South Asia needs to reclaim its cultural ethos, revive SAARC

Although BIMSTEC has been gaining momentum in the recent past, it cannot be an alternative to SAARC, as it involves all the players in the region, including Pakistan, writes Samudrala VK for South Asia Monitor

Samudrala VK Mar 10, 2020

South Asia, known for its resplendent diversity and magnetic camaraderie, is the cradle of important religions, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. Although the spiritual paths and practices of these religions follow a distinct set of rules, the basic tenets of this quartet pivots around compassion, amity, non-violence and tolerance. Widely seen as an economic bright spot, with its manifold market size and energetic young population, the region is on a forward march to realize its full-potential.

However, all is not well as numerous fault lines within the region stymie economic progress, peace and harmony; basic elements required for regional integration and development.

The rise of religious fundamentalism and conservatism amid the heightened global Right movement endangers the secular fabric and the rich heritage, which is the core ethos of South Asia. As a virulent strain of intolerance has been unfurling across the region, the time has come to act collectively and swiftly in order to ameliorate the cultural spirit, a legacy inherited from time immemorial. It is apparent that the new threat to these ideals and values is not from external drivers but from centrifugal forces within.

The majority-minority angle, a crucial component of vote bank politics, complemented with vested political interests and the personality cult of right-wing political figures, whose true faces are camouflaged under the banner of nationalism, have failed to cherish the diversity of the region as a whole. It is pertinent to mention that the empires and kingdoms in the Indian sub-continent were built not on the lines of religion but in accepting the plurality and unity of its people. Glorifying the ancient past, theorizing medieval wars through communal optics and the modern secular culture as a process, vitiating age old values, are the central facets of ultra-conservatism. The new wave of conservative nationalism, in addition to ethno-centrism and xenophobia, has been creating a suitable platform for ultra-nationalist groups to intensify their divisive agenda on a broader scale.

Food politics, renaming of cities, mob lynching and exclusion of minority groups solely on the basis of religion are just the tips of the iceberg, as the issue is deeply structural and deeply political in nature. As member countries in the region are entangled in bitter animosity, thanks to widespread misgivings and geo-political tussles, it becomes difficult to design any collective, regional action.

India, often perceived as the big brother in the region, has been hesitant to play an instrumental role in mobilizing different players across the region in countering all sorts of fundamentalism. With its sheer size and growing clout as a soft power, India has the ability to pilot the de-radicalization and secularization project in the region. But the Indian government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu-nationalist party, has stirred up a hornet's nest by amending the Citizenship Act of 1955, a step deemed as discriminatory and anti-secular in nature. This has resulted in considerable damage to the image of this South Asian giant. The apathy of the Central government towards nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) would be detrimental to its national interest and can create numerous fissures, not only within the country but also in the region.

The region has been embroiled in numerous issues, such as the Tamil question in Sri Lanka, Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the plight of Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, an upsurge of Islamic radicalism in the Maldives and recent instances of communal violence in India's capital city, to name a few. India, the largest democratic country in the world, believes in the concept of ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (the entire world is a family), mutual respect, non-aggression and co-existence. 

It is important to notice that these ideals and values form the core of its foreign policy outlook. It is widely perceived that New Delhi has been meddling in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries, the reason which provokes them to play the Chinese card. Dearth of trust, in addition to geopolitical disputes, is debilitating the robustness of the region. The efforts to integrate the economies and full-scale regional cooperation, using forums such as SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), are as slow as the proverbial tortoise. 

Home to about 1.9 billion people, the Indian sub-continent can play a significant role in reshaping Asia's future. The region has tremendous potential in terms of  economic opportunities and in creating new doorways for cooperation among the members. The key strengths of these nations can be harnessed in a most effective way, in matters of common interest, if they act as a group rather than separate entities.

India shares a strong cultural and historical bond with almost every nation in the region. This provides a better opportunity for India to enhance its relationship in areas such as education, skill development, cultural exchange, people to people contacts, science and technology and so forth, to gain the trust of these neighbours. China's debt-trap diplomacy has raised eyebrows throughout the region, which plays to New Delhi's advantage to reinforce its alliances with these countries.

India has been trying to bring players like the USA and Japan to counter the growing influence of China in South Asia, a region which India considers as its backyard, adding a whole new dimension to the power play. Rather than looking at it as a new theatre of geopolitical conflict, both India and China can collaborate in domains like regional connectivity and infrastructural development in the region.

Although BIMSTEC has been gaining momentum in the recent past, it cannot be an alternative to SAARC, as it involves all the players in the region, including Pakistan. It is quite apparent that the India-Pakistan factor, among other things, has derailed the spirit of SAARC. It is therefore, the need of the hour to reboot SAARC with whole new energy, according to current regional needs.

(The writer is a columnist on international affairs and trade)