No panacea

  • Can trade and commerce trump South Asia’s primordial passions of fanaticism and prejudice?
- Pramod Mishra
No panacea

Nov 26, 2014-

The 18th Saarc jamboree in Kathmandu has stirred up aspirations as a result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech. The panacea of trade possesses the potential to overcome the skepticism and cynicism that have been characteristic of the regional body for the past three decades. PM Modi even hopes that it will trump terrorism and other forms of primordial, colonial baggage from which each of the Saarc countries suffers in one form or another.  

Trade as panacea

But can trade trump all ills and overcome all barriers? Can Modi’s faith in trade and all that accompanies it, based on science and technology, overcome his faith in Hindutva? Similarly, can the Bhutanese PM Tshering Tobgay’s concern for diminishing snowfall overcome the degradation that Bhutanese refugees have suffered in the past decades? Can the globally acknowledged success of microfinance in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh overcome the rise of Islamism and intolerance in her country? Can President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pilgrimage to Lumbini enlighten his Sinhalese countrymen enough to grant equal rights to Sri Lankan Tamils and resolve his country’s ethnic problem once and for all? Can trade and commerce trump the passions of Pakistan’s ISI and Islamic militants? And can our own Nepal forge a compromise between the single-identity central state of identity opponents and the aspiring single-identity federal states of identity proponents and write a constitution for the ages and for all people?  

As one can see, each Saarc member-state confronts some very basic ethnocentric and intolerant forces that have caused instability and sufferings to the multitude. And these forces emerge from very different sources than from where trade and commerce originate. If trade and commerce possess the capacity to break down physical barriers and level the playing field, primordial fanaticism and prejudice wield the power to build barriers in hearts and minds. And it is not just Islam’s purported tendency towards intolerance or mainstream Hinduism’s ingrained caste prejudice that challenge trade’s power to overcome internal and external barriers. How did Bhutan’s Buddhist regime oppress its own people and make them refugees? How did Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks aid and abet their political leaders in dispossessing and discriminating against its Hindu Tamil minority?  

Passions and sympathies

The contest between what the American thinker Benjamin Barber calls ‘Jihad and McWorld’, which we have seen in the world outside South Asia, is what we see in different forms within it—primordial passions and prejudices nullifying growth and narrowing human sympathies. Even if Modi transforms himself from a Hindutva champion to a development messiah of all the peoples of South Asia (which he seems to have done so far), will he be able to rein in his party comrades’ long-nurtured narrow nationalism? And if India plays a different tune, will India-locked South Asia change its tune as well?

The swirling controversy over Modi’s possible visit to Janakpur and Lumbini, which actually canceled his trip for now, offer us but a glimpse of this ever-shrinking human dimension. The controversy yields to multiple interpretations, none of which are uplifting or ennobling. First, nationalists in Kathmandu feared a dent in their national pride if Modi spoke in Janakpur, as he is the Prime Minister of India, from which nationalists have always perceived Nepal to be vulnerable. Pahadi chauvinists feared the heart of the Madhes getting undue limelight and prominence at a time when Madhesis have been demanding their rights.

Secularists feared Modi’s speech about Sita and Ram and Janakpur would jeopardise new Nepal’s secularism and inspire Hindu state proponents. Then, you had two Madhesi leaders—Ram Chandra Jha and Bimalendra Nidhi—from two different parties scrambling for the limelight and recognition at the expense of the other. Each group seemed solely concerned about how much mileage it would gain from the visit, rather than what impact Modi’s visit would have in highlighting the infrastructure of the long-neglected borderland areas in both Nepal and India.

More than talk

So, South Asian society, as we see it, is fractious and divided. Individual and group interests trump the common good. True, ‘i-ways’ and highways can facilitate trade. But, if instead of factories and centres to produce goods and services, you have hearts and minds that manufacture primordial passions and fanaticism, i-ways and highways can equally effectively transport those as well, causing what we see in Pakistan and Afghanistan almost every day.  

Even in the panel of Saarc heads of state and government, only Modi had aspirational ideas to offer in a voice that was excited and enthusiastic. Almost everyone else gave either platitudes suitable for the occasion or offered a litany of risks and dangers their respective country has been facing.  

But then, India’s size, scale, and change of direction may very well wake up and inspire the region if Pakistan succeeds in getting its house in order, which clearly has been an uphill task for its rulers, both democratic and dictatorial. Then again, all this speech making, including PM Modi’s, may very well turn out to be one more speech at one more Saarc Summit. Let’s hope not.

Published: 27-11-2014 09:30

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