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 In Press

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Press Release-Pentagon Press
Title: India and South Asia: exploring regional Perceptions
Date: 20 Apr 2015
Description:

 Indian Foreign Affairs Journal Vol. 10, No. 2, April–June 2015, 182-201

                                               BOOK REVIEW

 

Vishal Chandra (ed.), India and South Asia: Exploring Regional

Perceptions, (New Delhi, IDSA / Pentagon Press, 2015), Pages 319,

Price: Rs. 995.00

Regionalism in South Asia remains at best work- in- progress but it continues to be haunted by the old question as to whether it is possible and feasible to peacefully manage the socioeconomic fragmentation bred by the conflicts and violent events since independence from the British. Regional economic integration could be one of the effective means to this end. How that has progressed so far, and its likely praxis are matters for review and scenario building. The IDSA devoted its Annual South Asia Conference in 2013 to the theme of Exploring Regional Perceptions in South Asia, keeping India in the principal focus. This was a two-day conference with invited participants from all South Asian countries whose contributions covered narratives and perceptions ranging from the historical to present-day, national and sub-national  to regional, intra-regional as well as trans-regional in relation to the contemporary socio-economic and political milieu. These contributions and analyses thereof form the metier of the book edited by Vishal Chandra bearing the theme in its title.

Even as one realises the daunting nature of the tasks inherent to integrating a region grown fourfold since, it requires dogged optimism to even contemplate likely evolution in the coming decades. The project that underlies this book is  indeed ambitious in that it takes on board the diverse and varying perceptions  of scholars from South Asia’s eight countries and attempts to conclude with a way forward. It might seem easier to many to dismiss the South Asian  vision as unrealistic while others would prefer to explore what alternative may be in sight. As things stand today, even the plight of the exemplary success story in regionalism, the European Union, seems to issue utterly  confusing messages as the EU grapples with serious challenges; challenges  that call in to question the very premise of the EU venture. While Europe can  possibly go beyond the challenges one way or the other, would it be wise for South Asian countries to let the regional option run aground?

The papers compiled in this book are organised under three sectional headings to address the difficult task of systematic exploration of perceptions. The first section concerns Shaping of Perceptions, the second spans Mutual Perceptions and Expectations and the third zooms into Regional Cooperation.

Papers in the first section deal with how Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka see the region from their particular national perspectives. Pratyoush Onta from Nepal explores the role of academic community and the reasons the regional studies fall short in various academic institutions in different countries, including India, which in turn influences young scholars’ (mis)perceptions about neighbours. Dinesh Bhattarai examines the bilateral relations between India and Nepal in an exhaustive essay.

An engaging piece by Yaqoob Khan Bangash from Pakistan delves into the preoccupation with identity that figures prominently in the entire context of India-Pakistan relations, and with Pakistan’s narrative of itself and what the author calls, “…eternal comparison – more so in Pakistan than in India perhaps”.

He perceives a changing trend within Pakistan in the recent years as introspection about “increasing tide of militancy and extremism” within the country is pointing to a fledgling sense of flexibility in the hardened anti-Indian core. However, he is quick to acknowledge at the same time that the LeT, Harkat-ul-Mujahidin and the Defence of Pakistan Council keep the flame of anti-India sentiment burning. He holds that the perception of India cannot improve in Pakistan unless and until the latter becomes a stable and secure nation.

Humayun Kabir from Bangladesh situates perception formation within the rubric of social construction and unfurls an unending chain of social, political, economic and psychological factors interplaying in a complex web. His definition of the problem of perception formation, clearly sets him on a course, which might go towards no convergence or closure. He posits in his discourse the self-perception in Bangladesh as “a sociallydriven, egalitarian and enterprising nation…which is fiercely independent in its outlook and attaches high value to individual entrepreneurship, social creativity and collaborative connectivity to its neighbourhood”. His essay thus goes out of control and betrays the intractability of appropriate perception formation, which is perhaps inherent in an academic discourse giving free reign to expression of everyone’s thoughts and imagination; if not emotions.

The exploration thus morphs into an exploration of divergences in the context of the India-Bangladesh relations, leaving the “regional” way aside. These diverging tendencies are further discussed by another scholar from Bangladesh, M. Ashique Rahman, in the next section. He elaborates upon a critical assessment of “Rising India and Bangladesh-India Relations” to lay bare the gap between the expectations from India, and the achievements so far in the bilateral quest. These two essays together might appear counter intuitive for those today who perceive a propitious climate for improved bilateral cooperation. Maybe the assessment by these authors is rooted in 2012 whereas the same may not be perhaps as negative at present, i.e. in mid-2015, given the steps taken by the new government in Delhi over the past year. Nevertheless, some of the data and factual details given by M. Ashique Rahman about bilateral trade deficit, (unresolved) border issue, immigration, and water resources call for a focused response from the Indian side, which could make the discourse more complete. The negatives in perception formation, according to his paper, also include the role of media, which “often focus more on failures or setbacks rather than successes or improvements”. He avers that the Indian media’s size, coverage and circulation is much larger in Bangladesh than its own media – for example, the West Bengal daily Anand Bazar Patrika has a higher circulation in Bangladesh than that of all the newspapers of Bangladesh together.

This exhaustive presentation from Bangladesh concludes with placing responsibility on India to “grasp proper understanding of the expectations of its neighbours in the context of its rising status as a global power”. The author advises incumbent governments on both sides “to incorporate the Opposition in the policy making processes” since both countries in his view assume special significance in each other’s domestic politics. The perceptions conundrum underlying regionalism is further expounded in an erudite piece by Sri Lankan senior diplomat and scholar Jayatilleka, former ambassador to France, Belgium and EU, the title of whose paper is impressively self-explanatory: The Geo-Strategic Matrix and Existential Dimension of Sri Lanka’s Conflict, Post-War Crisis and External Relations. After pointing out the geographical incongruity of Sri Lanka’s location where its definition (by outsiders) as “an island off the southern tip of India” and Sri Lanka’s own assertive self-definition – “against” India rather than “by” India, the author dives deep into ancient history to say that a counterreformation, as it were, between Ashoka’s Buddhism and the Brahmanic.

Hindu faith forms a long term block of thousand years of history. This profound foray into the history of religion in India appears to be of compelling relevance for him. He further elaborates in this incisive and abstract study of Sri Lanka’s perception formation on how solitary his country is in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean right down to Antarctica except for the proximity of enormous India to its north. He introduces China in this study by posing a loaded question about the positions taken by the Indian and

Chinese governments on the Sri Lankan war (against LTTE): Why did India and China put aside their competition, and support the Sri Lankan state in the end game of the war? He answers it by suggesting the emergence in Asia of a sort of “Eastphalia”, a la the Westphalian point in the evolution of European history, as a reason for this support by placing state sovereignty uppermost.

He also introduces a South-North perspective in how Sri Lanka perceives India, drawing a laboured parallel to the North-South paradigm in the twentieth century international politics. He thus asserts a “southern” vantage point as a “rather legitimate notion” in the study of politics and goes on to invoke the Italian Marxist Gramsci in his support. Considering that he also mentioned Cuba and the US in a distant allusion to the contemporary India-Sri Lanka frame, the essay can be interpreted by simple-minded international relations theorists as a thorough expose of the element of hostility in relations between India and Sri Lanka. This learned invocation of hostility in my view may have been gratuitous especially at a time when Sri Lanka’s own political system was in turmoil due to the ruthless authoritarian streak in the then president. This was the downside of the free reign given to perceptions – as divorced from a reality check. The reality check manifested itself a year and half later in the routing of not only Rajapaksa in the elections in 2014 but also much of what he was practising and his faithful loyalists were supporting with esoteric pedantry.

It is the bane of South Asian imagination that it comprises such persistent strains of hostile intent among scholars against India as a mark of their identity and independence of thought and action. The ascendance of this tendency throws more spanners in the works of regional cooperation than any factual narratives. The essays by scholars and practitioners of regionalism who took part from India at this conference are in some contrast with their counterparts from the neighbouring countries in that their analysis of perceptions is a bit more inclined to show facts even when discussing the historical context.

 

Partha Ghosh, for example, even while negotiating the tortuous course of perceptions provides his view of Bangladeshi society as a society where “there are strong pro-Islamic forces as well as strong secularist forces that vie for power” and “the role played by the international community, most notably India and Saudi Arabia” matters a lot due to geo-economic and cultural connections. He supports his point by a brief historical narrative of the past century and half of the sub-continent. He then discusses contemporary developments like the findings of the 1971 war crimes tribunal in Dhaka and the turmoil in the Bangladeshi polity about what it cannot forget (and what Pakistan might never remember), the impact of these developments on perceptions about India and the persisting lack of mutual appreciation between India and Bangladesh. Partha Ghosh too, though, is inconclusive about what his analysis can say for regional context. This context is discussed threadbare in the pieces by Nagesh Kumar and Indra Nath Mukherji who go into the nitty gritty of the economic relationship, both at present and potential, to develop their case for the strands showing the way forward as well as the problems that bedevil it.

Then there is an important contribution by S.D. Muni about how China figures in this South Asian regionalism. The essays by authors from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Maldives and Bhutan make interesting presentations of their respective national views about regionalism and India.The most difficult part for the editor is the last chapter on key recommendations for the way forward – without which, this two-day deliberation on perceptions might hang in mid-air. Like everything else in argumentative South Asia, these recommendations too lay themselves open to disagreements and counter points. However, that task is best left to the reader who benefits from the valiant attempt regardless of the differing takes on it. The IDSA made a major effort to come to grips with how South Asia looked in early 2013 to its constituents, and this book gives a faithful snapshot, albeit a tad skewed against what is termed as “statist mind-set” of India’s political and bureaucratic elite towards neighbours, a judgement that may not be entirely fair. It is doubtless true, as the book concludes, that “at the civil society level, at track 1.5 or track 2, it is important to churn out consensual models and practical ways forward…”. What governments fall short of accomplishing let other tracks help to achieve. Good luck to such optimism.

 

SHEEL KANT SHARMA

Former Ambassador of India to Austria

and former Secretary General, SAARC


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