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  Volume 10 |Issue 45 | December 01, 2011 |


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Another South Asia is Possible

Sushmita S Preetha

"How will you dream of building a new South Asia?” asked National Human Rights Commission Chairman Dr Mizanur Rahman on November 21, concerned about India's divisive decision to construct Tipaimukh Dam. When your neighbour acts like a hegemonic power, ignoring the social, environmental and economic impact of its decisions on your country and its people, for how long can you keep on hoping for a better, brighter and united South Asia? Even the most optimistic of South Asians must feel disheartened by the constant squabbles between the SAARC countries and their inability to come together to build a South Asia committed to the principles of social justice, peace and democracy. A South Asia whose identity goes beyond jingoistic and destructive nationalisms; a South Asia not broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; a South Asia that celebrates its multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-gendered, multi-faceted culture(s) and its rich and complex histories.

The Inaugural ceremony of SASF. Photo: Star File

Another South Asia is Possible. Or so hoped the thousands of participants of the five-day long South Asian Social Forum (SASF). Activists, development workers, academics, journalists, politicians and artists from all over the subcontinent gathered on the premises of Dhaka University to take a stance against all forms of injustice and discrimination. Organised jointly by Dhaka University and the South Asia Social Forum (SASF) General Council, the SASF is part of a larger platform, the World Social Forum (WSF). The WSF and SASF are both open, non-hierarchical and non-partisan platforms for social movements, networks, NGOs, grassroots actors, and other civil society organisations to work towards a collective future aspiration, 'Another World is Possible.'

The ultimate goal of the South Asian Social Forum is to “mobilise the South Asian social movements into a common platform against hegemonic globalisation, political and social conflicts, and to create an open space to exchange ideas and build strategies for action.” With this objective in mind, participants from all over the world conducted a series of dialogues on a range of different issues.

What emerged very clearly from these discussions was a nuanced critique of the neoliberal development paradigm and its effects on South Asian nation-states. Neoliberalism refers to an economic, political and philosophical system that privileges markets over governments, groups or individuals, and aggressively pursues policies that facilitates the transnational organisation of production and the global mobility of capital. The basic premises of neoliberalism are as follows: rule of the market; a high degree of global economic integration; deregulation of large transnational corporations and global economic integration; privatisation of state-owned industries/institutions; reductions in, or elimination of state social programmes that benefit the working class and other marginalised groups.

The new role of the South Asian state, under the neoliberal paradigm, is not to lead from the front, but to remove, as Sarah White states, “any hindrance that it may constitute to the new harbingers of development: NGOs, civil society, and of course, the market.” As such, neoliberalism is an overarching, all-encompassing ideology that dictates the economic, social and political realities of people's lives, especially in the global south. Facilitated by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and their notorious Structural Adjustment Policies, neoliberalism is a form of imperialism that benefits the countries of the North at the expense of those in the South.

Today, as our countries become more intricately tied with global markets, we see increasing militarisation, marginalisation and destruction of people's lives and livelihoods. The region's resource bases have now become commodities for large multinational companies, especially in agriculture, leading to food insecurity, displacement, violations of worker's rights and greater inequality. With the rise of neoliberalism, fundamentalism has solidified in South Asia; as SANGAT (South Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers) highlights, “There has been an intensification of divisive identity politics in which affiliation to religion, caste, ethnic identities become fixed and polarised, leading to conflicts throughout our region.” Whether it is the case of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, Muslims in India or the adivasis in Bangladesh, South Asian states today are engaged in a range of exclusionary practices that deny access of minority populations to full citizenship status. Jingoistic nationalist discourses have naturalised the distinction between “us” and “others” and constructed insurmountable walls between people.

The dangers of essentialist nationalist formulations are best reflected in the Indo-Pak enmity that has troubled the subcontinent since Partition. India and Pakistan has already been engaged in three wars and innumerable border clashes, with the dispute over Kashmir still unresolved. Since 1998, the military expenditure of these two countries has seen a ten-fold increase, with each country vying to outdo the other's military might. As nuclear states, Pakistan and India play a destabilising role in the region, challenging any prospects of peace and progress between the SAARC countries. The participants of the SASF agree that no meaningful change can occur if India and Pakistan does not stop its arms race. As Kamla Bhasin, renowned feminist and peace activist says, “If neighbours fight, nobody can be happy. For the last 60 years, we have been fighting. Now let's stop this stupidity.” Pakistani labour leader Karamat Ali stressed the need for demilitarisation and denuclearisation for a new and better South Asia. “There should be no reason that we need dangers of war looming above our heads,” he added, proposing that all the countries in the region sign a no-war pact.

The participants also highlighted the vision of a visa-free South Asia. Kuldip Nayar, veteran Indian journalist, asserted we must all work for a region where we are all identified as South Asians first, instead of as Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis or Nepalis. Bhasin, too, urged everyone to start using the epithet “South Asian” in lieu of comrade to address each other – to emphasise our commonalities instead of our differences.

At the end of the five-day forum, the participants expressed their solidarity with the “Dhaka Statement,” which denounced the social, political and environmental effects of neo-liberal policies, and challenged patriarchy as well as all forms of fundamentalism, communalism, racism and casteism as the pillars of institutionalised oppression. Through the statement, the participants affirmed their solidarity with the struggling masses of South Asia: farmers, workers, and the landless. They condemned the exploitation of indigenous communities by governments and multinational companies in the name of “development” and “national security”.

The statement emphasised the fallacy of spending huge sums of the national budget on military expenditures when that money could be used to provide welfare services to the people. In addition, it vehemently asserted the need to end all forms of gender-based violence in the world – be it physical, psychological or structural violence. It also opposed the commodification of lands and forests, promising to defend food sovereignty of rural populations and to find true alternatives to deal with the climate crises threatening the world.

The SASF came to an end on a hopeful and inspiring note on the November 22. “This was an occasion, a platform and a reason to meet internationally and regionally, which is very important for all of us who work nationally,” says Ritu Menon, writer and feminist activist from India. “It's a huge demonstration of solidarity, and movements succeed internationally because of solidarity,” she adds.

Some participants, however, argued that resistance in the streets should replace seminars and symposiums as they often remain purely academic in nature, far away from the real problems of real people. “Will the South Asian Forum help us achieve what we want to achieve?” asked the sceptics.

“No forum can achieve what we want to achieve; it's our grassroots work that will help us achieve what we want to achieve,” answers Kamla Bhasin. “What these platforms do is they energise us… they take away that sense of isolation that many of us activists feel from time to time.” Bhasin's comment reminds us that even though at times we may feel alone and disheartened about the state of the world and our own work, collectively we feel powerful enough to create meaningful change. “When I am alone, I am like a drop of water. When I am in the presence of all these strong activists, I no longer feel alone,” she says. “I no longer define myself as a drop of water, I become the ocean.”

One hopes that the dialogues held at the forum can help and inspire the participants work towards a more egalitarian South Asia, a South Asia in which we acknowledge our differences and historical inequalities and work collectively towards transforming the oppressive structures that still haunt us.



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