Nadeem Rahman contemplates Asia's varied past and its hopes for the future
Each year marks a milestone in the march of time, and every year, we in South Asia, never fail to recall the anniversary of our triumph over colonialism, and somewhat less jubilantly, a historic but bitter partition. Beyond this truly liberating experience, the rewards of freedom would appear to have eluded the children of liberty. Quater of a century onward, predictably enough, we opted to repeat history, with undiminished ferocity. What was once considered "the jewel in the crown" of the Empress of India, fragmented into India, Pakistan, and better late than never, Bangladesh. In the first instance, it was the largest mass migration in history, and in the latter, yet another chapter in the continuing saga of mass murder. In both instances, millions were massacred in the name of language, geography, ideology, economics, politics and above all, God.
If we have learned anything from repeated "legal separation," it would be that there is no such thing as a final, absolutely irreversible parting of ways. The political map of South Asia has altered too many times to justify any such notion of finality, and famous failed relationships, are invariably miscarriages of "arranged marriages." After all the recriminations, the virtues of peaceful coexistence are undeniable. The West learned this lesson after forty costly years of the arms race and the Cold War, not to mention the thirty year war, the hundred year war, the Napoleonic wars and two World Wars of European extraction.
The divisions and rivalries of Asia, especially South Asia, are largely the by-product of this very Occidental view of the world "as it should be." From the Suez to the South Pacific, this panoramic canvas was painted by eighteenth century imperialism, and is periodically touched up and restored, by the masters of geopolitical landscape painting.
Western civilisation was at the helm of history. To preserve this artistic international order, and ostensibly in the interests of world peace, conflicts were confined, as much as possible, far from the heart of Western culture. Proxy wars were stage managed on a grand scale, like Medieval passion plays, and native blood spilt in the backwaters of Eastern Europe, and the paddy fields of Southeast Asia, every drop in the defence of Western "liberal" democracy.
As a direct consequence of colonial chauvinism, entire populations were displaced, transported and marginalised, calmly disregarding tribal, ethnic and religious objections, resulting in conflict and racial tensions to this day: Protestants were dumped in Ireland, Tamils brought to Sri Lanka, Indians to the Pacific and East Africa, and Africans to the Americas.
Of course, Australia and America were once upon a time exclusively non-white, a fact which in view of subsequent history, is more often than not, conveniently obscured, or simply ignored. The theft of these two continents was possibly history's cruellest and most extensive genocide yet. They were never colonised, "civilised" and cleaned up to resemble discoloured Europeans, like the brown Sahibs of the Sub-Continent. Though, in a macabre prelude to Dr. Mangle, both races suffered their lost generation of stolen children, who were used as human guinea pigs, presumably for their own good. For years, these obscenities were never talked about, nor indeed even acknowledged as crimes, to the extent that today, Australia's absurd "history wars" are a testament to the invaders' contempt, and truly criminal intellectual amnesia. By and large, the natives were simply exterminated, or penned in remote reservations.
In our century, more Jews were butchered by Europeans in Europe, than by all the suicide bombers and all the Arab-Israeli wars put together. In our half century, more Muslims and Hindus have happily hacked each other from limb to limb, than all the infidels and all the faithful, in two hundred years of the Crusades. And I don't suppose anyone has even the remotest idea, how many slaves, bought and sold for thousands of years, have perished from starvation, pestilence and ill treatment, since civilisation first discovered cheap labour!
This has been the evolution of the dominant species, brother against brother, in impassioned intolerance. Since the end of the last Great War, there have been countless conflicts, in China, Cambodia, Korea, Vietnam, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and what was once, greater India. Today, with the exception of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to some extent Chechnya and Kashmir, relative peace prevails. With the West in decline, for a host reasons of its own undoing, and hopefully less predisposed to intimidate, it is not unreasonable to expect that the twenty first century might usher fresh hope for an Asian reawakening.
The "mysterious" East has long ceased to be shrouded in mystery. In an age of unparalleled accessibility, when barriers are demolished daily and global communication is at the touch of the fingertips, it is inconceivable for an "insular" Orient to remain marooned in a sea of xenophobia. Clinical isolation and an indefinite cultural quarantine, is virtually impossible. Actually, Asia has been wide awake for ages, and a lack of culture is hardly an Asian affliction. Asia has given birth to a litter of cultures and successive renaissance, from the dawn of civilisation right up to the introduction of Western industrialisation. In respect of its cultural heritage, Asia is at peace with itself.
Modern democracy however, is not of Asian origin, and though by no means infallible, it offers a means to empower the vast non-nourished masses of the most populous continent on the globe. It is in this sense, that reawakening is essential. Whatever the doctrine, blanket censorship and repression as a method of governance, are now universally unacceptable. The future is clear, dictators and despots will have to rethink their strategies, while the peoples of an ever emerging third world should close ranks, to exclude not only all manner of fanatics, but the very real threat of a return to some form of neo-colonialism.
It all began in Bandung. In April 1955, President Ahmed Sukarno of Indonesia invited the leaders of the third world first generation post colonial nations, to the Bandung Asian-African Conference. This was the genesis of what was to become "history's biggest peace movement." Six years later, in September 1961, at the initiative of President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was formally launched at their First Summit Conference of Belgrade. It was attended by twenty five countries, but the founding fathers were Nkrumah of Ghana, Nasser of Egypt, Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Tito of Yugoslavia.
The world was in the grip of the Cold War, history's first truly global war. It was the era of bipolar brinkmanship. The economy of every poverty stricken third world nation, rested on the whim of a handful of powerful wealth-brokers, who were not averse to extortion and blackmail. It was the age old doctrine "If you're not with us, you're against us." In those trying times, to break the stronghold of the superpowers was a bold and audacious step, and a half century on, the courage and statesmanship of the original five, cannot be appreciated enough.
The avowed intentions of the movement are: to maintain "the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned nations" and to "struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference and hegemony as well as great power and block politics." Changes in the global arena have greatly altered the face and nature of the movement. For one thing, colonialism has collapsed, apartheid has been banished, and the wealth-brokers are bankrupt. The last embers of the Cold War have died out completely, only to be replaced by the rise of Muslim militancy, which would appear to threaten almost everything in its path.
Indonesia, the embryo of NAM, is today in the grip of this militancy. Yugoslavia, the birthplace of NAM, has disintegrated into three sovereign states, none of which have shown any interest in Marshal Tito's legacy of defiance of the Warsaw Pact and Nato. A few have left the fold, such as Cyprus and Malta to join the European Union, while at least one, China, has opted out, aspiring to superpower-hood of its own.
During the heady days of the Cold War, a few member states swayed, and on occasion, openly aligned themselves with one power block or the other, hoping to steer the movement in the same direction. But the mainstream of the movement stood its ground.
From time to time, some member states have fought each other, namely Iran and Iraq, and incorrigibly India and Pakistan. India, the home of Nehru, one of the five founding fathers, the man who coined the phrase "non-aligned," has consistently kept one foot in both camps. It has famously championed non-alignment, while staunchly aligned to the USSR, obtaining the bulk of its arms from Soviet Russia. After humiliating border conflicts with China, India lost no time in jettisoning non-alignment and scampering to America, for patronage and protection. Without a second thought to NAM and the "peace movement," India was the first South Asian country to go nuclear and today enjoys an unprecedented "nuclear deal" with America. This makes India the first nuclear power to legally participate in nuclear trade, without having signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Pakistan, which actually attended the Bandung Conference, was notoriously known as "more aligned to the West than the West." However, it did not join the Non-Aligned Movement until 1979, by which time its reputation was thoroughly soiled as a lackey to America, a stigma that lingers to this day. Instead of NAM, Pakistan was a member of SEATO and CENTO, and in view of this, it is surprising that Pakistani troops were not sent to Korea or Vietnam. In spite of this steadfast loyalty, Pakistan has little to show by way of tangible benefits, either in trade and aid, or in the theatre of diplomacy. Of course, Pakistan's involvement with America today, is far more complex and, if anything, even more inextricable.
All these anomalies, the Non-Aligned Movement has survived, despite the overzealous criticisms of power block brokers. The war on terror has added a new dimension to the burdens of non-alignment, and a soul searching challenge to the wisdom and philosophy of neutrality. It is precisely for these reasons, that reawakening is so absolutely essential.
Where the Non-Aligned Movement has failed, or fallen short, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has taken up the baton, with the confidence and ability of champions. In the words of the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan: "Asean is not only a well-functioning, indispensible reality in the region, it is a real force to be reckoned with far beyond the region. It is also a trusted partner of the United Nations in the field of development." Founded in 1967 by five founding members, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, these were later joined by Brunei Darussalam in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, the People's Democratic Republic of Lao and Myanmar in 1997 and lastly, Cambodia in 1999. Thus, all the nations of Southeast Asia and partly the Asia-Pacific rim are represented in Asia's most effective regional forum yet.
The "three pillars" of the Asean Community, resolved in 2003, the Asean Security Community, the Asean Economic Community, and the Asean Socio-Cultural Community, are well on the way to achieving every goal set, and continue to raise the bar with every objective attained. For the purpose of fostering peace in the region, the Asean Regional Forum, established in 1994, incorporates twenty four countries from around the world. It is a tribute to Asean that in the forty years since its inception, no disputes or tensions between member states has ever escalated to armed confrontation or open hostilities.
The Asean Vision 2020 speaks for itself; "a shared vision of Asean as a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bounded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies."
The success of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can be attributed to many factors. Firstly, the willingness of the larger more dominant partners to take a back seat, and allow the smaller more vulnerable member states, to sit at the wheel and chart a course to a shared goal, without intimidation. Secondly, to accord equal rank and status, and more than equal say in the affairs of the association, to the less affluent and economically impaired nations. Thirdly, to create an atmosphere and sense of security, of solidarity and constructive commonality in diversity, a shared vision of heterogeneous aspirations, among all the members, regardless of size, wealth and power. Lastly, the collective wisdom of the leaders of the region, these constitute the Asean success story.
In sharp contrast, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc) was a non-starter from the first day. Despite protracted negotiations and at least two significant trade agreements, more than twenty years of Saarc has failed to make any appreciable difference to the lives of ordinary South Asians. Communications between Saarc countries have not improved, visit visas are an ordeal, and both India and Pakistan have accused at least one fellow member state of illegal migration, namely Bangladesh. Cross border terror is an ugly reality. In desperation, India is constructing barriers along its borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan, which is much more than a symbolic gesture, but nevertheless futile. Divided families remain divided, not by barriers alone, but worn ideology and idiom. Saarc is like the awkward ghost of Christmas past, rather than an inspiring vision of the future.
It is generally accepted, that the giants of South Asia, India and Pakistan, are largely to blame for the region's failure to integrate as an association of sovereign nations, in the pursuit of peace and prosperity. The "spoilt brats" of Saarc, with their territorial ambitions and diplomatic disputes, have sullied "the waters of hope," and successfully diminished the stature of the largest regional organisation in the world, comprising one and half billion people. As a result, its impact on world affairs is minuscule, if any at all, and none of the member states have been able to harvest the bounties of a unified economy as a cohesive economic block.
Needless to say, both "big brothers" are equally to blame. Their inability to accept smaller neighbours as equal partners, their reluctance to permit these "lesser" member states to enunciate, far be it, to resolve, their specific security and economic issues, their sponsorship of subversion and the fanatic fringe, and last but not least, their obsessive compulsive desire to dominate, are the painful memories of Saarc's still birth.
Historically, both parties are equally adept at annexation, manipulation and diplomatic hyperbole. What is often forgotten is that Bangladesh was in effect annexed to Pakistan by amendment of the Lahore Resolution, by a sub-committee of the Muslim Legislators Convention, held in Delhi in 1946. This was done, on orders from the future founder of Pakistan, without second thought to the objections of Bengali leaders, the sentiments of the Bengali people, or an opportunity for public debate. In more recent history, Sikkim and Goa were annexed to India, by de facto right, without conscience or qualms. Perhaps the most unpalatable aspect of this abrasive swagger of South Asian "diplomacy" is the overbearing attitude of two bullies, with a history of violence. This is terrifying, because both countries are nuclear powers.
Indo-Pak rivalries are no longer acceptable, because they no longer threaten simply each other, but the entire region. If South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation is to serve no other purpose, it should at least serve to establishing "sanity" and a lasting peace, between two cultures that deserve better. The tragedy of South Asia is that once we were one.
These are the many reasons why a reawakening is imperative. Today, after two centuries, South Asia rejoices in the restoration of home rule. It was a long and contentious wait, and for politicians and intellectuals alike, reawakening has become a recurring rhetoric in the repertoire of those who have slumbered far too long. It is a time honoured lip service. That is why, any reawakening must come from the streets and the fields and the factories. If religion is indeed the opiate of the masses, then reawakening must come from the temples and the mosques and congregations of destitute.
Asia, the continent of paradox, with a stream of civilisations, colours and customs, its compassion and collective cruelty, its ability to survive the ravages of nature, the atomic bomb and culture shock. Asia with its killing fields and sacred rivers, its endemic poverty and tiger economies. Asia with ancient races and faces like leaves in a tropical rain forest. Asia of beauty and grace, whose traditions of hospitality, superstitions and rites, fear and faith, culminate in ageless hope.
Asia, from the Bosporus to the Bearing Straits, with a history as old as mankind, and as young as the children born, as I write, is awake.
Nadeem Rahman is an author and a poet, his most recent book Politically Incorrect Poems is widely available.