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South Asian Leaders Have Failed their Region

Internalising the basic reality that South Asia is one of the most unequal and strife-torn regions of the world should be the starting point for regional leaders.
south region

Representational use only.Image Courtesy: Greater Kashmir

Here’s a puzzle. After being in public life for decades, how was it possible for the dominant political elites of undivided India, barring the lone exception of Mahatma Gandhi, not to anticipate the unprecedented violence that would accompany Partition? Even stranger is that the post-independence elites across the region seem not to have learnt any lesson from that harrowing experience.

From the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to their departure in 1947, the British ruled the subcontinent for 190 years. Since then, as independent nations, we have completed almost 75 years. But during this long period, how successfully have we handled our affairs with a sense of equity and evenhandedness? Is not the region still rife with inter-communal, inter-caste, inter-linguistic, inter-ethnic, and, above all, interstate conflicts?

What we continue to have instead are deafening and self-deluding slogans extolling national greatness. Some version of the Hindi slogan, Mera Bharat Mahan (my India is great), exists in every other part of the region. The language used may be different, but the sentiment is boringly similar. For our own benefit, basking in such false glory must end. We can begin by acknowledging that South Asia is one of the most unequal and strife-torn regions of the world. Without internalising this basic reality, we cannot move forward.

There are many fault lines that plague the region. In this essay, we will refer to just two. The first is the yet to be exorcised ghost of communalism, which continues to haunt us ceaselessly. The second is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s (SAARC) unfulfilled social agenda, distinct from its political agenda.

As long as the scholar and social activist Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013) was with us, we had a regular supply of information about the causes of India’s communal riots. Through his writings and analyses, Engineer used to explain how, in most cases, riots were purposefully engineered by vested interests. This is a point that the tireless Ravish Kumar, perhaps India's most astute TV news anchor, continues to make. Last month’s anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh serve merely as the latest evidence of this basic truth.

A comparison with the German experience is instructive. From the fifties onwards, clear policy interventions by the state sought to sensitise people against the danger of succumbing to the deeply regressive propensities of pre-war German society. Lately, there are some straws in the wind pointing to a pro-Nazi resurgence, but the 16-year rule of Angela Merkel shows that the mainstream of German politics still holds true to its post-War commitments.

An exemplary low-profile leader, Merkel’s contributions will be remembered for two reasons, both relevant for our region. One, in the teeth of growing Islamophobia across Europe, she stood like a rock and opened her country's borders to about a million Muslim refugees from West Asia. Two, from the Greek debt crunch to Brexit-related turmoil, she weathered one crisis after another, ensuring that nothing would rock the EU (European Union) boat.

Culling from a recent Mark Tully column in the Hindustan Times, it is impossible to ignore how diametrically opposite Merkel is to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Merkel is low profile and not especially articulate. She abhors glamour and eschews sensationalism. A devout Christian, she does not let her religiosity interfere with her role as a political leader. And she assiduously steers clear of self-publicity. Little surprise, then, that last month, a YouGov poll gave Merkel the highest ratings of any world leader, ‘indicating there are other ways for politicians to acquire charisma than self-promotion’.

But it is not just Modi; one could venture to say that no leader in South Asia today compares favourably to Merkel. Far from dealing with the threat of religious or ethnic fanaticism, our past and present leaders (with the notable exception of Pandit Nehru) have exploited them for short-term political gain. India and Sri Lanka provide the worst examples at present.

Turning to our second point, on the question of regionalism, SAARC is a laggard compared to the European Union. Much has been written about its political failures, but its non-political failures are equally grotesque. The problem with most Third World nations, it seems, is that they prefer form over substance. A few years ago, I collected a five-year sample of India's bilateral agreements in a bid to assess their progress. My data showed that agreements signed with developed countries fared much better than those signed with developing countries. The latter often remained largely paper agreements.

What is true of India's bilateral agreements also rings true for SAARC agreements. The list of failures is long: Regional Convention on Combating the Crime of Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution, the SAARC Consortium on Open and Distance Education, SAARC Agricultural Information Centre (Dhaka), SAARC Tuberculosis Centre (Kathmandu), SAARC Documentation Centre (New Delhi), SAARC Human Resource Development Centre (Islamabad), SAARC Cultural Centre (Kandy), SAARC Information Centre (Kathmandu).

We are far from done: SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industries, South Asian Federation of Accountants, SAARCLAW, SAARC-recognised bodies of Architects, Management and Development Institutions, SAARC Federation of University Women, SAARC Association of Town Planners, SAARC Cardiac Society, SAARC Diploma Engineers Forum, SAARC Teachers' Federation, Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature, Federation of State Insurance Organizations, Radiological Society of SAARC Countries, SAARC Surgical Care Society, SAARC of Dermatologists, Venereologists and Leprologists. The list goes on.

How many of us remember SAVE (SAARC Audio Visual Exchange)? It was meant to broadcast on national TV channels programmes of general interest produced across the region. The project collapsed under the pressure of cable TV, but was it that difficult to foresee that challenge? The all-encompassing dominance of politics was so complete that everything else was made secondary.

In short, regional elites have failed to engender even a semblance of regional consciousness. But their failure does not mean that such consciousness has no organic roots. Here is a tiny example: The Architects Asia Cup. This tournament consists of teams from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia. Every year, they meet in a different South Asian city and play cricket. They compete, they make new friends. Imagine what can be achieved if we open the doors for South Asian tourism and cultural exchange on a massive scale.

I have a rather appropriate personal experience to end this column. In March 2002, I was invited to deliver a talk at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. Held against the background of the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat just weeks earlier, I thought it prudent to start with some reflections on what had transpired. Without mincing words, I told my audience that a riot was inevitable given the circumstances. The scene had been set since the mid-eighties thanks to the communal build-up of the Ram Temple movement. The spark was provided by the burning to death of 59 Hindu pilgrims in a train in Godhra, allegedly by Muslim extremists.

What was, however, not inevitable was the duration of the riots. The then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, was (willfully?) lackadaisical in his response and his dereliction granted Hindu rioters a free hand. About 2,000 people—the vast majority Muslim—were massacred. I proceeded to compare the situation to the anti-Tamil riots that had rocked Colombo in July 1983. President Junius Jayewardene had been similarly late (again, allegedly deliberately) in acting, thereby giving the Sinhalese rioters four days to unleash their anti-Tamil pogrom.

What was most revealing to me was the lively and open discussion that followed, focused primarily on sectarian failures of the state in both Pakistan and India. In the Pakistani case, my audience explained, all one had to do was replace Hindu-Muslim with Shia-Sunni. Not for once did I feel I was not addressing a JNU student crowd. My considered view is that South Asian regionalism will be safer in the hands of the common person. Too long, we have trusted our political classes, only to be saddled with misery, mistrust, and malice.

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He was an ICSSR National Fellow and professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. The views are personal.

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