The tragedy of our times is that the South Asian region has the cultural resources to live with diversity. This has, in fact, been its millennial tradition. Despite these cultural resources, the region is mired in majority-minority conflicts that can be debilitating.
I had the good fortune of travelling to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal in August-September 2022. The visit involved research on the state of India’s democracy. I also enquired about the democratic condition in the other three countries based on a series of lectures and interactions in Colombo, Kandy, Dhaka and Kathmandu. South Asia does feel like a region with strong social ties. India should promote connectivity and facilitate social, economic and political cooperation in a meaningful way. This will reinforce regionalism and ensure India’s legitimate presence in the region.
Reinforcing such ties would redeem the notion of a region with a civilizational basis. It was, after all, the Indian president Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan who advised the German government to establish a South Asia Institute (SAI) rather than an Indo-Asia Institute at Heidelberg University, as was being proposed at that time. The great scholar philosopher of the Indian tradition had opined that restricting the institute exclusively to India would render an incomplete understanding of the region. The SAI is grateful and this advice was heeded. The institute’s linguistic and social science understanding benefits from a serious regional bent.
My trip to South Asia reinforced this understanding in a myriad of ways. First and foremost, South Asians must realize that they can feel at home in South Asia. Tamil and Sinhala cultures of Sri Lanka are certainly different from the traditions prevailing in Bangladesh and Nepal. Barriers posed by South Asian states go against the grain of a region where persons have connected and traded with each other and preserved their diversity at the same time.
I was born in Patna to Bengali parents, grew up in Delhi and Kolkata, and have conducted research on Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Given the diversity that India affords, it was easy for me to feel at home in all these countries. I was touched by the warmth and concern with which I was treated. Media expert and government adviser Sugeeswara Senadhira and scholars such as Professor Chitralekha Maunaguru, her husband Professor Maunaguru, Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva and Dr Ramesh Ramasamy took every care to make me feel at home in Colombo and Kandy.
In Dhaka, Professor Harun-or-Rashid, former Vice Chancellor of the National University of Bangladesh invited my son Ayon and me to his house and treated us with intellectual, social and culinary delights that only a very dear friend will lavish. Dr Pramod Jaiswal of the Nepal Institute of International Cooperation and Engagement and Heidelberg University’s South Asia Institute office in Kathmandu headed by Frederik Link organized a well-publicized lecture followed by a stimulating discussion on democracy in Nepal.
India's influence on neighbours
Based on my South Asian sojourns, it surprises me that our states think so differently from our societies. Language and religion are barriers that reduce us not only regionally but also within our countries. Pakistan has a very tiny Hindu minority but is still struggling with its Baloch population. Bangladesh’s Hindu population is dwindling and ethnic conflicts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and with the Rohingyas ensue. The Tamils and the Sinhalas of Sri Lanka seem convinced that their differences are inexorable. And, the Madheshi citizens of Nepal feel discriminated against by the upper caste hill elite. These countries, even with limited diversity, seem to be consumed by domestic ethnic feuds.
South Asians have admired India’s capacity to live with diversity, despite all the complaints regarding their large and influential neighbour. That admiration is turning into consternation. The country that played a substantial role in helping Bengalis of East Pakistan redeem their cultural identity has now turned against its own minority Muslim population. It is well known that instruments such as the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act are used strategically to curb social forces that fight for minority rights in India.
India’s majoritarianism poses a challenge to governance in Muslim-majority states such as Bangladesh. Bangladesh, even with syncretic traditions enjoyed by the Muslim majority, has gradually pushed the Hindu population out to India. As Hindus exit and Muslims become a larger majority, it becomes more challenging to protect the long tradition of living with diversity. Furthermore, if India treats its Muslims differently from the Hindu population, protecting Bangladesh’s secular tradition becomes an even more daunting prospect.
The Awami League Party is the best bet for Bangladesh’s secularism but that may not be adequate when its ideology seems to be on the decline. Money and benefits in politics have transcended other considerations. The political opposition has been dealt a heavy blow at the very moment when a party with professed democratic credentials should have spurred democratic institutionalization.
Sri Lanka and Nepal
Sri Lankan scholars were surprised to discover that the many paths to India`s competitive authoritarianism were also pursued by the state in Sri Lanka. Competitive authoritarian regimes typically deploy electoral majorities to make it difficult for the opposition to rise. To give one example, the Aragalaya movement that engendered the demand for the exit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was being vehemently suppressed even after the current President Ranil Wickramasinghe had replaced Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka’s tryst at suppressing civil rights resembled India in many ways.
Nepal looked different from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. It may well be the freest civic space in South Asia. Civil society was free. Indian and Chinese domination posed a serious challenge here. And, a small country worried about being sandwiched between the two giant neighbours - India and China.
Democracy has assumed a peculiar form in Nepal. Democratic freedom in Nepal did not lend itself to the kind of governance found in the other three countries. Upper castes dominated politics. Corruption was rampant. The country lacked well-defined political parties, as every party ranging from the extreme left to the more moderate and conservative ones, ultimately wanted to be part of a ruling coalition. Nepal’s nascent tryst with democracy requires a different kind of approach to understanding the difference between formal representative and substantive democracy.
India’s democracy is significant for all South Asian countries. If India is unable to uphold secular values and live with diversity, then the value itself, which has deep roots in the region, may decline. Can one tell from Kazi Nazrul’s songs whether he was Hindu or Muslim? Or, for that matter from the writings of Kabir? Did not Sri Ramakrishna pursue spiritual practices in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam before proclaiming that the same spiritual realization was possible in every religion? And, did not Swami Vivekananda even argue for the need for religious diversity?
The tragedy of our times is that the South Asian region has the cultural resources to live with diversity. This has, in fact, been its millennial tradition. Despite these cultural resources, the region is mired in majority-minority conflicts that can be debilitating. Even India, the largest and most diverse country seems to be on this self-destructive path that could hardly augur well for the region. The country needs to redeem its millennial tradition if it is to uplift its own condition, consolidate the region, and once again earn that regard it earlier enjoyed in the comity of nations.
(The author is a Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Germany. Views are personal.)