Asghar Ali Engineer
Secular Perspective December 16-31, 2001
(Note: The unfortunate attack on Parliament by some Jihadis has brought about further deterioration in Indo-Pak relations. But this article is only a future vision and also one of the ways to create better people-to-people relations in South Asia. The validity of the idea of confederation as a future vision is not marred by the condemnable act of attack on Indian Parliament by the extremists.)
Many people talk about confederation of South Asian nations. The noted Indian politician Ram Manohar Lohia advocated it and constantly propagated the idea. He was of the opinion that the confederation can also help solve the communal problem. However, it is true that this idea has been so far mooted by mainly Indians; no known politician from other South Asian nations like Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka or Nepal has propounded it. It is possible that these nations are suspicious of India’s big brother attitude.
In the World Assembly organised by The Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World the idea was once again discussed by the participants in the South Asia section. The delegates from India, Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Nepal and Sri Lanka were present. Though one delegate from Nepal referred to the ‘big brotherly attitude of India, all others endorsed the idea of confederation of South Asia.
However, all the participants felt that there is no question of working for confederation immediately. The participants are neither representatives of these countries nor did they have any authority to talk about it. They were just exploring the possibility. Also, the idea of confederation was more of a future vision than immediate possibility. One has to work for long and create confidence among all South Asian nations to make this vision a possibility. In other words confidence-building measures can play an important role. A task force of some participants was also set up to work in this direction.
It is obvious that in present conditions such an idea appears to be utopian. There are sharp contradictions, conflicts and mutual suspicions. But at times utopia can also turn into reality if one works with patience, perseverance and devotion. The example of Europe is before us and was repeatedly cited by many participants. European nations also had sharp mutual conflict and were at each other’s throat not so long ago. Millions of lives were lost in the two world wars. Who ever thought until Second World War that European union will materialise in five decades.
It is true India and Pakistan have fought three wars so far and these two nations are always at logger heads with each other and in present conditions looks near impossible that they can come together in a confederal structure. Both the nations have even developed highly destructive nuclear weapons and it appears that South Asia is the flash point of the world today. India exploded nuclear device first in 1999 to outsmart Pakistan and Pakistan lost no time to explode its own nuclear device not to be outdone by India. So far all efforts to bring the two nations including the Lahore and Agra summits have not yielded results. Lahore summit was followed by Kargil war and Agra summit resulted in no agreement between the two. A cynic, therefore, can apparently maintain that a confederation is not a distinct possibility.
However, even European Union did not come into being in one go. It was preceded by several other measures including a European common market. And though Saarc has no glorious record to be proud of so far, it is an attempt in that direction. No doubt after Kargil war between India and Pakistan Saarc was almost dead it is being revived once again and Saarc meeting is going to take place in Kathmandu in early January 2002. Saarc itself is an important step in the direction of the confederation of south Asia, if one is optimistic and strives to create a proper climate of opinion.
Thus it was also decided that the delegates present in the conference should work to create proper climate of opinion in their respective countries, set up committees and hold wider consultations in their region. It is a complex democratic process, which needs to be speeded up. Among confidence building measures it is highly necessary to relax the present visa regime. Thousands of families are divided across the two countries and they visit India or Pakistan, not merely for tourism, or for political ends but to visit their separated relatives.
It has no meaning to assume that they will spy for each other. Such an assumption is even absurd. The spies do their work anyway despite strict visa regime. It is also absurd that visitors have to specify the cities to be visited and also report to the police. In no other country such a requirement exists. The first step for CBM will be to abolish such strict visa regime and relax it. To begin with specification for number of cities should be abolished right away and, if possible, visa should be issued on arrival, not only at the border as announced by India but also at airports. Slowly the visa regime should be completely abolished as between Nepal and India. The Nepal-India model should be imitated by all south Asian nations.
In fact there is more problem between India and Pakistan than between other South Asian nations though even these nations are not entirely free from mutual suspicion. However, relations between other South Asian nations are not as grave as between India and Pakistan. It is more on account of partition and two-nation theory on one hand, and problem of Kashmir, on the other. In fact it is Kashmir problem which is major obstacle rather than two-nation theory.
But it is closer ties and confidence building measures, which will help solve the problem of Kashmir also. It is not proper to maintain that without solving the Kashmir problem no other problems between the two countries can ever be solved. In fact it is otherwise. Closer we come through trade and other measures, easier it will be to resolve Kashmir issue. What we need is sincerity, commitment to solve problems and bold initiatives. It is not the peoples of India and Pakistan who pose problem but powerful vested interests, mainly political.
It must be remembered that basically India got divided not on account of religion but because of mutual suspicions and antagonism created by lack of confidence in each other. Partition could have been averted if the leaders from both sides had shown sagacity. Anyway it is history. History should not mar our future. There is no doubt that future lies in greater mutual co-operation and some kind of confederation, if possible.
As far as India and Pakistan are concerned it is not only that nature of problem is formidable; there is also other human perspective. There are divided families on both sides. One has to bring to bear compassion to reunite these families. Muhajirs who were mainly instrumental in creating Pakistan are facing the worst plight today. They are on the receiving end from both sides of the border. They long to meet their relatives in India and find it difficult to visit them on account of strict visa regime, they are finding themselves rootless culturally and socially in Pakistan. Muhajirs have to fight for their very survival in Pakistan today.
They not only long to visit India repeatedly but also want some measures which can undo estrangement between India and Pakistan. Many friends from India hugged me warmly on my visit to Pakistan and pleaded with me to launch a movement for a confederation between the two countries. Thus human angle is as important as other political and economic angles.
All south Asian nations are quite poor and are battling with the problems of poverty, illiteracy, health and unemployment. And, at the same time, they are spending astronomical sums on maintaining large armies and are buying weapons worth billions of dollars. Had these sums of money been spent on eradication of poverty and illiteracy in last fifty years both nations would have immensely benefited. It is quite possible there would have been no such levels of poverty and illiteracy in South Asia.
Moreover it is not only the question between India and Pakistan. The ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalas in addition to claiming more than 65 thousand lives in Sri Lanka has involved huge expenditure on army. A country like Sri Lanka can ill affords such avoidable expenditure. The Tamil civilians are also paying very high price not only in terms of money but also in terms of human life. Tamils are also divided between India and Sri Lanka as sub-continental Muslims have been divided between three countries, India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh.
We would like to clarify one thing here. Sub-continental confederation, if at all it materialises in future (near or distant) it would not mean giving up sovereignty of these nations and it would have nothing to do with the Hindutva ideology of Akhand Bharat with hegemony of any religion or culture. In fact such an ideology was the root cause of trouble and was contributory in bringing about partition of sub-continent. Respect for South Asian cultural, religious and linguistic pluralism is the only way out without allowing any religion, culture or language to hegemonise over others.
Series of measures like strengthening religious harmony, promoting closer trade relationship, internal democracy, writing proper text books (kind of text books being taught in India and Pakistan are, to say the least, highly divisive and have been written with political agenda in mind rather than teaching history as a discipline) and establishing liberal visa regime with a long term goal of abolishing it would go a long way to promote right atmosphere for ultimate goal of confederation in South Asia or United Nations of South Asia.
Yes, it is a vision but future of humanity is based on such visions. Nations in 21st century should not establish rigid boundaries but only togetherness of shared culture and history. Widespread immigration to other countries for better living is already delivering a blow to the old concept of nation. Nations in cultural and linguistic sense are now dispersed in several countries rather than confined to narrow geographical boundary. Let South Asia lead the world in this respect.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism,
of Islamic Studies,
9B, Himalya Apts,
1st Floor, 6th Rd,
Santacruz (E), Mumbai:- 400 055.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism,
Irene Cottage, Second Floor,
4th Road, Santacruz (E),
Mumbai:- 400 055, Ph:- 91-22-6149668, 6153489.
to IIS and CSSS Home Page
Return to ARCC/Vatican2
Return to GDI
Return to Catholicism in Renewal
Return to Religions-in-Renewal
Return to Ecumene
Webpage Editor: Ingrid H. Shafer,Ph.D.
e-mail address: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted 6 February 2002
Last revised 6 February 2002
Web-edition copyright © 1999-2001 Ingrid H. Shafer