Despite what the SAARC leaders had to say while surrounded by flowers from Thailand we do not share a common view or a common goal for our region. Matter of fact the nations of SAARC are divided by a common history!
More often then not there is a belief that because we have lived in these lands for eons we have a bond. But should we not explore this shared history? First the only thing that binds most of the region together is Empress Victoria! Before the English came and “united” us under the Raj we were feuding kingdoms at each other’s throats. The English soon figured it out and used it to their advantage to keep us in fighting and then using their ability to influence decision to divide and rule us for 200 years! They did a blimey good job. What Akbar or Chandragupta Murya could not do the Clive and Curzon did. It put the Punjabis and Tamalians, the Assamese and Malayalam, the Muslims and the Hindus together under one flag, under one uniform civil code.
I had lived in India for five years in the early 90s. First in South India and then in Delhi. My biggest lesson learnt from that stint is that India is not a homogenous nation. Far from it actually. The southerner does not speak the same tongue as a northerner. A westerner does not look anything like some one from the northeast. Their cultures are different, their food are different, their values are different and their expectations from life are different. Take a Sylheti and some one from Khulna and multiply the difference between them by a 1000 and you are still not close to the difference between a Naga and a Kashmiri! Now if we throw in the other 6 (or shall I say 7 to include Afghanistan?) countries with their own variance, what a melting pot we have! How can this group ever have a common standing?
I know it is just about now I will hear the story about the American Pilgrims or the success of the EU! I have a two-word answer – Paris riots! Frankly the EU is a grouping of Christian nations, who on an even economic footing decided to bring their economies closer. Initially it was never envisaged as a political union. Hey even now the French President meets with the German Chancellor before the EU summits begin to plan on how they will take on the British or Spanish PM! Now that nations of Eastern Europe have joined the club let us wait and see how that turns out. My own prediction is that EU’s political future (not its economic one mind you) has a turbulent road ahead. And what is with this two-steps forward and two-steps back on Turkey’s membership? It is okay to have the Muslims defending you (NATO) but not sharing your prosperity!
The US you say? Well true the general belief is that they have managed to bring together their diverse population into the so-called melting pot, but I say that is just PR spin. First of all the cultures that have been bought together are the European immigrants who unlike us currently residing in South Asia, had gone forth with the intention of leaving behind prosecution and poverty of the Old World. They took it on to themselves to build a new nation dedicated to live, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now take a closer look. What about the “Red” Indians? And the African American or Asian American or Indian Americans or the Latinos? If they were so united why do they have different tags? All the Americans have in common is the fabled “Dream” of being richer than the Wolfozki, Robertson, Martinez or Subramaniam living next door!
Well one thing that is evident from the top two examples is that a shared economic future can bring nations together into acting in unison. Hence despite years of trouble it is important for a Sikh to join hands with a Bihari to ensure that India is shining! This leads us to extend the logic a bit forward and ask does that make sense for a Bangladeshi hold a Maldivian hand and walk toward the sunrise? Well yes it does. The dynamics of global trade has changed in the last two decades and will change again in the next few years. It is prudent for SAARC nations to find areas where we can compliment each other’s expertise and resources for a common good. And this needs to happen on real terms and not on declarations or charters that our leaders love to take. Look we all benefit. Would it not be great if say we could harness the power generated in hydro dams in Nepal? Or Bhutan could use Dhaka as the transit hub for their tourist industry? Or organic vegetable grown in Meghalaya could be processed in Sylhet and the airport used to send it to restaurants in London? And this list can go on and on.
However it does not go on! Mostly because we cannot trust each other. For example the communication ministry believes that if we join the Asian highway we give the Indian’s transit. First of all how does that matter if we do? (The agreement safeguards against this happening) Secondly do we remember the words “submarine cable”? Do we really want to be left behind? Even our “look east” partners want nothing to do with this! The blame is not only on our conscience, our Indian neighbour thinks that building fencing around our borders will keep the BJP out of making political hay from the immigration issue! They go around not letting our battery manufacturers from entering their markets! These mentality needs to change.
While I think the citizens of SAARC appreciate to a large extent the geopolitical realities that appear to be roadblocks in our path they are less forgiving to the impediments to our economic prosperity. Bangladesh (I can not speak on behalf of our cousins) seems not quite sure of their standing in the world. It seems we do not have clarity in how we take our relationships forward. We have a “Look East” policy, which I believe has some roots in a decade or two old foreign relation journals. It is a Machiavellian attempt for us to counter the influence of India with that of China and the ASEAN (specially Thailand). I think we are a bit naïve to think that these nations have our best interest in their mind. While we need to look for newer friends we need to keep two things in mind. You cannot ignore your largest neighbour. Two, and more importantly, your new friends also want to play with your old friend! The Asian Highway example illustrates that quite a bit. All nations from China to Thailand refused to take up the issue. Having the entry from Teknaf instead of Tamabil would have helped Thailand; but they were careful of not getting into an unnecessary banter with India. Using the diplomatic language they have told us to sign up or shut up! At least the foreign ministry has understood that. Will the PMO hear them?
OIC, NAM, Commonwealth, UN, BIMSTEC, G40, SAARC! Are we suffering from an identity crisis? Which one do we put our weight behind? Hey if Afghanistan can become a member of a South Asian grouping why can’t we work towards an ASEAN seat (after all our only other neighbour – Myanmar is already a member despite of international isolation and a weaker economy than ours!)? No, seriously we are busy shuttling around without a clear road map. In the meantime India I believe, has long decided that SAARC has no future. Though they are paying lip service to the movement I think they are pushing forward the more loosely connected BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) as a platform for their international agenda. Everything said and done ASEAN want to trade with Bangladesh but I think the need and desire to help ends there. We cannot afford to see SAARC fail. More than others we need it. Pakistan has the option of being more “Arab” or Mid Eastern. Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives are too closely linked to the Indian reality. Sri Lanka while still having internal issues to resolve have the economic might to “go it alone”. Bangladesh can, if done properly, assume the role of the facilitator and the mediator of this coming together of a significant portion of the world’s population. And use this a stage to make our place in the sun.
Ironically Bangladesh seems to be the biggest reason for the lethargy that exists in the organisation and stops it from going forward. We are wrapped up in an isolationist attitude of late, looking at everyone with the utmost suspicions. It seems there is a view prevailing within the Government and the bureaucracy that everyone is out to get us, to exploit us and dominate us. And this fear is becoming self-prophesising. If we do not learn to play with others soon we will be left out of the game. Let us use SAARC to win for us a few matches in the great global village tournament.