May 24, 2020
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No Escape From Southasia

To achieve your big power status, shed regional paranoia

No Escape From Southasia
T. Narayan
No Escape From Southasia
More than once, overbearing workshop participants in New Delhi have asked me, with programmed satisfaction, "So, what do you think of India as Big Brother?" Well sir, for those of us from the neighbourhood, India is big and it is a brother.

India is ‘big’ in more ways than merely the geographical spread and volume of its population. In diversity of terrain, climate and demography, the country already encompasses much of the subcontinent. The asymmetry of Southasia with a humungous India at its centre is what makes our subcontinental regionalism different from that of a European Union or an ASEAN, and is the reason SAARC has found it difficult to be something more than a post box of foreign ministries.

Size is supplemented by centrality, for India borders every country of the region while none of the other member-states of SAARC share a single frontier. It is the coastline of peninsular India that defines Southasia in maps and satellite imagery. The country has even managed to monopolise the region’s history. By a flick of Jawaharlal Nehru’s pen, New Delhi inherited the name of ‘ancient India’, and the rest of the region was excluded from the shared civilisational past. This act of naming is at the root of much unarticulated disconsolation—if ‘India’ had been left alone, there would have been little reason to invent ‘Southasia’.

As a ‘brother’, India’s character waxes and wanes between a magnanimous power and a petulant sibling. It can be the awkward giant in the room throwing her weight around, sometimes without even meaning to. It can also be high-minded enough to propound something as generous as the Gujral Doctrine, a formula meant to help the country deal with its own size and address neighbourly apprehensions. I.K. Gujral’s idea was to do away with South Block’s need for reciprocity in regional foreign affairs, but the Bharatiya Janata Party made mincemeat of the policy before it had the chance to take root.

Each of us would want our capitals in Colombo, Islamabad, Kathmandu and Dhaka to treat New Delhi as an equal rather than be forever intimidated into small-country paranoia, and to argue with reason rather than Lilliputian emotion. But truth be told, such a state of geopolitical equilibrium is rarely achieved and India becomes a convenient receptacle for misdirected blame. And why it is so easy to blame India is because even a small move of its sizeable limbs can send neighbours sprawling: a sneeze in New Delhi becomes a hurricane in Dhaka.

The neighbours’ paranoia has been more than compensated, however, by New Delhi’s arrogance. This is a large country with a small-country state of mind, a condition that has mostly to do with the politics and the demography of New Delhi, the capital. The geopolitical thinking of the power elite inside the Ring Road—and now outside in Gurgaon and Noida—does not reflect the power, size and prospects of India as a whole. There is an insularity here that comes from an unwillingness to consider the rest of India, and lately a desire to line up with the western powers on behalf of the few million anglophones instead of the remaining one billion citizens.

When New Delhi fails to introspect, we who make up a sixth of the world’s population as Southasians are all the poorer for it. Look at how the nuclear argument has been turned on its head since Pokhran II, and all of us who oppose nuclear weaponisation are supposed to follow the lead of the New Delhi think-tankers who changed course with such glee. See how easily the New Delhi geopoliticians ignore the plight of the hundred thousand Bhutanese refugees evicted by Thimphu, even though only New Delhi has it in its power to right that particular wrong. The rest of us Southasians can recognise the communal blinkers that prevent New Delhi from conceding that the primary cause of militancy within India’s borders is not cross-border infiltration but in-country stasis. Could not the carnage in Gujarat or the destruction of the Babri mosque have had a role in spawning acts of terror?

The biggest blinder is obviously on Kashmir, which New Delhi cannot countenance as a problem independent of Pakistan. One would expect more from a would-be world power than this willingness to deny Kashmiris the different status accorded to J&K in Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Why should great India worry about a national splintering for allowing Kashmiris to decide their future? There has to be a change of heart on Kashmir in New Delhi before Islamabad follows suit, as it must. Since antagonistic phrasing contributes to antagonistic mindsets, the Indian press could begin by referring to ‘POK’ as ‘PAK’—Pakistan Administered Kashmir.

The insular monolith of India’s Southasia policy must be the outgrowth of New Delhi’s proximity to the Pakistan frontier, and the much-vaunted north-Indian chauvinism augmented by post-Partition refugee angst. If only the capital had moved to the banks of some river other than the Jamuna, and India’s foreign policy were influenced by Mumbai’s mercantilism, Chennai’s lack of Partition baggage or Calcutta’s erudition, India might have more readily focused on the needs of regional harmony.

An anti-India demonstration in Dhaka
New Delhi’s fundamental failure has been its refusal to concede Southasia as a credible entity amidst the partitioned nation-states. While the term ‘Southasia’ has at long last found acceptability among Indian editors and academics, this happens at least a decade after the rest of us saw a need to look to Southasia as a common space while respecting national sovereignties. India might feel that it does not need the crutch of regionalism because it encompasses much of Southasia in its own right, and that is where it is wrong. New Delhi thinkers have rarely stopped to consider that harmony achieved by regional thinking would help uplift the society and economy as a whole, including that of the most populated parts of the Indian heartland.

It is New Delhi’s insularity, as well as what seems an almost calculated neglect of its own border regions, that has New Delhi embarking on a border-hardening spree. Barbed wire, concrete, pillboxes, watchtowers, floodlights and service roads today mark the Pakistan and Bangladesh frontiers, when it was soft borders that was one of the greatest cultural achievements of historical India. The open Nepal-India border exists to set a reminder and example for us all, but New Delhi would rather follow the imported rigidities of the Westphalian nation-state.

As a late-comer to regionalism, India must urgently wake up to the neighbourhood, for the good of its own population and for its sense of self-worth as it seeks ‘great power’ status. How can you aspire for a Security Council seat when you are so insecure within your own region? Good neighbourliness and peace will provide dividend in terms of per capita income and quality of life throughout Southasia including all parts of India, especially those parts that adjoin Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan—the Northeast, the Ganga heartland, West Bengal, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Just as the Indian super elite cannot escape the poverty of people at large, neither can India delink from the rest of the region. There is, quite simply, no escape from Southasia. An opportunity to strike a final blow for people-friendly regionalism arises at the end of the year, when India takes up the chairmanship of SAARC. The rest of us may say so, but it means so much more when New Delhi begins to speak the language of soft borders, easy visa regimes and cross-border commerce. Besides, India might think it can do without Southasia, but in the larger region lies India’s very soul.

(The writer is editor, Himal Southasia, Kathmandu.)

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