Call for peace and harmony
R. L. Singal

Envisioning a New South Asia
Eds T. Nirmala Devi and Adluri Subramanyam Raju.
Shipra Publications.
Pages 251. Rs 695.

SOUTH ASIA is one of the most important regional groupings in the world, comprising India, Maldives, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal. These seven countries between themselves constitute one-fifth of the human race, having approximately 1.5 billion people with a number of languages, religions and ethnic backgrounds. In spite of these apparent diversities, there is amazing unity at the roots that makes for fruitful cooperation. That is why South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) was launched in December 1985 with its headquarters at Kathmandu, Nepal. It is on the pattern of the Association of South East Asian Nations formed in 1967 and the Commonwealth of Independent States created in 1991 following the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. The European Union, Gulf Cooperation Council (1881) and Organisation of African Unity (1963) all are on the same pattern. The avowed aim is cooperation for mutual benefit.

Of course, there is geographical contiguity as well as linguistic and cultural homogeneity, still the region is afflicted by a number of social, political and economic problems compounded by political mistrust and suspicion. These states are plagued by inter-state and inter-region conflicts over boundaries as India-Pakistan appear to be irretrievably bagged down over Kashmir. Similarly, there is an unending blood-letting conflict in Sri Lanka between the Government of Mahendra Rajpakshe and the LTTE. How painful to contemplate that 55,000 people have perished in this critical war.

South Asia’s democratic transition is incomplete. Democracy here is primarily understood as a form of government where the majority rules. It is not understood as a government by consent, which it really should be. That is why democracy has failed to bring about fundamental social and economic change in society. Democracy has empowered the elites rather than the masses in this region. Feudal mindset and authoritarian tendencies in the powerful do not allow them to bring about fundamental changes in society.

Democracy, a government of the people, by the people for the people as declared by Abraham Lincoln, never took roots in this region, though the region has the potential to acquire a momentum of its own leading to total transformation in the near future. The member states have to set aside their disputes in order to improve the people’s living conditions. Though the governments of the South Asian States have realised that it is high time to shift their focus from the security of their borders to human security along with regional co-operation, much action has not been taken in this direction. The low level of real security of human beings in South Asia is highlighted by the high incidence of poverty, the poor show by education and health sectors and lack of employment potential.

The role of the government is vital in ensuring job opportunities to the new and unskilled labour through strengthening the existing training programme besides setting up new ones. Firm commitment on the part of the government is required in the region to raise expenditure on social infrastructure in order to improve the standard of living of the deprived sections of society. Only committed governance with an eye on people’s welfare and poverty alleviation shall deliver the goods.

The accelerating expenditure on military by the South Asian states has a negative impact on access to education, healthcare and other welfare measures. This tendency should be curbed and people’s real security promoted. This is possible if we occupy our minds with thoughts of peaceful co-existence and co-operation. The tension between India and Pakistan has been persisting for more than five decades. Each is trying to justify its stated position and neither is going to budge an inch over its rigid stand. Both shall have to negotiate with flexibility keeping in mind the welfare of their people.

Promoting non-violence and building peace has never been more important than it is now as the contemporary world is afflicted by varieties of conflicts, ethnic tensions, religious fundamentalism, the demon of terrorism. Norwegian experience of supporting peace initiatives across the globe, including Palestine and Sri Lanka, demonstrates that today’s conflicts are asymmetrical and, given the mental accommodation and flexibility, they can all be peaceably resolved.