FREELY When will 'South Asia'
disappear? By Farid Bakht
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times
Online feature that allows guest writers to have
their say. Please click hereif you are interested in
It seems the South
Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)
will be third time lucky in clubbing together in
Dhaka for a couple of days on the weekend.
Twice postponed early this year,
ostensibly for security reasons, the Bangladeshi
regime would have taken it very badly if India had
decided not to come to its capital city of Dhaka
for the meeting. The city has undergone a
"beautification" project and it really would be
thrilling to see motorcades of dignitaries from
the seven SAARC nations (India, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal,
Bhutan and the Maldives)
whizzing around the metropolis in search of
something to do.
They will make the usual
speeches. They will refer to the tragic earthquake
in Kashmir and how this is an opportunity to show
the world that India and Pakistan can bury the
hatchet and assist each other in their time of
They will neglect to mention the
incompetence of the Pakistani authorities or their
ludicrous suggestion that India supply helicopters
without pilots. India, previously so keen to show
up Dhaka’s lack of security, now has to come to
terms with its own inability to defend its
parliament (2002) or the citizens of its capital
late last month when at least 62 people were
killed by three bomb blasts in New Delhi. The
leaders of Pakistan and India have their hands
full and will want to get this "summit" over as
painlessly and quickly as possible.
years after the first meeting in Dhaka, SAARC -
which professes "to accelerate the process of
economic and social development in member states"
- is as relevant to its populations as the equally
toothless British Commonwealth jamborees.
British India The concept of
"South Asia" is a direct descendant of British
India. Imperial history has left a lasting legacy,
which no leader or ruling political force seems to
be able to shake off. Not only do they pander to
"national" prejudices, they cannot take steps to
mobilize their peoples to move beyond 1947 (the
year of Indian independence) into the 21st
century. Short-term political expediency is not
the real culprit. The need to "right past wrongs"
is the driver for action. This seems so pointless
to other parts of Asia or Europe.
they could limit their competition to
cricket, other nations must wonder. For
some, though, the status quo makes eminent sense.
While 1 million soldiers stood face to face
on the Line of Control in Kashmir in 2002, British
Prime Minister Tony Blair could see no
contradiction in calling for peace, while trying
to flog 1 billion euro (US$1.17 billion) worth of
military aircraft to both sides.
The Americans are doing the same with
F-16s now, and each side is vying to get
their hands on the latest version in their
pointless struggle for preeminence.
Bombings, insurgencies and
revolutions This year, political bombings
have convulsed the region. The Sri Lankan foreign
minister was assassinated a few months ago. Nearly
500 bombs exploded in all 64 districts of
Bangladesh, intended as a demonstration of
political Islam's reach and power. Delhi was
rocked by coordinated bombings in late October.
In Nepal, the Maoist revolution seems to
get closer to victory with every passing year
despite the best efforts of India, the US and
Britain. Nepal will send its king to the SAARC
meeting with pomp and ceremony. But the pomp
cannot hide the fact that he rules a truncated
state, limited to the main cities and highways.
On the booming Bombay Stock Exchange, the
"India story" is all about the rise of the next
Asian economic superpower. Foreign funds,
especially Japanese, have flooded the bourse,
inflating share prices by 80% since the fall of
the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The
India narrative is full of holes, which will
become apparent with the collapse in the BSE Index
next year as foreign funds withdraw at the peak,
as they always do. However, the real issue is that
large swathes of the Indian polity are out of
central government control. This is swept under
the carpet as all eyes are turned on Kashmiri
terrorism and Indo-Pak rivalries.
spread of the Maoist revolutionary network
through its self-styled "strategic corridor"
is ignored. To some, it looks as if India is being
split down the middle, with the poorer half lying
on the eastern flank. However, deep-seated
grievances and inequalities are glossed over and
ignored, in case it casts doubt on the "India
story". India's political class may have discarded
the slogan "India shining" but it describes
exactly how it sees itself.
One thing that
does unite South Asia's leaders is their tendency
to exude false confidence. There seems to be an
inverse relationship between loss of power and
gain in bombast.
South Asia, the
geographical entity, is in a state of perpetual
crisis. To move from 60 years of shortsighted
rivalry and conflict over Kashmir will take a
generation. The present crop of leaders cannot
overcome this impasse. Any move to come to an
accommodation will be stymied by outrages and
terrorism. Too many institutions benefit from this
standoff. The Pakistani Army thrives on the on-off
conflict and cannot imagine peaceful co-existence.
It is almost certain many functionaries and
leaders of Indian civil society are keen to
maintain the status quo too.
almost invariably contradict public pronouncements
of cooperation. Change is surely coming, but it is
proceeding at a glacial pace. By the time the next
generation of leaders decide to bury their
differences finally, the world will have moved on.
China or Afghanistan? Both these
countries are keen to have a seat at the board,
even if it is observer status, just like a
non-executive director in a private company. The
dithering over how far it should go to include
China, without "interference", reveals the
absurdity of SAARC. Afghanistan is a failed state,
under US and NATO tutelage. By itself, it can
offer hardly anything economically to the region.
What can unite Afghanistan and, say, Bangladesh?
There is nothing for the populations of the two
states. Unfortunately, a potential gas bonanza
drives policy and distorts priorities.
Pentagon and Unocal Afghanistan
makes sense when two institutions - the
Pentagon and Unocal - come into the equation.
Supplying India with Central Asian oil has been a
key feature of American policy ever since the fall
of the Soviet Union. Supporting Unocal in South
Asia has been one of the main preoccupations of
many an embassy official. Afghanistan therefore
makes sense for energy companies because the
pipeline has to flow through that entity, through
Pakistan and into India. The "forced"
rapprochement between Pakistan and India is
explained by this need for peace either side of
Meanwhile the Pentagon is
prodding India to become a rival to China,
offering nuclear and military cooperation. In its
desire to be "accepted" by the West, New Delhi is
prepared to ditch Iran and energy security. This
has a knock-on effect because it forces India to
look elsewhere to bully smaller neighbors for gas.
The craving for "inclusiveness" and a seat at the
UN Security Council blinds many an otherwise
The concept of South
Asia made sense to the British and is increasingly
relevant to Washington's policy of containment of
China. Sixty years of unnecessary and destructive
conflict between Pakistan and India will
eventually be replaced by Sino-South Asian
rivalry. That seems to be the strategic vision.
One wonders if the leaderships have studied just
how Iraq and Iran got dragged into another example
of externally induced mutually destructive
C minus If it
ever stood for examination, SAARC would score no
higher than C-. It should be replaced by
sub-regional groupings that take their cue from
geography and history, and, crucially, the future
realignment in Asia. Thus, the eastern Indian
region should link up with China and Myanmar. If
they so wish, Pakistan and India can make their
perennial attempt to coax some sanity into their
relationship, using trade as the battering ram.
However, there should be no need to drag the half
a billion people of "Eastern South Asia" into that
endeavor. Let Delhi look to Islamabad then.
Kolkata should get closer to Kunming, Shanghai,
Yangon and Dhaka.
In 1905, British India
moved its capital out of Calcutta (Kolkata) to
Delhi. The focus shifted westwards with all its
consequences. SAARC is following that pointless
path. Perhaps Kolkata needs to regain some of the
initiative. To do so, it must offer something to
its neighbors in the east. Meanwhile, the
neglected eastern regions will continue to be
short-changed by the "center". These states are
far away from the minds of aspirational "south
bloc" functionaries in Delhi. It is almost as if
foreign policy is about looking westward from
Lahore Gate, at the Mughal Red Fort.
Cooperation in the region is vital but it
should be handled at levels where practical action
can take place. It is time to devolve foreign
policy to state/provincial level and
encourage interactions at that tier. Rather than
pandering to superpower agendas, the impetus
should be to expand trade, investment and contact,
in an alternative vision for regional progress.
The quicker SAARC is put to bed, the more
likely some of the planet's poorest peoples can
create their own more-localized entities to
further their economic development.
Farid Bakht is a newspaper
columnist based in London and Dhaka. He is writing
a book on Bangladesh, due for publication in
(Copyright 2005 Farid
Speaking Freely is an Asia
Times Online feature that allows guest writers to
have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in