Former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh has rightly pointed out that the changing world order makes Asian unity a fundamental building block for India’s international relations today. His proposition that a new wave of enthusiastic infrastructure-building should allow Asian states to use its geography for common good is indeed laudable. Much encouraging for Nepal is his affirmation that Asian superpowers have begun to invest heavily in the economics and politics of megastructure such as cross-border bridges, subcontinental pipelines and transport routes. However, what one cannot help but miss in this discourse of regional connectivity is a ‘humanising’ touch.
By humanising, I am not necessarily hinting at the concerns of developmental equality and sentimentality which this term has long been attributed to, although these concerns cannot be excluded in any discourse of connectivity. What I specifically mean by ‘humanising’ is the basic and central tenet that physical infrastructure (and the institutions that regulate these) may function meaningfully only through concerned human beings’ insertion as citizens and stakeholders. To stretch this tenet further, one may even propose that a meaningful idea of Southasian regionalism needs to begin by stirring popular imaginations before being dressed in the diplomatic agenda of political leaders.
PHOTO: PROJECT SYNDICATE
Sunil Khilnani, author of the celebrated book The Idea of India laments that South Asia is stuck with a name coined during the early years of the Cold War by the US State Department. It is regrettably a flat word that lacks a certain poetry of, say, ‘Europe’ or ‘Africa’ or ‘the Caribbean.’ Even if one is to set aside this imperialist baggage, the expression ‘South Asia’ represents dry political correctness of the West than the passion shared by so many people who till the soils of this region. How can it be that a region gifted with so many invocations and imaginations of common origin and common being cannot come up with anything but a bureaucratic idiom to identify itself?
Regrettably again, what bonded other nation states into unified regions seem to have sown seeds of divisive nationalism in South Asia. In Europe, it was initially the colonial stakes and later the fear of the Cold War which brought the nation states on board for regional integration. In Africa, the novels and poems written by Du Bois and Leopold Senghor stirred popular imaginations so much so that masses could be mobilised for a pan-African movement that resisted colonialism and called for an end to racial discrimination. In contrast, South Asia seemed to succumb to divisive and destructive nationalism just as the momentum grew for its anti-colonial movement. The genocidal partition of 1947 repeated itself in just under three decades, and the wounds are yet to heal in either side of these borders. Even in an era of globalization and cosmopolitization, and amid pretences of alternative modernism, ours unfortunately remains a region colder than Berlin of Cold War days.
Formalizing SAARC and constructing pipelines are encouraging baby steps towards South Asian integration, but a genuine effort towards regionalism must first acknowledge the elephant in the room, that the long and painful episodes of narrow nationalisms have frozen the regional sensibility among us. This is especially regrettable for a region that started out as a pioneer of regional thinking in Asia and in the world. Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore are probably among the few visionary leaders in Asia who had warned the Asians of the peril of being trapped into the Westphalian notions of nationalism. It is unfortunate that they are not with us today; but what is truly tragic is that we have not made much out of their legendary legacies.
Rabindranath Tagore’s winning of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 was celebrated as a pan-Asian achievement, including in Japan which was in the throes of what Ashish Nandy calls a delirious version of nationalism. Delivering a lecture among the cheering crowds in Japan, Tagore repeated what he had consistently said in his writings, that “...(the danger for the Asian states lay) not (in) the imitation of the outer features of the West, but acceptance of the motive force of the Western nationalism as her own.” Japanese media and intellectual community— at that time basking in their newfound imperial glory of victory over Russia and hegemonic powers of Korea—dismissed Tagore’s indictment of narrow nationalism as ramblings of a poet from a ‘defeated civilization.’ The Japanese disowning was so grave that the cheering crowds of thousands left the poet’s company within days, and only one person came to see Tagore off when he was leaving Japan—his host.
Disrespectfully enough for our visionaries, decolonization saw South Asia slide down the slippery slopes of exclusionist nationalism. India succumbed to partition blues on the very eve of its independence. For all the pains Gandhi inflicted upon himself by fasting to death and by exposing himself to the blows from both warring parties, it yielded little in terms of regional goodwill. It is ironic that Gandhi is posthumously referred to as the ‘father of the Indian nation.’ It was not Gandhi but Nehru who had wanted Independence at the cost of Partition. CK Lal puts it aptly that “Indians have done a great disservice to the Mahatma by appropriating his legacy for a truncated Bharat that is India.”
The pangs Gandhi probably felt but could not express about the partition blues and exclusionist nationalism might have been echoed in the work of another great South Asian intellectual—Faiz Ahmed Faiz. A passionate communist who stirred the masses for an anti-colonial and anti-feudal uprising in the 1930s saw his fiery words turn to laments of disillusionment by 1947. He wrote about the Dawn of Freedom,
‘... this is not the dawn we set out for,
Hoping that somewhere in the wildness of the sky
There must be the final destination of stars.’
Indeed, what Faiz wrote about his own personal agony of being uprooted from both India and Bangladesh continues to haunt South Asia—that its states and people remain strangers to each other despite having shared lives and deaths for so long and so dearly. What may thaw the frozen sentiments in the region is a genuine dialogue that surpasses the diplomacies of power and profit talks.
The walls of distrust and disillusionment are so high that any occasional words and assurances of politicians fall too short. As welcome as Jaswant Singh’s recent speech on infrastructure-building may be, it also gives the déjà vu of the United Nations of the 1940s which called on the New States to penetrate their way out of the dark colonial legacies by building dams, paving roads and churning factories. More than half a century later, many have come to acknowledge that change can come only from a meaningful fusion of action and imagination.
Many will be enthusiastic about the changing equations of global power hierarchy which offers Asia a genuine opportunity to make a lasting difference. Even then, a genuine call for regional solidarity is going to need much more than a bureaucratic summoning or a hawkish power talk. It needs to fill in the vacuum of identity for South Asia, and it certainly needs to want to tackle the issue of militant nationalism raising its head almost everywhere.
The author is Assistant Professor of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi