Beautiful neighbourhood

From Himal Southasian, Volume 15, Number 1 (JAN 2002)

IF EVER we wonder why SAARC does not spark, the answer should be there at the Kathmandu summit, staring us in the face. It is completely state-centric. The non-governmental South Asian efforts at regionalism do not light either, because all are similarly premised on the seven-country formula that does not reflect our history, geography, or cultural reality.

SAARC started out as a feel-good exercise of kings, presidents and prime ministers, a copycat attempt to emulate regional groupings of the more advanced countries. While it is a necessary organisation, over the years SAARC has not managed to incorporate South Asian specificities.

It was to try and fathom these necessary specificities that we called the Himal Roundtable on 18-19 November, and as organisers we found our own views on the inadequacies of current regionalism reconfirmed by the thinkers gathered in Kathmandu.

South Asia is of course much, much more than seven nation-states. To begin with, these are a Disparate Seven, distinct in size, orientation, location. The equal-weightage ‘consensual’ model of SAARC is appropriate in-so-far as it defines the limited expectations of the member governments. But how do we, in a sense, take seriously an organisation that gives equal billing to a country of less than 300,000 population and others with a billion plus, 140 million plus, 130 million plus, 23 million plus?

A workable regionalism must also find a way to tackle the overwhelming presence of India. This massive country is both centre and torso of South Asia — incomparably powerful economically and geopolitically, and touching all South Asian countries, none of which on the other hand border each other. Not only has this country managed to monopolise the historical name ‘India’, even satellite imagery of the region gives us the recognisable coastline of India alone.

You could hardly call, India a country, actually. Going by its girt (economic, geographic, demographic), it is a region — a proto South Asia even, depending on how it evolves. As India goes the way it must (federalism, devolution, internal regionalism) so will regionalism in this part of Asia come into its own.

In SAARC, the member governments have created an unwieldy structure that is cramped by the insular requirements of the political, bureaucratic and military establishments of each country. This regionalism of SAARC can remain the turf of governments, but the people must at least think of South Asia differently. They (we) must consider South Asia as comprising not the seven members but the more than a dozen regions which would have constituted themselves into nation-states had colonialism not intervened. These are units defined by geography, economy and language, and translate loosely into, for example, the states of India that have been demarcated linguistically, or the provinces of Pakistan.

SAARC, as a non-symbiotic coming together, can only be a stepping stone into this other kind of conception, which emphasises the ‘neighbourhood’ rather than ‘region’ of South Asia. And, as long as we define it correctly now, over time this neighbourhood will be one where adjacent areas interact, where local languages get priority, where borders are porous if not open, and where the capital cities and their establishments would be less important.

All the best to SAARC. But let us develop a different kind of regionalism. Let’s think neighbourhood.

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