Challenges and opportunities for South Asia

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  • Contemporary South Asia (1992), 1(1), 143-146

    Commentary

    Challenges and opportunities forSouth AsiaM. B. NAQVI

    The destruction of both communism and the Soviet state in what was the USSRhas profoundly changed the geopolitical environment of South Asia. It is a seachange. 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 15republican capitals will be the new power centreson the assumption that newcoup(s) would not re-establish an old-style-dictatorial regime over what was theUSSR. Interaction between the erstwhile Soviet Asian republics and the states ofSouth Asia (and others in Southern Asia) poses both new challenges and offersopportunities for South Asia.

    South Asia, almost coterminous with historical India, continues to have manyunhappy distinctions: mass poverty with its attendant evils of ignorance, ill healthand technological backwardness, territorial disputes among the major states of Indiaand Pakistan, internal polarizations that threaten peace and integrity in almost eachstate, and the lack of mutual trust among its constituents. Of all the regions, SouthAsia happens to be rather well defined geographically, historically and thusgeopolitically. Its internal divisions, deep mistrust among its states and internalincoherence within its larger states have prevented the region from realizing itspotential of economic progress, political influence and the cultural enrichment ofits teeming millions. It is true that, ultimately, internal drives and passions wouldvery largely shape its fortunes. But this unique juncture may make the externalenvironment a crucially important factor. The external situation can clearly posedangers as well as present attractive possibilities for forging useful new links withnew central Asian entities for the common good.

    Inter-state disputes

    Well known internal divisions within South Asia need no emphasis. Briefest ofmention should suffice and that, too, for showing what may prevent or facilitatethe exploitation of new possibilities. Grave trouble spots lie among the long Indo-Pakistan borders, extending into Kashmir's Line of Control (LOC). Two largearmies, both fairly well equipped, face each other menacingly. The old Kashmir

    M. B. Naqvi, B-116, Block 'I', North Nizimabad, Karachi 74700, Pakistan.

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    dispute, that had spawned three wars, has, after 18 years of relative quiet, againexploded into a new crisis. A clash between the two armies is being postponedalmost daily, through mainly American good offices. Indeed, the Kashmir disputehas given birth, over the years, to several sub-disputes: the Siachin glacier, thathas become the world's highest battlefield (between 14 000 and 21 000 feet abovesea level) and Simli, Sallal, and, not least, the Indian Punjab.

    Ill-will between India and Pakistan is not restricted to specific disputed territorieslike Kashmir. Internal polarizations in each country also have a tendency to involvethe other, a tendency also found in other regional states. Thus Indian Punjab'sHinduSikh polarity has graduated into an Indo-Pakistan quarrel, with Indiaalleging that Pakistan is aiding and abetting the Sikh militants just as it is allegedto be extending moral and material support to the Kashmiri insurgents across theLOC. Pakistan too has its own quota of internal polarizations, mainly in Sindh.Pakistan attributes both the confrontation between Urdu- and Sindhi-speakingSindhis and disaffection among Sindhis, at least in part, to Indian encouragementand interference. In both countries domestic political troubles tend to spill overand add to the unresolved agenda between them.

    Thanks to the region's geography and demography, most inter-state disputestake the shape of a series of bilateral disagreements with India. Also, thephenomenon of internal polarizations graduating into international disputes is notconfined to Pakistan and India. The ethnic divide in Sri Lanka has long had anIndian dimension. The story of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan agreement, leading toa rather unsuccessful campaign by Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) forsuppressing the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, is well known. Indeed it is a complexongoing story, although both governments are straining hard to prevent the LTTE'swar against Colombo being once again written into the bilateral agenda. The issueis nevertheless explosive, both in its domestic and international dimensions, inboth countries. Recent events in Tamil Nadu, beginning with the assassinationof Rajiv Gandhi and changes in the electoral fortunes of several Tamil Nadu partiesamong them, illustrate the point.

    Bangladesh has fewer internal issues likely to figure on the bilateral agenda withIndia, except the hardy perennial of the HinduMuslim divide, common to allstates in the Indo-GangeticBrahmputra valleys and more recently the influx ofChakma refugees to India. There are territorial disputes between Bangladesh andIndia, if also smaller in size: the disputes centre on a small piece of territory inthe Berubari Union, a tiny new island thrown up by physical changes and thedelimitation of economic zones in the Bay of Bengal. Fortunately these disputeshave been treated by both governments with restraint and no great mistrust hassprung up over them so far. At least one of them, the Berubari Union, is reportedto be on its way to being finally resolved to Bangladesh's satisfaction. But dividingthe waters of the River Ganges between India and Bangladesh, following the comple-tion of Farrakha barrage, remains disputed.

    As B. G. Verghese has shown, there are several issues pertaining to internationalrivers where a regional approach would be invaluable. Nepal and Bangladesh haveagreed to the scientific principle of developing all eastern rivers as systems for

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  • CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR SOUTH ASIA

    the common benefit of the peoples of the entire valleys in India, Nepal, Bangladeshand Bhutan. Here India has balked. There was a time when some of us, this writerincluded, favoured a whole region-wide river training programme, such as wasimplied in an offer of technical and economic aid by the US President John Kennedyin the 1960s. But both India and Pakistan were then lukewarm about the idea,and, perhaps not surprisingly, nobody had tried to understand the potentialitiesof 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 thatobtains throughout the region. In theory this could be turned to advantage byadopting a regional approach. The fact, however, is that a felt regional identityis strangely conspicuous by its weakness. Perhaps the passion aroused by recenthistory still clouds vision: most peripheral areas of historical India worked loosefrom the centre. Inheritors of the centre are wary of those who broke away andfear their ganging up against themselvesan unhappy possibility implied in aregional approach. Hence India's preferred bilateral methodology seems toemphasize divisions rather than unities.

    For the rest, old India's frontiers have moved in all directions. What is directlyrelevant is the interplay of two forces: a series of felt internal disunities amongethnic identities in each successor state of the British Indian Empire are gettingmixed up in intra-regional disputes. This threatens both (inherited) modern statestructures as well as regional harmony. Ensuring stable regional peace requiresmuch hard work to resolve these polarities. The other element is the intellectualappreciation of the benefits of the regional amity and cooperation. The exampleof the EC has inspired so many regional cooperation experiments. But SAARCin 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 averitable earthquake. Successor states in central Asia are likely to do two thingsre-establish cultural, political and economic links with South Asian states, as wellas with others in the Southern rim of Asia. Second, they would reorient theireconomies as autonomous units, diversifying their sources of capital, technologyand raw material as well as markets. These economies' demand and supply alikewill be huge. As circumstances are now, few South Asian economies can offersubstantial partnership to them. The only notable surplus in South Asia is manpower,mostly unskilled and illiterate, which is unlikely to be needed. No doubt, Indiahas certain capabilities for providing capital and machinery to new central Asianstates. But the level of technology offered by India in terms of both cost and qualityis 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 virtuallyexclude South Asians as possibly large trading partners. Pakistan may also havesome capability to provide a few of the needs of those states. But its export surplusesare puny and mostly earmarked for dollar-earning markets. Its capability, in contrast

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    with major industrial powers, to be a substantial trading partner of the new statesis much smaller than even India's. As markets for the new states, the capabilityof South Asian states is quite as small due largely to: (a) the poverty of the massesthroughout South Asia; and (b) most of their markets being already dominated,if not cornered, by big industrial powers. Nevertheless, there is likely to be muchtalk about new possibilities of economic cooperation and trade, inspired by memoriesof ancient trade links between central Asia and parts of South As

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