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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 14, March 28, 2015

SAARC, South Asia And Imperative Beyond Tired Rhetoric

Monday 30 March 2015

by Dev Pathak

The SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Charter Day on December 8, 2014 occasioned a moment for a critical self-reflection. This was also pertinent with reference to the recent spurt of uncanny euphoria amongst the political leadership in the region and platitudes on the possibilities of strengthening regional consciousness. In a span of six months the idea of South Asia, in association with SAARC, seems to have acquired momentum worth critical and analytical attention. Some of the memorable moments from the album of time, particularly depicting the endeavours on the Indian side: the newly elected Prime Minister of India inviting the heads of the neighbouring nations for his oath-taking ceremony, his positive overtures on the imperative of reinventing South Asia, his trips to Kathmandu and Bangladesh regaling the power elites as well as masses, and then the orchestration of calculated handshakes at the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. It all augurs well for the idea of South Asia with the ascendance of the Indian Prime Minister as a possible statesman in the region.

But then, it also is an opportune time soliciting a sanguine criticism from the perspective of socio-cultural, institutional and academic South Asia. One could a little innocently ask: is there anything really new in the cotemporary buzz about SAARC and its version of South Asia? Does it show any advancement in what were there in the regional thin air a few years, or a decade and two ago? Is it not more or less the same rhetoric of South Asia and SAARC as ever before? Is it hyperbolic to suggest that the rhetoric of South Asia is locked in the prison of political and strategic pragmatism? Is it a mere figment of imagination that the political stunts around South Asia are yet not free from geo-political as well as trade-related security and fear?

As the history of modern South Asia would reveal, this is what has been instrumental in the regional geo-politics perpetuating the arms race, threat-perceptions, and fortification of area studies programme in universities and think-tanks in member-nations. And most dangerously, this scheme places India as a nation-state on a pedestal from where it could only orchestrate calculated handshakes and deliver lofty promises laced with palatable platitudes. And thus the SAARC Charter Day ought to be utilised for an honest soul-searching rather than merely discharging a politico-bureaucratic ritual to add to the prosaicness of SAARC and its notion of South Asia.

Regional Intellectual Linkages and Institutional Impediments

Why is it that any discussion on South Asia, or SAARC, eventuates into a predominance of trade, security, and strategic alliances? In the precursor as well as immediate aftermath of the 18th SAARC Summit, a spate of ruminations were on the issues of visa-regime, augmentation of bilateral ties for commerce and security, and formation of the hallowed South Asian consciousness. Some of these were also reflected in the speeches of the national leaderships during the Summit. Needless to admit, they are important as infrastructural, systemic, and institutional imperatives. However, these allegedly ignore crucial issues pertaining to everyday life and thereof socio-cultural linkages among the nations of the region without factoring in the ubiquitous impediments, owed to bureaucratic-institutional dominance in the scheme of SAARC. And thereby the socio-cultural is invariably diminished and turned into super-structural and ornamental appendage.

Theoretically speaking, this is an inevitable characteristic of liberal politics. It bears an ambivalent attitude toward folk, their lore, and thereof cultural politics. And hence each nation in the conglomerate of SAARC shares with the world at large only the post-card images of what they call ‘unique culture’, conducive for tourism industry and developmental economics. The sanitised idea of South Asian culture, heritage, religiosity, and civilisation was vivid in the speech of the Indian Prime Minister at the SAARC summit. And it is institutionally manifest in the cultural organisations affiliated with SAARC.

Bureaucratic Predominance of SAARC

Take, for example, the bureaucratic over-determination in the institutional constitution of the SAARC Cultural Centre, based in Colombo. This is one of the key agencies of SAARC obliged to engender socio-cultural and intellectual synergy in the region. The activities of the Centre includes promoting research projects, organising academic events, publishing an academic journal, and spearheading cultural events on South Asian dance, drama, photography, visual art, and cinema inter alia. It is curious to note that on several occasions the Centre has declined research projects by the scholars from various countries on two grounds: one, that they were not the choices of the bureaucrats sitting in the secretarial positions in different member-countries, and secondly their proposals were not of a peculiar kind, which the Centre prefers to fund. Scholars, who would like to study anything, which does not figure in the narrow imagination of the Centre, would not even figure in the list of received proposals, let alone being funded. In short, the Centre tends to fund projects which are voted by the Secretaries in the Foreign Affairs Ministries in various member-countries. These are mostly proposals without any watershed contribution to the corpus of knowledge on South Asia. One example is the heading of ‘diminishing culture’, under which there were research projects, seminars, and a special volume of the journal called SAARC Culture. On the other hand, the detailed archives of information on the webpage of the Centre seldom shows the projects which could study live and kicking cultural vibrancy of the region. In the scheme of the Centre, a good research is one which laments about dead performances, and not one which attempts to show culturally live and politically motivating performances. What does it reveal other than myopic perspective on the socio-cultural and intellectualconfiguration of the region!

It should be added that various agencies of SAARC have lack of coordination and collaborative spirit among themselves. And this too is particularly due to the bureaucratic over-determinacy. There were several occasions when the SAARC Cultural Centre organised seminars; most of the contributing scholars in those seminars were bureaucrats’ choices and not really the scholars who have devoted considerable time and energy in researching and writing along the themes of the seminars. One could find various examples for this too on the webpage of the Centre. An interesting paradox surfaced when some scholars from the South Asian University, yet another organisation associated with SAARC and based in New Delhi, expressed interest in participating in a seminar organised by the Centre. These scholars were nationals from various member-countries of SAARC and were employed by the University. The Centre declined their participation on the ground that they were not the chosen scholars of the member-countries. In other words, they were not the choices of the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the member-countries. Apart from this, various social scientists from the University tried initiating an academic dialogue to explore possible areas of common interests to work together. The Centre turned either deaf or perfunctorily replied suggesting there could not be any possibility unless the bureaucratic machinery proposes it.

This is not the only example of the systemic and bureaucratic hassles that plague the possibility of academic, intellectual and social-cultural rebirth of SAARC and a more holistic imagination of South Asia. This is curious to note that despite the tall promises of relaxed visa rules for the scholars and cultural activists to travel across the region, there have been several practical dead-ends. An eminent art historian of Pakistani origin from Cornell University was scheduled to come to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. His trip was cancelled several times since the Government of India denied him visa. Similarly, the technically delimiting visa given to the students and scholars who join the South Asian University is a perennial issue. Many students fail to return in time after the vacation to the University to attend their classes due to delayed visa. The students from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have voluminous narratives of sufferings from the visa regime. Needless to say, this is one of the reasons why scholars with good academic credentials are unwilling to join the University. For, there are many more fronts of woeful experiences for the foreign nationals who at all decide to join the University. There are, for example: difficulty in opening a bank account, finding an accommodation on rent, getting a SIM card for cellular phone, and so on. Particularly, life is miserable if one is a faculty-member or a Muslim student from Pakistan. The romantic idea of South Asia indeed takes a nosedive, let alone the emergence of South Asian consciousness.

In this wake, it is significant for various communities inclusive of literati and cultural activists from the region, to come together on various platforms and think beyond the tired rhetoric of nation-states. Indeed, the idea of South Asian consciousness about which the Indian Prime Minister spoke at the last SAARC Summit, requires concerted thinking and action to subvert the regime of bureaucratic over-determinacy. The latter is unequivocally pernicious and impediment to the rise of a socio-culturally and intellectually thriving South Asianness.

The author teaches at the South Asian University, New Delhi.