The Name Game: Why Words are Not Enough
Zafar Sobhan makes his point on why the Southasian neighbourhood is now obsolete
SAARC, that infelicitous acronym, has many fathers. At least in Bangladesh. The conventional wisdom in Bangladesh is that Saarc was the brainchild of assassinated president Ziaur Rahman. However, Hossain Mohammad Ershad, another army strongman turned president, believes that the credit should go to him, on the rather seemingly slim grounds that Saarc was inaugurated during his tenure in office.
There are also others that consider Shah A.M.S. Kibria, the assassinated ex-finance minister of Bangladesh who was foreign secretary at the time the original concept note for Saarc was first prepared, to be those who consider him Saarc’s principal architect. And, last but not least, another ex-foreign secretary, who was Kibria's junior at the Foreign Office at the time, has confided to me that he was the one who had actually drafted the damn thing.
But why anyone would wish to claim paternity for such an unloved and unlovely step-child, however, is perhaps the more pertinent question.
This grouping of Southasian nations has signally failed to achieve what it set out to. Intra-regional trade remains a joke, the grouping has no common external policy on anything, no preferential treatment for group members, and no unity (see, e.g. Sri Lanka and Pakistan voting against the interests of its LDC brethren Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, and Nepal at the WTO) on international affairs.
There is no real reason for Saarc to be operating so poorly. There is remarkably little difference, as these things go, in per capita income and lifestyles among the countries. Disparities within each country dwarf those between the different countries.
But one can see how little the grouping has caught on in the popular imagination by how little it is used or recognized. Asean, by contrast, is used and readily understood as a collective noun, and has supplanted the less than accurate "East Asian" as an identifier, whereas Saarc has not yet supplanted "Southasian" as an identifier.
But what does it even mean to be "Southasian" in the year 2008?
As an identifier and touch-stone of identity, the nomenclature "Southasian" has always been suspect. The notion that Southasians had some kind of shared culture and history has never really been able to withstand close scrutiny.
One could, perhaps, argue that Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan have a shared history, though this is a claim that would start arguments in history departments the length and breadth of the region, but certainly no such claim can realistically be made for the other South Asian countries.
As for a shared culture -- India itself doesn't have a common culture, to say nothing of trying to find commonality between Maldives and Bhutan (and don't even get me started on Afghanistan).
But, then again, there is no reason to posit some kind of shared history or cultural affinity for the term to be applicable as a signifier.
After all, what is Europe? Culturally do the British have more in common with, say, Latvians, than with, say, Canadians? It would be absurd to suggest any such thing. People may talk about European sensibilities when it comes to matters such as human rights and the welfare state, but the truth is that the differences between European countries are as great as those between them and other countries. Even less intuitive is the divide between European contries that are members of the EU and those that are not.
The groupings, be it Europe or EU, are certainly not ones of either shared history or culture, but are ones of geographic contiguity, and with the EU, it is one of shared economic opportunity. That is all.
Let's forget about the mystical "bhai-bhai" stuff, the notion that we share something other than geographical proximity, and look at our Southasianness in pragmatic and unsentimental terms.
Frankly, I think we all wish that we were in a better neighbourhood. But we're not. One has to play the hand one is dealt, and this is ours. Human beings cannot choose their families and countries cannot choose their neighbours. Grouping ourselves together as Southasia or Saarc should be seen as nothing more than a pragmatic reflection of the unhappy reality we all find ourselves in.
That said, I am not sure if, moving into the future, even that much is true. After all, where one chooses to draw lines is open for discussion. From the Bangladeshi point of view, Myanmar and Thailand are closer than a number of Southasian countries with whom we are supposed to share greater affinity.
Pakistan and Afghanistan, on the western edge of Saarc (Q: Is Afghanistan even part of Southasia? Discuss), might, I suspect, feel the same way with respect to Iran and the Central Asian nations. Frankly, I can see that they have other options, too.
Let's call a spade a spade. The real reason that Saarc hasn't worked as any kind of a grouping (to say nothing of whether Southasian is a meaningful signifier) is the tension between India and Pakistan. Now, this tension has certainly waxed and waned over the years, but the default position between them is hostility, and you simply cannot sustain a meaningful bloc of any kind if the two biggest member countries are at loggerheads with one another. Either they need to bury the hatchet, or Saarc, to say nothing of Southasia as a concept, is dead. It seems a bit much that the rest of us have to suffer because of these two intractable foes. Of course, this is not the only problem. If we are to make a go of it, we need to think in terms of acting like a team and to put the common good above our narrow national self-interest. Since we have a hard time even putting national interest above petty personal interest within our countries, this may prove difficult.
The thing is that we don't really have that much of a choice. Ultimately, so many of the issues that continue to bedevil us, from water resources to security to energy will need to be addressed -- indeed can only be addressed -- on a regional basis. But the understanding of what constitutes our region could change as the world changes.
There are already groupings such as BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan) and the South Asia Growth Quadrangle (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Bhutan) which seem to make more sense economically and geographically than Saarc. And with the growing influence of China in the region, not forgetting the forces of globalisation, we might soon find that Southasia as a concept is itself out-dated.
I don't honestly know if Southasia ever really did exist as a meaningful concept, but I have a pretty good guess that in future, it won't -- at least not in the form it does today. And good riddance. Single currency, common policies, external tariffs, free trade (despite SAFTA), open borders -- we are still waiting for these after 25 years, and in this increasingly inter-connected world, our inability to form a workable regional grouping has contributed to the continuing backwardness of the region.
It is time to pull the plug and look to more effective groupings and to consign the term Southasian -- which has only existed for 60 years anyway -- to the ash heap of discarded nomenclatures that provides the final resting place for terms such as the Near East and the Orient.
Zafar Sobhan is Forum editor. This piece appeared in the August issue of Himal Southasian.