Sunday, June 16, 2024

A long view of the South Asian drama

‘India had endured because of its enormous capacity to absorb, internalise, modify and transform, and yet retain its personality’

‘India had endured because of its enormous capacity to absorb, internalise, modify and transform, and yet retain its personality’
| Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Uncertainty, a defining characteristic of South Asian politics, looks set to increase. Beset by a multitude of political, economic and security crises, Pakistan seems to be undergoing an implosion. With successive elections throwing up a hung parliament, prospects of political stability in Nepal remain bleak. Ahead of elections in Bangladesh, an enfeebled Opposition is attempting to revert to agitation. In the tiny Maldives, a presidential contest that could tilt the balance between democracy and authoritarianism is in the offing while Sri Lanka slowly recovers from an unprecedented economic meltdown. The run-up to the 18th Lok Sabha election in India next summer will, of course, be keenly watched. Immediate preoccupations apart, can a long view offer any lessons? A paper written by that clear-eyed doyen of India’s strategic affairs community, K. Subrahmanyam, is instructive. Titled “India’s Relations with her Neighbours”, it was presented at a seminar and published by Strategic Analysis, the flagship journal of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), in March 1987.

Unique Indian values

Situating India’s relations with its neighbours squarely within the framework of the country’s foundational values, Subrahmanyam began by observing that the South Asian region constituted an integrated civilisational area bound together by shared religions, languages, cultural traditions and blood ties and, in respect of the three largest countries — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — shared historical memories as well. Yet, the values underlying the Indian state stood out in contrast to those espoused by several of its neighbours.

These values — secularism, democracy, federalism and linguistic autonomy — were not matters of choice for India. They were compulsions, if Indian unity and integrity were to be preserved. India pursued these values because they were not just imported western values but because they were absorbed and internalised during India’s century-long freedom struggle. Democracy was no more an import than Islam or Christianity in India which had a long tradition of keeping its doors and windows open and absorbing influences from outside.

India had endured because of its enormous capacity to absorb, internalise, modify and transform, and yet retain its personality. In the 19th century, as democratic values emerged in western Europe, they were accepted on an eclectic basis in India. Hence, local government, free press, trade union rights, liberal democratic multiparty competitive politics, adult suffrage, secular outlook and acceptance of the state as a vehicle of development became planks in the freedom struggle. The representational system of government in India was the envy of most of the developing world as was the totally apolitical functioning of the Indian armed forces and the critical role of the Indian press.

India as a unity

Some of India’s neighbours, supported by sections of western scholarship, questioned the very concept of Indian integrity and unity. According to them, India was never united before the British brought the whole country under a single administrative structure. What was overlooked by these sceptics was that three or four centuries ago, there were no nation states anywhere in the world; only tribes, principalities, duchies, kingdoms and empires. However, even at that stage in the world outside India, there was widespread recognition of India and Hindustan as a unity in terms of culture, civilization and even administrative structure. The British Queen, Elizabeth I, granted a charter to the East India Company. The westerners named the ocean around India as the Indian Ocean. Be it the entity ‘Aah Sethu Himachalam’ (Kanyakumari to Himalayas) in the people’s mind, the concept of Sarva Bhauma (Lord of the Earth) who had performed Aswamedha, the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Ashokan edicts or the mutts of Adi Sankara, the concept of India as a cultural, civilisational unity differentiated from its surroundings was several millennia old and formed the basis of our nationhood. Very few present-day nation states in the world could claim such a solid and enduring basis for their nationhood.

It is such shared historical memories that bind a people together as a nation, not language and not religion. The unity and integrity of a nation have to be based on a social contract among the people to be formulated and sustained through representative structures. Nationhood by itself is a secular political concept which has to be based on territoriality and a vision of society proposed to be built. Harking back to social mores and societal values obtaining several centuries ago and confusing them with the eternal verities of religion cannot form a firm basis for modern nation states.

This is not a problem only for Pakistan and Bangladesh. Within India too we face this problem of conflict between those who would like to build social, political and economic structures and processes on the basis of continually evolving knowledge and those who would like to freeze such evolution, arguing that societal structures and processes should be based on traditions, scriptures and belief systems formulated centuries ago. It is essentially a struggle between integration towards a universalised and internationalist society or one-world concept and fragmentation based on one group’s differences with the rest arising out of an innate fear of and inability to cope with the world at large.

Keys to coexistence

From the above flowed the ultimate keys to peaceful coexistence in the subcontinent. India should grow in economic and technological terms and, as it does, its neighbours will adjust themselves to the Indian reality and stop thinking in terms of invoking China and other extra-regional powers as countervailing factors. This will be a long-term process. India should develop its military power in order to shield itself from the turbulence around it and be ready to respond to the pressures of this age of coercive diplomacy. India’s diplomacy — as distinct from its aid programmes, trade and people-to-people interaction — should place less emphasis on its South Asian neighbours and focus more on its relations with China, the U.S.S.R (now Russia), the United States, the industrialised world, South East Asia, West Asia and Africa. India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan, want it to play a very low key role in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. India should do exactly that and exercise extreme patience till such time as its neighbours realise how much it can help them in their nation-building and development. Reciprocity is a basic requirement for cooperation on issues such as river waters and the use of natural resources, but once the principle of reciprocity is accepted, India should go the extra mile and be generous.

Comment | A G20 presidency to amplify South Asia’s voice

Written at a time when the world was a different place, Subrahmanyam’s words are both reassuring and cautionary. Amidst the polarised discourse of our times, they are more relevant than ever. Above all, they underscore the inextricable linkage between the foundational values underpinning Indian nationhood and the great power status that India legitimately aspires for.

Ramanathan Kumar was Special Secretary in the Research & Analysis Wing. The views expressed are personal

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