In more ways than one, South Asia has been pushed back to the 1940’s. If we were to take stock of the situation in the entire subcontinent, we can easily find out that we have made little progress and have got stuck in the status-quo mud for the past three-quarters of a century.
Besides providing a binding social order, the modern nation-states of South Asia have not fared well in providing the basic necessities of life to all the peoples of the region and other crucial needs such as quality education, meaningful employment, sufficient income, dependable health care, and dignified life to everyone.
Our region still witnesses the highest concentrated poverty and unjust opportunity structure in the whole wide world. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have 800, 55, and 33 million of poor people respectively and are performing so poorly in every imaginable socioeconomic indicator.
The vociferous communal rhetoric in public life, heightened India-Pakistan tensions with added nuclear dimension, dangerously deteriorating Kashmir imbroglio, increasingly vocal self-determination aspirations of nationality groups such as the Punjabis, the Bengalis, the Tamils, the Nagas, and others smack of a high degree of uncertainty and anxiety among our peoples. One can certainly sense a discernible amount of fear and worry among the various sections of the society.
And all these three countries have recently spent US$ 71.1 billion (2019), US$10.3 billion (2019), and US$ 4.06 billion (2020) respectively on national defence. India and Pakistan together possess almost 400 nuclear weapons with assorted paraphernalia such as delivery systems, upgrading mechanisms, and so forth. One can imagine the inordinate expenses that we incur on account of these largely useless weapons of mass destruction.
Only a few powerful sections of our regional society with clear vested interests have benefited substantially over the past few decades and have enjoyed power and prominence at the cost of the poor people. They feed us artificial identities, bigoted nationalisms, fundamentalist ideas, and further ‘divide and rule’ us.
One important reason for all this mess is the fact that the nation-states, in general, have never been nor will ever be adequate basic units for effective organization and efficient administration. In South Asia particularly, the nation-state project undertaken is inherently flawed.
Many of the South Asian countries have several nations within them and many a single-nation has been bifurcated and disconnected, resulting in two Bengals, two Punjabs, two Kashmirs, and two Tamil Nadus. Peoples here have not been united in any meaningful manner but dumped and tied together indiscriminately. By and large, the political aspirations of various nationality groups have been suppressed by these nation-states.
Even as the national elites try desperately to bind us together more tightly, there are more and more vocal calls from nationality groups to reclaim their cultural heritages, language identities, and autonomy aspirations in order to reconnect with the world more meaningfully and substantially.
These relentless efforts to create autonomous or separate polities underscore the important fact that the heavily centralized union governments have not been doing well. The states are getting increasingly frustrated that even the little remnant powers that they have are being corroded slowly and steadily. They are afraid of losing their identity and freedom eventually.
In India, our continuous struggle to cherish and nourish the foundational principles such as Constitutionalism, democracy, secularism, and social justice has come to a grinding halt. Even the small accomplishments that we have had over the past three-quarters of a century stand
The Hindutva forces think that they have got the political mandate as well as a historic opportunity to re-visit the independence-era and to re-start the post-independence journey afresh with their ‘Two Nations’ theory and so forth. They are so determined to do just that and have embarked on that backward journey with obsessive-compulsive measures such as the citizenship amendment act, ban on religious conversion, new educational policy, farm laws, and so on.
The situation is not any better in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka either. Nobody dares to question the contemporary arrangement or challenge it for fear of being branded as a traitor, seditious dissenter, and dangerous terrorist. It is high time we called this bluff and spoke out the truth.
If we are stuck with hopelessness, we have to dream some bold new dreams. In India, for instance, some call for establishing a ‘United States of India’ without realizing the fact that it will not solve anything in any manner. The narrow nationalistic sentiments, bilateral animosities, arms build-up, nuclear weapons, and all other nation-state shortcomings will continue to persist unrelentingly. And all these will keep gobbling up our scarce resources, perpetuate our poverty and misery, and keep us all weak and vulnerable.
If the going gets tough, the tough go re-envisioning the futures. As a young and idealistic graduate student, I presented an idea for South Asia at the International Peace Research Association’s biannual conference in 1992 held in Kyoto, Japan. Not many people took it seriously, of course, as what I proposed sounded rather childish and even outlandish.
Idealist as it was, I argued that disintegrating the modern states of South Asia into smaller and more meaningful provincial units and integrating them into a new ‘United States of South Asia’ was the one and only way to provide a decent and dignified life for all the peoples of our region. It is indeed quite distressing that the problem continues to bother us unabatedly even after three decades of my Kyoto presentation.
I knew that it would be ridiculed and even opposed vehemently by the vested interests. In India, it could even be considered seditious. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, many people would misunderstand this proposition as a manifestation of the continuous unwillingness to recognize these two countries’ secession and separate identities. Some could even misinterpret this idea as another variation of the Hindutva brigade’s ‘Akhand Bharat’ ambition.
As long as we persist with the present arrangement that gives rise to protracted conflicts, nationality groups’ political frustrations, lop-sided opportunities, and so on, all the South Asians’ basic needs will never be met. Instead of achieving peace and development in South Asia, we will be heading to more militarization, nuclear weapons production and proliferation, arms race, deprivation and misery.
And hence why don’t we disintegrate the not-so-successful South Asian states into their constituent parts, say 32 states in India, four or five provinces in Pakistan, three or so parts in Bangladesh, two parts in Sri Lanka and grant them all provincial autonomy? And quickly integrate them all into a federation, the United States of South Asia, with me regional cohesion and cooperation?