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What challenges face the people of South Asia

The destruction of both communism and the Soviet state in what was the USSR has profoundly changed the geopolitical environment of South Asia. It is a sea change. Familiar landmarks created by the cold war have not merely disappeared, but what might replace them remains uncertain. What seems sure is the devolu-tion of power and authority of the dead Soviet state and, at least initially, the 15 republican capitals will be the new power centres—on the assumption that new coup(s) would not re-establish an old-style-dictatorial regime over what was the USSR. Interaction between the erstwhile Soviet Asian republics and the states of South Asia (and others in Southern Asia) poses both new challenges and offers opportunities for South Asia.

South Asia, almost coterminous with historical India, continues to have many unhappy distinctions: mass poverty with its attendant evils of ignorance, ill health and technological backwardness, territorial disputes among the major states of India and Pakistan, internal polarizations that threaten peace and integrity in almost each state, and the lack of mutual trust among its constituents. Of all the regions, South Asia happens to be rather well defined geographically, historically and thus geopolitically.

Its internal divisions, deep mistrust among its states and internal incoherence within its larger states have prevented the region from realizing its potential of economic progress, political influence and the cultural enrichment of its teeming millions. It is true that, ultimately, internal drives and passions would very largely shape its fortunes. But this unique juncture may make the external environment a crucially important factor. The external situation can clearly pose dangers as well as present attractive possibilities for forging useful new links with new central Asian entities for the common good.

Inter-state disputes

Well known internal divisions within South Asia need no emphasis. Briefest of mention should suffice and that, too, for showing what may prevent or facilitate the exploitation of new possibilities. Grave trouble spots lie among the long Indo-Pakistan borders, extending into Kashmir’s Line of Control (LOC). Two large armies, both fairly well equipped, face each other menacingly. The old Kashmir dispute, that had spawned three wars, has, after 18 years of relative quiet, again exploded into a new crisis. A clash between the two armies is being postponed almost daily, through mainly American good offices. Indeed, the Kashmir dispute has given birth, over the years, to several sub-disputes: the Siachin glacier, that has become the world’s highest battlefield (between 14 000 and 21 000 feet above sea level) and Simli, Sallal, and, not least, the Indian Punjab.

Between India and Pakistan is not restricted to specific disputed territories like Kashmir. Internal polarizations in each country also have a tendency to involve the other, a tendency also found in other regional states. Thus Indian Punjab’s Hindu—Sikh polarity has graduated into an Indo-Pakistan quarrel, with India alleging that Pakistan is aiding and abetting the Sikh militants just as it is alleged to be extending moral and material support to the Kashmiri insurgents across the LOC.

Pakistan too has its own quota of internal polarizations, mainly in Sindh. Pakistan attributes both the confrontation between Urdu- and Sindhi-speaking Sindhis and disaffection among Sindhis, at least in part, to Indian encouragement and interference. In both countries domestic political troubles tend to spill over and add to the unresolved agenda between them.

The region’s geography and demography, most inter-state disputes take the shape of a series of bilateral disagreements with India. Also, the phenomenon of internal polarizations graduating into international disputes is not confined to Pakistan and India. The ethnic divide in Sri Lanka has long had an Indian dimension. The story of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan agreement, leading to a rather unsuccessful campaign by Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) for suppressing the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, is well known. Indeed it is a complex ongoing story, although both governments are straining hard to prevent the LTTE’s war against Colombo being once again written into the bilateral agenda. The issue is nevertheless explosive, both in its domestic and international dimensions, in both countries. Recent events in Tamil Nadu, beginning with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and changes in the electoral fortunes of several Tamil Nadu parties among them, illustrate the point.

Bangladesh has fewer internal issues likely to figure on the bilateral agenda with India, except the hardy perennial of the Hindu—Muslim divide, common to all states in the Indo-Gangetic—Brahmputra valleys and more recently the influx of Chakma refugees to India. There are territorial disputes between Bangladesh and India, if also smaller in size: the disputes centre on a small piece of territory in the Berubari Union, a tiny new island thrown up by physical changes and the delimitation of economic zones in the Bay of Bengal.

Fortunately these disputes have been treated by both governments with restraint and no great mistrust has sprung up over them so far. At least one of them, the Berubari Union, is reported to be on its way to being finally resolved to Bangladesh’s satisfaction. But dividing the waters of the River Ganges between India and Bangladesh, following the comple-tion of Farrakha barrage, remains disputed.

There are several issues pertaining to international rivers where a regional approach would be invaluable. Nepal and Bangladesh have agreed to the scientific principle of developing all eastern rivers as systems for the common benefit of the peoples of the entire valleys in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

India has balked. There was a time when some of us, this writer included, favoured a whole region-wide river training programme, such as was implied in an offer of technical and economic aid by the US President John Kennedy in the 1960s. But both India and Pakistan were then lukewarm about the idea, and, perhaps not surprisingly, nobody had tried to understand the potentialities of what could be achieved.

Bilateral issues and demographic compulsions within each state, insofar as Indo-Bhutan and Indo-Nepal relations are concerned, criss-cross. It is a pattern that obtains throughout the region. In theory this could be turned to advantage by adopting a regional approach. The fact, however, is that a felt regional identity is strangely conspicuous by its weakness. Perhaps the passion aroused by recent history still clouds vision: most peripheral areas of historical India worked loose from the centre. Inheritors of the centre are wary of those who broke away and fear their ganging up against themselves—an unhappy possibility implied in a regional approach. Hence India’s preferred bilateral methodology seems to emphasize divisions rather than unities.

For the rest, old India’s frontiers have moved in all directions. What is directly relevant is the interplay of two forces: a series of felt internal disunities among ethnic identities in each successor state of the British Indian Empire are getting mixed up in intra-regional disputes.

This threatens both (inherited) modern state structures as well as regional harmony. Ensuring stable regional peace requires much hard work to resolve these polarities. The other element is the intellectual appreciation of the benefits of the regional amity and cooperation. The example of the EC has inspired so many regional cooperation experiments. But SAARC in South Asia remains a stunted growth, inhibited by strong emotions.

South Asian trends

The changes in the USSR, especially in its Asian republics, are tantamount to a veritable earthquake. Successor states in central Asia are likely to do two things—re-establish cultural, political and economic links with South Asian states, as well as with others in the Southern rim of Asia. Second, they would reorient their economies as autonomous units, diversifying their sources of capital, technology and raw material as well as markets. These economies’ demand and supply alike will be huge. As circumstances are now, few South Asian economies can offer substantial partnership to them.

The only notable surplus in South Asia is manpower, mostly unskilled and illiterate, which is unlikely to be needed. No doubt, India has certain capabilities for providing capital and machinery to new central Asian states. But the level of technology offered by India in terms of both cost and quality is unlikely to have an edge over what the major industrial countries can offer. Second, the new states may need longer-term loans and credits that may virtually exclude South Asians as possibly large trading partners.

Pakistan may also have some capability to provide a few of the needs of those states. But its export surpluses are puny and mostly earmarked for dollar-earning markets. Its capability, in contrast with major industrial powers, to be a substantial trading partner of the new states is much smaller than even India’s. As markets for the new states, the capability of South Asian states is quite as small due largely to:

(a) the poverty of the masses throughout South Asia; and (b) most of their markets being already dominated, if not cornered, by big industrial powers. Nevertheless, there is likely to be much talk about new possibilities of economic cooperation and trade, inspired by memories of ancient trade links between central Asia and parts of South Asia.

The immediate future is likely to see a political and cultural opening out of the central Asian states. They will naturally seek to forge links with South Asian states, especially with those that are in the extended South Asia, ie Iran and Afghanistan. Cultural and political rhetoric of emphasizing the new links is sure to run smack into hard economic facts. Central Asia’s more substantial economic links are sure to be with leading western powers—Japan, the EC, the USA, and other European powers. The four Asian tigers, Australia and some of the ASEAN states would also offer competition and the outcome could be mixed, unless strong political action by a great power pre-empts economic forces.

This juxtaposition of two separate tendencies may produce anomalies and frustra-tions. A varying amount of competition among major industrial powers to secure a favourable position in these new states, if not to corner their markets or raw material, would pose new political problems—both for the central Asians and South Asians. International relations in Asia may not run a smooth course, since no one knows what political passions will dominate the new emerging powers in central Asia.

It seems likely that their current ethnic prejudices and emotions based on race, religion, sect, language and nationality would, in fact, define their politics: they would naturally want their own armies and air forces the better to assert their separate identities and conduct their own rivalries, if not wars. That would offer plums on a platter to established arms manufacturers, and roller coaster politics in the region will ensue. It will inevitably exert rather nasty pulls and pressures on South Asia—a region comprising states that are internally strife-torn and unhap-pily at sixes and sevens among themselves. Things may only get worse in the region. Indeed, even the harmony within the western powers, so far maintained by G7, CSCE, OECD, EC, GATT, IMF etc, may quickly get eroded. None of it bodes well for South Asia.

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