Monday, August 4, 2008

Saarc is a rich kaleidoscope of people who disagree with it By Jawed Naqvi

KATHMANDU-BASED Himal magazine brought out a special bumper edition ahead of the Colombo Saarc summit, with 75 writers from the region grappling with the notion of South Asian identity. The magazine carried an exclusive interview with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his vision for Saarc and left me wondering why not the others. Himal editor Kanak Mani Dixit also piloted a symposium in New Delhi. Some of the comments from the discussions are worth recalling.

A.S. Panneerselvan of Panos narrated this hilarious if symbolic story he said he picked up from a former LTTE activist who now works as an attendant at a petrol pump in London. In the 1980s, according to the story, a bunch of LTTE boys were being trained by Indian intelligence somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. They were given a Tibetan cook who would often smile wryly or even smirk in a corner after serving them otherwise fairly agreeable meals. The cook’s odd behaviour was brought to the notice of the Indian army colonel who was in charge of the training programme who questioned him.

What did the Tibetan cook say? “My forebears came here in 1959 with the hope that India would help us get an independent homeland in Tibet, which didn’t happen. Now I am working as a cook for the LTTE cadres. Given that our stories are not dissimilar, I keep wondering whom they would be cooking the meals for.”

In a way the story symbolises a key issue Saarc leaders focused on in Colombo on Saturday and Sunday. To my mind the gist of Panneerselvan’s narrative suggests that each one of the Saarc member states is culpable in, if not always directly responsible for, giving one another a headache they now call terrorism. Other interesting views were thrown up at the Himal symposium, including one that advocated the self-annihilation of Saarc itself. Pat came a rejoinder: “For any entity to self-annihilate it first has to exist.”

Cynicism apart, the Himal special edition on South Asia threw up a host of perspectives and ideas that have the potential to transform the group’s collective energy into a positive force if all the leaders cared to absorb their import. There is one whole segment about history; demons from the past hovering over the region’s newly-constructed boundaries.

Ghazi Salahuddin’s description of an Indian who came to Karachi to participate in a seminar on civil society is heart-rending. “When it was his turn to speak, he talked about his family and his encounter with Pakistan. And then, suddenly, he started to cry. He cried like a baby. I often think of that touching incident, and wonder how the intelligence officers, who must have been in attendance, reported the incident.”

Navnita Chadha Behera says that by understanding the state from a Westphalian perspective, scholars in South Asia have refused to rethink the rationale of the state, and contend with the possibility that their security dilemmas are linked to the very character of these states in the region.

In his tartly headlined essay “Hate they neighbour, hug they enemy”, I.A. Rehman clarifies nevertheless that it is hardly good advice for any political relationship that has the people at its heart.

“The title to this article is not meant as advice to the people of Southasia,” he says. “It is merely a summing-up of the conduct of their governments and leaders over many decades, which has bought misery to millions upon millions of them. A hundred years ago, nearly the whole of Southasia, except for Nepal to a certain degree, was a British colony, much acclaimed for its quiescence. The privileged among the population were getting richer and happier, while the masses were engaged in a grim struggle to keep the wolf away. To prevent the latter from revolting, the colonial power decided to make the former stronger. This was also deemed necessary in order to charge the Southasians more dearly for the mission to ‘civilise’ them. The method was to offer what were described as measures for the subjects’ transition to self-rule. This process led to a gradual break-up of the traditional harmony among communities inhabiting Southasia, while it was claimed that bondage to the colonial power was the only force keeping them together.”

B.G. Verghese finds that despite and during the course of many vicissitudes and much trauma, conflict and population movements, Southasia retains its core identity as a coherent geopolitical entity and a natural resource region. In his view, its monsoonal climate gives birth to common river systems (now uniformly impacted by climate change), similar cropping patterns and a broadly common administrative and legal system.

Suhas Chakma is less charitable in his assessment. With the exceptions of politics in the Maldives and Al Qaeda-influenced jihad, he says, Southasian conflicts are all about the exclusion of ‘others’, be it on grounds of religion, ethnicity or caste. “Those espousing a Southasian Union, similar to the European Union, often point to the fact that Punjabis live on both sides of the border of two key actors, India and Pakistan. The discourse on Partition is largely about the Punjab. Bengal receives a footnote, because Mohandas K Gandhi visited Noakhali to calm rioters. But just a little further away, the destruction of an entire nation the Chakmas and other Adivasis of the Chittagong Hill Tracts rarely rates even a mention.”Vasuki Nesiah’s essay puts the focus on an issue that Saarc leaders are rarely inclined to discuss. According to the essay, a regional identity cannot be based on emphasising Saarc’s collective history, but rather on the struggle for justice and political possibility.

“There are many Southasias that we need to strain against here. There is the Southasia that was inscribed into the region through the geographies of the British Raj and the technologies of colonial governance. There is the Southasia that has emerged through the production of the post colonial state and its attendant national mythologies embedded in institutions of governance. There is the Southasia that is about notions of security and territorial integrity that are mobilised from Kashmir to the Nepali terrain, from Balochistan to Batticaloa notions of ‘security’ that are invoked by those deploying the sepulchre of statehood and those aspiring to it, those acting in the name of territorial integrity and those acting in the name of self-determination,” says Nesiah in the essay titled: A release from majoritarianism and multiculturalism.

Karachi-based painter A.R. Nagori’s oil canvas “Hanuman rescuing Babri Masjid” perhaps illustrates the religious trap in which Southasia has plunged headlong.

In an essay Counting the people Haris Gazdar takes a potshot at the colonial worldview still embraced by South Asian countries.

“Karachi is in Madras and Lahore is in Bengal; when will they be in Pakistan, and Pakistan in Southasia?” says the author tantalisingly, and explains: “During the late 1840s, the troops of the Bengal Presidency invaded the Sikh empire and conquered Punjab. Earlier in the same decade, a British expeditionary force had fought the Talpur Mirs at Miani, and annexed Sindh to the Bombay Presidency. But colonisation was not merely a matter of military defeat. Punjab and Sindh had seen many defeats and victories in their times. It was the establishment of a political system around the ‘settlement’ of land revenues that marked the real shift…In essence, Sindh and Punjab (and Balochistan and Pashtunkhwa) are still in presidencies of the British Indian empire. This retention of colonial structures has enormous ramifications. The Punjab village might have been a useful unit of land-revenue administration during that time. But it was also the repository of caste-based social hierarchy, which the British formalised.”

Allan Sealy’s short poem on nuclear lunacy in India and Pakistan is aptly titled “inchme pinchme”. It’s part of a narrative poem that starts in Fatehpur Sikri and ends on the Pakistan border.

Sadanand Menon’s first visit to Britain helped him experience the practical application of the principle of divide et impera. “In London, Birmingham, Bradford, one is physically confronted with the colonial dismembering of the Subcontinent into Hindu, Muslim, Punjabi and Bengali, now re-unified on British soil as ‘Southasians’.”

Sanjay Barbora works with Panos South Asia. He worries that Saarc constituents mostly like to view the entire Southasian region with an antiseptic security lens. They would not accept, for example, that the presence of renegades of different ethnic origins in a particular region is also a sign of a distinct kind of cosmopolitanism. There are some five dozen other absorbing essays on the potentially dry subject of Saarc in the special edition. They reflect the reality that Saarc is also a rich kaleidoscope of people who may not always agree with it.

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