The unbearable silliness of comparing South Asia to Europe

Woolliness is part of the problem

Sandeep disses Dilip D’Souza’s contention that India and Pakistan should follow the footsteps of the countries of Western Europe and (re)unite. As the Acorn has previously argued, the idea of a South Asian Union is fundamentally flawed.

While Indians may simply dismiss re-union as impractical and not give it further thought, the idea creates deep suspicions about India’s real intentions in the other countries of the subcontinent who fear being gobbled by up the larger entity. Their fears are compounded by India’s espousal of secularism and democracy which means no special treatment for any religion and worse, the oppression of majority rule.

Besides, to Pakistan or Bangladesh especially, what is the difference between union with and defeat/annexation by India? Living in a democracy where Hindus form the religious majority is not quite acceptable to Pakistanis or Bangladeshis — even to many of those who genuinely desire to live in peace with India.

The proponents of a South Asian Union fundamentally disrespect the aspirations of the smaller countries of the sub-continent, some of whom have shed blood to establish their country so that they can preserve their culture and live according to their own norms. In many ways, the lofty-softies who propose re-union and the uber-nationalists who hawk Greater India are contributing in equal measure to sub-continental misunderstanding. Whether or not the two-nation theory was right or wrong is immaterial now — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan are not just entities on a map, but young countries seeking a place under the sun.

The best bet for peace lies in each country acknowledging the existence and aspirations of the others and working together to achieve mutual prosperity. Woolliness may be genuinely felt and well-intentioned, but does not help India, Pakistan and their quest for peace.

Tailpiece: In a discussion on Shanti’s blog, Dilip D’Souza asked me whether ignoring views contrary to my own is any way to go. In some cases the answer is yes, but evidently, in this one it is not.

20 thoughts on “The unbearable silliness of comparing South Asia to Europe”

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  3. I think you need to look at this issue from a long, long-term perspective. Who on earth thought that Europe would be able to unify to the extent that it has in 1945? Like Europe, the nations of South Asia do have something resembling a common culture and an identity that sets them apart from other cultural blocks in the region (the Arab world, Persia, Central Asia, China/Taiwan/HK, Indochina, etc.). If religious passions ever die down to the point where they’re at in Europe (or even America, for that matter), then the idea of a South Asian superstate becomes much more practical.

    Again, think about the next 40-50 years rather than the next four or five. And look at how Europe went about (and continues to go about) the process of unification. They started by making peace, then formed a common market, then facilitated the free movement of people, then created a central bank, then set up multinational regulatory agencies, then created a multinational assembly, then formed a common currency, and are just now working on creating a Constitution and drawing up plans for a common defence force. All in all, the process has taken more than 40 years, and still hasn’t finished. With that kind of timeframe, the idea of a South Asian Union doesn’t seem as ridiculous. And even if the idea is ultimately deemed impractical, some of the initial steps that took the EU towards unification make sense with regards to the self-interests of various South Asian states, providing immediate socioeconomic benefits while leaving the door open to further integration should they desire it.

  4. Nitin,

    1) I have no idea what your tailpiece is supposed to mean. If a dig at me, I’m lost! Not least because those links seem to take me nowhere.

    2) There is a difference between “reunion” and what I hinted at in my column. I have no wish for, see no need for, India and Pak to reunite. It makes no sense except in the minds of some too-fervid maniacs. In Pakistan, especially, partition is a finished thing. No going back. I understand that and all Indians should understand that.

    3) Much more important, though, is what my title hinted at: the road itself. That’s why I found Bernard Henri-Levy’s quote so intriguing. The road is the point. That’s why it’s worth taking.

  5. Nitin,

    I think the points in your earlier piece are pretty much on the mark. The comparison with EU is well-intentioned but flawed, and it is way too soon to declare that experiment a success.

    Having said that, I find it unlikely that in 10-15 years we will have the same status quo that exists today – and completely unconconceivable in 40-50 years. The cultural and historical ties that bind India-Pakistan-Bangladesh cannot be subsumed under blanket nationalism. No, India-Pak-Bangla will not merge. But there are many other configurations that are feasible. Whether through goodwill-peace-hippy way or cynical- counter-the-chinese-dragon way, I predict that we will see at least a NAFTA-ish or a Commonwealth-ish system put in place in the next decade or so in South Asia.

    Of course, any and all Generals will delay this process but I remian hopeful….

  6. Dilip,

    No, it is not a dig at you; rather, a response to the question you asked. Specifically, this post, and the Dec 2003 post it refers to, are arguments against views I do not agree with.

    Those links to Shanti’s blog are broken because it does not support comment permalinks; and are reproduced here for convenience.


    I also meant to say, I’m always amused by the optimism in your advice to “ignore” AR, and she will therefore be “condemned to anonymity”. Do you really believe that? Vast numbers of people, whether you like it or not, listen to hear and read her. You can’t wish them, and therefore her, away.

    Besides, is that really how you deal with views you disagree with? Hope they will vanish? A good way to fool yourself, but no more.

    Posted by: Dilip D’Souza at November 19, 2004 08:13 AM


    I do believe that it is a good policy not to dignify nonsense by bringing it up in serious discourse. You are quite right, my ignoring her may not prevent people from giving her a prize, but in my own humble and small way, I’m happy not to have contributed to that perversion.

    Posted by: Nitin at November 19, 2004 11:19 PM

    Nitin, you are welcome to pay no attention to AR. But do you really think you have a monopoly on “serious discourse”? And again, is this really how you deal with views you disagree with, pay no attention and hope they will vanish?

    As I also once mentioned here before: the blog world is a fine place all around, but I’m left wondering: how often do you guys seriously take on viewpoints other than yours, instead of dismissing them as “scum” and “nonsense” and “perversion”; and pretending that only what you do is “serious discourse”? (I direct this equally to those in the blog world I tend to agree with — they are just as reluctant to come to grips with other views).

    Posted by: Dilip D’Souza at November 20, 2004 12:32 AM


    By no means do I have a monopoly over serious discourse —- neither do you or anyone else. There are many ways to defeat ideas and people, not all of them involve engaging in shouting matches or intellectual debates. Silence, applied appropriately against the right adversary, can be a powerful tool too. Orson Scott Card, in one book (Enchanted?), tells of how powers of Gods wax and wane according to how often people remember and talk about them. So is it with the Devil.

    No, ignoring her is not a passive act of closing my eyes and ears hoping she will go away; it is an active act of not allowing her ideas to spread. Not through me, no.

    Your remarks on the blog world is gratuitous. You just cant generalise —- and if you are making this comment after reading my blog, all I can say is that you are hopelessly wrong. The world is changing, Dilip, and its not just the jholna-bag carrying, chain-smoking, black-rimmed-spectacle wearing, kurta-and-jeans crowd that can pass of as intellectuals. Now, everyone can. 🙂

    Posted by: Nitin at November 20, 2004 07:14 PM

    As for your third point, if that road can be taken without worsening the suspicions of India’s neighbours it may even be worth taking — but since it does not, that point is of borderline academic interest only.

  7. Sepoy,

    A decade is a rather short period of time — my most optimistic prognosis for this time is that the countries of the region will live up to their individual responsibilities first.

    But seriously, it will be time to start the meter only when the syllabus reform in Pakistan is complete.

  8. Eric,

    After 1945 the countries of Europe were too broke to pursue any territorial ambitions; plus, living through the second world war made them deeply abhor war. They had a common enemy (the Soviet Union) and a common protector in the United States. And lastly, they were all representative democracies, that ensured that the will of the people (anti-war feelings for example) was reflected in their foreign and security policy. None of the above applies to South Asia above.

    And for that matter, post-communist countries of Eastern Europe were fast-tracked into the EU, but Turkey is still outside.

  9. Nitin,

    You say to Eric, “None of the above applies to South Asia”; you say to me “point is of borderline academic interest only”, etc.

    Of course it’s true that our situation here is quite different from Europe. But that’s the point of an analogy. It’s not the same, but it puts thoughts in your mind nevertheless.

    Your points about suspicion in India in our neighbours are right on the money — every one of our neighbours mistrusts us — except for one thing: I think it is short-sighted to ascribe that mistrust solely to our “espousal of secularism and democracy.”

    The reactions I got to that article sort of summed up what it was getting at. I’ve already lost count of the number of notes saying “yeah, but what can we do when Pakistan doesn’t want peace?” This is precisely what I meant when I wrote about “a line in our minds.” That’s the much harder one to cross.

  10. Dilip,

    There is no contradiction in my responses to you and Eric — I contend that your analogy is simply wrong. If anything, a more plausible analogy would be that the European Union is trying to become something like the Indian Union…where people who speak different languages, belong to different ethnic groups and have distinct cultural differences decide to live together in one state. Of course, India’s imperfect federalism leaves much to be desired but the analogy still holds.

    You may contend that it is short-sighted to pin the fear on secularism on democracy, but can you argue that these are not real fears? Unless of course you advocate a system based on separate electorates and all that politics of entitlement (which is already an albatross around India’s neck)…I would then have nothing to say, for that can hardly be described as progress.

  11. Nitin,

    To me, analogies are hardly “right” or “wrong”. They offer lessons to think about, that’s all. Just as your analogy does. To me, there are things to learn from the EU. Maybe not to you; that’s fine.

    > but can you argue that these are not real fears?

    Have you spoken to Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis, or Nepalis, or Bhutanese, or Maldivians, about their fears of India? I am willing to bet that when and if you do, you won’t hear too much about fearing our secularism and democracy. That’s also why I spoke about those lines in our minds.

  12. Dilip,

    As arguments go, that last one is neither here nor there.

    Besides, what people tell you and what people really feel may be quite different. The point I’m making is that many Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepals, Sri Lankans etc may applaud Indian secularism and democracy, but that does not mean they would like to become part of it.

    I read four Pakistani newspapers, two Bangladeshi & Nepali ones every day, besides scanning through several bloggers from the subcontinent. I’ve based my conclusions on what I read — in op-eds, in letters to the editor etc; not on my personal beliefs on how the neighbourhood should be, but on how it is.

    Why not take a look at this post and this one to get a perspective on what a Pakistani blogger thinks. This post and this look at what some reputed columnists think. Here is one sample from this week.

  13. Nitin,

    > but that does not mean they would like to become part of it.

    But I hardly claimed they would! Was I unclear about this?

    What I was saying was, the mistrust of India that our neighbours feel is not because of our “espousal of secularism and democracy.” That’s all.

  14. Nitin,

    “After 1945 the countries of Europe were too broke to pursue any territorial ambitions”

    Perhaps, but they certainly aren’t too broke right now.

    “plus, living through the second world war made them deeply abhor war.”

    I don’t see why an abhorrence of war has been necessary for integration. Simply a desire not to go to war with your neighbors.

    “They had a common enemy (the Soviet Union) and a common protector in the United States.”

    The common enemy is now gone, while the existence of a common protector is more of an argument against, rather than for, integration. Consider all the rhetoric about the EU creating a common defense force in order to lessen the member states’ dependency on America.

    “And lastly, they were all representative democracies, that ensured that the will of the people (anti-war feelings for example) was reflected in their foreign and security policy.”

    Quite true. But as I said, I’m thinking about the next 40-50 years rather than the next 4-5. Over the long run, I don’t think it’s democracy, but rather religion, that will act as the largest impediment to any South Asian integration process. Meaningful political integration can become a possibility if there’s a “secularization” of the culture in the Western sense. That is, if the region ever gets to the point where there’s a consensus on religion being a private matter that the government stays out of.

    “And for that matter, post-communist countries of Eastern Europe were fast-tracked into the EU, but Turkey is still outside.”

    That’s because Western and Eastern Europe possess something resembling a common historical and cultural identity. The same can’t be said for Western Europe and Turkey.

  15. Dilip,

    I will agree if you put it this way instead,
    the mistrust of India that our neighbours feel is not solely because of our “espousal of secularism and democracy.”

  16. Eric,

    Let me clarify — what I’m arguing is that the conditions prevailing in the immediate aftermath of the second World War and subsequently during the Cold War created the right setting for the eventual formation of the EU. That process took almost 50 years.

    In the South Asian context, none of those conditions hold. This is just one reason why the parallel with Europe does not hold. Religion is another, especially considering the reasons behind Partition.

  17. I was initially rather aghast at the suggestion that normal human beings (yes I am referring to folks across the border!) could be afraid of secularism and democracy. I read some of the links: it appears to me that the fear is essentially born out of a fear of Indian hegemonism.

    Now I am really loathe to agree that the fear is there. Till the recent rise of the Hindu nationalist groups in India (which may or may not be a good thing, that is a different question), the majority in general lived in fear of the minority. I know this, because I have lived in India during this period, and let no one try to bull shit me out of this stand.

    So if we are trying to say that someone is scared of us, what they probably mean is, we have done so much to generally screw their happinness whenever we have had a chance – what the hell will happen to us should they get a chance?

    Finally, Goddamit man! For whatever it is worth, I am proud of my nationality. In the end, I would think that anyone would need to earn it, if they did not get it by birth. And I certainly would not want it gifted to folks who dont value the principles and ideals it is based on – and that includes all those chickening from “secularism” and “democracy”, whatever those terms mean to them. If you cannot value gold, you obviously dont deserve it anyway.

  18. the majority in general lived in fear of the minority. I know this, because I have lived in India during this period, and let no one try to bull shit me out of this stand.

    You lived in India so you have a stand, but therefore some unspecified “majority” must have the same stand? Speak for yourself, man. If you felt frightened, fine, you felt frightened. Please don’t assume that the “majority” of my country was as frightened as you.

  19. I have just come across this discussion. My two bits worth:
    Silly as it may sound I feel that unless the two countries reunite (including B Desh) there is very little likelihood of peace returning to the subcontinent. I have recently had a book punlished in a novel form called “Pakistan to Burma: Rebirth of India” pub by Manas Publications, New Delhi and would recommend it for yet another approach to this situation.


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