|Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is visiting Bangladesh from 6 to 7 September. Here, he stands alongside his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, in New Delhi last year.|
The need for regional connectivity in Southasia can hardly be contested, especially when the areas of benefit are numerous: trade, investment, employment, travel, tourism, education, cultural exchanges, communication, and many others. Despite this, however, there is a serious lack of regional connectivity across national borders in the Subcontinent.
Much of the problem lies in the nature of the creation of the Southasian states, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which arose out of a colonial experience and the superimposition of the Westphalian state structure. With the principle of territorialised sovereignty infected with communalism, nationalism and the politics of ethnicity, the birth of nation-states has cast the people beyond the borders of each state as the 'other', leading them to view each other with suspicion, if not outright hatred. To make matters worse, the creation of the three most populous nations in the Subcontinent was the result of a ‘communal partition’, often genocidal in nature, and involving involuntary movement of millions of people across the new borders following and accompanied by massive violence. Over the years, this tragedy has only given rise to a mindset fearful of connectivity lest it destroys the rationale for post-colonial separation and political independence.
Take the perception of the game of cricket between India and Pakistan, for instance. Whenever these cricket superpowers play against each other, it becomes less of a match and more of a battle. But that is not all. When either of them plays against a third country, the support of the bulk of their respective citizens goes to the third country, even if that third country is their old colonial master – England. For the two Southasian nations, cricket is no longer a game with twenty-two players, but a national tamasha to impress the ‘other’ and the world.
The relationship between Bangladesh and India is equally fraught with fear of supporting each other, so much so that it has had an adverse impact on bilateral trade. Each year, dozens of Indian citizens get killed while smuggling cows across the border to Bangladesh. Cows, which the orthodox Hindus in India revere and therefore are not allowed to be exported for slaughter, are in great demand in mainly Muslim, meat-eating Bangladesh. An organized network of herders and trucks carries cows across the northern plains of India to cattle markets near the border, where they are dispatched to smugglers who try to sneak them over in ones and twos. The smugglers have quickly learned how to get around the barrier: the latest in smuggling technology involves a jury-rigged contraption of bamboo poles, iron hooks and old barbed wire used to haul small cows up and over the 3 meter high fence. Each year, around 70,000 cows get across and as many get caught. While the smugglers earn USD 22 for getting a cow across, the cow gets sold for as much as USD 900 in Bangladesh. However, the smugglers, if spotted, might end up getting shot dead.
Legalizing the trade would reduce the border violence and open a new stream of tax revenue to India, but few on the border expect that to happen in the Hindu majority country. 'Which government is going to allow the export of cows for slaughter?' Ashish Mitra, a former director general of the Border Security Force asks. 'That would just be political suicide.'
In Southasia, apart from the issue of religion, the practice of electoral democracy has ironically become a stumbling block to having a full-scale connectivity between the countries. Electoral democracy has created a rat race in the region whereby the politicians only cater to the interests of those who matter in the election. Often this leads to micro-management with short-term goals, where economic interests of a particular voting constituency gets priority over a business deal with a neighbouring state, despite the possibility of having a long-term windfall from the latter. The political-business nexus within a country then creates conditions for monopoly and corruption, and when this spreads to each and every voting constituency, it ends up derailing the emancipatory goals of democracy – and regional connectivity.
A good example of this would be the negative list that India has maintained regarding trade with Bangladesh. The list, with 480 items, incidentally includes Bangladesh’s main exportable products, such as vegetable and textile products, including ready-made garments and knitwear. After many negotiations, India is on the verge of providing duty-free access to 61 items from that list, 54 of which are garment related. The reason behind this delay in removing the sanctions against the items is, not surprisingly, local and short-term interests. Garment industries lobbies in India, particularly in the south, have been advising the Indian government that such imports from Bangladesh will hurt Indian garment production. Indeed, similar had been the view in 2002 when the chairman of India’s Apparel Export Promotion Council, Virender Uppal, expressed his concern that Indian garment exports will suffer from the Canadian government’s decision to permit duty-free access for garments from Nepal and Bangladesh. Interestingly, Uppal then went to say that 'Indian firms might relocate to the country’s neighbours to take advantage of the new rules.' If Uppal’s first statement is discouraging and runs counter to the dynamics of globalisation, the second statement is an encouraging one, not only because it allows the relatively less developed economies like Nepal and Bangladesh to catch up with a relatively developed one like India, but also because it serves the bigger picture, the long-term windfall I was referring to earlier.
An expansive civil society throughout the region could help rectify the economic distortions created by the fear of losing the local market to imports from neighbouring nations. If placed under the scrutiny of a vibrant civil society, political parties would be less inclined to pamper self-seeking interest groups and vice-versa. Put differently, time has come for the business community to invest not only on itself and the immediate political community, including political parties, but also on the non-partisan civil society – the media, the NGOs, the academic and research institutions; in short, on forces whose main task is to help reproduce ‘consent’ instead of ‘coercion’ in the state and society.
However, impediments to regional connectivity are not only within. External forces have played an equal role in marring any efforts. For example: the institution of SAARC. When SAARC was founded in the mid-80s, the state actors, for reasons of want of confidence and mutual suspicion, thought it prudent to insert two ‘assuring’ clauses or conditions before passing any decision. One, all of the decisions would be based on consensus; that is, unlike the principle of democracy at home, no majoritarianism would be favoured. Even if 7 out of 8 country representatives vote for a particular course of action, it will not be accepted in running the activities of SAARC. Second, no bilateral issues could be raised in what is primarily a regional forum. At the start of something new and sensitive, these clauses are understandable. What is not and is somewhat unacceptable is that not only do such conditions remain intact and frozen even after 25 years of SAARC’s existence, but that there is also no mention of a time period by which to do away with such provisions. And this despite the fact that in the age of globalisation and inter-connectedness, both the conditions have become unworkable if not self-defeating.
Indeed, it was not for nothing that during the last SAARC Summit at Thimphu, Bhutan, the President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, blamed India and Pakistan for the lack of progress in the organisation and regional connectivity. How can the unhealthy relationship between India and Pakistan remain bilateral when that relationship limits the development of SAARC and connectivity in the whole region? A quick plunge in dialectics would show that one cannot do without the other, that bilateral and multilateral are related. Similarly, the practice of democratic norms within requires the practice of democratic norms without. Otherwise, one is bound to limit and destroy the other.
One might ask why democracy must be the norm in the region, when, after all, China is developing at an accelerating pace in its absence. This is where Southasia must take lessons not from China but from Europe. While China is a ‘continental country’, Southasia is a ‘continental region’ comprising of sovereign nations all eager to guard their newly found independence. Indeed, like Europe, Southasia has a history of intense rivalry among its countries, and not all of them are similar in size and strength. Democracy and just and equal treatment of all the members therefore are prerequisites for the region to develop as a whole. Any shortcomings in the relationship between and amongst the members of Southasia will not only invite extra-regional forces to meddle around but also create dissension within and limit regional initiatives of all kinds.
If we are interested in accelerating the process of regional connectivity, we must begin by not limiting the idea of regional connectivity to mere economic initiatives or to roads and highways, and by not handing over its realisation to inter-governmental bureaucratic machineries. If trade and commerce is part of the process of an eventual Southasian economic union, so ought to be the activities of the parliamentarians leading to the formation of a Southasian Parliament. Although, we already have a Southasian University formed in the same spirit, it still lacks the creativity it should have. Hopefully, once the regional campuses come to function, a newfound connectivity amongst the students and faculties of this region will bring the region closer. Of tremendous consequences would be a mobile Southasian museum exhibiting Southasian history, and a Southasian library linking the region’s individual collections, and researchers, to expand the existing knowledge. Such Southasian initiatives could be extended to include activities involving the lawyers, civil rights activists, environmentalists, feminists, journalists, moviemakers, story tellers, industry workers, sport persons, and many other professional groups, of the region. However, without an open mind, regional connectivity will not go very far. In the words of Rabindranath Tagore:
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)