Sunday, February 8, 2004

Punjab conflict and claims

Bjorn HettneBJORN Hettne is an old India hand, who arouses a lot of interest among the young, especially on the campuses here and in Europe with his refreshing insights into conflicts. This economic historian has been involved with extensive India-specific research as founder-director of the Peace and Development Research Institute at the University of Gothenburg (PADRIGU), Sweden. He first visited India in1960 and went back smitten with its diversity. After his first thesis on The Political Economy of Indirect Rule and Mysore before 1947, Prof Hettne’s studies on this region range from the Gandhian approach to development and the JP Movement to terrorism in Punjab and India-Pakistan tensions.

His strength lies not only in the way his philosophy impacts young minds across the world, but also in his understanding of neo-regionalism as the new way of managing globalisation. An author of 20 books, he was back in India to study The Conflicts in South Asia in a Comparative Perspective. He was in Chandigarh to collect material on the turmoil in Punjab during the 1980s, which, along with the Kashmir crisis, the North-East insurgency and the Sri Lankan conflict, forms part of his latest study.

In an interview with Aditi Tandon, Prof Hettne observes that the Punjab problem has not been resolved entirely. Excerpts:

What makes you believe that the Punjab conflict is unresolved?

The silence shrouding the issue is disturbing. The trauma undergone seems to be suppressed in the minds. This suggests there is no ongoing reflection about what happened, the causes and the issues of identity the conflict raised. The turmoil ruptured the very social and political fabric of the state. The paradox is that the militants were few and did not even represent the entire Sikh community. The demand for Khalistan—which, in my view, was highly unrealistic—had to do more with identity than territory. It was more of an idea and the proposition of a Khalistan state was never detailed, yet a small band of militants pitted themselves against the state resulting in a high level of polarisation. The complexities of the issue are relevant for reflection even now.

There was also an external dimension to the Punjab problem that was a threat to India’s security.

This is a facet of conflicts not only in India, but also the whole of South Asia. Security threats and problems in South Asia emerge from internal conflicts and then spill over, with implications for the whole region. One way out could be to resolve internal conflicts within a regional context. Look at the way Kashmir is an issue between India and Pakistan. How would it impact on India-Pakistan relations if Kashmir were to be taken as a part of the SAARC agenda? Resolving the Kashmir problem is the key to South Asia realising its full economic and developmental potential.

But isn’t the Indian political leadership stressing on regional issues, as during the recent SAARC summit?

This is a significant development indeed. Although the India-Pakistan conflict figured in Islamabad, the Indian government raised critical issues like common currency, economic trade and cooperation. Clearly, India wants to sort out bilateral as well as regional issues. There is a new understanding of the importance of regional cooperation. This, neo-regionalism, as it is called, is the trend worldwide. Neo-regionalism recognises the need for political structures larger than the nation-state, both to compensate for the state’s loss of power in the emerging world order and for adapting to the changing global economy. These regional structures will heavily impact the way the world order gets organised for managing globalisation.

How does South Asia fit in with this trend?

South Asia is integrated more by conflict than by cooperation. SAARC is still a paper organisation dealing mostly with non-controversial issues. Larger political concerns such as conflicts in the region are being ignored and the level of cooperation is low. SAARC nations suffer from a security complex. Mistrust between India and Pakistan is causing apprehension among other members. The role of regional cooperation in conflict resolution has yet to find acceptance here.

What’s your view on the way ahead for South Asia?

It must move from a security complex to a security community, a region that develops such strong relations that war no longer remains an option for conflict resolution, and borders cease to be as important as these have been.

Right now, trade within South Asia is an abysmal 5 per cent. A security community must be developed through provision of better infrastructure. The Delhi-Lahore bus service is a significant step towards its creation and symbolic of the willingness to undertake mutually supportive measures.

What other signs of hope do you see?

I am positive about the Islamabad Declaration. Pakistan is on the peace trail. Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee has also assumed the role of a statesman who wants to resolve the issue. The Islamabad Declaration also talks of a free-trade zone, but South Asia must tread carefully and allow the economically weaker nations to grow before borders open up. Free trade is not the starting point. It is a goal