SAARC: Realising Shared Destiny

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Regionalism has become one of the pillars of today’s world order. There is hardly any part of the world where a regional organisation has not been given shape by the countries of a particular region. In fact, regionalism as a means of consolidating relations between countries of a particular geographic region, sub-region or likeminded states to preserve and promote their common socio-economic and politico-strategic goals and interests is a post-World War phenomenon. Regionalism is a concept that stands somewhere in between nationalism and universalism, and has become sine qua non of international politics.

The idea of development through regional cooperation acquired momentum in the post-Cold War era. The process of globalisation and market economy also impelled the building of strong regional linkages. As a result, regional organisations have become vehicles of development, prosperity and security in many parts of the world.

The countries of South Asia, though latecomers in the field of regional groupings, attained the objective of establishing a regional organisation – South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – in 1985. Despite its sluggish progress, SAARC, over the years, has emerged as a reflection of the shared destiny of the countries of the region. It is necessary for any strong regional organisation to have certain common bindings, which bring together the countries of the region in a cooperative framework. SAARC provides a platform where in all countries can play a role in the welfare of the region and join hands on an equitable basis. That way, this institution has much significance and also plays a vital role. There are several factors and forces that have shaped the contours of this important regional grouping.

South Asia – A Unique Geographical Entity

Geography plays an important role in giving shape to a region and binding the countries together. The South Asian region is unique in several respects. Its geographical setting has given this region a shape quite different from many other regions. It is a compact region with geographical contiguity from Myanmar to Afghanistan, though these two countries do not form part of South Asia. The seven constituent countries of the region i.e. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives form a compact geographic region.

The partition of India in 1947 and the disintegration of Pakistan in 1971 only created new states in the region, but the geography remains the same. Most South Asian countries share a common physiographic landscape, habitation, flora and fauna, resources, climate and environmental changes. The common geography also induces several commonalities, including demographic patterns, agrarian structures, monsoon and habitation.

However, a unique characteristic of the South Asian region is its Indo-centric nature. Nearly three-fourths of the land area, population and resources of the region are shared by India alone. In fact, in geographical terms, all South Asia nations possess a peripheral status vis-à-vis a dominant regional entity – India, which is politically, economically, technologically, militarily and scientifically much more developed in comparison to other states of the region. This unique characteristic has played a negative role in terms of regional solidarity, as it impacts other countries psychologically and they feel dwarfed against a big power like India. This drives them away from India and they tend to look outside the region for cooperation and assistance.

Shared Legacies

Most South Asian countries share common legacies. The Indus Valley civilisation, the empires, the golden age, the silk route, the invasions and the rulers, the Mughals and colonial rule, are all common to most of the countries of the region. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh inherited a common legal, administrative and military framework from the colonial power. On the whole, South Asia shares a common history. They share the atrocities of colonial powers, their exploitation and cultural invasion. Even countries like Nepal and Bhutan share many aspects of this common history, though these two countries were not part of British colonial rule.

The manner in which this common history binds South Asian countries in a cooperative regional framework in the contemporary context is an important issue. Nevertheless, the partition of India and the emergence of Pakistan as an independent state in 1947 left out several unresolved issues between the two countries. The inimical postures of the two countries against each other have not only affected bilateral relations, but also vitiated the regional atmosphere. It is for this reason that the issues of security, terrorism and nuclear power have become important in the regional framework.

Shared Socio-Cultural Landscape

South Asian countries share a common civilisation. There are commonalities of language, religion, culture, lifestyle, belief system, social organisation and social stratification. A religion or language which is dominant in one country is a minority religion or language in another country. There are social and ethnic continuities across borders. However, issues of ethnic strife, linguistic conflicts, communalism, fundamentalism and sectarianism continue to plague this integrated region of South Asia.

Common Challenges of Development

The economies of South Asian countries also share many commonalities. All countries of the region have developing economies, though there are different levels of development among them. Since all South Asian countries share a common geographical and historical setting, they are faced with almost similar challenges of modernisation and development. The quest for transition from an agrarian to an industrialised economy is similar in most countries of the region. The issues of resource utilisation and sharing, transformation of rural agrarian economy, industrialisation, scarcity of technical know-how and capital, planning, food security, unemployment, poverty, corruption, resource management, and market trade are common challenges to almost all countries of the region. South Asian countries can learn from each other’s experience of development. Robust regional trade can alleviate problems of foreign trade deficit. Similarly, coordination and cooperation in the international market instead of competition can be extremely beneficial to their respective economies.

India is home to one of the fastest growing economies of the world, and the smaller states of the region can take advantage of India’s economic development and technological capabilities. South Asian countries are faced with the challenge of energy security and their future growth and development depends on the availability of energy resources. These countries can cooperate with each other in a regional framework to pool energy resources in the region for common uses and also to find alternative sources of energy. There are also common challenges of climate change and climate security, which can be addressed through a common approach. Similarly, issues of poverty eradication and human trafficking can also be addressed by multilateral cooperation.

On the whole, South Asian countries have many things in common – a common past, socio-cultural affinities and geographical bindings. All factors lead South Asia towards a common destiny. It provides a strong scope for regional unity and cooperation and a strong base for SAARC. However, there are distrust, discontent and misperceptions, which must be ignored in the face of the commonalities and shared destiny to develop a powerful regional organisation.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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