In his classic Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson argues that nationalism is an imagined political landscape, imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. But conflict between some of these imagined communities within a region can lead to catastrophes. To check the process that is leading South Asia inevitably towards what could be termed ‘the end of imagination’, as coined by the doomsday prophecy of writer-activist Arundhati Roy, it has become essential to imagine afresh an inclusive regional identity.
The imagination of nation was necessitated by the emergence of a set of historic, economic and technological circumstances. But are there enough reasons to justify the imagining of a new entity — a regional identity? To deliberate over this and other related questions, Himal hosted a roundtable on 18-19 November 2001, just prior to the 11th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. A summary of the proceedings was published in the January 2002 issue of the magazine. A year after the event, the need for imagining a regional identity has become only stronger.
Nothing can be created out of nothing – even imagination needs a basis in reality if it has to emerge as a practical possibility. My argument is that there is enough in our history, geography and culture to build an inclusive regional identity for South Asia, certainly with more inclusiveness than the other ‘successful’ regions of the world.
First, if a nation is to be perceived as a political and cultural identity that is self-defined, and acknowledged by others as such, then South Asia has two major nations with religion as their defining feature — Hindu and Muslim — and several other relatively smaller nations centred on language or caste. But these identities overlap all the time. Nation-states are facts of South Asia, but none of them is a reality: all nations extend beyond the political boundary of a single state and all states are multi-national. Even Bhutan, despite its relentless persecution of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas over more than a dozen years, is a multi-national state.
Second, since nation-states are not realities, they are projects taken seriously by the power elite of South Asian countries. The Muslim Indian’s homeland Pakistan, Sri Lanka for Sinhalas, Bangladesh for Bengali-speaking Muslims, Nepal of the HANS elite (Hindu, Aryan Nepali-speakers), and most prominently, India as a predominantly Hindu entity are some of the dreams of empire building sold to the masses by the power elite of these countries. The process of empire building has resulted in conflicts between nations. The conflict between India and Pakistan is fiercer primarily because it is a confrontation between two aspirant empires competing for Kashmir to be their sphere of influence, and to a certain extent even Afghanistan. Pakistan perceives itself as a loser in 1971 in Bangladesh; therefore it tries harder to ‘contain’ India, and has no qualms about seeking the assistance of powers from outside of the region.
Third, since ‘states’ in this region in themselves are in the process of being formed — none of them have a history of more than 200 years and even the oldest state of Nepal got confined to its present boundary only after the sepoy mutiny of 1857 — the very concept of the supranational region is seen as novel and conflicting with the immediate task of ‘nation-building’.
India sees regionalism as a challenge to its predominance in the region, while all others fear Indian hegemony if an integrated, interwoven region were to become a reality. Because of this, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has failed to develop as a forum for conflict resolution between its member countries.
But what SAARC has managed to do is survive as a platform for discussions, and even that is being seen as no mean achievement given the acrimony between the states of this region. However, a section of India’s foreign policy establishment thinks that the regional body is too small a forum for its global ambitions. Even though some perfectly valid reasons for the tardy progress on the economic agenda of SAARC exist, as pointed out by New Delhi India’s scuttling of the 12th SAARC summit in Islamabad scheduled originally for January 2003 is nothing but the naked muscle flexing of a strong state. Ironically, it is India’s peripheral regions which border on the neighbouring countries which stand to benefit most from the opening up of the region through the aegis of SAARC. And so it is the attitude of the centralised political elite which emerges as the main impediment to the emergence of regional identity in South Asia.
Fourth, regionalism may not be fact as yet, but it is hard reality. If identity is not just about your’s definition of yourself, but also how others see you, then a South Asian identity has become a reality in most other parts of the world. Whether one is dismissed as a ‘Paki’ or ridiculed as Indian, people from all over South Asia have come to be identified with curry, qawalli, cricket, Hindi films, and a distinct variety of imperial English. This identity has been historically known as ‘Indian’. But after the partition of Indian Subcontinent, India ceased to be geographical-cultural expression and became the name of a state — a structural political formation. Hence, no other state of the region now likes that appendage. There was a need to rename this distinct regional identity and it so happened that a particular geographical name was found to be the least unacceptable – South Asia.
Fifth, the problem with the expression ‘South Asian’ is that it is incomplete without Afghanistan, Tibet and Burma in it. According to the Hindu mythology of the Jambu Dwipe, Bharat Khande shloka that is recited at all Hindu pujas all over South Asia, ‘Indian Subcontinent’ could have been an appropriate name, but it failed to gain acceptance as it did not accommodate the cultural aspirations of an assertive Muslim and a resurgent Buddhist populations. This region could have been named after the Himalaya — the mountain range that makes the region south Asia — but then ‘Bay of Himalaya’ and ‘Himalayan Ocean’ are names that need to be recognised by people from regions other than this one. So, for now, the name South Asia has stuck, and there is no immediate alternative to it.
Sixth, regionalism has a compelling economic justification — it has become axiomatic that due to reasons of compatibility and competitive advantage, nations seldom rise; it is regions that do. Re-conceptualising South Asia as a functional region around a network of urban nodes can revitalise the economies of all the nation-states by controlling waste and streamlining resource uses. Startling examples of wastage are Pakistan’s import of Indian goods via South Africa, and Nepal importing Chinese potatoes and German onions.
Seventh, the cultural justification for the renaissance of ‘nations’ within nation-states is compelling. Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Maithili and Nepali are language-dominated cultural groups that immediately come to mind — all of these can immensely benefit by working together with people from the ‘other’ side of state borders.
Persuasive economic and cultural reasons thus do exist for the political regional identity of South Asia. But the rhetoric must necessarily be built around secular symbols that do not threaten ‘national’ identities. Some of such symbols include, but are not limited to, Lord Buddha as an apostle of peace rather than the founder of a new creed, the heritage of the Indus Valley civilisation, the Himalaya, the monsoon, and two symbols of the British legacy — cricket and South Asian English. The challenge is to build a common identity around these secular symbols (there could be many other such) by beginning to build public opinion in its favour.
Fears and hopes
The experiences of a shared past and the realities of a conjoined present are powerful, but even more compelling is the common future that stares in the face all South Asians regardless of location. There are several internal and external factors pushing for the manufacture of a distinct South Asian identity.
To be sure, there are voices of disagreement over an identity based on landmass. For several years now, V Suryanarayan has been calling for a ‘Bay of Bengal community’ from his academic perch in Madras. Nepal’s effort to join BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, ‘Myanmar’, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation) is indication of its disenchantment with SAARC as an economic block-in-formation.
The proposed petroleum pipeline from Iran to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan will extend the regional boundary further west, while Islamabad’s dream of transforming Karachi into a port of supply for the central Asian republics is sure to integrate it with neighbours up north. In an age when boundaries are blurred by globalisation, geographical markers are indeed fluid. So, had land links been the only justification, it would have been impossible to contemplate a distinct South Asian identity. But there is more to the future than historic inspiration and geographical compulsion.
The most pressing issue is the environment. The South Asian “brown cloud” may well be a hoax as claimed by some in the Indian bureaucracy — more rigorous scientific explanations are needed to establish its extent, cause and effect. But, there is no denying the fact that the impact of land, air, water, energy and ether pollution — the contamination of Panchatatwa, elements that Hindu scriptures say constitute life — are shared by everyone in the region. The intricate relationship between the Thar desert, the Himalaya and the Bay of Bengal may not yet be well understood, but the people of the Ganga plains know by instinct that the greening of Rajasthan and the denudation of the Himalayan foothills have unpredictable consequences on their lives. The impact of environmental dislocations are and will be greater in South Asia than anywhere else in the world simply because of the density of population here.
One could say that ecology has global as well as generational dimensions, but it is a lot easier to establish their relationship when the local in glocal is a geographical region. It is easy for politicians to dream up a garland canal system comprising the Brahmaputra, Cauvery, Ganga and Narmada rivers, but almost impossible for scientists to model it with any precision. Modelling even one river and predicting its behaviour in the face of massive human intervention is fraught with danger. It is only by thinking regionally that the fixation with technological solutions to civilisational problems can be negated.
South Asians must also wake up to the potential of a nuclear catastrophe that makes this region the most dangerous place on earth in the eyes of others. After Pokhran Two and Chagai, the risk of perishing together makes it obligatory to contemplate ways of surviving together. When the risks of matters nuclear have to be described, words often fail. An alternative is to use words to imagine another world, an alternative world relatively free of catastrophic conflicts.
The third reason to begin forming a common identity in South Asia is the relative backwardness and rampant poverty in the region. Identity does not feed the hungry, treat the sick, educate the illiterate or reduce the inequality between classes, castes and gender. But what it does is reinforce solidarity, resulting in a reduction in the wastage of resources on physical security and the diversion of savings towards human security. There is no reason why Pakistan should stockpile nuclear missiles when women in Balochistan and Sindh are not free to earn a living. Of what use are the Belgian guns being imported by the Royal Nepal Army when Nepal is one of the very few countries where the life expectancy of women is lower than that of men?
Will a South Asian identity reduce these sufferings? No, such a simplistic understanding would only lead to the frustration of unfulfilled expectations. But what the process of common identity formation can do is reduce tensions all around, leading to some creative thinking about the ways and means of addressing common problems.
A fourth compulsion to make leaders of the region rise above their parochial interests lies in the realm of geopolitics. After 11 September, South Asia has been transformed into an arena of contest for the global powers. For the present, the United States, the first ‘hyperpower’ of the world, holds unchallenged sway in the entire region south of the Himalaya. But the possibility of a Beijing-Moscow-New Delhi axis of resistance emerging in the future seems to have prompted Washington into courting each of them separately.
If the game ends up disturbing the strategic balance in the region, the US has nothing to lose; but the very existence of some of the states in South Asia would be in jeopardy. This ‘great game’ has dangerous implications, because Pakistan is a military-dominated society with a basement full of nuclear-tipped missiles. Add to that the possibility of the European Union emerging as an independent player in the international trade power game, and the scene becomes too complex to even comprehend, let alone predict the course of action that states of the region should follow in order to protect their national interests. The only way to have a place at the table of such power games is to form regional solidarity and speak in a single voice on international affairs.
Fifth, there is a need for what social scientist Arjun Appadurai calls the “production of locality”. Appadurai stresses that the simultaneous process of ‘global homogenisation’ and ‘heterogenisation’ has necessitated the conceptualisation of a different kind of locality that addresses the aspirations of a globalising population everywhere. South Asia is no exception.
If anything, the need for re-conceptualising an inclusive identity is even stronger in this region, as nation-states here are younger, but ethnic identities deeper, competing population groups denser. The fear of ‘Indianisation’, rampant all over the neighbourhood, is beautifully captured in Appadurai’s haunting observation, “One man’s imagined community is another man’s political prison”. However, he fails to consider that were everyone in the region a participant in the process of imagining, the result would not be a prison but a surrogate community instead.
The sixth reason to forge a plural identity is the large South Asian diaspora, bound together by its obsession with curry, cricket and Hindi cinema. The phenomenon of ‘long-distance’ nationalism — yet another colourful description from Benedict Anderson — makes them susceptible to exploitation by extremists selling an imagined community of the virtual world. Whether it was the Tamil professionals of Sri Lanka in Europe being mobilised by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to further their separatist cause or Patel motel-owners in the United States being prevailed upon by Hindutvawadis to fund the ‘Gujarat experiment’ back home, the net effect of offshore South Asians’ efforts has mostly been negative.
In the words of historian Irfan Habib, the reason for this may lie in a “paradoxical experience in which local identitarisms are fuelled by global forces, in which the state is too far away to be felt as protector and therefore recognised as legitimate by this category of citizens”. Perhaps the formation of a strong regional identity can prevent an individual from being torn apart by the dual forces of localism and globalism, pulling her emotionally and physically in two opposing directions.
The seventh reason for reflection lies outside — since the Arabic or the Chinese identity of Asia have already excluded this region from their self-definition, South Asians are what they are simply because they cannot be anything else. Even VS Naipaul was forced to establish his tenuous link with South Asia by alluding to his genealogy in Nepal and ancestry in Awadh in his Nobel acceptance speech simply because he could never be Caribbean, and the English would never accept him as one of their own despite his knighthood. So Sir Naipaul has married a South Asian, makes it a point to be seen with the writers of the Subcontinent, and seems to have objection to being used as a saffron icon. At the end of the day, even the most famous ‘mimic man’ has to manufacture an identity to match the expectations of others.
So it is not just the past and the present that necessitates a South Asian identity, but considerations of the future. That said, it must be accepted that efforts so far to forge South Asian solidarity have been tardy at best. Precious time has been lost in what has been a false start — SAARC.
Only a careful review of the beginning of the SAARC process can reveal why failure is almost in-built in its conception — no organisation can survive by proscribing bilateral issues. The purpose of every institution — starting from the family at the micro level to the United Nations on a macro scale — is to contribute towards conflict resolution, since conflict is an inevitable part of everyday life. Perhaps the meaningless forum was created because any other form of association was considered rather premature. If that is so, then it is the most powerful reason to ‘manufacture consent’ around South Asian-ness through a process of the production of culture.
Sketching a roadmap
Stressing the need for a South Asian identity is the easy part; the challenge lies in finding a way that can lead to the desired destination — a realisation of shared commonalities. The animosity among the power elites of Dhaka, Islamabad, Kathmandu and New Delhi has percolated to the level of the South Asian bourgeoisie, hence the effort of creating goodwill has to begin at the ideological level. Upper classes may establish ideals, but it is the class in the middle that forms public opinion and thereby shapes behaviour.
Pathways to the minds of the middle class begin at universities. Unfortunately, no university in the region treats South Asia in totality in any of its courses, least of all economics and history. As would be expected of them by their constituency, universities in the West address the concerns of their respective governments in teaching South Asian courses.
The enduring obsession of South Asia centres in universities of the West has been the partition of British India, and for perfectly acceptable reasons. After all, it now pits two poor states with nuclear weapons against each other over a piece of controversial real estate that rightfully belongs to its own people — the Kashmiris. If an understanding of the complexities of the region has to be created within the region, a beginning has to be made by South Asians themselves.
It is not for nothing that Albert Einstein championed the cause of a Hebrew university all his life, for him it was the ‘flagship project’ of fashioning a new state. If only the two Abduls (APJ Abdul Kalam of India and Abdul Kadir Khan of Pakistan) of South Asia had pooled their intellectual resources in establishing a South Asian university somewhere in Kashmir!
Writers, painters, poets, dramatists and journalists of the region have a vested interest in furthering the cause of a common identity. Nothing wastes creative resources as much as the manufacture of parochial nationalistic rhetoric along the lines of ideology produced by the ruling elite in each of these countries. Cultural works of lasting value need a bigger human canvas than that of bickering nation-states mired in poverty and backwardness.
One of the reasons behind the rise of fascism in the region is the abdication of ideological space by the intellectuals of the left. If the print media was instrumental in the formation of the imagined community of nations, the electronic media should have helped fashion a larger community at the regional level. But somehow, the left has missed the bus of the new media revolution, which has therefore been captured by deadweight capital. Paradoxically, the market is creating regional solidarity — but largely in its own image, which means that it is inherently unsustainable. The people’s voice needs to be raised in favour of regional identity by workers’ solidarities of the region.
Truth be told, there are no readymade solutions based on grand narratives of regionalism. All that is known at the moment is that South Asians have to forge a regional identity before they are forced to do so by events beyond their control — a natural calamity, a nuclear war, further marginalisation from human history, multinational satellite channels, or the overlordship of a global hegemon.
National boundaries are human creations, hence, often fluid, sometimes blurred, and seldom sacrosanct. Nationalism had its uses against colonialism, but it is time now to rise above the nation-state to the level of the region. Which just may lead to global human solidarity sometime in the future, but it could all start here in South Asia.