South Asian or Asian -- the identity paradox
Two decades, 12 summits, a plethora of promises and inconsequential substantive actions -- that is how the realists would like to sum up the developments relating to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
The scenario, in all probability, will be the same after the 13th meeting of the heads of state and government of the seven-member countries in Dhaka -- the capital city of Bangladesh -- that played host to the first such get-together in 1985 leading to the formation of this regional cooperative body in 1985.
The 13th summit -- originally scheduled for January this year -- had to be postponed twice. It is now taking place amid high-alert security in a situation of widely shared concern over the growing menace of terrorism to which most South Asian countries are now exposed in varying degrees. That itself is, perhaps, the most notable development about the SAARC.
South Asia comprises a geopolitical region of seven disparate states -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. And this region is marked with serious imbalances of the essential attributes of states-territory, population and natural resources. But geography -- with the Himalayas in the North, the Naga Hills and the Bay of Bengal in the North-east, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian sea in the South and the West -- makes it a definable region. Most of the region is a continuous landmass, barring Sri Lanka -- separated from the main regional landmass by a small stretch of the shallows of the Indian Ocean -- and the Maldives, both being island nations. South Asia is the habitat of one-fifth of humankind. Its community of peoples shares a record of several millennia of common civilisational experience.
Yet then, South Asia has the dubious distinction of the largest concentration of global mass poverty. This is one of the causes for insecurity of regimes and states in the region -- the home of the world's largest mass of poor and deprived humanity. It is yet to retrieve qualities of cooperative peace, development and security from its own ancient heritage and culture or import the same, leaving behind its legacy of laggard performances, confrontations and conflicts of past six decades.
There is something paradoxical in the state of regional consciousness in South Asia. Not all states in the region do, apparently, feel themselves comfortable with their South Asian identity; they have less doubt about themselves as Asians than as South Asians. That may partly explain why South Asia, as a region in general, is inconceivably behind, in the race for social and economic development in the other parts of the world.
The SAARC came into being two decades back. But concrete regional cooperation, being facilitated by this structured forum, remains yet at the minimum level. Despite being a compact geo-political and civilisational region having many historical, social, linguistic and cultural linkages, the cluster of neighbouring countries in South Asia continues, thus, to be distant, in substantive -- and not physical -- terms, from each other. This isolation of South Asia from economic and political integration processes that characterise international relationships in several regions of the world is an anachronism.
Against this backdrop, it is imperative for South Asians to develop an elevating vision of their future, hewn from the constructive, integrative and cooperative trends and processes that are evident elsewhere. Differences will always arise between and among nations. But cooperation, practised for long years, can help minimise such differences, as it has happened in the not-too-distant South East Asian region under the aegis of the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations).
For this matter, it is, first of all, important to appreciate one inescapable fact: improvement in living conditions in any one of the countries contributes to the advancement of the region as a whole, in a situation where no nation aspires after hegemony or sphere of influence and each one is considered the equal of the others.
Effective regional cooperation for collective good in South Asia, or, for that matter, in any other parts of the world, hinges on mutual respect, more in actions than in words, on the high principles of social justice and human resource development as the guiding norms for governance. This respect alone can help foster good neighbourliness and regional cooperation.
Here, governments are, no doubt, the major players -- but not necessarily the soles -- ones. The civil society in South Asia has a purposeful role to play in the process for ensuring adherence to the high principles of social justice and human resource development in order to create the conditions for economic and technological convergences -- convergences that are pressing for political convergences -- in the regional context.
This role by the civil society can become meaningful when governments are judged not by their words or claims, but by their performances. And this performance has to be determined by answers to a set of questions relating to the efforts by the governments to practising (or otherwise) development, ensuring fair distribution of benefits of development to the weak, providing some safety-nets to those who need protection, improving the quality of life of ordinary people etc. Through concerted actions, the civil society in all countries of South Asia can be the catalysts for setting such an accountability process into operation for the governments in this region. The prospects for effective regional cooperation in this part of the globe, under its given political situation, could be brightened when this civil society asserts its full voice in a cohesive way, making it difficult for the governments in South Asia to ignore the same.