June 2009 
Year 15    No.141

Violent neighbourhood

Hinduism is said to be a non-violent religion, Buddhism is supposed to be synonymous with ahimsa and Islam, they say, means peace. Yet the followers of these faiths inhabiting the countries of South Asia have been perpetrators and victims of violence as perhaps no other region of the world in the last two decades.

In the early ’80s we thought that, like others in the world, it was time we too came together as good neighbours and worked out a pact of mutual cooperation and collective welfare. Thus in 1983 the Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation was adopted by the foreign ministers of seven countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – in New Delhi. Two years later the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was formally established. On India’s initiative, Afghanistan was welcomed to the SAARC club in 2005 as its eighth member.

The objectives of SAARC as defined in its Charter are noble:

  • to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life;

  • to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realise their full potential;

  • to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia;

  • to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems;

  • to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields;

  • to strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;

  • to strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interest; and

  • to cooperate with international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.

But the experience of the past quarter century shows that the reality on the ground has been the exact opposite of declared intent, with the region plagued by mutual suspicion, hostility, hatred and bloody violence between and/or within the member countries.

During this period we in India have had more than our share of ethnic, ideological and communal strife, massacres, genocidal killings, extremism and terrorism. The failure of the Indian state to protect the life and property of religious minorities resulted in an impetus to Sikh terrorism in the ’80s and Muslim terrorism following the demolition of the Babri Masjid (1992), the anti-Muslim pogrom in Mumbai (1992-93) and the genocidal killings in Gujarat (2002). It is a matter of common knowledge now that in what some might call a ‘retaliation’ against ‘retaliation’ strategy, ‘Hindu terror’ was born in 2003, if not earlier, in several parts of the country. The Indian turmoil was exploited to the hilt by Pakistan which did all it could to train, equip, finance and export terrorism to India, fuelling extremism in Punjab, Kashmir and the rest of the country. The two nuclear-armed neighbours even fought the Kargil war in 1999.

For now however we in India are entitled to a big sigh of relief. In the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls the Indian voter said an emphatic yes to inclusive politics and dealt a severe blow to the BJP, the electoral wing of Hindu majoritarianism. In the camp of those whose full-time occupation it was to promote divisive politics, the knives are out and internal bickering is intense. Political pundits say that Hindutva has reached the limits of hate politics, that there is no future for the BJP except as a right-of-centre party. Let’s say amen to that and cast a glance at the situation in our neighbourhood.

The people of Bangladesh gave themselves a wonderful New Year’s gift this January. As fanatical religious outfits were routed at the polls, Sheikh Hasina, with a landslide victory, pledged her party’s commitment to uproot extremism from her country. But in next-door Nepal, the situation is worrisome. Not so long ago the Maoists had bid goodbye to extremism and turned to parliamentary politics. Of late however there have been fresh signs of turbulence and it is only to be hoped that the country is not pushed into a violent trajectory once again.

Sri Lanka may have just resolved its ‘LTTE problem’ but it has done so in such a manner as to lay itself open to the charge of heinous war crimes made by states and human rights groups across the globe. Saner elements within Sri Lanka are hoping that, having learnt some lessons from the long and bloody ethnic strife, the state will now distance itself from the Sinhala chauvinism of the past, a policy responsible for the birth of Tamil alienation and militancy.

If Sri Lanka has the opportunity to make a new beginning, the continuing problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan have coalesced into the ‘Af-Pak’ syndrome. Islam might preach peace but the Taliban and their ilk undoubtedly worship a violent god. Even as others in the SAARC region may now hope for a better tomorrow, much will depend on whether Pakistan is able to contain the self-styled ‘Army of Allah’ that it has created and nurtured for so long.


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