From Himal Southasian, Volume 23, Number 4 (APR 2010)
The efficacy or life of a new idea depends upon whether it is able to stir up controversy. After all, anything novel or transformative is bound to disturb some political status quo, whether it is communitarian, ideological, nationalist, ultra-nationalist or dealing with economic relationships. And as a result, rejection or condemnation is to be expected. In this sense, the idea of ‘Southasia’ must thus far be considered a failure, despite three decades of trying. Had the idea of Southasian regionalism been at all threatening to the individual national elite, centred in each of the capitals, there would have been a hounding of the votaries of the idea. Instead, there is an indulgent tolerance of these incorrigible romantics, and the SAARC organisation is left to try to keep the idea of regionalism within the control and confines of the individual foreign ministries. It can be said that SAARC allows each of the state establishments from keeping ‘Southasia’ from emerging as an idea that is too threatening.
Should the idea of Southasia finally begin to gain traction – as one of the means of introducing peace, economic justice, good governance and rule of law in a region that houses nearly a fourth of the world’s population – a fierce resistance to the idea is sure to emerge, in contrast to today’s benign neglect. As and when some of the mainstream commentary begins to give credence to Southasia as a living, growing concept, the rejection will come from every sphere in each of the countries, including politicians, bureaucrats, scholars, professionals and even activists. At that time, the opponents will use whatever tools are at hand, the more extreme and rejectionist the better. From some hints that have been received in the past in only mildly threatening terms, one can predict at least some of these rejectionist positions.
Back in the 1980s, a good number of Indian commentators were initially arrayed against the notion of SAARC, projecting it as a ploy by the neighbours to ‘gang up’ against New Delhi. They only let their guard down after it became clear that the organisation could be made weak and middling. But should the larger idea of Southasia begin to gather steam, one can expect a revival of the challenge to the notion of Southasian regionalism. The argument would come from various angles – a conspiracy to stifle India’s economic growth, to give away Kashmir, to instigate the peoples of the Northeast, to weaken New Delhi’s ‘great power’ ambitions. Essentially, the Southasian concept would be run down as being an attempt to weaken the Indian centre, or even promoting fissiparous federalism. Some will go so far as to claim that all of this is a ploy promoted by (take your choice) the neighbours, Beijing, the United States or the rest of the West.
While it is true that India’s neighbours were initially more welcoming of SAARC and the Southasian concept, it is not a given that this support will continue among the entire neighbourhood intelligentsia. Thus, there would be growing conviction among sections of Bangladeshi, Nepali, Pakistani or Sri Lankan intellectuals that, whatever the benign beginnings of the concept of Southasia, it would be hijacked by India to promote its own wellbeing. New Delhi will be seen as formally and informally arrogating for itself the mantle of Southasia in global fora, even parlaying it into membership in the UN Security Council. Could it be, it will undoubtedly be asked in high decibels, that Southasia is now being promoted by the Research and Analysis Wing, as part of New Delhi’s strategy to extend influence over the smaller neighbours? Deep down, there will also be lurking fears as to whether India’s projected consistent double-digit economic growth could actually affect the neighbouring establishment, under a liberal Southasian regime.
This future fear of regionalism might even come from entirely unexpected sources, amidst many attitudes and certitudes that have evolved beyond the nation-stateism in each of our societies over the last half-century. At a recent seminar at the University of Mumbai, the scholar Awadesh Coomar Sinha suggested, “Kya he ye Southasia-Southasia, Kanakji! We need a name that resonates to the ear and is a part of deep history. Asia, South Asia, East Asia, West Asia are all imports that cannot add a link to our common heritage. Why not try Jambudweep? A geographical term going back to the primeval age, it encapsulates the entire Subcontinent and places Bharatvarsha as a subsidiary unit, so the modern-day neighbours of India shall not have a problem.”
In my own presentation on ‘variously conceptualising Southasia’, I referred to the idea of Jambudweep in passing and, with some surprise, came head-on against vehement dismissal by some of those present. Such an idea, evidently, can easily be seen as a Brahminical if not Hindutva-led agenda to develop a very non-secular regionalism based on primitive values, and arguments for the secular or pre-historic setting of the term would probably not stand a chance amidst the raging contemporary debates. If the idea of Jambudweep were to be presented in the various capitals of India’s neighbours, regardless of the innocence with which it is raised, ‘Jambudweep regionalism’ would be seen as an attempt to project Akhand Bharat, or Greater India. So, perhaps, not such a good idea under the current circumstances. But at least that little exchange gives us a window into the type of controversy for which we need to prepare, as and when ‘Southasia’ begins to get real.