Unity in Diversity of South Asian Region
Dr. Rajkumar Singh
The Indian subcontinent or South Asia encompasses today eight very diverse sovereign states of very different sizes: India, Pakistan Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, and Afghanistan. The terms South Asia and India refer, in the first instance, to a vast geographical space stretching from the Himalayan mountain ranges in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south and from the valley of the Indus in the west to the plains of the Brahmaputra in the east. The subcontinent carries the weight not only of its people but also of their ancient history, stretching back five millennia, and a modern history encompassing the experience of British colonialism compressed in tumultuous developments within the past couple of centuries. (Bose, 2004). It has 3 percent of the world’s area, 23 percent of its population and 2 percent of its GDP. Within that, India has 72 per cent of the area, 77 percent of the population and 75 percent of the GDP (Koithara, 1999). The geographical boundaries drawn by the highest mountain ranges in the world and encircling seas and oceans set the whole of the subcontinent apart from the rest of the world.
The region South Asia and its peoples present a picture of diversity in unity, indeed of immense diversity within a very broad contour of integration. Among them, there is great diversity in natural attributes–imposing hills and mountains, lush green river plains, arid deserts and brown plateaus. The South Asian societies are marked by their many characters regarding languages, cultures, regions and religions. The peoples of South Asia speak at least twenty major languages, and if we include the more important dialects, the count rises to over two hundred. The very diverse languages and language families of South Asia have made enormous contributions to world literature from ancient to modern times. In a broad historical and cultural sense, all states of the region may be viewed to be belonging to the Indian family of nations.
It is a fact that the major countries of South Asia share a common historical past in the form of the British colonial rule, in terms of political stability, economic regeneration and socio-cultural change they remained poles apart in post-Independence period with the exception that they cooperated each other both at the bilateral as well as multilateral levels under the umbrella of forums, such as Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (ESCAP), Non-Aligned Movement and Commonwealth. Years following their independence were full of internal characteristics of the polities comprising the region ranged widely from democratic, federal and parliamentary to monarchical and unitary. Over the decades, they have restructured, developed and maintained altogether different political traditions and with certainty, none of the member states has fully succeeded in evolving in a ‘nation state.’
Culture, as Spengler and Toynbee used the word, is the product of long tradition, of shared habits among people living together over generations; it reflects a particular way of life and a particular view of the world. Its characteristic is spontaneity, and it is often said that it cannot be exported or imported (Barraclough, 1977). Likewise, the region South Asia share certain things in common and they are the religious – cultural heritage of the ancient and medieval times and the administrative, political, educational, economic institutions (Mallik, 1973). Adherents of the main world religions, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism are found in the subcontinent. Hinduism with its ancient roots, modern transformation, and multiple interpretations plays a vital part in the culture and politics of the subcontinent. The greatest cultural and political achievements of Islam have taken place in the subcontinent, where more than 400 million of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims live today. Each of the three most populous countries in South Asia – India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan has nearly 140 million Muslims, next only to Indonesia as the largest Muslim countries in the world. Buddhism, apart from the formal adherents in the land of its birth, continues to flourish in Sri Lanka and the Himalayas as well as in East and Southeast Asia. South Asia also has a significant number of Jain, Zoroastrian, Christian and Sikh minorities.
In spheres of culture, economy, politics and society the modern South Asian history witnessed some significant changes in which pivotal role was played by the intermediate social groups in the construction and continuation of the British Raj. As a result of this social group the colonial state succeeded in intervening the earlier communal and caste categories. They also refashioned the social relations of class by the linking of Indian economic regions to a wider capitalist system and thus created a new group in subcontinent’s society for their benefit. The states of South Asia emerged as sovereign entities after their prolonged struggle against colonialism. In the post-Colonial era, nation building became an arduous task. It was all the more challenging for multicultural states to blend the diverse religious, linguistic and ethnocultural groups into a national mold (The Hindustan Times, 4 August 1988). The majority of these states devised the mechanism of a secular democratic order to achieve this objective. But the lack of widespread participation or the inadequacy of participation has, rather, contributed to political fragmentation. The absence of a political mechanism to settle who will get what and how has given rise to conflicts among ethnic groups (Amin, 1988).
The withdrawal of empire leaves a legacy of uncertain frontiers and other differences among the legatee states. It was complicated further by the lack of self – confidence in the leadership elites of the new nations who frequently direct the fears of their citizens against neighboring countries in a mistaken belief that this will strengthen the spirit of nationalism and inspire internal cohesion (Gonsalves and Jetly, 1999). Real problems among neighbors do exist, and in the South Asian System, we can easily discern two types of dialectical struggles that have in the past influenced the nature of ties in the region. One type of struggle is; by a perception of India being a regional power, maturing into, either a sphere of influence or a hegemonic order. Another is primarily influenced by India’s ambitious role, is the struggle by Pakistan and others for autonomy, independence and sovereign existence (Kodikara, 1993). Having autonomy and security perceptions in their mind, the South Asian States developed stronger economic links with the countries outside the region.
Terrorism has profoundly influenced inter – state relations in South Asia. With the world’s fastest-growing markets, fastest – rising military expenditures and most dangerous hot spots coupled with a toxic stew of boiling religious, political ethnic, strategic and historical animosities, made all the more volatile by endemic poverty, illiteracy and the sheer agony of daily existence, Asia holds the key to the future international security order. Much of Asia’s terrorist violence is concentrated in its southern belt, which in the past decade emerged as the global hub of terrorism. This southern part of Asia, encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Chinese-ruled Xinjiang and Tibet, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, is wrecked by a terrorist, insurgent, and separatist violence in a manner unmatched elsewhere in the world. The number of annual fatalities in terrorist – related violence in South Asia far exceeds the death toll in the Middle East, the traditional cradle of terrorism. The entire expanse from the Middle East to South East Asia is home to militant groups and troubled by terrorist violence posing a serious challenge to international and regional security (Chellaney, 2002). Developments in several parts of the world are prompting scholars and policy makers to re-examine old theories of terrorism. The terrorist slaying has belied the arguments that, ‘Simply killing a lot of people has seldom been a terrorist objective. Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead (The Washington Post, 22 September 1988). It, in general, challenges the secular fabric of South Asia.
Secularism and South Asia
Secularism, as a concept, is not new in the realm of politics of South Asia. In modern concept, the term secularism was first used in 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake, a British protagonist of socialism. The term as practiced in the West meant as a concept that disqualifies religion as the basis for morality and education. For the first time, the concept was coined against the excessive interference of Church in the governance of the state. Although the concept was redefined by Saint-Simon, Durkheim, Comte and many others, it, however, remained not the same as practiced in this region. The South Asian philosophy of secularism in the realm of politics has been matured over several hundred years and is an age-old practice. This well-established socio-political culture of South Asia first reversed in 1947 when the partition of India took place to create a separate homeland for the Muslims who have lived together in harmony with Hindus for centuries.
In the Indian Sub-continent, Jawaharlal Nehru defined secularism as peaceful co-existence of different religions without interference from the government, and he was the first to propagate secularism in the Indian polity. He further explained that secularism refers to religious tolerance rather than disbelief in religious practices (Prabha, 2004). Religious tolerance as practiced in this region is an ancient social tradition. Secular values have influenced social life of South Asia for ages. The concept of co-existence of human beings amidst the good and the bad and the beautiful and the ugly is the hallmark of social and cultural life of this region. Needless to mention that the Royal British government was the first to sow the seeds of the communal divide as an instrument of state policy to exercise political control over India (Basu, 1976). Historically too, the South Asian society has been characterized by cultural diversity and religious perspectives rooted in tolerance and humanism. Conscious nurturing of these values and distinctive cultural features can go a long way towards making the region inhospitable for terrorism based on religious fundamentalism.
After the departure of the Britishers, the political leadership in this region did not come up to the expectation of the people. Like the British, most of the contemporary political leaders followed the same course to gain political mileage. In the context of India-Pakistan relations religion has been the single most important factor for the recent sharp deterioration in their discourse. However, in post-partition political development secularism emerged as an issue in both India and Pakistan.