Sunday May 19, 2024

Shunning the idea of South Asia

By Harris Khalique
February 01, 2017


I am a reader of Muhammad Amir Rana’s writings. Some of his research on understanding conflict and terrorism in the Muslim world, including Pakistan, is groundbreaking.

Coming from a purely academic and technical background in his own work, besides encouraging the publication of similar work by others through the think tank and publishing house he runs, Rana offers a lot of interesting and educative material to students, scholars, policymakers and general readers alike. There is no doubt he is a trained security and defence analyst, not one who assumes the title just by virtue of having retired from the armed forces or a security institution.

I understand that there is a difference between journalistic pieces and serious writing. But an op-ed column is not simply an expression of opinion. It informs people’s views and impacts their decisions. Rana’s views, in one of his recent newspaper columns, about the idea and construction of ‘South Asia’ warrant a critique and a response. He has argued about other things as well, some making good sense, but I will restrict myself to discussing his views on South Asia and on being a South Asian.

Speaking of re-evaluating our appreciation of the world around us and the vision of regional connectivity that we have, Rana argues that Pakistan should review the notion of its regional consciousness. In order to, perhaps, bring force to his argument in the beginning, he goes to the extent of saying that apart from geographical proximity, South Asian nations share little in common. It seems that he soon realises during the process of writing in the stream of consciousness that he has gone overboard. Therefore, in the next paragraph he is willing to accept that there is more than just geographical proximity. But he continues to belabour his basic hypothesis by saying that even if there is some cohesion in terms of common cultural values and civilisational links, there is little possibility that these commonalities transform into a regional bond of geo-economic and political cooperation.

Rana also accepts that South Asian nations share some civilisational and religious traditions but then reasons that their ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious diversities have been sources of nationalism in all of them. He further argues that some of these expressions might be common to a few nations but in other customs and traditions, they are entirely different. He carries on by saying that people from the same ethnicity could be divided across borders in South Asia such as Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamils, Pakhtuns, Balochs and so on. But most of these ethnicities have evolved their own cultural and social expressions and are therefore less close to their ethnic fellows across the borders.

After establishing that South Asian nations are more dissimilar than similar, Rana moves on to the idea of the dormancy and dysfunctionality of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) and the idea of its failure being maintained and accepted by a segment of the media and academia of some Saarc member states. He then links this with ‘South Asianness’ losing its context because of Saarc being at the verge of disintegration after having been ineffective for long.

I think what Rana and friends who may share his views need to appreciate is that the idea and construct of South Asia is not an outcome of Saarc; rather, it is the other way around. Saarc was established in 1985. And all the eight Saarc member states, some together and some separately, are also members of eight other international alliances in the wider South Asian, East Asian, West Asian and Central Asian regions. I agree with him that Pakistan must explore all options for strong economic ties that would benefit us. But that will not change where we belong.

I don’t think the people of Pakistan who Rana calls social and political elite are obsessed with being South Asian. In fact, Pakistanis are South Asians. The term ‘South Asia’ is a neutral replacement for the term, ‘Indian subcontinent’. The linguistic and literary commonalities cannot be overlooked between different ethnicities living across borders. Punjabis, Bengalis and Sindhis living in different countries share much more than some of our analysts would want to believe. Commerce is a part of civilisation, it does not solely define it. The commonalities that we have in South Asia can boost our economic growth if we want to use them. Our mutual tourism and trade, the immediate and overland market access to the quarter of the world’s population for any grower or producer, and the sports and entertainment industries will generate local wealth. Rana is right that Saarc is ineffective but it is not ineffective because we are different. It is ineffective because we are alike. And unless we change our attitude and our course, people across South Asia will continue to suffer in poverty, disease, malnutrition and dispossession.

Contrary to what Rana argues, for the past 40 years or more, the idea of Pakistan being a part of West Asia and Middle East has been hammered into our heads by a number of our ideologues, military and civilian rulers and the wide assortment of religious political parties that we have in the country. It didn’t work and it will not work.

It seems that first the idea of shunning our ‘South Asianness’ came from those who insisted on our separate religious identity vis-a-vis India. Now the idea comes from a secular economic perspective. In both cases, it attempts to undermine the undeniable civilisation links, reducing civilisation to cultural expression. Civilisation also includes faiths, traditions, lifestyles, tastes, emotions and shared history.

Realism is very important to understand current affairs, contemporary politics, immediate economic compulsions and strategic interests. But sometimes when it brings forward a lopsided view, it makes us circumvent the real issue and propose temporary solutions, which may not even work in the short run. For instance, one may pose a basic question that if South Asian Muslims (then called Indian Muslims) were one nation until 1947, on the basis of which they demanded a separate homeland, how did they become two different nations in 1948? The party that founded Pakistan was the All-India Muslim League, not Pakistan Muslim League.

In the present circumstances, there is no reason to contest the modern political notion of Pakistanis and Indians being two nations and Bangladeshis being the third or others as fourth or fifth because it serves nothing but an abstract purpose. We must acknowledge the choices people made in history and promote the sovereignty and equal status for all states with regard for their territorial borders.

But civilisation is something different from states and should be used to benefit the citizens of these states. The language we call our main national tongue and lingua franca has most of its greatest classical poets buried in India. How can we ever delink Baba Fariduddin Ganj Shakkar from Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, Bari Imam Sarkar from Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti? And I emphasise that this link is not akin to our religious relationship with the Arabs. Likewise, how can we ignore that Pakhtuns living in Pakistan and Afghanistan belong to two different states but have a common language and heritage? That commonality will help the two countries if we start operating for mutual benefit.

In arguments such as Rana’s and other similar ones being promoted – more emphatically by the hawkish Indian right wing at the moment – what we assume is that the development of South Asia and the wellbeing of its inhabitants is possible without a resolution of issues between Pakistan and India. As a minor student of history, I do not see that possibility.

Saarc is not the issue, bilateral relations between India and Pakistan is the only real issue. Rather than undermining the commonalities and circumventing the problem, we should use commonalities to resolve our issues.

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.