|Artwork: Hitein Lin|
I was born in the village of Bhadawn, in Azamgarh District of Uttar Pradesh, and also graduated from the local Post-Graduate Degree College. A visit to Bhadawn 27 years after I completed my BA triggered a reflection of just how self-limiting is the very idea of SAARC. I found that some of my classmates, those who saw Bhadawn as a positive point of reference in relation to the district town of Azamgarh, are today relatively more backward than they were in 1979. Indeed, they admit to, and even regret, venerating localism.
This same dynamic could be observed the farther that people got away from Bhadawn. My contemporaries who moved to Azamgarh town but continued to view Lucknow with a sense of indifference have moved up a bit over those who decided to stay on in Bhadawn, but remain relatively backward. Those who migrated to Lucknow or Allahabad, yet spared little thought for Delhi, likewise went up a bit in life, and likewise stayed relatively backward. None but I moved all the way to Delhi, and therefore I am perceived to wield some influence in public life because it was this megalopolis that I had seen as a ‘land of opportunities’. Meanwhile, however, my contemporaries in Delhi who moved to England or the US are farther ahead still. What if I had remained in my village, celebrating its lush greenness, clean air, home-grown vegetables and open-air toilets – would anyone be asking me to write these words about SAARC and Southasia?
What is SAARC, then, in its self-description? A Bhadawn or a Delhi? By definition, of course, SAARC is a regional outfit. But the question is, with whom does the region wish to engage, or whom does it want to confront? Who is this region’s role model, and to what type of social order does it aspire? Perhaps some hints to these questions can be found in SAARC’s Charter. Objective (b), for instance, mentions “social progress and cultural development in the region”, as well as about the “dignity” of the citizens of the member states. This is nothing more than a cruel joke, when caste-ridden member states such as India, Pakistan, Nepal and, to some degree, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka continue to deny dignity and economic rights to their ‘untouchable’ citizens. That the SAARC Charter did not seek mutual cooperation amongst member states in ending ‘untouchability’ and desegregating their societies is itself a comment on the lack of priority placed on ending caste-based discrimination.
In Observation (f), the Charter seeks to “strengthen cooperation with other developing countries”. Observation (g) and (h) speak of international forums and regional organisations, but neglect any mention of the developed world. This is akin to eight homeless folks cursing those with homes – and yet still expecting doles from the owners. These clauses are clearly referring to none other than the UN bodies coming to the rescue of the SAARC member states during times of acute distress. In other words, SAARC is a Bhadawn in its self-glory. If SAARC is to be more than that, it has to go beyond ideas of localism complementing localism, backwardness strengthening backwardness, and the past mesmerised by its own antiquity.
Annihilation and rebirth
When I visit the Indian countryside, and ask the people what problems they face, most upper-caste respondents talk about insufficient and erratic supply of electricity, indifferent government machinery, corruption, dowry, price rises and the like. The Dalit respondents, on the other hand, invariably point to caste, discrimination and poverty. Needless to say, most SAARC member states – most notably India, Nepal and Pakistan – are led by beneficiaries of the caste system, and hence, they cannot have any complaints about this system. Little wonder, then, that caste does not figure in the SAARC Charter.
It is perhaps time for this moribund body to dissolve itself – but with a caveat. The SAARC self-annihilation resolution ought to be preceded by another resolution: explaining why SAARC as a regional grouping suppresses the aspirations of a majority of the citizens of its member states. The resolution should elaborate on how the homeless cannot be of any help to the other homeless, that the destitute cannot be of any help to others who are destitute, howsoever united they may be; that standing at the side of the road with a begging bowl cannot deliver homes to the homeless. The intelligent thing would be to integrate with those societies where most members have homes and cars – to look outward, rather than resolutely inward.
In other words, the SAARC members ought to develop an inner-structural energy that can sense the direction the wind is blowing. Like it or hate it, universalism (read: globalisation) is a phenomenon that is here to stay. Those who want to confront it are predestined to fail. Localism is all about the veneration of conservatism – and, as a result, about backwardness. Experience the world over shows that localism cannot easily coexist with affluent modern societies.
To what, then, do SAARC societies aspire? Most SAARC member states are a mix of agrarianism mixed with Asiatic despotism. So who does such a situation best suit? Is it the people of their respective countries, or is it the SAARC despots who are ‘representing’ their citizens? Here is a prescription: SAARC member states ought to go in for aggressive industrialisation and urbanisation. To that end, integration with the developed world – Europe, North America, the Asian ‘tigers’ – is critical. SAARC itself should not be an obstruction towards this goal, and self-destruction offers the opportunity for reconstruction.
~ Chandra Bhan Prasad is a Delhi-based writer and columnist.