SAARC: Bringing Stability amid Turbulence


Leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are scheduled to meet in Nepal at a moment in time when civilian deaths ensuing from skirmishes between India and Pakistan on the Line of Control and the International Boundary have cast a dark shadow over South Asia. The guns may perhaps fall silent during the summit conference, but that is more likely to mean respite rather than a long term solution to problems that obstruct a more vibrant and cooperation-oriented relationship among member countries. Durable peace is essential for sustainable socio-economic development and strengthening of democratic systems in South Asia. The theme for the upcoming SAARC Summit – Deeper Integration and Prosperity – was set realising this fact. The need of the hour is to stand convinced of promotion of freer trade and investment, development of infrastructure and increased connectivity as well as greater mobility of people in the region, all of which could contribute to achieving sustainable development and prosperity.

The Idea of South Asia

For the past six decades, foreign powers, international institutions and academia have employed the term ‘South Asia’, except the local population who don’t often identify themselves as South Asians. South Asia remains an ‘imagined community’, to borrow the phrase from Benedict Anderson, Professor Emeritus of International Studies, Government & Asian Studies at Cornell University, which is not consciously or deliberately employed by the political class or the common man despite sharing commonalities through religion, culture, linguistics and food as a result of contact over centuries.

C A Bayly, FBA, FRSL is a British historian specialising in British Imperial, Indian, and global history, claims that national identities in the region are very strong given our political and economic history due to colonisation and the absence of a ‘sentimental force on its own’, the way ‘Hindustan’ had from the 18th century onwards. He points out that the term ‘South Asia’ lacks an emotional appeal for an ‘artificial’ category, with no mythical history in contrast to Europe. Another aspect of this lack of appeal as pointed out by Sudipto Kaviraj, a scholar of South Asian Politics and Intellectual History, is that a conceptual discussion about the relevance of the concept of South Asia when confronted with the challenges to regional cooperation is posed with ‘the two political processes of modernity that introduced a new kind of space-making: nationalism and state-formation’. Although the chronological outline for history of South Asia dates back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, the idea of South Asia is very modern and was not ingrained as an imagined community by the political class and local populations until the formation of the regional grouping of SAARC in 1981. The aspirations for these communities have largely been nationalistic and identities very parochial.

South Asia is a contested polyseme owing its legacy to the British colonial rule. Nicholas Dirks reminds us how the term ‘South Asia’ was forged outside the region when the Area Studies Programme sprung up in American universities and credits it to Norman Brown for having set up the South Asian Regional Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania in 1947. In some respects, the British followed earlier models of decentralised governance for this densely inhabited and heterogeneous expanse, incorporating institutional structures that dated back to Mughal days or even earlier to the multiple kingdoms of the Guptas, Mauryas and Khiljis. As a product of colonisation, Anglo-Saxon superstructures of administration, politics and law were created. These superstructures have been assimilated and preserved to varying degrees in different parts of South Asia, but, nevertheless, have maintained some commonality across the independent political units that emerged from 1947 onwards.

Given that South Asia is the least integrated region in the world at this current juncture, enormous literature exists on the benefits of cooperation within South Asia, the pitfalls of non-cooperation and the enormous gains from such cooperation in terms of internal trade and investment. Many have pointed out that the reason behind SAARC not taking off when compared with ASEAN or even the EU is not that the region lacks political will or that the technocrats/bureaucrats have failed in their numerous efforts to push for cooperation in the region in terms of trade, investment, people-to-people contact and political unity as a regional grouping, but that the idea of South Asia is not championed by the academia, media and politicians.

Without an idea and ideal of South Asia, a South Asian Economic Union cannot evolve. Dayan Jayatilleka demonstrates how the idea of Europe was already imagined decades, if not centuries, before the actual formation of the European Union. The idea was very much there in the public domain although subsumed under nationalist tendencies. When nationalisms hurled themselves at each other twice in the first half of the 20th century resulting in devastation, the idea was still left, and the shards of these ideas came together to form the foundation of Europe. In a similar manner, when nationalisms collided with each other in the South Asian region in 1947-50 and subsequently later on, the idea, though still left behind, has no moral backing from the political class.

‘Ideologisation’ of South Asia as a concept has been insufficiently studied, but, at the same time, the lessons learnt during partition haunt smaller countries in the neighbourhood such as Bangladesh and Nepal when dealing with India in a multilateral forum such as SAARC. The political class and bureaucrats within the region largely interact through bilateral channels despite the presence of a regional outfit such as SAARC. Although there have been success stories for regional groupings such as ASEAN and the European Union, in the case of the European Union, the idea of a united Europe, at least in the economic sense, was never contested by the political class, especially after both the world wars.

Deepening Regional Economic Integration

Although the proportion of poor is lower now in South Asia than any time since 1981, this could be reduced further if only the stakeholders in the entire region rise above and beyond the border conflicts boiling for over half a century. Since its creation in the mid-80s, SAARC comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have had long running disputes with each other, which continue to haunt and mar the efforts to deepen regional cooperation. Comparing ASEAN with SAARC, member countries in ASEAN appear to have successfully avoided political conflicts and have further deepened economic integration. While greater intra-regional trade and investment represent a logical, next door opportunity for South Asian economies, this shift doesn’t come without challenges. To lessen reliance on shrinking US and the EU markets, South Asia will need to modify the structure of its regional trade.

For the above mentioned prerogatives, the need of the hour is to believe in this imagined community of South Asia. There are numerous discussions at the level of public policy making, economic planning and technical cooperation. Although these reductionist discussions are important, they are not enough. Without an idea of South Asia, there won’t be a South Asian project and without a South Asian project, there will be no South Asian cooperation. Now this South Asian project, this idea of South Asia and the eventual accession to intellectual, moral and ethical leadership of this idea, is a pre-requisite for what we have been striving.

There are individuals and groups in South Asia and in the diaspora who actively contribute to building the idea of South Asia in the wake of tense relations between the countries of the region. These ‘goodwill’ cross border discourses and practices, which have been insufficiently studied, deserve more attention. Focussing on the actors who defuse political tensions and their discourse, understanding common agendas, yet, at the same time, allaying any fears of rethinking of the region along pre-partition borders, requires negotiation of a contemporary use of a South Asian identity. To further engage with ‘South Asia’ in a comparative perspective, the institutional framework of SAARC could also include a discussion about the ways in which other areas have reflected upon the delimitation of their own space. In this context, the example of SAARC nations expecting to finalise an umbrella and multilateral agreement on motor vehicles; regional railways; energy cooperation (electricity); and youth charter would further enhance regional cooperation and reassure the much needed political backing of the idea of South Asia.

Go to newsfeed

Back to Top

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.