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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

India's outward thrust

There is a strong argument that the concept of nation states has given order to previously loose geographic entities, providing many countries with a compact and clearly demarcated area to adopt governance in. However, at the very least, it has also been responsible for dividing people who hitherto co-existed, consequently stemming natural trade and cultural flows as well as imposing novel identities on people, under the banner of a flag.

The words absorption, hybrid, syncretic and fusion are arguably synonymous with Indian history. It could certainly be argued that these key traits enabled the region - which today is commonly and perhaps apolitically referred to as South Asia - to thrive and prosper. Indeed, If one were to start from the Mauryan empires of the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE; as a vantage point in history and then work our way - with a broad brush and adopting a loose definition of the territory – up to the 18th century; this region has (with certain exceptions no doubt) controlled between approx. one third and one fourth of the world's economy.

In 2011, the region is now dominated in size and economy by the nation state of India, it is also abutted by a number of smaller nation states, with the most prominent being it's 'arch-foe' Pakistan. India's GDP has regressed from a historic high of around 30% of world GDP to 2% today, notwithstanding it's rapid leap since 1990 to integrate with the world economy. The effects of colonialism followed by the adoption of the essentially European construct viz. the modern nation state peppered with the traumatic and hate-fuelled partition of British India, into what emerged as a further two nation states - in the shape of Pakistan and Bangladesh – could be cited as reasons for the continued decline in share of world GDP for the region.

Accepting the above as a very generalised summary, adding another historic touch before grappling with modern-day issues that impede the economic growth of this region is considered a must. Just as throughout the history of Indian civilisation, the geographical area thought to encompass it has witnessed different histories. For example, each of the following; the north, centre and the south have in essence a different history from each other. Different dynasties and distinct 'golden ages' were reflected in various epochs, characterising each of the three parts. Foreign exposure, influence and absorption always added to the complexity of what can be described as 'Indian civilisation'. It's geographic limits stretched as far as modern-day eastern Afghanistan at one end and modern day Indonesia at the other. Again, not limited to within one epoch or dynasty.

While there are just and manifest reasons to understand and tackle the myriad of tensions that litter the wider South Asian region, it is undeniable that the dual and as yet mutually in-exclusive issues of Indo-Pak relations and the 'Kashmir Issue' dominate the region's political discourse. Many analysts within the region and from the global community may well differ and cite Afghanistan. Nevertheless, if Indo-Pak relations take a fresh, lateral course and overcome messy historical baggage accumulated since the aftermath of the Indian mutiny in 1857 - characterised by giving undue importance to religious identity - not only would the region be thankful for an end to a frankly morbid Indo-Pak peace process, it would instigate the possibility of returning much gasped for civil space in Kashmir and could set the scene for Indo-Pak co-operation on developing Afghanistan. The latter prospect, though Panglossian in aspiration, has been envisaged by a rising number of people on either side of the Indo-Pak border (via the net and free of State shackles). In one's humble opinion, it could be foreseen if only the two previous conditions are seriously given scope to on the ground.

There is a strong argument that the concept of nation states has given order to previously loose geographic entities, providing many countries with a compact and clearly demarcated area to adopt governance in. However, at the very least, it has also been responsible for dividing people who hitherto co-existed, consequently stemming natural trade and cultural flows as well as imposing novel identities on people, under the banner of a flag. This had an immense impact on trade, evolution of civilisation and freedom of identity: perhaps none more so than the vertical boundaries between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Taking into account Europe's historic evolution and relatively seamless transition to a community of nation states, it is perhaps little wonder that the region's 30% share in world GDP has dwindled to 2%.

What began as pernicious interplay between religion and politics in the region has unfortunately become embedded aspects of state policy in Pakistan and most certainly informs the motivation of the BJP in India, if one were to take it's 'red rag' initiative to Lal Chowk in Srinagar (today - Wed. 26/01/11) as a moot example. Be that as it may, it is also becoming increasingly apparent that religion is succumbing to economy as the main motivator of the public's political decision-making in the region. There-in lies hope for the region to regain it's historic foothold in the world economy.

There is a caveat though. The idea is not to undermine religion per se. Even those of us who are irreligious should appreciate the merits of religion and it's ability to inspire and commit one to do good. The idea of spirituality being a potent anti-dote to materialism is a well-recognised phenomenon in the West as much as it is in the East. The freedom to practice religion is also an inalienable right every bit as much as the freedom not to (practice). Having a good hard look at the interplay of religion and politics in this region over the past 150 years or so would suggest that religion (of whatever dispensation), when used as a mobilising force for political ends  has invoked irrational hatred followed by destruction. The urge to destroy has proved invariably greater than the urge to build or construct. Invoking religious passion for political ends is relatively easy and destructive I.e BJP and Ayodha in 1992. Delivering economic needs requires careful and creative construction. Iqbal must have had good intentions in his narrative on politics and religious identity but his thesis offers little to answer the needs of the modern day economy and requirements of governance.

Despite the torment of partition, India has done remarkably well to integrate what was left of the northern, central and southern parts of the Indian civilisation and wed it's identity into a modern nation state. Controversial as it may be, Pakistan in equal measure has failed to integrate the parts it took over, failing to conciliate the modern nation state glued together primarily by religious identity. Both realities obviously competed in Kashmir by immediately giving it the same vertically divisive treatment that both countries had undergone courtesy of partition. This is the juncture where the horizontal re-integration of India and Pakistan or at least the acceptance of it should pave the way for Kashmir's horizontal re-integration. It is contended that this is the basis for the South Asian region realising it's economic potential and enabling a neutral Kashmir, to be (amongst numerous other utilities) the node of exchange between Central and South Asia. 

One finds reminiscence in the words of the great fourteenth-century Muslim-Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, who considered that civilisations in decline could prevent disintegration by imitating their victors. This is most certainly not an allusion to an Indian victory over Pakistan. It is rather a recognition that Muslims have in the main failed to adjust and adopt new ways of thinking over the past five hundred years. What the West contributed to global civilisation in this corresponding period (not without great cost), was and has been adopted by the Hindus of India. The strengths of this civilisation are it's ability to absorb, integrate and create it's own. A heritage as much owned by Muslims as well as Hindus. India could be described as a giant with 'feet of clay' without Pakistan. It's highly unlikely that Pakistan will yet again be bailed out of it's current predicament by another country, unless of course India embarks on an 'outward thrust' in the shape of a 'soft charm offensive'.

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Author is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani administered Kashmir and can be mailed at sahaafi@gmail.com.

This article was first published in Rising Kashmir (a Srinagar-based English daily) on the 26th of January 2011

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