IN two different countries, at two different places, different peoples have met to discuss their age-old problems and find a collective solution. One was the People’s Saarc at Colombo, the venue of the official Saarc Summit, and the other was at Jaipur where people working at the grassroots gathered to pool experiences of their movements. How helpless did both feel in their fight against vested interests?
Both meetings transcended boundaries, faiths and identities. Both challenged official policies and mindsets in their anxiety to confront the insensitive rulers on the one hand and the inhuman extremists on the other. At the two-day People’s Saarc conference, some 400 delegates from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives threw down the gauntlet to the official Saarc to do something concrete for bringing the member countries nearer to one another instead of holding sterile debates. The unanimous demand of the delegates was for a borderless South Asia, with no visas, no restrictions to enable people to travel and trade.
I recall how keen the late Benazir Bhutto was for a borderless subcontinent. When she talked to me in London a few months before her assassination, she said that if she ever returned to power, her first task would be to make borders soft. I wish the government led by her Pakistan People’s Party had pursued her dream. But the army and the bureaucracy appear to be having the better of the party. Were the PPP to take steps to have close contact with India, it would find Nawaz Sharif welcoming this development. He has even proposed a unilateral move.
What comes in the way is too much emphasis on nationalism. This has made people set their sights on their own country and community, not on the bigger vision like a South Asian Union on the lines of the EU. In such an arrangement, nations will retain their sovereignty while having common trade, commerce and other avenues of economic development.
Before independence, Rabindranath Tagore wrote an article expressing his wish that India should not adopt nationalism as its creed. His fear was that nationalism would lead to chauvinism. This has more or less happened. Chauvinism is now leading to extremism and terrorism.
Terrorists have different front organisations in different countries. In some places they call themselves the Students Islamic Movement of India, Lashkar-i-Taiba, Harkat ul Jihad al Islami or just mujahideen. In fact they are all religious fanatics who want to create a theocratic state. They are essentially fundamentalists drawing inspiration from the Taliban, if they are not the Taliban themselves.
They are killers and do not spare even women and children. They target hospitals, as was seen earlier at Karachi and now at Ahmedabad. Joint action by the Saarc countries needs to be initiated with the participation of scientists, technocrats and others. They must devise a long-term plan with new weapons to eliminate the menace because the general run of the police in the region is not adequate.
It is heartening to find that India has not put the blame on Pakistan. But to name a particular organisation or an individual without sufficient evidence is like saying that the terrorists are from among the Muslims. This exposes them to all manner of risk because the media holds trials against them long before the real trial begins. The Bajrang Dal, an organisation of Hindu fundamentalists, should not escape scrutiny because they have been found indulging in certain incidents to see that the blame comes to Muslims, for example for the attack on the RSS headquarters.
India and Pakistan have not gone very far with the anti-terrorism coordination committee. Both have yet to overcome their mistrust of one another. Now that a democratic government is at the helm in Islamabad, it should not allow the army to influence policy matters. Bringing the ISI under civil control was a good beginning. But this decision has been reversed and the status quo maintained, with a general heading the organisation.
The People’s Saarc also adopted a declaration to ask the countries in the region — Saarc has been expanded to embrace Afghanistan and Myanmar — to enter into no-war pacts with one another. This, the delegates believed, would divert the funds allocated to the military to departments working for eradicating poverty and ignorance.
The official Saarc has nothing to its credit expect pious resolutions and laudatory speeches. The governments have tended to live under one illusion or another, such as the illusion of being honest with themselves. The fact is that they have never looked beyond their own territory and have seldom assisted neighbours in their time of need. The record is full of discord and hostility. They talk of friendship but frame policies to harm one another. Saarc is a club which outlived its utility within a couple of years of its existence. The spirit of togetherness demanded giving, not taking. But that dream has gone sour.
The second meet at Jaipur was that of civil groups, concerned citizens and some leaders of movements which, in the words of famous writer V.S. Naipaul, were like a “million mutinies”. The groups constituted the Lok Rajnitik Manch (People’s Political Platform) which aims to make a “political intervention” on the issues of livelihood, displacement, the farm crisis and discrimination. The platform is meant to be an umbrella under which all organisations engaged in arraying people against exploitation and fighting electoral battles will stand shoulder to shoulder with their individual identity. Together they will confront the established political order with which people are disillusioned. The effort is to evolve “a genuine alternative” which can restore the democratic values that formed the basis of national polity after independence.
Limited struggles throughout the region provide ample evidence of change at the grassroots. Yet our leaders continue to indulge in the same old game of gaining ascendancy through the politics of manipulation and money. Many among them are the ones who go in for ideological posturing and populist rhetoric. They have little respect for public interest or popular sentiment which they exploit to ensure their political survival.
The crisis of politics is a crisis of change. It reflects the widening gap between the base of the polity and its structure. Are the Saarc countries willing to bring about the change? The people have little confidence in the established order.
The writer is a leading journalist based in Delhi.
Source: Daily Dawn, 1/8/2008