAARC organisation, the Pokhran and Chagai blasts seem to have energised activists in each country of South Asia to work ever harder for regional cooperation. They will continue their independent efforts to talk over and around the guns and cannons.
The positive fallout of the nuclear tests was that everybody now knows there is a substantial body of sober opinion in the Subcontinent which does not buy establishment-speak. This body of opinion is not to be pooh poohed, and it goes far beyond the ´alternative-wallahs´ and so-called peaceniks who have long fought for a “peoples SAARC”. If it is the India-Pakistan divide which is spoiling South Asian progress, then one can only thank the nuclear-mongers in New Delhi and Islamabad for having forced these tens of thousands of citizens who want rapprochement to emerge from the woodwork.
Given that now we know that the numbers for peace are significant, what is the way ahead? Anthropologist Shiv Vishwanathan, for one, is persuaded that real experiments in criss-crossing nation state boundaries are already happening. Part of this conviction comes from the response he received from Pakistan to his anti-nuclear article “Patriot Games” in the Economic and Political Weekly immediately after the Pokhran blasts (see also Himal,July 1998). “If they´ve already crossed the boundaries in their head why should crossing physical boundaries be a problem?” asks .Vishwanathan.
Political scientist Rajni Kothari is convinced that regionalism across South Asian frontiers will occur only when there is greater space for democracy within each of the countries. He says, “Once there is greater federalism, greater democratisation through ´regionalism´ within the country, it may be more amenable to regionalism outside. For example, the challenge to a monolithic hegemonic India in South Asia must come from within, that is, the democratisation of the state structure of India, a breakdown of the country into its own various regions.”
For Kothari, the future South Asian community lies, therefore, in a confederal structure, which would include India in its various parts. Adds Kothari, “For the moment, the problems of governance can only become more acute as institutions such as the judiciary, the university and civil society as a whole come under pressure, reinforcing the centralising authoritarian tendencies of individual governments.”
Psychologist Ashis Nandy believes that regionalism will be much more difficult to achieve in the hands of the increasingly paranoid and insecure governments who need external enemies. However, he says confidently that there will be countervailing forces at play. He says the political class is being discredited in all the countries, and there is hope in this. The very people who are trying to build up the image of a monolithic enemy are trusted so very little by the public, he says.
Nandy also feels that, incongruously, the “dissent of the couch potato” will push forward the South Asia togetherness agenda. For example, the Indian news consumer, with an increasingly short attention span, has already gulped down the euphoria unleashed by the nuclear test and, totally bored, would like to move on. Nandy points at opinion surveys by STAR TV which reported public support for the tests in India going down from 90 percent right after the Pokhran blasts to 60 percent three weeks later. “My personal guess is that the support for the bomb in India is at about 36 percent, which is the figure we got in a 1997 survey.”
Many other social scientists also believe that for every act of “fencing-in” by the state authorities, there will be hundreds of “secessionist” impulses, made up of cross-cutting vested interests. “This textured weave of vested interests will grow through everyday political changes rather than any grand socio-political engineering design,” says Nandy. Thus, the Nepali businessman, a staunch nationalist no less, will look to India as his main market, or to Bangladesh, for the export of turnip seeds. The writings of an ardent Bangladeshi nationalist are more admired in West Bengal than in Bangladesh. When millions of cross-cutting cultural, economic and political interests get to play freely on the surface, that is when South Asia will begin to move towards a community, or a confederation, as Rajni Kothari would have it.
As a human rights activist who watched the recent Colombo summit from the sidelines said, “I do not believe it is the agenda of states to promote a regional identity. It is to promote their own identity. In Colombo, I saw a gathering where everyone had gone to make sure that their national positions were not compromised, whether it was on the nuclear issue or refugees.”
Back in 1989, when the publishers of the prestigious Cambridge Encyclopedia came out with a new edition for the region entitled Cambridge Encyclopedia of India, the cover carried in small type, “Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka”, while it was only on the title page that “Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives” was included. When Rishikesh Shah, former foreign minister of Nepal, enquired of the publishers, their marketing department told him, “Nobody has heard of South Asia.”Interestingly, the term “South Asia” was a Western invention, a neutral post-colonial term popularised in the newsroom of the BBC and by journalists and academics elsewhere to replace thc “Indian Subcontinent”. The terminology became completely kosher once it was endorsed in the appellation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). That was in 1985, and “South Asia” was readily pressed into use by scholars and media everywhere.
However India – and more particularly New Delhi as the self-regarded inheritor of the historical legacy of the entire Subcontinent – was irritated at first by this semantic development, and at the alacrity with which everyone wanted to dump “Indian Subcontinent” and go for “South Asia”.
Today, while true regionalism is yet a mirage, “South Asia” has successfully achieved popular usage. Even the English press in India has succumbed to its use over the last five years. In july. significantly, Delhi´s The Asian Age daily changed its section titled “Pakistan. Bangladesh and [in small letters] s.aaRC´”. to read, simply, “South Asia”. Which was the obvious thing to do in the first place.
Whereas barely a decade ago, the Cambridge Encyclopaedia did not countenance “South Asia”, today, library shelves abound with new works that use the term as a matter of course. A random look at the shelves will reveal titles as varied as South Asia Vision and Perspective; South Asian English: Islamic Contribution to South Asia´s Classical Music; A Field of One´s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia; States. Citizens and Outsiders: The Uprooted Peoples of South Asia; and The South Asia Human Development Report, this last the brainchild of the recently deceased Mahbub ul Haq.
Every year, a fresh crop of regional groups emerge carrying names such as the South Asian Chamber of Comment; the South Asian Media Association, the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre; the South Asia Forum for Human Rights; the Climate Action Network of South Asia; or the South Asian Network for Food, Ecology and Culture. Numerous Rosas (Regional Office for South Asia) have sprouted, based mostly in Kathmandu or Colombo, opened by international agencies such as Unicef and Save the Children. Then there are quite a few South Asian organisations which do regional work without using “South Asia” in their name, such as Duryog Nivaran, a Colombo-based organisation which studies disasters, or the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, also based in Colombo.
The battle of terminology seems won, and “South Asia”, the term, is here to stay. The work now involves building South Asia as a place and as a sensibility
Non-state, non-romantic agenda
In the roadmap of the way ahead that is being contemplated by South Asian thinkers, there is an implicit recognition of the need to anchor a collective South Asian destiny in multiple networks of non-official groups, interacting, across borders to tackle common concerns of poverty, illiteracy, environment, human rights and governance. This is, to begin with, quite different from state-initiated efforts which are driven by the need to exercise transregional leverage to counter the pressures of a globalising economy. SAARC fits into this need to form an economic bloc, and certainly the process has its uses, but we must recognise that bureaucratised regional frameworks privilege the national identity above a regional, ethnic, linguistic or even a feminist or environmentalist identity.
The SAARC system, after all, brings together Indians as Indians, Bangladeshis as Bangladeshis and Nepalis as Nepalis, with each group zealously defending its own sacred turf. And it goes without saying that the geo-political dynamics of the region is defined by the central colossus that is India. It is not only that the other states are contiguous with India and linked through India, but that much of their history and culture is defined in relation to what is today´s India. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the self-image of the Indian elite as the successors to Imperial British India has bred what is perceived by the neighbours a hegemonic state. For this reason alone, a South Asian peoples´ future cannot be contemplated through the lens of the nation-state, which would necessarily buttress India´s paramount geopolitical role.
The limitation of the state project for South Asia can be seen in an interpretation of a seemingly innocuous statement by the Indian Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath at an exclusive briefing to an association of retired Indian diplomats in New Delhi; he said that the recent Colombo summit had celebrated a “sense of fraternity” among the South Asian countries. Scholar Rajni Kothari was quick to point out that “sense of fraternity” was just another way of asserting that India had been able to establish its dominance over the partners while isolating Pakistan, which is what happened in Colombo. Indeed, to many non-Indian observers, the 1998 summit was an exercise in which India got its way with host Chandrika Kumaratunga playing handmaiden to New Delhi´s determination to keep the nuclear issue and peace and security concerns out.
The goings-on at saarc summits and other do´s are far from the thoughts of many who are seeking to promote discussion across borders. For those who are most serious and un-romantic about the need for such discussion, the challenges are very practical. For example, feminist economist Bina Aggarwal, who has done extensive work on gender and land rights in South India and Sri Lanka, has doubts about whether, at least in the women´s movement, there is a living sense of a South Asian community. She may have been called upon to lecture on land rights at places like the Kathmandu University, but she believes that this was more an outgrowth of the work of various feminists´ networks rather than an outreach emerging from a sense of a South Asian women´s community.
Aggarwal makes a distinction between the many conscious initiatives within the women´s movement to build a South Asian consciousness and the organic existence of a South Asian community, which she feels does not exist to any significant degree. In understanding this subtle distinction between ´feeling´ South Asian, and ´taking advantage´ of living in South Asia, perhaps, lies the path ahead.
To evolve a South Asian sense of community, one cannot be taken in by the prattle emerging from the SAARC summiteers, nor by sentimental notions of oneness, shared culture, history and mindset. The age-old ties and the cultural complementarities may indeed exist, but they are not in themselves enough to make up for the concrete divides created by 50 years of state-building and history-making in the different countries.
It is important, extrapolating from what Aggarwal says, to discard (or at least not use) the idea of “organic” South Asian-ness and instead consciously build modern-day bridges on a practical plane. What is required seems to be a conscious forging of a modern-day South Asian identity rather than rhetorically relying on a spontaneous overflow from a sense of civilisational commonality that is rooted in the collective memory of a history and culture.
After half a century and three generations who have grown up in walled-in nation states, after all the prejudices, animosities, and snide references to each other, we have, to some extent, lost the possibilities of using the cultural route to a South Asian future, at least in the beginning. The lived memory of community has worn off and the forging of a common political destiny is a long way off. We have to begin, instead, by appealing to the professional instincts of economists, sociologists, teachers and historians. When we see how the various parts of South Asia can benefit from economic exchange, when the modern-day angst bred by communalism and political opportunism is tackled in each country, that is when a South Asian future will beckon.
Travels and tribulations
It is not all smooth sailing when South Asians want to meet each other across frontiers. In fact, it is getting harder, by some counts. This seems to be a period of pullback as far as intra-regional travel is concerned, no matter what the saarc declarations say about the need for easing travel procedures. This reality was nicely captured, if in .directly, in a television footage from the Attari-Wagah border in mid-August, which showed Indian and Pakistani activists who were maintaining a candlelight vigil to mark the 51st anniversary of Independence being kept apart by the men in khaki. These are times when every South Asian government, with the possible exception of the one in Male, is facing significant internal security threats. This has led to a fencing-in, and regional travel is among the. first to be affected. Take the case of Nepal, often touted as the most convenient meeting place for South Asians for the ease with which all and sundry get a visa on demand at Kathmandu´s Tribhuvan International Airport.
Over the past few months, however, Nepali immigration is suddenly creating difficulties for selected South Asian travellers, particularly those holding Sri Lankan passports, presumably at the request of India. If even peaceful Nepal is putting up barriers, then could Bangladesh be far behind? Was it just an aberration that the Bangladesh embassy in Kathmandu in July delayed and in effect denied visas to three Nepalis and a couple of Kalhmandu-based Indians to attend a regional conference on minority rights, to have been hosted by Dhaka? In Sri Lanka, on the eve of the SAARC summit, the Colombo Foreign Ministry is known to have sent out , “advisories´ to its embassies that no visas be issued to visitors during the summit period, undermining efforts to host a parallel people´s S.AARC: forum during the summit. Indeed, the Colombo summit could have been held on the high seas, so minimal was the involvement of South Asia´s people (as opposed to governments) or media. Within India, the heightened siege mentality has prompted moves to amend the Foreigner Registration Act. Taking a leaf out of Pakistan´s statute books, punishment for infiltration could include the death penalty. Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena-backed state government of Maharashtra got itself into a frenzy and deported alleged Bangladeshi migrants from Bombay. Further, the India-Pakistan tensions following the nuclear tests have, as expected, severely curtailed cross-border travel. Hopefully, this low point in intra-regional travel will soon be superseded with easier passage in the near future. And, over lime, we could hope that all South Asian frontiers will be like the Nepal-India border — completely ´open´ rather than ´porous´.