Sunday, February 15, 2009

Looking at Asia

I am back in India. I came back with a new perspective altogether - one about how accepting our Asian identity expand our horizon and enrich our identity. I am travelling back from Philippines, not the most Asian of the countries arguably; but this time, I had an unique exposure to the opportunities of Asia, and the possibilities it represents for us.

Not surprisingly, one of the evening discussions centered on the idea of One Asia, pioneered by Japanese intellectuals and politicians, and espoused by Rabindranath Tagore in India. Okakura Tenshin (1862 - 1913) declared 'Asia is One' and argued that no barriers 'can interrupt the broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and the Universal, which is the common thought of every Asiatic race'. Bengali religious leader in late nineteenth century, Swami Vivekananda (1863 - 1902), saw merit in the idea, as he thought 'on the material plane, Europe has mainly been the basis in modern times' but 'on the spiritual plane, Asia has been the basis throughout the history of the world'. Tagore's idea was that Asian unity will bring peace and harmony across the world. The proposition seems common sense, as in Asia lives the greatest proportion of World's people, and exists the greatest proportion of world's mineral resources. This continent, seen as a whole, thrived on exchange of ideas and was the birthplace of world's religions and commerce. [I read, with interest, an excellent article on the The Idea of Asia by Anthony Milner and Deborah Johnson, and quoted from it. You can access the article here.]

The Japanese, ironically, destroyed the idea of Asian unity by trying to achieve an empire. But surprisingly, while the Nazi empire building showed Jean Monnet and his colleagues the need for an united Europe, the idea of Asian Unity seemed dead after the war. Asia became the playground of Cold War - China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Iran, Bangladesh providing one conflict arena after the other - and the Japanese, despite their industrial ascendancy, was never forgiven for their brutal occupation of Asian mainland.

In India, Tagore was largely forgotten, except in some geographical pockets, and even there, his ideas about the world was never revisited. Of course, the wave of national independence swept across Asia after the war, and the Cold War proxy fights played out. By the time the cold war is over, the world entered into a new, hot war of religious faith, again originating from, and largely fought over, on the Asian soil. In this context, Asian unity not only seemed to be an impossible concept, but even an irrelevant one.

But, does it make sense, in this globalised world? When the world is uniting, what good it is to feel 'Asian'? But then, globalization is only spatial and incomplete, and one is an 'Asian' when s/he travels down the street in London, New York or Paris. In fact, globalization has undermined our national identities and ushered us to a whole new world of thinking regionally. European Union, despite all its failings, allow the French or Italians or the Poles a new way to approach and embrace the world, with confidence. Asianness has similar impact on our thinking - looking at the possibilities inside immune us from the fears from without.

Am I out to promote an Asian federation, with a bloated non-functional bureaucracy etc and an Asian election? I do not know the form, I admit, nor I am suitably educated in statecraft to know the full, practical implications of such an idea. But I know Asia is central to our identity, and must be in the way we think about commerce, life and ideas. India isn't very good at thinking Asian, as our ruling elite was trained in the west and always tried to mould our thinking to Western ideas, but I think that is a clear mistake. India, the true one, is steeped in Asian thought and deeply Asian culturally. Our policies, our ideas, our ambitions should be aligned to Asia, not to Europe or America.

I am not saying we shut the door and stop the flights. But we must do more to Asia. We should start with the recognition that we are Asian, and promote the study of Asian culture, heritage and literature in our schools. We should encourage our students to learn Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Bahasa, along with English they anyway learn. We should look at free trade zones and send more business men eastwards. I recall being taught in school a great deal about Hitler's Germany, but almost nothing about China or Japan; I am certain such practises continue today. We should build more exchange programmes with great Asian universities and send our business school students for study tours to Singapore, Osaka and Shanghai than to Switzerland [I don't know what they do there, anyway].

I think I have found something to work for. Asia seems nearer, more than ever.

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