In the movie Kabul Express an avuncular Taliban-type proudly rattles off names of Bollywood superstars to a couple of Indian journalists, in war torn Afghanistan. King Khan and Big B might be cross-border stars, but India is often cast as the regional villain in the South Asian saga of suspicion and discord.
Sharing land or maritime borders with eight different nations, most of which do not share one with each other has made India a convenient punching bag for regional angst. Add to this, our patchy response to the travails of our smaller neighbours and you might believe the brickbats are well deserved.
The last few years have seen a maturing of political processes in the region, based on the assertion of separate political identities. Strong ethnic, linguistic and cultural linkages often drag India into internal conflicts and political tugs of war.
This has prompted controversial Indian interventions in the past, some of which like the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and peacekeeping operations in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s have tempered Indian mediation. India has also been attempting to break out of the regional straitjacket by seeking a larger international role. Not only has this vacated space for other countries to influence the politics of the region, ironically, India has been dragged even deeper into the internal politics of neighbouring states. But the winds of change sweeping across the subcontinent, pointing to new political formations, provide a fresh opportunity for constructive regional engagement.
Bangladesh will hold national elections later this month, despite the electoral boycott by the 19-member alliance led by Awami League. In Nepal, with the curtains coming down on the monarchy, the Maoists are poised to join the government, changing the face of Nepalese politics.
With the resumption of hostilities in Sri Lanka’s civil war, political rivals are burying differences to deal with a resurgent LTTE. There’s a new King in Bhutan, discontent is brewing against 30 years of uninterrupted Gayoom rule in the Maldives, and the voices for democracy in Myanmar are growing louder.
Despite some positive political changes in the neighbourhood, outstanding border disputes and mutual suspicion have prevented meaningful regional cooperation. In South Asia, the insecurities of its states are more closely linked than in any other part of the world.
Illegal migration across the India-Bangladesh border creates as much havoc as it does on the Pakistan-Afghanistan or Nepal-Bhutan border; religious fanaticism is threatening Bangladesh as much as it is Pakistan or India, AIDS does not respect national boundaries and smuggled small weapons kill thousands of South Asians every year.
India is hosting the next SAARC summit in April. This provides a good opportunity to revive defunct conventions on trafficking, narcotics and terrorism, and moot regional mechanisms for addressing common concerns. SAARC’s vision of regional integration is based on the premise that shared borders can create common opportunities and platforms for collaboration.
As successful regional integration in Southeast Asia and Europe show, collaboration on shared concerns can also alleviate discord.
In the words of our PM, "we can choose our friends but we cannot choose our neighbours." Economics has triumphed over politics in redefining our relations with countries like the US. It is time now to apply the same logic within the regional context.