“We, the South Asians”: Are We? Do we have a Regional Identity? 17/05/16 – 31/05/16

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Do we have a regional identity in South Asia? 

South Asia is unique in terms of having multiple identities. Gender, Caste, Class, Language, Sub-region, Race and Religion – all these factor play a substantial role in defining our identity. While, this is not unique only to South Asia, what makes the region special is – all these identities sit comfortably with every one of us. What is even more fascinating is, these identities shift depending on a particular time, particular place and particular crowd.

South Asia is home to multiple identities in a single person. But, do we have a “regional identity” as “We, the South Asians”?

An earlier RCSS multilogue focused on regional integration in South Asia. Economically and politically, we are one of the least integrated regions, despite strong emotional linkages. Shared history and common cultural identity exist more in paper and conference circles. Despite the multiplicity of media platforms, we still prefer to blame the State as a primary villain. Perhaps, the State is. But, can we do something as a region?

We are also highly critical of the SAARC, our regional organization. When compared to other regional organizations, true SAARC has not performed well. But should we blame only the organization, and the State in South Asia for it?

Are the problems of regional integration and the slow progress of the SAARC – an expression of a larger problem in South Asia? Are they a symptom of our collective failure? Does the lack of “regional identity” play a limiting role in taking South Asia forward?

Can there be innovative approaches at the civil society level in South Asia to have a regional identity? Can we learn from other regions in evolving a regional identity and avoid pitfalls in doing so? Can we add one more identity to the long list we already have, and make effective use of it in collectively taking the region forward?

We, the South Asians. Can we make it happen? How?

by D. Suba Chandran, PhD

National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)
Indian Institute of Science Campus
Bangalore-560012, INDIA
Ph: 91-80-22185142 (Office-Direct); 91-80-22185000 (Office); 91-9810326878 (Mobile)

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14 thoughts on ““We, the South Asians”: Are We? Do we have a Regional Identity? 17/05/16 – 31/05/16

  1. Merely than engaging in the lip service, SAARC as a regional organization must move beyond with paying special attention on the multilateral agreements rather than bilateral agreements the SAARC region is fond of making. This activity should go hand in hand with a mechanism of understanding the commonalities and the disparities and providing solutions. The region must adhere to a uniform fair transparent mechanism which promotes regional cooperation and alignment particularly in times of crisis functioning sans state compulsions which arouse age old rivalries and hard feelings time to time. Without this kind of an arrangement the region cannot raise as one like the ASEAN has done, while aligning major Western poles.

  2. I do believe there are inherent issues regarding the building up of a regional south Asian identity.
    the reasons may be various but once you trace the history of counties of south Asia since independence one can see that the foreign policy of many south Asian countries did not lead to close linkages between neighbors.
    For example in Sri Lanka one of the first steps the independent government of D.S. Senanayake took was the signing of a defense treaty with the UK. the underlying fear may have been the possible fears from the south Asian region. this sense of fear and mistrust characterized the relationship between many south Asian countries including India and Pakistan since independence; especially in the case of “Jammu-Kashimir”.
    So although the SAARC exists as a model of regional integration many of the leaders may hope to achieve or aspire (similar to the EU or ASEAN) that prospect cannot be achieved due to political considerations, lack of taking up issues which have been contested by certain parties and the lack of the feeling of belonging to a common area with shared values and beliefs among the people of the country.

  3. True, SAARC has not performed upto the expectations of the teeming millions of South Asia. The member states are entirely to blame. Teeth to the organization must be provided by the member states. There could be some cross-learning exercises from the ASEAN and EU processes as well but there seems to be little interest to learn from others also. This is lethargy and lack of energy, nothing else. South Asia is certainly beyond just the SAARC. We take pride being Indians, Nepalese, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans more than being South Asians. Our ambassadors in Europe, I hear, rarely meet as SAARC representatives. There is no system of hosting the SAARC flag besides to our national flags in our foreign missions. We must not hesitate to learn from OAU, ASEAN, EU because they too went through similar bilateral tensions between member states, internal strife and political instability. I have hope from the next generation of leaders, officials, academics of South Asia.

  4. Yes, I totally agree with Dr. Pandey with the fact that the member states are totally responsible for the lack of cooperation and integration in South Asia. We can forget how France and Germany joined hands for the success of EU. Who would have ever thought France and Germany who used to be bitter rivals come together for a common cause. While learning from other regional set ups, there is plenty to be learnt from South Asia as well where ancient rulers of the region worked towards regional cooperation and integration. Great King Asoka is a great example for this. With King Asoka embracing Buddhism, the previously aggressive foreign policy was replaced by one of peaceful co-existence. During his reign, Buddhist missionaries were sent throughout India to Sri Lanka and South East Asia and to as far west as Cyrene, Egypt, Syria and Macedonia. Regional integration and cooperation are by no means foreign to us. So the time has come for all South Asians to act. It is about understanding. All South Asian countries should understand the importance of working as a region. It is only way that South Asia can move forward. Otherwise for many long years, South Asia shall remain as one of the underdeveloped, poverty-stricken and instable regions in the world.

  5. The first thing to understand here is the regional biases and interests. In South Asia, cultural similarities go hand in hand with the cultural differences. Alongside these cultural differences the colonial biases also exist towards each other. Religion is a major source of differentiation and it also prevents from creating a general identity. My argument is focused on the society and the use of interactive approach to develop general amicable tendencies between populations inter-state and intra-state. I agree that states are not responsible for every thing wrong but the inability of SAARC is their domain. I pose a solution that starting from lower strata of society by educating them on the similarities of our shared cultures, we may achieve a generation with neutral tendencies. They can be able to produce decision and policy-makers with their intent of solving the South-Asian problem. This is a long term approach but in the short term, the way forward is the education of the intelligentsia, policymakers, students and teachers on achieving the common goals and shared interests as a region. The education should be practical though. Sharing of ideas on this issue by people on this topic is the basic approach needed for creating an identity as South Asian.

  6. The first query I put forth is, whether we need an identity as a South Asian at first. Instead of being a measure directing to integration, it is perhaps reinforcing another label of disintegration on geographic lines at a wider sphere in place of a state identity. Apart from the political and economic benefits, a new identity as such falls short of achieving anything but creating a new sense of distinction among the people with the rest of the world. Looking to the west as a model or referring to the success of the European Union does not offer a larger picture in resolving the human problems suitable to a different climate. It would also tantamount to an error to equate the South Asian region with the European continent. Though the likelihoods are still open for the development of a regional identity, if not now, it is still analogous to the phrase – an old wine in a new bottle – as it is another way of keeping the human race divided in lieu of striving for cosmopolitan pursuits.

  7. I believe if there is anything that can help in the forging of a common South Asian identity among the countries in the region, it would be the economic sector. A common factor that is seen in the relationship among various countries is that, despite deep feelings of animosity and misgivings, economy still continues between the member states. Maybe the first step in the creation of such an identity is coming to terms with the fact that we are too diverse to create an all inclusive common identity. Rather we should find common grounds on which such an identity could be created.

  8. ‘South Asia’ as a regional identity will be possible only when as a single countries we take pride in our region and its essence over the race for bandwagon. Too much of presence of western powers in the region has overshadowed the voice of South Asia. The only policy we hear in South Asia is vis-a-vis China or United States. We take pride in our alliances with powers outside our region than with ourselves. There is an anti-India or anti-Pakistan feeling and we are ready to trade with Chinese or Western products even if our products are rejected at their doors. We lack a futurist understanding off our priorities, our collective strength, be it economic or political and our identities. We are reactive and not proactive, until then South Asia will be a mere geographic term and not an identity.

  9. Unfortunately, despite seven long decades for majority of regional countries and at least four plus decades for Bangladesh, individual countries are still more invested in defining their individual identities, than envision a true regional face. so long as we keep our security concerns which merely don’t affect borders but one forth of humanity hostage to the mindset of exclusion and individualism, keep investing in constituencies of hate than collective thought, the rich culture and flavor of South Asia will remain elusive.

    in fact where the world progresses beyond regionalism, in this age of global connectivity, South Asia in comparison to its earlier decades of connectivity fairs worse. there was a time, when travelling within South Asia was neither difficult nor without several options, but now except for rare exceptions which too are bilateral, there are no multi-country airlinks available, so one travels outside the region to reach your neighbor. we have effectively firewalled or banned cellular connections, there is hardly any intra-regional banking or commercial connectivity and whatever there is, has more regulations and state-controls than necessary. if “we -the South Asians” need to build a common identity, which is a tall order, the need is to push individual member states to commit to South Asia and SAARC than reduce it to a brand alone.

  10. The inner question that should be understood is ‘ Are we ready to accept an common regional identity?’ or ‘Do we want a common identity?’. The whole idea of a common identity is being copied from the west and we are trying to follow in their footprints. SAARC being critically acclaimed and the incapacity to draw benefits out of the group in itself shows a low interest by the members to form a common identity. Yes, we are south Asians by our geographical positions but we don’t look for a common identity in the global world we look forward to get aliened to the west more than concentrate on multilateral trade within South Asia. Therefore, i believe that without an accepted regional identity, ‘South Asia’ would be a mere title.

  11. I agree with most of your points. The answer to your question ” Can there be innovative approaches at the civil society level in South Asia to have regional identity?” The answer is Yes, we do have one solution to it. We have the Youths in South Asia. These days the power of students is too much. Leave SAARC, if we do have some open organisation like the Student Organisation where we can have students from South Asia who are really concerned about their regions can make an impact and create a regional identity. The students from different universities would join this organisation across the Indian Asian Universities. The initiative should be done majorly over the internet as we youths are too active in the social medias these days. The main objective of the organisation would be to work for the better South Asia. The problem of poverty,education ,crime against women etc. The students can be classified among different groups based on their skills and the educational background. These students will be establishing the diaspora with the government , engaging with th United Nations etc. Also, these students have the cost benefit (effective) technologies methods to deal with the issues. Rather than wasting money.

  12. The distinct ethnic identity of the people is one of the major causes why south Asia is not moving forward. Another major cause is the strained bilateral relations between the states. But rather than looking at what separates us, we should look into what can bring us together.
    Trade, energy and river basin management are potential areas that we could work on to build stronger regional cooperation. And who knows, this in turn could help us to build a regional identity and better bilateral relations between the states. However, all this is easier said than done.

  13. I thank Dr. Salma for forwarding me the link, and though I am a bit taken aback with hardly any Pakistani feedback on this page. Should have been more than what there are at the moment!

    Adding mine: Pakistan has been fighting a battle for identity for the last seven decades, and in many vainful efforts, tried an Arabic Identity for nothing really. My country, and people are what once as United India, and though a separate independent country now, this does not change the fact of the shared culture, at least with Central and Northern India. Pakistan has a geography that is best suited as a trade/energy corridor, and my country could create endless economic possibilities both for all peoples of the region. I am not an expert in regional trade/economic or political matters, and have for the last 19 years professionally focused on Pakistan’s internal dynamics, but my idea is that economic integration is possible, and rather should be seen constructively by peoples of India and Pakistan. Political integration would be a nonstarter, as like it or not, the powers that be on both sides have their vested interests “invested” in the schematics of hatred, though at the same time, peoples have also hardly tried reaching out to each other in a constructive fashion.

    Both nations would have crated the greatest economic cooperation in the history of mankind ,really, but Pakistan probably opted to fight on a battle in reaction to a perceived Indian hegemony, while India busied herself in the dreams of truly a global power that could mold smaller nations in the SAARC region at will. And seemingly, neither side has succeeded in achieving what it thought it would. End result: two jokes of respective fake political glories.

    My grand/parents came from Amritsar, and I am 45 years old now. Tired and weary of this senseless gesticulation of fake superiority from both sides, I think my and the children of South Asia deserve better that what I had to grow up with as a child. Here is a wish to you all, and those who can/cannot read it: integrated growth and development is possible, and it is rather the geo-political right of us all.

    Angshuman Choudhury
    The South Asian existential domain can be best described as “so close, yet so far”. The region, undeniably, has remained politically and socially disjointed through most of modern history despite major cultural intersections. Why is this so? I believe the answer partially lies within individual national boundaries, wherein non-integration at a macro (regional) level is temporally linked to the micro (national) level.
    All South Asian countries share a common thread of demographic reality – of being starkly heterogeneous within their own boundaries. Although this diversity is organic and longstanding to the region, the character and form of it transformed under two centuries of colonial rule. Owing to exploitative identity creation by the colonisers, socio-cultural heterogeneities percolated down to the political domain in a very divisive fashion. The immediate outcome was the creation of different ‘pockets of influence’ carrying their own respective constituencies of support. Thus, decolonisation in South Asia, unlike in Latin America, resulted in severe fragmentation (rather than assimilation) of the demographic fabric within each country – majorly because of how different sets of people perceived the process of ‘national liberation’.
    Also, the region never produced a cross-cultural unifying figure, someone similar to Simon Bolivar – the Venezuelan military general who envisioned a single American Republic while fighting the Spanish oppressors – who could mobilise a cohesive support base for ‘one South Asia’. This ultimately amounted to a wholesale regional fragmentation, which was worsened by the rise of inward-looking, antagonistic nationalism in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The gradual emergence of a centripetal ‘national consciousness’ in each country overlapped with the overall asymmetry in size and military influence of countries in the region, resulting in hegemonic attitudes in some and psychosis of inferiority in others.
    The most critical aspect of this is the fact that in most of the countries, these prominent domains of hostile nationalism managed to seize political power at the highest levels (at some point or the other), including foreign policymaking. SAARC, as an alliance, is a glaring manifestation of the existence of elite-level distrust in a situation where trust-based people-to-people relations between member states are still possible.
    Hence, I believe that a singular ‘South Asian identity’, which could have been actualised under different historical circumstances, will now remain a distant utopia unless each country in the region attempts a full-fledged internal democratisation and reformulation of its decision-making structures so as to involve more civilians in the foreign policymaking machinery. Social and cultural integration are inherently contingent on political integration, and the idea that only political elites must remain at the helm of such endeavours must change.
    Creation of more collaborative educational and cultural forums can be a stepping stone to such a future, in addition to flagging more streamlined means of information-dissemination at the civilian level. Only then can we ensconce a sustainable structure of regional assimilation and cooperation, which may ultimately lead to the emergence of a shared identity. Hence, rather than instrumentalising a non-existent ‘South Asian identity’ to realise political integration, we must take the other way round – consolidate mechanisms of political cooperation to synthesise a common identity.

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