– Rameshjung Sijapati in Asanchit Bhav
Sharukh, lady, Sharukh
The mainstream Indian media is obsessed with the five C’s – cricket, consumerism, controversy, cinema and crime, though not necessarily in that order. So much was happening on each of these fronts during March and April that the New Delhi newshounds hardly took notice of a small meeting of unassuming Southasians at the India International Centre, called Imagine a New Southasia (with the last as one word).
Mediapersons need to be forgiven their preoccupation. Even though almost everybody in Southasia knows by now that cricket matches can be fixed in advance, it was as if editors and TV producers had just discovered this uncomfortable reality. While audiences in Pakistan and India were clamouring for the heads of their fallen heroes, the TV channels were perhaps correct in prioritising the agony of the commercial celebrities of the colonial game.
Taking advantage of a balmy springtime in New Delhi, the Hindustan Times had also hosted a summit of its own, during which the owner of a French super-brand took it upon himself to declare that the opposite of luxury was not, in fact, poverty, but rather vulgarity. As if there can be anything more vulgar than a conclave on extravagance in a country that is home to the majority of the planet’s poor.
Controversy galore from all over Southasia was vying for newspaper inches. In a revised edition of her autobiography, Daughter of the East, Benazir Bhutto made some startling revelations about the Pakistani military. The source of Vijaya Mallya’s limitless funding, which sustains the opulence of Kingfisher Airlines, was another matter of intense speculation. And the Bangladeshi experiment of running a country like an NGO was also keenly watched, to consider the possibility of its replication elsewhere.
Cinema had its own stories. Ash’s wedding gown, the journey of Shahrukh Khan to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London, and the release of a slew of new movies based on the lavish lifestyles of NRIs were enough to keep glamour-hunters excited. In comparison, all that the Imagine a New Southasia conference could offer the TV cameras was an ailing I K Gujral, venting his frustration with the slow pace of development of the Southasian identity.
But despite the mainstream media’s wandering attention, there is indeed another Southasia out here, which even the World Bank has now begun to recognise. “There are currently two South Asias in our region. One has high growth and great dynamism. In the other, there is tremendous poverty and conflict. The two South Asias need to be integrated into one, and this makes regional cooperation an important priority for us,” the World Bank said in a press statement ahead of the 14th SAARC Summit, held in New Delhi during the first week of April.
The World Bank is supposed to specialise in policy prescriptions. In this case, however, it took refuge in pious pronouncements. But effective regional cooperation cannot be achieved without creating processes that extend beyond borders. After 22 years in existence, perhaps SAARC has finally outlived its utility. The next phase of regional solidarity needs to aim for nothing less than the integration and creation of a Confederation of Southasian Countries, and let us immediately give it an acronym: CSC. The Imagine a New Southasia conclave helped create the groundwork towards creating such a confederation, which may even lead to the eventual formation of a new USSR – the United States of the Southasian Region.
The IIC crowd
Created towards the end of the Cold War years, SAARC continues to suffer from the acrimonious legacy of the Southasia of the 1980s. Those were the days when Pakistan was busy creating a Central Asian identity for itself, Bangladesh was discovering Islamism, Sri Lanka was being towed towards ASEAN, and Nepal was asserting its trans-Himalayan links. Amidst all of this confusion and insecurity with regards to the neighbours, India stood alone in imperious isolation – it was its territory that connected all Southasian countries to each other. Through the early 1990s, there were still many scholars in New Delhi who interpreted SAARC as a malicious attempt to encircle India. In an endeavour to phrase a non-controversial charter, the SAARC declarations became exercises in futility.
It was the unintended consequences of annual summits, however, that gave impetus to Southasian solidarity. A range of professionals began to discover, and then to value, pan-Southasian fraternity. The Track II crowd of former bureaucrats, retired diplomats and conscientious intellectuals suddenly found that there was a low-risk cause célèbre waiting to be championed. By the end of the 1990s, a Southasian identity had become acceptable in alternative circles of Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad and Kathmandu. New Delhi socialites needed a bit of convincing; but thanks to the penetration and persuasive powers of Gujralsaheb, the ‘IIC crowd’ at Lodi Estate too began to extend its reach beyond the candlelight vigils at the Wagah border, and to consider the entire Subcontinent as its domain.
But the mainstreaming of the Southasian agenda was still limited. It had not yet gone to the region’s ‘others’; the marginalised, the excluded and the disempowered were still left out. The challenge was to address this constituency in such a way that pressure from below would build up to accelerate the process of regional cooperation. This is what a series of events preceding the 14th SAARC Summit, including Imagine a New Southasia, intended to achieve: to create awareness about the importance of Southasian unity. But the mainstream media refused to cooperate, instead deciding to wait for the pomp and show of the ceremonial summit.
The Imagine a New Southasia (INSA) initiative was audacious in the sense that it began by talking of a common currency, a common market, and a common passport for all of Southasia, to be governed by a Southasian Parliament formed according to the provisions of a Southasian Constitution. With an India-born president in Islamabad and Pakistan-born premier in New Delhi, it seems that the time has indeed come to think of regional unity in concrete terms.
Manmohan Singh dreams of breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. While that kind of dream is important, it does nothing to inspire those for whom the daily meal is breakfast, lunch and dinner, all rolled into one. Nonetheless, in order for it to become a reality, they too need to share the dream of Southasian unity. INSA attempted to address these concerns by advocating for the creation of pan-Southasian institutions.
A Southasian Commission on Poverty Alleviation need not ruffle too many feathers in the region’s various capitals. Similarly, the Kabul-born grammarian Panini deserves a pan-subcontinental Academy of Southasian Languages dedicated to his memory – the region, home to nearly half of the world’s 25 major languages, deserves the same. Meanwhile, a Southasian Minority Commission, a Southasian Commission for Human Rights and a string of Southasian Centres of Higher Studies would create the necessary conditions for the ultimate creation of a Southasian confederation.
The European Union emerged from the debris of World War II by improving ‘connectivity’, increasing interactions and deepening understanding. The process then progressed with the formation of an economic union, which is likely to result in the creation of a shared but not common political identity. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was created by the US to contain China and repel the Soviet Union from a region considered to be a bastion of capitalism. But it has failed to outgrow its role and acquire political relevance. While there are lessons from both of these experiences for Southasia, the world’s most populous culturally affiliated but unintegrated region, Southasia will nonetheless have to chart its own course towards creating a shared identity.
It might even be that we will succeed better than all the other groupings, our late start notwithstanding. The Subcontinent does have what few regions elsewhere in the world share: a legacy of intertwined history, and the possibility of easy connectivity. In addition to (or instead of) an overarching institution such as SAARC, Southasia needs multiple bridges between cultures of the same Indic civilisation – so that each person can eventually discover that she is no different from any other in the region.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.