Sunday, May 31, 2009

South Asia : The Chasm Inside

If one is to sum up the affairs of South Asia so far this year, it will read like this:

(A) Pakistan resumed its civil war, after attempting to reach, and then aborting, a peace deal in the Swat valley. Currently, Pakistani Armed Forces are engaged in a civil war and they claim that the extremists are pushing back, at least from the main towns.

(B) Sri Lanka claimed victory in its two decade long civil war, after the LTTE Chief, Prabhakaran's body was recovered. This victory, however, comes at a great cost - the final phase of the battle saw brutal tactics employed by both sides. Cornered LTTE used Tamil civilians as a human shield, and the Sri Lankan government, emboldened by the silence of all major powers, bombarded the civilian positions without any humanitarian considerations. Peace holds, for now, though thousands of Tamils live in refugee camps, and despite the military victory, the society remains deeply divided.

(C) Bangladesh put down a bloody mutiny earlier this year, which, the government claimed, were engineered by anti-national elements.

(D) The fragile truce in Nepal looks threatened, with the Maoist Prime Minister, Prachanda, resigning over his differences with the President. Prachanda wanted to induct his maoist people's army in the regular military, to which the Army Chief objected. With his backdoor attempt to take over the state foiled, Prachanda stepped down, preparing for a resumption of the civil war.

(E) The Indian Maoist movement continued to spread, despite the economic development of the country and the general sense of optimism helped by an emphatic election victory by the Congress. Vast tracts of the country, starting from the Nepalese border but running down deep inside Indian heartland, remains under Maoist threat. Though there were some recent successes of security forces, the insurgency continues for now.

So, overall, not a pretty picture - and this is where 1.5 billion people, roughly one-fourth of world's population, lives. This is also one of the world's most dangerous places, with two nuclear powers and large armies and arms caches in every country. Ironically, this is also the springwell of hope among the global economic gloom - a place with vast resources and young and intelligent population.

The point is, of course, that South Asia remains the most divided place on earth by some measure. The credit must go to the British Colonial Administrators, who wished it to remain that way. However, sixty years on, it is time that we aportion blame to the Regional Leaders as well, and the lack of vision and leadership in the region remains lamentable.

Indeed, the lion's share of the blame will go to successive Indian governments, who somehow failed to see South Asia in their scheme of things for the world, and primarily saw this as a backyard granted to them by natural right. With the exception of Rajiv Gandhi, who seemed to have a strategy for engagement in South Asia, all other leaders either forgot about it or took it for granted. Rajiv's vision of South Asia, though bold in its conception, failed to materialize due to poor execution and domestic political mechinations, and ended in his tragic death.

Looking back, Rajiv seems to have been ahead of his time on this one, as in many other areas. South Asia, with its tortured legacy of revenge and tribal strife, is a difficult place to bond together. Besides, many countries in the region view India suspiciously and their domestic political considerations make them object to the notion of South Asia itself, which they see as Indian fiefdom. [In fact, I know that my Bangladeshi friends object to the term 'Indian subcontinent' and only reluctantly accept 'South Asia' as a regional label.]

However, as one can see from the list above, the troubles are coming to a cresendo and hope and hopelessness is in an endless face-off in this region. More than any other area of the world, South Asia is poised to contribute significantly in building the post-recession world. Its divisive nature, the bottomless poverty of its civilians, its mindless engagement in arms race and military build-up, its rather poor governance standards and lack of social cohesion are sure to hurt that prospect. There is indeed great hope pinned down on the incoming Indian administration, which must show intent and urgency in engaging with South Asia and resurrecting Rajiv's vision. One would only hope that various other governments will also master the necessary political courage to join the initiative.

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