The region that now forms the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation is a consensual compact of eight independent states. The variations in their socio-cultural imprints are derived from enduring extrinsic and intrinsic attributes that coalesce and convulse in a matrix, insulated geographically by deep waters on three sides and on the fourth side “by land barriers perhaps less easily passable than oceans.” The Himalayas block access from the north, and hilly jungles block access from the east. To the South, the subcontinent is surrounded by the Indian Ocean.
While monks, minstrels, mystics and holy men of various faiths roamed through the region, found disciples, and formed communities of social following across language and regime barriers, singular administrative control was never established over the whole of South Asia. In ancient times the Maurya and Gupta dynasties developed imperial dominion over much of the sub-Himalayan spread of the region, establishing traces of socio-political order beyond their domains. Invading Kushans from Afghanistan followed the fading footprints of those two empires, and so did the invading early Turks in the Middle Ages, who were ultimately blocked in the far south.
The Mughals, at the very beginning of the seventeenth century, were finally able to bring South Asia – excepting Sri Lanka – under their military suzerainty. This, however, did not amount to direct rule, and the organizational centers of the empire, in Agra, Lahore and Delhi, were unable to sustain hegemony over the region. Caste, creed, languages, and local potentates continued to fragment socio-political order. Eventually, Mughal rule caved-in under the maritime intrusion of British colonial power. The British established administrative control over much of Mughal India for over a hundred years between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Under the auspices of the British East India Company, Britain ruled much of South Asia while maintaining the nominal sanction of Mughal authority. The British raj’s seat of power was in Calcutta, while the puppet Mughal rulers enjoyed idle courts in Delhi.
A mutiny by native soldiers of the British-Indian army led to the full take over of reigning legitimacy from the Mughals by the British Crown. “The last Mughal” was exiled to Burma (now Myanmar), and the Viceroy of the British Crown continued to rule from Calcutta, uniting British India under a reformed and synchronized administrative, legislative, and judicial system. Still, some 55% of the subcontinent below the Himalayas remained under princely tributary states outside that system. Frontier tribal regions in the northwest and the northeast of British India similarly remained subject to British power but not bound by British Indian laws. Three Himalayan Kingdoms existed as satellite protectorates, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) obtained its own separate British colonial government, and Afghanistan was ceded as an independent buffer between the British-Indian Empire and the encroachments of the czarist, Eurasian tentacles of the Russian empire. Commonality of purpose grew when the disparate anti-colonial resistances in the region began to take institutional shape under the impact of nationalist and internationalist ideas of various kinds. These movements were indirectly bolstered by rivalries amongst European maritime powers, which were facing a growing tide of peasant nationalism in Europe itself.
With the approach of the twentieth century, the British raj in Calcutta had to shoulder the responsibilities of geopolitical power equations extending beyond South Asia along land and maritime routes that served imperial interests. Before World War I, its seat of power was shifted back to Delhi from Calcutta in 1911, as a necessary strategic oversight.
The USA emerged as the ultimate arbiter of world order through two World Wars. This was ensured by the Atlantic Charter, and the European powers’ adherence to a decolonization process that would open all colonial markets to US products, produces, and high technology. A global market emerged and although the Cold War impeded the US juggernaut, “The New American Realism” continues to be a decisive factor in the changing world order of the twenty-first century.
South Asia, with the exception of Afghanistan, obtained devolution of power from the British Raj. The princely states, as well as a tiny Himalayan protectorate, were respectively absorbed into the body-politic of several states that emerged and found their seats in the United Nations. The region had, in the interceding time, sunk into a morass of deep decline, faint productivity, and social ills. Its once lofty position as a harmonious social order, and contributor of nearly a quarter of the world’s GDP in the eighteenth century, was no more. Over the last two decades, however, the region has begun making a patently fast recovery, though still impeded by inherent weaknesses and conflicts. Inhabited by around 40% of the entire population of the globe, the region is endowed with immense natural and human resources, and has the potential to become once again one of the most advanced regions on earth. Sadly it has also the highest concentration of the poor in the world, and the level of poverty in South Asian countries can be compared only with that in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Quarrels and conflicts, no doubt, can easily be identified as causes of stagnation, and in places like Afghanistan, of negative development. These conflicts are rooted in history, as they are elsewhere on earth. But while most of the other nations of the world have been forging ahead, individually or in solid or loose groups of regional alliances, the people of South Asia, despite having formed one such group nearly two-and- a- half decades ago, are not making much progress. Some of their quarrels and conflicts, or distrusts and detestations, were handed down at the time of the departure of the British in 1947. The partitioning of British India was a sordid affair, bloodied by communal riots and a massive population exodus. A host of unresolved issues, territorial, linguistic, ethnic, cultural, and social, afflicted the devolved state powers. Indian Union, for instance, avoided linguistic rifts by opting for the colonial lingua franca –English– as the state language. Pakistan was divided again, essentially on the language issue. Further complications have arisen, and continue to plague the region from the hangover of Cold War geopolitics and the imbalance of a US-led globalization process. While the post colonial milieu almost certainly teased out and exposed grievances that had been festering for generations, the social conundrums left as a direct consequence of the British raj have proved to be the most damaging.
The partition of the sub-continent into two and later three states, has left behind deep scars and frightening divisions that defy apparent resolution. The dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan spawned interstate and intrastate terrorism long before terrorism became an international by-word. It has lead to three wars between the nations, and motivated their ascent towards becoming mutually deterrent nuclear-armed rivals. The disrupted road and railway networks between India and Pakistan on the West and between India and Bangladesh on the East further underscore the sub-continent’s tendency to fritter away of huge amounts of natural resources that could be jointly developed. Some of the regions of South Asia have steadily been turning into deserts while certain others are remaining waterlogged. An environmental disaster of unimaginable magnitude is looming, literally, on the northern horizon with the Himalayan glaciers fast melting and sliding down. Afghanistan, for long a conflict zone, has added a new dangerous dimension by getting hooked up with the turbulent tribal habitat of Pakistan. Occupied by NATO for the time being with a tribally-endorsed ethnically-mixed elective government in place, Afghanistan with back-up in Pakistan’s Pushtoon border belt may still be harboring terrorist elements considered a threat to the global order, but may be heading towards a settlement between the occupiers and the Pushtoon nationalists of Islamist persuasion.
The South Asia Journal is launched with a promise to initiate a healthy and open discussion on all these problems. Contributors from all over the region of South Asia and the world are welcome and invited to take part in our deliberations. Our dream is to see a peaceful South Asia with its people co-operating bilaterally and multilaterally to make the most of their natural and human endowments. We promise, as a journal, to work hard to that end.
In this issue in the cover story, Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus has put forward his “social response” to currently faltering global governance that impinges very adversely on the weaker economies of South Asia. In coverage of geopolitics, two analysts have also dispassionately followed the pendulum of Sino-Indian relations that may have far-reaching implications for the region, and indeed in global affairs. For the theme of the first issue, we have chosen management of WATER, the common lifeline of habitation and growth in the region. Our focus is transnational, on the Himalayan watersheds that sustain the sub-Himalayan density of flora, fauna and Homo sapiens. The theme of our next issue will be more subjective, Human Rights, recognized by development strategists as the social ingredient vitally important for pluralism, dynamism and enterprise of a region caught in the poverty trap, to break out and race by leaps and bounds and catch up with the front-runners in the global village. ■