Dilemmas of South Asians

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Dilemmas of South Asians. We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems but there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on. Richard Feynman

South Asia can be labeled as the most troubled region in today world. Though the world media has been singling out the Mideast as an area of violence, but the gravity of the situation in South Asia cannot be avoided. Pakistan and India are at daggers drawn on the major and long-standing dispute over Kashmir along with some minor irritants like water ties etc. Relations between India and Bangladesh are also strained. Bangladesh is exposed to political strife and destabilization. Nepal is confronted with the Maoist insurgency. Sri Lanka is hit by long-standing threat of internal fragmentation by Tamil Tigers.

Unfortunately South Asia lacks a political platform. SARCC is a non-political organization but it has not achieved its desired targets in the cultural domain. Corruption in SA occurs with 515 million people in poverty. It is an undeniable fact that corruption in SA does not lead to simply cabinet portfolio shifts or newspaper headlines, but to massive human deprivation even more extreme than income inequalities. Combating corruption in the region is not just about penalizing corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, but about saving precious human lives. Corruption in SA occurs more up-stream than down-stream.

For centuries inhabitants of the subcontinent have been exploited. It is ironic that all the evils prevalent in South Asian social and political infrastructure are attributed to colonial legacy. Facts on the ground are far different than this lame excuse. Indigenous rulers had victimized the lower class long before the advent of British rule in SA. Sub-continental Muslims have been fighting against Muslim invaders from the North. On 29th March 1857, a soldier Mangal Pande rebelled during a military parade and fired at the officer in command in order to free his countrymen from the colonial yoke. Perhaps he had no idea that the tyrannical rule he was going to revolt against was not something to be wiped out by a small-scale war of independence. It was something ordained to happen to his poor countrymen. The cast-dominated society of ancient India for example consented to the crimes committed by the Brahmans and Kashtriyas but low cast offenders were severely rebuked and tortured in the name of justice and peace. Muslim society in the Indian Subcontinent continued the same practice with some minor amendments. The Muslim society in India was very aware of the social status based on power, wealth and ancestry.

Some sub-continental historians apply cosmetic surgery to this negative aspect of indigenous history showing anti-British resistance movements by indigenous rulers to testify the existence of an independent society before the arrival of colonial masters; but it is a self-deceiving notion. Even Tipu Sultan, who is widely regarded as a hero in the process of independence by the Sub-continental historians, was compelled to seek French help to save his throne from the English. After the end of Monarchy in France he maintained friendly relations with the Revolutionary Government and in 1797, a Jacobin Club was founded at Sarangapatam and the Republican flag was hoisted in presence of Tipu. A tree of liberty was also planted on this occasion. By describing Tipu-French nexus I am not criticizing the role of Tipu but explaining the expansionist motives of European nations and helplessness of local rulers.

Recently I was reading a book titled The South Asian Century published by OUP. The author Zubaida Mustafa rightly says:
The one area in which SA has displayed a degree of affinity is in its culture, language, music, cinema, theatre and sports have a strong South Asian stamp on it.

In the very same book another senior journalist Ahmed Ali Khan speaks about diversity of South Asian culture. He says:

South Asia is great admixture of races, religions and ethnic communities bears testimony to the great vicissitudes of history which the region experienced.

Famous intellectual Bernard Shaw once said that lack of money is the root of all evil. This adage is true about SA. Rising poverty and famine in the region have contributed to the miseries of its inhabitants. With the phenomenon of poverty and corruption, lack of political will, leadership crisis and illiteracy are adding salt to injury. The problem of corruption would be more manageable if the people in the subcontinent were to look down upon the dishonest.

Today’s world is a global village. Take the example of Europe. NATO will consider inclusion of East European countries in its November summit in Prague this year. A Bulgarian analyst Petar Stoynov writing for The Washington Post said, it is time to close the door on the cold war which exacted an enormous toll on both East and West (Europe).

EU is also contemplating eastward and southward expansion. EU will definitely bring into its fold East European nations in the near future. Last month USA and Russia have signed a historic treaty that requires both countries to cut down their nuclear arsenals. The mindset Europe has developed over the years can better be judged by remarks given by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the occasion of establishment of NATO Russia Council:

We have to expand the frontiers of freedom if we close ourselves in our western frontiers we will not fulfill our mission.

By using Europe as a role model, South Asian nations can wake up to the challenges of the modern world. But unfortunately it is not such an easy task for this region to imitate Europe as it has its own regional problems deeply rooted in history, which with the passage of time persist. Given below is a brief account of miseries and woes of South Asian nations:

Political & Economic Woes of Pakistan

He majority of Pakistan’s population is agriculture-dependent. Most of its population lives in rural areas where basic amenities of life are not available. 33 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, per capita income has shrunk, and combating poverty because of low economic growth over past few years, deep rooted corruption, drought and political uncertainty has become a hectic task. The bizarre fact is that poverty in Pakistan is at variance at district-to-district level. In 5 districts of Sindh Province ratio of poverty is 82%. 60% families earn less than 1 US $ a day. With the graph of poverty soaring the current military regime has already increased its defense budget for the current financial year from estimated RS 134 billion at the time of the announcement of current financial budget to RS 149 billion. The origin of corruption in Pakistan, like most other third world countries, is rooted in its social and political history. The vestiges of the colonial system, to a certain extent, led to a concentration of executive powers, encouraging corrupt practices, and abuse of authority. Even those in the armed forces could not save themselves from plunging into corruption. Mansoorul Haq, ex Naval Chief, was found guilty of embezzlements and corruption to the tune of 7.5 million. Influential figures are above the law of the land. In recent times Nawaz Sharifs six accomplices were charged by the Musharraf government for storming the Supreme Court Building in Lahore during the Nawaz era. A pro-government politician recently stormed the Public Accounts Committee, a prime institution that examines audit reports in detail and submits its reports to National Assembly. An inquiry was ordered in this regard but as expected no action has yet been taken against him. IMF and other IFIs also are against any kind of relief to the poor. External debt narrowly defined (excluding explicit liabilities) stood at US$ 34.7 billion at end June 2001. IMF expressed concern at relief for people in the shape of electricity concessions, state support to wheat farmers through direct market intervention and refusal to two adjustments in petroleum prices announced by Pervez Musharraf during his referendum campaign. It is ironic that Pakistan has to share its budgetary proposals every year with IMF and other IFIs. Some moderate intellectuals have been urging to develop good relations with India keeping in view rising poverty in the country. 

An ideal foreign policy for Pakistan should be one centered on and with its main focus on the immediate regimes, which means one of its central tenets should be the creation of a working civilized relationship with India. We can’t escape India, there is no getting away from India, and there is no getting away from the fact that Pakistan is a South Asian nation. We have to have a civilized working relationship with our neighbour to the east.

Says Ayaz Aamir, a popular newspaper coulmnist and political analyst. Strained relations with India and recent war threats have also contributed to the economic miseries of Pakistan. Being a barometer of the economy, the stock market is considered as the most sensitive institution in the economy, which immediately reacts on any positive or negative political and economic developments. KSE 100 Index lost more than 7% overall loss was 14%. In the fall of May KSE 100 Index lost 132.58 points highest loss in 4 years. Extremist backlash is another headache for current and future governments. Jehadi outfits are also a source of contention between India and Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan of fostering cross-border terrorism. CNN and BBC international-famed journalist Riz Khan while talking to The News described the situation in held Kashmir as sad. Riz said while the Indian government distresses the Kashmiris through oppression but Pakistani extremists pain them too.

India Plight

Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, Prime Minister of India said while addressing the Indian troops deployed on frontline locations that time for a decisive action has come. Since December last year India has massed millions of troops on advanced locations close to Pakistani borders. The Indian governments war rhetoric seems to be imprudent when India plight is taken into account. With a sizeable Muslim population whose electoral support is sought by every political party in a democratic India, it has remained a soft state since its independence. Corruption has made a mockery of its law and order apparatus and consequently of its judicial system. Secretaries to the Government of India had declared more than a decade ago that India had become ungovernable. The armed forces of India, once considered the last island of sanity, have become a prey to those bent upon milking defense contracts for wrongful gains. Governance is non-existent in large parts of India. Over 2000 Muslims have died in the western state of Gujrat after the outbreak of communal violence in the past three months. Hindu chauvinism is on rise in India and is stigmatizing the face of secular India. Ramchandra Guha, one of Indias leading writers said that radical Hindus are trying to turn India into a kind of Hindu Pakistan, along theological lines, and with Hindus in charge rather then Muslims.

India is being attacked by fundamentalist of all hues. It is not a fight between Hindus and Muslims but between moderate liberals and fundamentalists, between democracy and fascism

says Shabana Azmi, an actress-turned-politician and member of Rajyya Sbaha. BBCs journalist Riz Khan is of the view that majority of Indian people do not think about Pakistan. They are now confined to music, amusement and Bollywood. It reflects the fact majority of people want to develop friendly ties with Pakistan. Extremism in India has been on rise ever since BJP pushed aside Nehrus Congress in mid 1990s. Indian economy is also in a slump. India has long struggled to control its federal and state finances and the estimated combined deficit last year of 5.7 per cent of GDP was sharply higher than the governments initial target of 4.7%. New Delhi is aiming to reduce the deficit this year to 5.3%. Indian industrial sector is also lagging. There were signs of industrial recovery but standoff with Pakistan has thrown the shadow of doubt over it.

Nepal and Maoist Insurgency

Nepal is home to some 23 million people. 80% of its population consists of farmers. Being a land-locked country, Nepal is dependent on Indian shores to conduct trade. The Himalayan Kingdom was recently hit by constitutional crisis. Arrival of democracy a decade ago and constituitionalization of Monarchy has not changed the fate of the poor Nepalese. Per capita income in Nepal is US$ 100 a year and life expectancy is 52. Maoists have been a source of terror for Nepalese. The number of Maoists is said to be 7000 to 12000; they are busy fighting against Nepals 45000 badly equipped Army. Maoists have been battling for the last 6 years. Maoist shadowy leader Comrade Prachanda has vowed to continue his struggle for a social government. A large part of the population is poverty-stricken, that is why rosy notions of Maoists attracted the poor in Nepal. Maoists blow up bridges and electricity station. Maoists are not in a mood to dispense mercy. Male and female Maoists have taken shelter in Pine Forests. Common Nepalese are terrorized to the extent that they dont prefer to go out of their villages at night. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba proclaimed state of emergency in November last year. Lack of education and poverty is adding to social and environmental problems. Illegal logging is rife and poachers last month shot dead and de-horned one of the Kingdoms last remaining rhinoceros. Perhaps encouraged by USAs help to Philippine to eliminate Abu Sayyaf Group, Prime Minister Deuba who was on a state visit to USA last month had succeeded to make President Bush pledge US 20 Million assistance to curb Maoists. But there is no likelihood of any assistance from USA to Nepal as USA has shown less enthusiasm to do anything good to Nepal. Nepals tourist industry is badly hit by the law and order problem. Situation has become so desperate that Nepalese Government last week slashed the minimum fee for climbing Mount Everest, it’s main tourist attraction, from $ 75000 to 25000.

Sri Lanka and Civil Strife

A dispute that dates back to colonial era when Tamils from India were transported to Ceylon tea-fields and subsequently settled down on the very same soil. With the passage of time their number increased but they remained a minority ethnicity to local Sinhalese. Tamil Tiger rebels and Sinhalese, fighting for a minority state in the north and east of country, have been battling for last 20 years, which has displaced 1.3 million people. Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunge was also injured in an explosion last year, which means head of the state is also at the hit list of Tamils. Prime Minister Ranil Wicremasinghe promised last year to end an ethnic war that has killed more than 64000 people and bring back those displaced in India.

February this year thank to a Norwegian-brokered peace deal Government and Tamil Tiger reached an agreement of cease-fire. US denied it had plans to establish military bases in Sri Lanka following an agreement between the armed forces of both countries in March this year. The US assistant Secretary of State for SA Chiristina Rocca on a visit to Sri Lanka announced that Washington was seeking increased military cooperation with Sri Lanka. She said that the US would take a higher profile in supporting the Islands Norwegian-backed peace process. There is likelihood of negotiations between Tamil Tigers and Government in Thailand June or July this year. Sri Lankan economy is severely hit by crisis because foreign investors are not satisfied to invest in the local market. Sri Lanka saw its first ever economic contraction of 1.4% last year. Exports fell by 15%. 60% of Sri Lankas exports are garments, which saw weak demand from USA and EU. Fortunately Sri Lankas trade deficit narrowed in the first quarter of 2002 on account of a sharp drop in imports. Sri Lankas Central Banks Amaranda Jaywardene disclosed that deficit fell by 18.5 to 277 million during the period in which the country export of mainly garments also plunged due to weak demand from US.

Bangladesh and Political Instability

Bangladesh dilemma, like that of Pakistan, lies in frequent changeovers between democratic and military governments. Maybe, Bangladeshi Army retained the heritage of their counterpart Pakistan Army to clutch the power when the time is right. But politicians corrupted and vitiated too the political atmosphere. BNPs Chief Begum Khalida Zia who had been criticized for corruption in her previous tenure, has again been elected Prime Minister following last years election to which Opposition Leader Awami Leagues Sheikh Hasina Wajed has termed as flawed and massively rigged. Opposition Leader Sheikh Hasinas 5 years period was marred by the strikes when she was in office. Now she has adopted the very same stance and demanded fresh elections. Recently speaking at the ceremony of a newly launched book titled A Rigged Election: An Illegitimate Government she said,

The only way to save the nation from destruction is to hold fresh general elections as soon as possible by way of an improved system of holding polls.

Soon after Khalida took over the charge a controversy cropped up regarding repeal of law of display of portrait that requires displaying the portrait of Father of the Nation. On the other hand, Begum Khalida Zia also alleged Sheikh Hasina Wajed for misuse of power and corruption during her government. Political disorder is badly impacting the economic health of Bangladesh. Natural calamities like drought and storms also increase the distress of its population. Bangladesh bilateral relations with India are strained. Last year India accused Bangladesh armed personnel for mutilated dead bodies of BSF soldiers. There is also a dispute between both countries on sharing of water.