South Asia and ‘nation-statism’

India’s decision not to join the SAARC summit in Islamabad was a triumph of “nation-statism”. But “SAARC” should be distinguished from “South Asia” and the spirit of regionalism kept alive.

Published : Oct 12, 2016 12:30 IST

Kathmandu, November 27, 2014: The closing  session of the 18th SAARC summit. (From left) Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Kathmandu, November 27, 2014: The closing session of the 18th SAARC summit. (From left) Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

HIMAL SOUTHASIAN magazine, which has been forced to suspend publication from Kathmandu owing to an intriguing cocktail of national-political and geopolitical shenanigans, has spent the past two decades trying to fashion the rationale for South Asian regionalism. It sought to do this even as newly minted ultranationalism struck root in each newborn country of the region, nation states meant to corral diverse peoples and nations.

Ultranationalism, or “nation-statism”, is a malaise no more than six decades old in the subcontinent. It is the product of the power elites in the respective capitals —made up of the political and corporate top rung, backed discreetly (as in India) or blatantly (ref Pakistan) by the security forces—ratcheting up patriotism among the masses in order to remain in power and earning.

The Narendra Modi government’s decision to boycott the 19th summit of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) in Islamabad on November 9-10 was a body blow to the eight-member organisation. It represented a triumph of ultra-patriotism, which is the flag of populist demagogues everywhere and which equates allegiance to the state with loyalty to the government of the day.

SAARC summits have been postponed in the past, but the manner in which it happened this time, including orchestrated regrets from four other member states, meant that the organisation’s existence is now threatened. A key institution has been compromised in the decades-long campaign by governments and civil society to bring South Asian societies together for the sake of a shared past and future peace and prosperity.

The September 18 attack at Uri and the death of 17 Indian soldiers would have scuttled the November summit for sure, but India’s government and television media have acted in concert to try and escalate tensions beyond the point of no return. Beyond the outrage at the death of so many men in khaki, there has been cynical use of the “external threat” to rally domestic political forces and subdue opponents. One would be forgiven for suspecting that some of this crescendo was diversionary in the context of the Kashmir unrest and meant to be supportive for upcoming State elections.

SAARC was an idea that sought to emulate the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union in the subcontinent, pushed enthusiastically by General Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh and seconded by King Birendra of Nepal in the early 1980s. India was initially reluctant, fearing a regional ganging-up and learning later to live with it, and now using it as a tool to “isolate” Pakistan. However, it is Pakistan that over the years has remained least enthusiastic of the SAARC members.

‘Ancient India’

As Pakistan started to lean westward in the direction of Saudi Arabia under General Zia-ul-Haq, as allah hafiz replaced khuda hafiz on PTV, and as the United States flooded the landscape with dollars in order to respond to the Russians in Afghanistan, Islamabad sought to distance Pakistan from the rest of South Asia. There was even an attempt to develop an autonomous history of the Indus catchment, to justify a separate archaeological path for Pakistan as distinct from the rest of ancient India.

Even as SAARC struggled to find its calling, the India-Pakistan antagonism kept it continuously unstable, leading to the postponement of more than one summit. In the latest instance, it was hardly proper on September 27 to unilaterally announce withdrawal from the Islamabad summit through a tweet of the South Block spokesperson Vikas Swarup: “Regional cooperation and terror don’t go together. India pulls out of SAARC Summit in Islamabad.”

A public request to Nepal as the current SAARC Chair would have shown respect to the sovereign states large and small that make up the membership. But then, there seems to have been a considered decision to sharpen the divide and isolate Islamabad as Colombo, Dhaka, Thimphu and Kabul chimed in to declare that they too would not attend. One country’s withdrawal is enough to bring down a SAARC summit; this was an overdose.

All of this, of course, is in sharp contrast to the bonhomie of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “presidential” inauguration ceremony of May 2014, which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended together with other SAARC heads of government. Then there was the “birthday flyby” visit to meet Sharif in Lahore in December 2015. Interstate relationships based on bravado and whims are not good for the health of regional diplomacy.

We know that Modi instructed Government of India diplomats to work hard at initiating projects in neighbouring countries, and he seems to harbour a particular liking for Nepal. But that did not stop him from allowing Indian apparatchiks to blockade Nepal in 2015 for the impudence of adopting a Constitution not to India’s liking. The same tilt towards adventurism had Modi raise the issue of Balochistan from Red Fort on Independence Day.

That Modi was willing to act on his exasperation with Pakistan for foot-dragging within SAARC was seen in his response to Islamabad’s unwillingness to sign on the SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement, meant to allow easy access to truck transport across South Asian borders. Among other things, it would have connected Afghanistan and India via Pakistani territory. With Pakistan refusing to go along, India pushed through the BBIN agreement for motor vehicles plying between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. The hint at this Modi-led diplomatic charge was all there in his address at the 18th SAARC summit held in Kathmandu in November 2014. Pointedly referring to the recalcitrant Islamabad, the Indian Prime Minister said that South Asia must seek its shared destiny “through SAARC or outside it. Among us all or some of us.”

‘India’ and ‘South Asia’

The way in which the 19th summit was cancelled was a blow to SAARC , and it will take years for the organisation to recover, given the forethought and certitude with which New Delhi has played its card.

This was not how the editors of Himal Southasian magazine imagined the state South Asia would be in seven decades after the nation states arose in place of the empire. Nation-statism rapidly sent down deep roots, though many leaders as well as citizens of undivided India had thought that Partition would be temporary. No such luck.

Himal was started 29 years ago as a magazine practising “cross-border journalism” for the Himalayan region, and in 1996 it became a periodical for South Asia. Over the years, the editors came to understand the enormity of the challenge of “Southasian journalism” in terms of the solidity and certitude of new-found nationalisms. It had taken all of half a century for ultranationalism to harden the blood vessels of civilisational South Asia.


Given the force-fitting of diverse identities within the nascent nation states, it served the interests of the establishment of each capital to generate a national identity that was exclusivist and xenophobic—inculcating fear of the malevolent neighbour (or big brother, as required) to bring a plural population under one umbrella. Patriotism—or “hatriotism” as Gopalkrishna Gandhi put it recently in The Hindu —was employed by the capital establishments as a tool to set “us” against “them”.

As Himal Southasian ’s editors realised before long, nation-statism was hard to undo, especially when the capital-based press in each country found it convenient to serve as a handmaiden to the state agenda. To see the classic rendition of “hatriotic” voyeurism, one has had to look nowhere further than the Indian television’s coverage of the “surgical strike” across the Line of Control —using stock footage of commandos in training and a decibel level never before registered in the airwaves.

Among the multiple identities of the average subcontinental citizen, the national identity is obviously all-important, and it gives a strong sense of cultural belonging and anchor amidst rapidly changing modern times. However, this identity is in addition to so many other self-ascriptions—by language, faith, geography, province, city, caste, ethnicity, guild, occupation, class, and so on.

But for the average citizen to feel complete—be she Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Nepali or Indian—there has to be a connection to one’s past. For this, an additional identity “above” the national is required, and that is the regional South Asian personality. To be able to share the history of ancient India or Hindustan is to be a modern-day South Asian—the Pakistani has a right to claim Taj Mahal as part of her heritage as does the Indian to the Gorakhnath temple in the middle of Peshawar city.

The term “South Asia” is indeed an awkward and ahistorical term but required to describe this part of Asia, mainly because the inclusive historical “India” was appropriated by modern “India”, the nation state.

Thus, shared history is the foundation for regionalism. But as the editors of Himal Southasian discovered over two decades of editing the magazine in its South Asian avatar, that is no guarantor of peace. Appeals to the sheer humanitarian goodness of the regionalism project were inadequate to bring the partitioned societies together; something more “material” beyond shared culture and history was required. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan could be appreciated from Karachi to Kolkata to Chittagong, but nationalist indignation could be made to boil up at the snap of the demagogue’s finger.

Connectivity and social justice

As SAARC completed two decades and as it became clear that the Track Two efforts to mine cultural empathy were not enough to override nationalist posturing, the concept of connectivity was born. Sher Shah Suri, who regularised the Grand Trunk Road in the 16th century, could have told you so.

The idea, whose energetic proponent was India’s former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, was that economic and infrastructural linkages across borders was what would ultimately lead to prosperity and peace. Whether it is transmission lines, rationalised customs, highways, rail or fibre-optic lines, the connections would be the catalysts to help economies attain interdependence.

There is no denying that the constituency for peace would develop if there were economic linkages, say, between the cotton fields of Pakistani Punjab and the ginning mills of Indian Punjab. Or if river barges could go from West Bengal and up to Assam through what is today Bangladesh, as they did until as late as 1956.

Economic and infrastructural networks would give birth to stakeholders beyond the peaceniks and civil society that populated the Track Two dialogues. Intermeshing webs of corporate interest that saw the profits in economic efficiencies would promote soft borders and prevent wars. Connectivity would help develop backward and forward linkages for economic growth as well as cultural depth, a solid constituency for peace would be born. Through the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) as well as non-governmental initiatives such as “South Asia economic summits”, heroic efforts were made to bring the entire region under the connectivity frame.

As it has turned out, connectivity with its rationale of economic uplift and resultant trickle down are quite insufficient in a region where the claws of ultranationalism have dug deep. It turns out that even the rationale of economic self-interest is not sharp-edged enough a tool to pry open the adversarial stance of the various capitals, and especially the Islamabad-New Delhi quadrant.

To touch the political nerve of each society, it is, therefore, important to go beyond economic and infrastructural connectivity and to propose that South Asian regionalism is first and foremost a social justice project. For regionalism will help reduce military budgets, redirect focus from the centralised nation state to provincial and local governance and bring economic efficiency in the northern half of the subcontinent where there is the most significant economic deprivation—the “arch of poverty” that extends from Bangladesh to Bihar to Sindh, with very poor citizens in large numbers.

South Asian regionalism has failed thus far because it has not been “political” enough for the politicians to make it part of their electoral agenda. It has remained a project of the English-speaking upper crust of each country and failed to enthuse the “vernacular” intelligentsia and media, particularly the Hindi press of northern India and the Urdu press of Pakistan. Only when the academia is convinced that South Asian regionalism is a means to economic growth and social justice—rather than a feel-good project of disconnected elites—will it gather political momentum in each country.

The asymmetry of SAARC

SAARC is different from ASEAN and the E.U. primarily because of the asymmetry represented by India’s size—by population, economic prowess, military might as well as central geographical placement. That does not mean India does not need SAARC or South Asian regionalism— the economic advancement of its highly populated and most deprived northern half would be linked to cross-border synergies with Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Instead of trying to work with SAARC, however, New Delhi has used its enormous power to isolate Islamabad. Even if Islamabad has been the most reluctant on regionalism among the SAARC members, pushing it thus to a corner is unwise. One would have expected India as the most powerful and central player of South Asia—and the progenitor of the Gujral Doctrine, which needs to be resuscitated—to dispassionately analyse the causes of poverty within its own borders and to use its clout to promote regionalism out of self-interest if not altruism.

For over 25 years, SAARC has proceeded along on its ineffectual but nevertheless useful existence—a venue where the heads of state and government at least paid their respects to the concept of regionalism and peace even when otherwise at daggers drawn. Afghanistan joining SAARC as its eighth member in 2007 seems, in retrospect, to have added a new dimension to SAARC: an additional deeply adversarial relationship was added to the pre-existing one, viz. India-Pakistan. The Afghanistan-Pakistan dissonance served to alienate Pakistan further from SAARC, and an overall imbalance began to take shape, and it required the arrival of Modi to upset the applecart.

One cannot help but see the weakening of SAARC at this point also as a Western project with India as willing partner. The incredible and rapid economic and geopolitical rise of China has made the West rally around India as a key countervailing force in Asia, and this requires New Delhi to first consolidate its influence in the region. For its part, India too is worried by China’s aggressive pushing of the One Belt One Road project into South Asia, reaching through Pakistan all the way to the Balochistan coast and proposing inroads into Nepal.

The elevation of Modi in New Delhi was also a game changer: here was a leader who first tried out SAARC for utility and then decided to abandon it. While Modi seeks to develop links with neighbouring countries, it clearly has to be on his own terms, as seen when he announced in June 2014 at the Sriharikota launch pad that India would be launching a “SAARC satellite” to be used by the neighbours for developmental purposes. He did so unilaterally without consulting with fellow Prime Ministers and Presidents, nor the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu.

Understanding Pakistan

Since its inception in 1985, SAARC has been dragged down by India-Pakistan acrimony. In any and every regional meeting, within and outside the SAARC umbrella, it is the debate between Islamabad and New Delhi that grabs the attention of journalists and participants alike. Pakistan’s obduracy on regionalism, creating blockages in areas where the other SAARC members agree, has been a major problem. The biggest challenge Pakistan has “gifted” South Asia as a whole is bilateral—the incursions it has supported across the Line of Control, which has kept Kashmir on the boil and created insurmountable enmity with India, which in turn has buffeted SAARC.

But the castigation of Pakistan can only go so far. On the part of India, and Indian media in particular, there has been an inability to distinguish between the different “Pakistans”—and one must perforce distinguish between the Pakistani state and the Pakistani people. There is lack of empathy for the fact that Pakistan’s citizens suffer from acts of terrorism at a quantum measure more than citizens anywhere else in South Asia.

Pakistanis face numerous violent schisms the way Indians do not, from the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide to that between the military and the citizenry. One also has to remember that the tilt of the Pakistani state towards faith-based radicalism was promoted by the U.S. in a bid to counter the Russians in Afghanistan—and it is the Pakistani people that continue to be victimised more than anyone else by that bout of mercenary adventurism. The Pakistani people suffer more than all others from the heavy hand of the military intelligence.

Influenced by the powerful Indian media, Indians and South Asians elsewhere fail to separate the Pakistani state and Pakistani people. They also would rather not distinguish between the actors that make up the “Pakistani state”, viz. the elected central and provincial governments, the military and the all-powerful and all-pervading intelligence agencies. If the political class in New Delhi were to learn to distinguish between the Islamabad-run state and Pakistan’s citizenry, there may also be some hope for SAARC.

South Asia and SAARC

There has been a tendency since the start of SAARC three decades ago to equate SAARC (the intergovernmental organisation) with South Asia (the region). That has been a grave misconception, for SAARC is run by and is held hostage to consensus between eight ministries of external affairs. Its biggest success is its ability to bring the heads of state or government together every couple of years or so, in itself no mean achievement. Further, SAARC has legitimised the regional project through this buy-in of the high and mighty, without which the idea of regionalism might have been denigrated and rejected by the “nation-statists”.

Because SAARC does not represent the people of South Asia so much as the governments of South Asia, the region of South Asia does not have to be locked exclusively in the SAARC format. And so Himal Southasian magazine has over the years proposed different ways of understanding the region, over and above that of SAARC. The conceptualisations bring together both region-wide and subregional constructs.

The suggestion is not to challenge the nation state as the primary unit of governance in the subcontinent but to consider alternative and cross-cutting ways of conceptualising this most diverse region in the world by geography and demography. After accepting the eight-government SAARC as one format, one can consider South Asia as a collection of provincial entities (States of India and provinces of Pakistan) and the smaller sovereign countries that may interact dynamically—for example Bangladesh with the north-eastern States of India, Sindh with Rajasthan, Nepal with Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

One can also contemplate South Asia as a “penumbra region” with identities melding and transferring from Arakan of northern Myanmar all the way to farthest Balochistan. Tibet, certainly, should be considered part of South Asia even as it falls within the People’s Republic of China. One could say that the most logical way to divide the region is between North South Asia and South South Asia, with the Vindhya range as the divider between the south and the “Aryan and Turko-Mughal north” as the Dhaka historian Afsan Chowdhury puts it.

Chowdhury believes—in opposition to the present tendency to oust Pakistan from the regional fold—that north India and Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of a “wheat civilisation” that should try and work things out among themselves, while Bangladesh, Nepal, the North-east and Myanmar constitute the “rice civilisation” regional subgroup.

Whatever format one may use, this region, which houses nearly a fourth of the world’s population, cannot progress and prosper using only the nation state as the unit to construct regionalism. This is the gleaning of Himal Southasian ’s two decades of experience in regional journalism. It is that understanding that had us expending not a little bit of energy putting up the “right-side-up map” of South Asia, which seeks to upend our state-driven, top-down ideas of governance and regionalism.

The history of South Asia has been vandalised by the state establishment of each country over the past six decades, which is why we need a “South Asia history project” that can use the Internet and distance learning to bound over frontiers and bring about a study of the past that can be owned by all and help us prepare for the future. The kind of understanding we need would view the barbed-wire fencing on the Bangladesh-India and India-Pakistan frontiers as a historical aberration rather than the path to the future. We need empathy of the kind that understands that upper-riparian and lower-riparian rights, between villages as much as between nation states, are a part of South Asian societal genetics. A true South Asian would never talk flippantly of abrogating the Indus Water Treaty.

Closure of South Asia

When it comes to coverage of international and regional affairs, journalism all over the subcontinent is under the grip of the respective national establishments, though there are exceptions and online portals seem to be charting a different course. On the whole, though, the state of mainstream media is clear in what passes for journalism as India and Pakistan battle it out in print and on the airwaves after the Uri incident. To begin with, there is evident lack of understanding of what it is to be a “nuclear weapon state”, which therefore drives jingoism sky high—and not a mention of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the weeks of sabre-rattling.

Himal Southasian , which has sought to do long-form journalism and to keep clear of the ultranationalist pitfalls of “nation-statist” journalism, naturally has found itself barely tolerated by the state establishment in each of the SAARC members. Nepal, until recently, was the country where one could publish unfettered, its democratic spirit and chaotic governance helping create a landscape with least censorship or self-censorship.

All over South Asia, there is a trend towards populist right-wing ultranationalism, seen variously in the guise of military juntas, faith-based fundamentalism whether Hindu or Muslim, and elected but nominally democratic political leadership. The way this trend has touched Nepal is through the emergence of a “parallel state” that brings together politicians, bureaucrats and business mafiosi in a cabal or syndicate to run the country and economy from top to bottom.

Weakened by internal chaos and communitarian polarisations, and insistent foreign intervention by all and sundry, and especially New Delhi, by now Nepal is a democracy in name only. In essence, the activism of this Kathmandu-based citizen aroused the ire of the forces promoting the rise of a parallel state, challenging the underlying principles of representative democracy. What is happening in Nepal could be termed a unique version of the right-wing march elsewhere, one which uses ultra-populism to squelch opposition, anchor crony capitalism, and will not hear of cross-border South Asian solidarity.

Such was the harassment of Himal Southasian by the regulatory agencies in Kathmandu that the editor, Aunohita Mojumdar, and I (as founding editor and publisher) were forced to down the shutters. There was little flutter amidst the Kathmandu intelligentsia, which itself proved that the idea of regionalism had not percolated enough even in the city that imagines itself as the “capital of SAARC”. Himal Southasian ’s fate is also linked to the sophisticated means that today’s regimes employ to attack press freedom, using regulatory authorities rather than the blunderbuss hammer of authoritarianism.

Himal Southasian is now in search of a home—it could be Bengaluru, Chennai, Colombo, Dhaka, Karachi or New Delhi, wherever there is the welcome cosmopolitanism that would allow it to further the magazine’s idea of South Asian regionalism as a useful, people-friendly, prosperity-defining social-justice concept. The “South Asian sensibility” that has been conceptualised over two decades in Kathmandu is robust enough for Himal Southasian to be based anywhere.

Meantime, as a departing handwave to Kathmandu, Himal Southasian is inviting thinkers from around South Asia to a conference that contemplates “nation-statism” and “regionalism” as it matters to us.

The conference is planned for November 9-10, 2016, the very dates that the Presidents and Prime Ministers would have been summiteering in Islamabad. Perhaps Kathmandu still has it within it to walk a path towards the South Asia which links our collective past to our connected future.

Kanak Mani Dixit is the founder editor of Himal Southasian.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment