O! Let us spread those carpets and beat those drums again, Let’s adorn this land with Henna (Mehendi) and listen to her songs, As the locals fly kites from their terrace.
The lyric of the song ‘aman ki asha’ seems so vivid, poignant and yet so beautiful. Beautiful, not only because it alludes to peace, to harmony and amicability between India and Pakistan but also, because it reminisces of our times of yore which now is the shared history of people of sub-continent. More so, this history is common not only to people of subcontinent but to people of South Asia on the whole in some way or the other.
South Asia is different from rest of the world in many aspects.
To begin with let us look at its history. Its particular location in the world, centuries of movement and trade made it a racial melting pot. Numerous civilizations have sprung up and spread in this region. The remnants of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro are the proof of earliest settlement, which may date as far back as 3rd Century BCE. Since then many people have trodden and settled in this region, especially Arabs, Turks and Central Asian. Some came with the purpose of trade like Arabs and Greeks. Arabs used to call this region Al –Hind and for them the region stretched from what is presently called Pakistan till Indonesia. Others came to conquer the region like Mughals whose magnificent era lasted for around four centuries. And still others came with the fair intention of trade, yet stayed to rule example British Raj.
For almost two centuries, this region has remained under colonial rule. After 1857, the Indian sub-continent was brought directly under British dominion. The legacy of this imperial rule forms an integrated part of South Asia. It has left a common heritage which is still manifested. South Asian countries have common legal, administrative and constitutional framework. Most of the countries have Westminster style of governance codified in their constitution. Although Sri Lanka and Nepal have left this system, but the latter remains the most widespread, and is considered ideal in the region.
The British rule, though it posed many challenges to the Indian sub-continent, but undeniably it was an epoch of development and advancement for the region. The British India was a single market. The cotton produced in west Punjab used to be traded to East Bombay for manufacturing of textile. Jute produced in East Bengal would be manufactured in the mills of Calcutta. Trade was facilitated by roads and railway linkages and the movement was free of charge. There was no obstruction in labor movement and immigration. Rupee was the currency used throughout the region.
The history of South Asia shows that although different races, ethnicities and religion existed here but no single race or religion was superior. Hinduism was pre-dominant but Mughals were the rulers. Though there is gradation is skin pigmentation but there were no racial difference.
Centuries of intermarriages and cultural infusion have made the people of South Asia similar. Though people can easily tell a Chinese apart from Indian, but it’s very difficult to tell a Pakistani apart from an Indian or a Bangladeshi from a Sri Lankan. Also, although every region has several and different official languages, with India having 22 official languages, Pakistan has 6, Sri Lanka has 3 inter alia yet, English, though, foreign remains the lingua franca of social and political elite throughout the region.
Yet, today, South Asia carries the burden of world’s most underdeveloped countries. With more than one-fifth of the world’s population living in this region, it is densely populated. The average per capita income of around 40 percent of the population is less than $1.25 per day, according to the statistics of World Bank, 2005. After sub-Saharan African region, it is termed as the world’s poorest region. Though, its two states are nuclear, Pakistan and India, but malnutrition is soaring in the two, with Pakistan suffering from 40 percent, India having 47 percent, and every year the number of infant mortality in the region is around 2.1 million. Both Pakistan and India were independent before China, but China today is fast becoming world’s strongest economy, while the former two remain far behind in the world. So the question that stares is, is it because our people are lazy, lethargic? Or is it rather that the region has continuously suffered from low human development because of lack of investment in the private sector and lack of good governance?
South Asia is the least integrated region. Several factors have led to this conclusion. The prominent among them are: conflicts within the countries and with each other; limited trade in the region.
The relation between India and Pakistan has mostly remained in disarray. Both countries have gone to war thrice in 1948, 1965 and 1999 over Kashmir issue which to date remains the bone of contention. ‘Should Kashmir be part of India on the basis of Maharaja’s accession or part of Pakistan on ground of its Muslim majority?’ is the question still mooted. Both countries spend profligately on defense. The year 1998 was the turning point in which both countries tested their nuclear arsenal and showed each other their might. According to estimates from the Search for a Peace Dividend in South Asia, if India and Pakistan were to freeze their defence expenditure at the pre-nuclear level of 1996, it is calculated that there would have been a 35 percent peace dividend in terms of cumulative savings which would have boosted growth in both countries. Becoming nuclear states presents a paradox. On one hand, it has increased the risk of a biological warfare, having potential of obliterating millions, even at the slightest of instigation, but on the other, the same raison d’être has also become a deterrent for the two nations to go to war. The aftermath of Mumbai attack manifested it. Both states were at the brink of a confrontation, but refrained from it and chose to solve the matter on the table, although the relation did turn bitter between the two.
Presently, Pakistan is fighting internal war against Taliban and the situation is worsening steadily, instead of getting controlled. The sporadic incidents of suicide bomb attacks and daily loss of innocent lives, besides those of military in this war are all indication of an emerging civil war. There have been numerous incidents of Baloch insurgency too in Pakistan, for which Pakistan blame India and Iran together.
Sri Lankan army has also been spearheading a crackdown against the rebels Tamil Tigers. The Tigers of Tamil Eelam though have their share of complaint against the Sinhalese Government. They feel being cornered in their own country, while they are the largest minority after Sinhalese majority. Their grievances revolve around not being granted due rights. They object to their rights being siphoned off and usurped by the Sinhalese majority. After the partition, Sinhalese, the pre-dominant populace in Sri Lanka, comprising around 70 percent, formed the government. In 1956, Solomon Bandaranaike, the erstwhile Premiere, made Sinhalese the official language. To make the matter worse, he made Buddhism the state religion. Most of the Sinhalese are Buddhist while Tamils are primarily Hindus. All this led to serious aggression and confrontation between the two and demand of Tamils to be given a separate state. However, the modus operandi adopted by Tamils to take their rights made them known as terrorists by major countries in the world. They resorted to violence, assassinating politicians and attacking the army.
India is the only democratic polity in the region that has kept its territory integrated and has been able to maintain its sovereignty. Though, there has been occasional incidence of insurgency in its provinces of Punjab, Assam, UP from Khalistan. Lately, it is becoming a rapidly growing economy and is pulling at least 1 percent of its population out of poverty every year.
The internal insurgencies have caused lofty human and economic loss for every country. Besides, it has led to an increasing friction between each other. Pakistan and Sri Lanka hold India responsible for supporting the insurgents in their region. Likewise, India always holds Pakistan culpable of terrorist attacks or internal strives on its soil.
Talking about intra regional trade, it is almost non-existent. The World Bank statistics reveal that trade between South Asian countries was only 5 percent in 2009 as compared to 20 percent trade in Southeast Asia. Though there have been numerous unilateral, mutual efforts to increase trade in the region, but no major breakthrough have been achieved yet. South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement or SAPTA concluded in 1995, with the purpose to liberalize trade in the area, with tariff reduction and provision of fair conditions of competition. But political factors along with the provision of logistics like port development, roads networks, custom clearance etc in the region continue to hamper the trade flow
However, the question that looms is what should be the way forward. Right now, we need a vision and a resolution to change and make better the present. The creation of European Union may present an interesting perspective for South Asians. Till Second World War, the European states formed alliances with other states against war with each other. But it was the vision and brainchild of Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann to create a united Europe that would never to go to war again. Starting from integrating coal and steel industries, forming Coal and Steel Community and increasing cooperation of European states to share their energy (Euratom), those efforts and treaties to unify Europe have culminated in Europe Union in 1993 after the Maastricht Treaty. Today, Europe is a single market, with free trade, with free movement of goods and people. Single currency, Euro, was replaced in 2002. Now, EU is a secular body, has a single army, uniform legal and judicial system, where people’s nationality on the basis of the country they belong to is less important than their supra-nationality of being European. The formation of European Union is the greatest achievement of Europe in the 20th Century.
Similarly, the peace initiative, Aman ki Asha started by the Jang Group and Times of India started this year may produce resounding and visible results ten years down the road. Increasing cooperation between the two states through exchange of art and culture is a very powerful way of bringing the people of two countries together. Yet, this cooperation should encompass the whole South Asian region. However, it must be noted that this initiative does not become a hollow framework but rather is influential in solving the real problems and issues and help in building bridge of trust and friendship in the region. The response to Aman ki Asha show and proof that people of this regions still believe in these five words, ‘lets give peace another chance’. Jai ho!