Whither South Asia?

All roads did not lead to Rome! For nearly three centuries till Portuguese Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape Horn to fulfill the dream of the European monarchies there was a mad rush by Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, French sailors, etc to somehow discover a sea-route to the riches of India and China. Christopher Columbus did not set out to discover America, that was an accident of history as he vainly explored an alternative route. “Indians” were discovered in North and South America in the 16th century because the seafarers generally believed that they had reached South Asia.

South Asia was rich, so rich that as far back as 325 BC even Alexander the Great reached the Punjab plains before sickness, casualties and a simmering revolt by his men at the prospect of “black magic” of India made him abandon his plans. Invaders came in waves on the land route, some to simply raid and spirit the riches away, some stayed to rule and exploit the regional wealth. The last great sea incursion was a creeping invasion, the British came as traders, stayed to become absolute rulers and left only when the Second World War depleted their strength and will to continue their rule. South Asia was a net exporter of foodgrains, textiles, spices, timber, etc, never importing foodgrains or textiles. The British departed in 1947 leaving us enough reason to keep fighting for over the last 50 years, South Asia was well on the way to becoming a basket-case in place of the bread-basket it once was. The Sultan of Constantinople would get the hulk of his warships made from Chitagong teak on the islands of Hatiya and Sandwip. Until the British cut off their hands to prevent market competition to Manchester, the weavers of Bengal were major exporters of fine quality hand-woven textiles, mainly muslim. The first ever famine in the history of the sub-continent only came (in Bengal) in the late 1760s, not many years after Clive defeated Sirajuddaulah at Plassey. It also brought the first real seeds of Hindu-Muslim friction, the money-lenders of Culcutta were encouraged by the British to give loans at exorbitant rates to muslim traders and land owners impoverished by the famine, when these could not be repaid the grounds for sustained conflict were set. The two communities had lived together, barring the aberrations of some obstinate rulers, in some harmony for over a thousand years.

The Himalayan-fed magnificent rivers course through the most fertile delta lands in the world but the rivers do not bind the people together as is a must. The only shortcut to prosperity in South Asia runs through the domain of peace. We are South Asians not only in the geographical context, cultural heritages bind us together. When we are together as individuals and groups, religion does not keep us apart. While keeping our identities and beliefs sacrosanct, why can’t we imbibe the same toleration that was the hallmark of the great Moghul, Emperor Akbar, who bound the races and ethnicities together in one giant cauldron of humanity? Only trust and mutual respect can foster lasting understanding. Look at the individuals and groups of Indians coming to Pakistan and reciprocally the Pakistanis traveling to India, both are overwhelmed with the warmth and hospitality, and yet the guns do keep on blazing frequently because that affinity and friendship is lost in hostility and repression that is the province of a myopic minority with a vested interest to sustain their reign by keeping conflict going.

Without solving the festering problems exacerbating the relationships between the communities, there is no hope for amity and peace, and unless we have peace there is even less hope for the economic emancipation and prosperity that our people deserve. Whatever our station in life and each one of us is a leader in his and her own right, it is the leadership we give to our various constituencies that will decide the future of our people. The destiny of South Asia lies in the minds of those who not only foster this vision but continue to believe in it, if there is a will there is a way.

South Asia has the most complementary economy for any region in the world, it has been historically so and has continued with the advent of modern machinery and equipment. Historically South Asia has exported both ideas and material. This is one of the few regions in the world that can, both as individual nations and as a community of nations, feed and clothe itself and still have surpluses leftover for export. This third world region is self-sufficient in medicine, we export doctors and engineers, even teachers and professors, etc. to the developed world. Two of our countries are nuclear powers, we have enough oil and gas to run our industries, transportation and have enough energy left over for our homes. Our peoples have boundless energy and the human skill inherent is confirmed by the numbers of our migrant workers successfully resident abroad. In IT skills (the south of) India has taken a tremendous lead, can the other South Asian countries with similar academic bent be far behind?

The core dispute of Kashmir has to be resolved, done in such a way that satisfies all the claimants. Even before engaging in an exercise of a final solution, an interim arrangement can convert this dispute from a negative factor to a positive exercise in searching for lasting amity in South Asia. For those who desire South Asia as an economic entity let the model be Kashmir as one economic unit. While maintaining the legal status quo of our respective claims, the following steps can be taken for an interim period of time, say three years, viz (1) the laws of India and Pakistan to continue apply respectively on either side of the LOC (2) a joint commission be established to meet periodically to discuss outstanding issues and function as a super-government over the two State entities (3) extend the ceasefire by pulling back the artillery to peacetime locations (4) staged withdrawal of troops in direct army-to-army contact (5) militant activity to be curbed ruthlessly, a joint operations center established for this purpose to work under the joint commission (6) Local Bodies elections to be held with District Governments answerable directly to the Joint Commission (7) Green travel passes to all Kashmiris living in Azad Kashmir and Orange passes to all Kashmiris living in Indian-occupied Kashmir to visit any area within Kashmir (8) free movement of goods and commodities meant for Kashmir only without any tariff across the LOC (9) commerce to be fueled by a common South Asian Rupiah, valid for the moment only in Kashmir, if this works in Kashmir it can be extended in all South Asia. If peace in Kashmir persists, the vision of one South Asia as an economic unit can become a reality.

My father was a Punjabi, a soldier from Sialkot and my mother a Bengali from a family of feudals (and politicians) in what is now Bangladesh. I was born in Behar in 1946 when my father was posted there. I hate discrimination of any kind, especially on the basis of race and religion. Can I forget that my (late) sister and I were Punjabis in East Pakistan and Bengalis in the west? And that my “Behari” birthplace also got the negative attention it did not deserve even much later? And that even while loving Pakistan it was (and is still) considered treason to love both? That there was still a solution for the ghastly errors of 1971 till India stepped in? Rising above ethnicity and sect, one can think “South Asian” rather than pursue only nationalistic objectives, one can extend a hand in lasting friendship, but one’s caution in apprehending that this hand could be cut off should be excused. The question is simple, shall we proceed to destroy each other many times over with nuclear bombs or do we have the courage to harness and combine the potential that created these devices in the first place to usher in an era of lasting peace and prosperity for our people? Whither South Asia?