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South Asia: A region in search of regionalism

Print edition : May 06, 2022 T+T-

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeting his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, Nepal, on November 27, 2014. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala are also seen.


External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a delegation-level meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on March 25.


Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan before their bilateral meeting in Beijing on February 6. South Asia remains one of the poorest regions of the world. China’s money, therefore, matters to each of these regional states, especially the smaller ones.

South Asia’s narrative has for too long been dictated by external forces in coordination with Pakistan. In the first phase it was America plus Pakistan, today it is China plus Pakistan. For a country that accounts for three-fourths of the region, India has never been able to shape the narrative and has remained a reactive power.

South Asia as a concept is of recent vintage, a byproduct of the Cold War. It was India, and not South Asia, which was the referral point historically, although its geography was marked by different boundaries at different points in history. So, for instance, in 326 BCE when the Greek warrior Alexander entered areas that are in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan (Taxila), he was thought to have invaded India. Christianity is said to have been introduced to India by St. Thomas as early as in 52 C.E., although his activities were largely restricted to the southern tip of the region, in today’s Kerala, more than 3,000 kilometres from Taxila. Ancient and medieval Arabs traded in India’s western ports like Surat, but they are known to have traded with India. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, products of the European renaissance, searched for sea routes to India. And it was Indology as a field of study that thrived during the colonial era. In short, the locus and point of reference was always India. It is for the same reason that we get the names Indian Ocean, the West Indies, the East Indies, and Indo-China.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, there was an intense tussle in the United States over how to define this space. Scholars working on India contended that any framing of South Asia must remain Indo-centric. The U.S. strategic community, driven by rapidly crystalising Cold War exigencies, held the contending view that Pakistan must be accorded greater salience. As a potential ally, Pakistan was expected to contain the expansion of Soviet influence in the “South Asian” region. In a classic and telling conversation that took place in 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told the journalist Walter Lippmann: “Look Walter ... I’ve got some real fighting men into the south of Asia. The only Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis....We could never get along without the Gorkhas.” When Lippmann reminded Dulles that the Gurkhas were Indian, not Pakistani, Dulles replied: “Well, they may not be Pakistanis, but they’re Moslems.” Lippmann had to correct Dulles once again: “No, I’m afraid they’re not Moslems either, they’re Hindus.” Dulles merely replied, “No matter”, and proceeded to lecture Lippmann for half an hour on how the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) would plug the dike against communism in Asia.

India-Pakistan Strategic Divide

During the Cold War, the strategic divide between India and Pakistan was total. Thrice they went to war (1947, 1965 and 1971). In the 1950s, Pakistan was an active conduit for the U.S.’ anti-Soviet strategy. In the 1960s, as the Sino-Soviet rift started surfacing, Pakistan and China drew closer. Pakistan contributed critically to Sino-American rapprochement in the early 1970s. In contrast, India remained non-aligned throughout this period, which drew not just American but also Pakistani ridicule. Chaudhry Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister, famously sneered at the idea, declaiming that four zeroes still only added up to zero (each zero naturally representing a non-aligned country). The India-Pakistan divide widened in the 1970s, when India moved closer to the Soviet Union. Following the dismembering of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, in which the Indo-Soviet strategic alliance played an important role, the Pakistan-China friendship became even stronger.

India-Pakistan relations

The end of the Cold War had little impact on India-Pakistan relations. In 1999, the two countries once again crossed swords along the frozen heights of Kargil (Jammu & Kashmir). Fears of potential escalation now included the spectre of a nuclear war since both belligerents had by then tested nuclear weapons (in May 1998). The global community became so nervous that U.S. President Bill Clinton had to use arm-twisting diplomacy and compel Pakistan to withdraw its forces. Shortly thereafter, India was convinced of Pakistani complicity in the terror attacks on the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly (on October 1, 2001) and on the Indian Parliament (on December 13, 2001). On November 26, 2008, Pakistan-sponsored terrorists carried out a concerted and brutal attack on Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, leading to hundreds of casualties. To draw global attention to Pakistan’s terror tactics, India has indulged in its own brinkmanship, first in 2002 and then in 2008, by amassing troops along the Pakistan border. Each occasion, unsurprisingly, was accompanied by a flurry of diplomatic activity between Washington and Islamabad and between Washington and New Delhi. War was avoided.

Also read: Pakistan’s political chessboard

Cross-border firings and shelling along the Line of Control (LoC), however, have become routine and keep both countries close to war. Mutual accusations about interference in domestic politics—Pakistan in Kashmir and India in Balochistan—have also become commonplace. In January 2016, Pakistan-origin terrorists attacked the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, causing much embarrassment to the Indian security establishment. On February 14, 2019, the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed deployed Adil Ahmad Dar, a 20-year-old Kashmiri Fidayeen , to explode an RDX-laden SUV on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Pulwama in Kashmir, killing 40 jawans. India retaliated on February 26, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) targeted a Jaish camp in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Although little physical damage was done, the idea was to send the message that India reserved the right of ‘hot pursuit’, much in the way the U.S. had pursued Osama bin Laden to his hideout in Abbottabad in Pakistan.

The China Factor

South Asia’s inter-state reality cannot be understood without reference to China. Although it is not a part of the region as per international relations (IR) literature, it shares a border with Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan, five of the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries. It is now the world’s second largest economy (largest in terms of purchasing power parity, or PPP). By contrast, South Asia remains one of the poorest regions of the world. China’s money, therefore, matters to each of these regional states, especially the smaller ones. Since India, given its regional dominance, thinks that its neighbours should properly belong to its sphere of influence, Sino-Indian mutual suspicion is structural. Problems arise when India tries to convince its neighbours about China’s ulterior motives. Any warning about perpetual debt traps is potently countered by pointing to India’s own growing reliance on China. After all, India, which claims to be standing at the gates of the great power club, has made China its biggest trading partner, a position that the U.S. held until recently.

The gap between the Chinese and Indian economies has widened significantly over the past two decades. China’s gross domestic product (at $ 15.2 trillion) is more than five times India’s ($2.6 trillion) now. In the information technology sector, which one can take as a proxy of future power, India is barely a match for China. Despite all the brouhaha about India as an emerging global IT power and Bengaluru as the IT capital of the world, the reality is sobering. In 2017, of the world’s 10 largest Internet companies by revenue, four belonged to China: JD, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. India’s Flipkart made it to the top 25. In 2019, Baidu’s search engine commanded 850 million active mobile users. Chinese companies such as Huawei, Lenovo, Xiaomi and Tencent have acquired a huge global presence, including in South Asia. By contrast, in recent years Bengaluru has earned headlines not as an IT incubator but as India’s principal Hindutva lab. Claims to IT superpower status will soon be a fast-fading memory.

Also read: The way forward in India-China relations

India-China relations have entered a difficult phase lately, and the reverberations will be felt on the international system and by extension on the South Asian subsystem as well. As India’s image has gone for a toss within the region, its neighbours are busy recalibrating their equations with the two Asian giants. In response, feeling especially cornered by Pakistan and China, India has sought to balance things by building closer ties with the U.S. How far India will succeed in its diplomacy will depend on how the U.S. reads the situation. The Biden administration is under increasing domestic pressure to not ignore India’s deteriorating anti-minority record. India’s neutrality at the United Nations during the Ukraine crisis has only fuelled the West’s disappointment and further added to U.S.-India tensions.

By contrast, China considers the U.S. its chief adversary in the struggle for global leadership. It views India as an impediment, not a rival, to its territorial ambitions in South Asia. TheHindu ’s China correspondent Ananth Krishnan noted in his book India’s China Challenge: A Journey Through China’s Rise and What it Means for India (2020) that although “India sees China as an equal ... the Chinese strategic thinkers ... see it as somewhat insulting that [Indians] ... dare to think of themselves as being at par with a five-times-larger economy and a country that spends at least four times more on its military. For many Chinese strategists, it is the reluctance to acknowledgethis power differential that is at the heart of the multiple problems confronting the relationship” (p. 158, emphasis added).

The China card

China’s proximity to the region and its growing power makes it an attractive partner for many of India’s neighbours. The China card also comes in handy when bargaining with India. Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and to some extent even Bhutan and Maldives, have played the card to neutralise India’s predominance in the region. In May 2016, the K.P. Sharma Oli government in Nepal was on the verge of collapse. The Maoist leader Prachanda had threatened to withdraw support to the government. A reported “intervention” by China, which persuaded Prachanda to retract his threat, saved the day for Oli. According to some analysts, this was the first time that China had “expressed a firm opinion on the domestic political situation” in the country.

India is aware that China has greater capacity to extend development assistance in South Asia. In many instances, this assistance is too attractive for the targeted recipients to reject. All that India can do, therefore, is to issue warnings against falling into a debt trap. Speaking at the 58th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in February 2022, at which Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dr A.K. Abdul Momen was present, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar could not have been more candid. “We’ve seen countries, including in our region, being saddled with large debts, we’ve seen projects which are commercially unsustainable, airports where aircraft doesn’t come, harbours where the ship doesn’t come. I think people would be justified to ask themselves about what they are getting into.”

Institutionalisation of the Region

Within the region, South Asia is viewed primarily in institutional terms, that is, through South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Established in 1985, SAARC consists of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Is this institutional definition enough to establish South Asia as a region? Theoretically, there are five ingredients that constitute a region, namely, shared history and culture, political semblance, economic cooperation based on complementarity, power balance, and strategic congruence. South Asia fails on all counts.

The region’s so-called shared history is contested as both India and Pakistan teach different histories to their schoolchildren. In India, a massive project is under way to rewrite history to glorify India’s Hindu past, particularly at the expense of periods of Muslim-dominated rule. The element of “political semblance” works at cross purposes because politics in each state is religion-centric, pitting the majority and minority religions against one another. For example, Islam versus Hinduism in India and Pakistan and, to a considerable extent, also in Bangladesh. In Sri Lanka, the divide is not merely religious but also ethnic, with the majority Sinhalese (who are Buddhist) pitted against the minority Tamils (who are mostly Hindu). Efforts for “economic cooperation” are still far from achieving any meaningful economic integration and intra-regional trade remains minuscule. As for power balance, the mismatch between India and the rest of the region is glaring. Strategically, the biggest obstacle is the unresolved tension between India and Pakistan, which is further complicated by China’s growing presence in the region.

Also read: The crisis in the SAARC region

Since neither India nor Pakistan was keen to establish SAARC, one can say that the organisation was doomed to failure from the very beginning. Having joined reluctantly, each saw to it that no political or contentious issue was taken up for collective deliberation. With such a handicap, SAARC meetings were reduced to low-stakes junkets. Their one redeeming feature was that they at least provided regional leaders the opportunity to meet regularly, but even that has been subject to the status of specific bilateral relations. As a result, SAARC has wasted its time on minor matters and skirted every issue of significance. A comparison of SAARC’s record with that of the European Union is especially instructive in this regard.

Here is a sampling of SAARC’s half-hearted commitments: Regional Convention on Combating the Crime of Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution, the SAARC Consortium on Open and Distance Education, SAARC Agricultural Information Centre (Dhaka), SAARC Tuberculosis Centre (Kathmandu), SAARC Documentation Centre (New Delhi), SAARC Human Resource Development Centre (Islamabad), SAARC Cultural Centre (Kandy), SAARC Information Centre (Kathmandu), SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industries, South Asian Federation of Accountants, SAARCLAW, SAARC Federation of University Women, SAARC Association of Town Planners, etc. The list goes on. After the establishment of SAARC, a SAARC Audio Visual Exchange (SAVE) programme was launched. The idea was to broadcast on national television channels programmes of general interest produced across the region. But the programme collapsed because of competition from the cable TV.

Indo-centricity and the fraught international terrain are not the only factors that come in the way of South Asian regionalism. The texture of domestic politics in the region also contributes to the malady. Today, majoritarian politics rules the roost in the region. India was the lone exception until recently, but of late it has transformed into the region’s most vociferous champion of majoritarian politics. Ever since the rise to power of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014, the country’s 1,100 million-strong Hindu community (80.5 percent of the population) has been conned into believing that it is under threat. The object of its fears is India’s largely impoverished and politically crippled Muslim minority community, which constitutes about 14.5 per cent of the population, that is, approximately 200 million. During elections, which are virtually round the year, “Hindus-in-danger” and “Muslim-bashing” appear as two sides of the same campaign coin. In a worrying escalation, such campaigns are now accompanied by increasingly brazen acts of violence.

Given that four out of the eight South Asian countries are Muslim majority—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan—it is not a question of if but rather when domestic politics in these countries will witness retaliatory rhetoric and action. Such developments will make it impossible for the region to work towards a common security architecture. Especially difficult might be the situation in Bangladesh, whose Hindu minority population is fairly large at 9 per cent, that is, about 15 million of 166 million population. Every time a BJP politician uses inflammatory language and refers to Bangladeshi “migrants” as “termites” eating away at India’s scarce resources, he or she adds to the anger across the border. Eventually, such unwarranted humiliation will provoke reprisals, most likely from Bangladesh’s powerful and increasingly influential Islamic fringe.

The Security Obsession

The region’s obsession with security has virtually put an end to all kinds of intellectual discourse, creating a vacuum that is harmful for South Asian regionalism. So far as India’s role in this regard is concerned, it was during Manmohan Singh’s regime that its high-profile Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, introduced harsh restrictions that virtually put an end to all intra-South Asian exchanges. Particularly affected were the activities of foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which were crucial facilitators of these exchanges. With the enforcement of new regulations, such NGOs were forced to register themselves with the government under the Companies Act, which completely undermined their role as academic and cultural facilitators. As a consequence, their areas of operation were curtailed drastically; some were left with no choice but to wind up their SAARC divisions. Such restrictions and clampdowns on intra-regional contact have multiplied under the Narendra Modi regime.

Also read: Military alliance in the making between India and the U.S.

How might things be different? If SAARC is to be rescued from an ignominious and premature demise, the Indian leadership will have to show statesmanship. For a start, it should withdraw its demand that Pakistan officially renounce terrorism (Pakistan has made such promises in the past, in any case, with little to show for it). Such a gesture will make the situation favourable for Pakistan to summon the 19th SAARC Summit, stalled since 2016. India should accept that it is possible to deal with a terrorism-promoting Pakistan. After all, India has done so fairly effectively in the past. Moreover, India continues to deal with Pakistan in international fora, most notably the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Although the resurrection of the SAARC process may not induce Pakistan to renounce terrorism as a policy tool, it may temper its adventurism. Furthermore, a regular SAARC Summit coupled with a relaxed visa regime will not only boost tourism but also academic exchanges, all of which will contribute to building a regional consciousness. And in case Pakistan does not come on board immediately, let these moves be undertaken by India unilaterally, thereby putting the Pakistani ruling class under pressure to reciprocate.

Shaping the Narrative

South Asia’s narrative has for too long been dictated by external forces in coordination with Pakistan. In the first phase it was America plus Pakistan, today it is China plus Pakistan. For a country that accounts for three-fourths of the region, India has never been able to shape the narrative and has remained a reactive power. India would do well to recognise that playing the conventional power card will not allow it to create a new narrative. China will always have an edge and Pakistan will shine in its reflected glory. At the same time, India has three intrinsic advantages that none of its neighbours possess: its plurality, its democracy and its federalism. Through personal experiences in the region, I can vouch that these are values that all South Asians are beholden to. And yet, instead of building on these strengths, India is currently in the grips of high-voltage Hindutva. In this, it is merely following the narrative already established by its Islamist and Buddhist chauvinist neighbours. This is a trajectory that should shame any thinking Indian.

South Asia as a cultural space

South Asian regionalism may have failed at institutional and diplomatic levels, but its potential at the popular level remains untapped. I began this essay by arguing that South Asia is a civilisational space. Let me end by noting that it is at its most coherent as a cultural space. Otherwise, how is it possible that the region can boast of two poets whose nationalistic songs reverberate beyond their national borders.

Rabindranath Tagore wrote not only India’s national anthem but also that of Bangladesh. He even set Sri Lanka’s national anthem to music. Pakistan’s national poet Mohammad Iqbal’s Urdu-language Saare jahan se achchha Hindustan hamara (India is the best among all nations) continues to be sung with full-throated vigour across India, despite the four wars that India and Pakistan have fought. During the Partition riots, the progressive Urdu poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi escaped to Pakistan. But he returned as soon as he found the Islam-centric political climate there not conducive to his type of poetry. After 75 years of failed “high” diplomacy, perhaps it is time to trust people on all sides and give “low” diplomacy a chance.

Partha S. Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and formerly, ICSSR National Fellow, and Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU.

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