India defines South Asia; so why make apologies?

The best thing India can do for “South Asia” is to be more of itself

Mukul Kesavan’s piece in the Calcutta Telegraph makes a good point, although he takes a rather passive line.

From an Indian point of view, South Asia is a well-meant fiction: South Asia consists of India and a bunch of countries that share a boundary (land or sea) with India but not each other. It’s reasonable to say that India defines South Asia, not only because it is so much the largest country, but also because the others are connected to one another at one remove, via India. South Asia feels like a unity when Punjabis cross the border and exclaim at similarities. Or when Bengalis from either side of India’s eastern borders do the same. Or when Sri Lankan Tamils like Muralitharan come to find brides in Madras. It is India’s diversity that gives South Asia meaning. Otherwise the Nepalese don’t feel a special kinship for Tamilians, nor do Sindhis feel intimately linked with Sri Lankans.

The irony is that this South Asian identity, this idea of a regional family of nations which would have no meaning without the connections supplied by India’s diversity, is made up of nations established on principles diametrically opposed to the idea and reality of India. India was founded as a pluralist democracy and it has remained one for more than fifty years. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, on the other hand, are sporadically democratic, avowedly majoritarian states, owned by dominant religious communities.

(Unlike the EU or ASEAN) South Asia shares neither a political system nor a common strategic vision. For “South Asia” to be more than a geographical expression or a sentimental aspiration, India’s neighbours will have to re-invent themselves as democratic states…

It isn’t unreasonable for Indians to expect neighbouring civil societies to demonstrate their commitment to non-sectarian politics…

It goes without saying that India could do better. You only need to look at Gujarat or Kashmir or Nagaland to know that. But this is not the same as saying that azadi for Kashmir or an independent Nagalim is a solution. India’s adventures in democracy and diversity have taught us that to oppose majoritarianism is also to oppose the cruel simplicities of self-determination. Today’s self-determinists are nearly always tomorrow’s majoritarians. A quick glance round India’s neighbourhood should illustrate that graphically. Complicated nations that learn to deal with diversity are better than simplifying ones that try to draw borders around a People. Democratic Indians can, with perfect consistency, at once oppose the Sinhala Buddhist primacy in Sri Lanka and the project of a Tamil eelam.[The Calcutta Telegraph]

3 thoughts on “India defines South Asia; so why make apologies?”

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  2. I tend to agree with him. It’s probably time we question the fetish for self-determination, though it’s hard to define any ethical principle that comes out definitely ‘against’ it.

    Human rights, democratic process, and protection for minorities comes higher on the priority list for me these days.

  3. Human rights, democratic process, and protection for minorities comes higher on the priority list for me these days.


    I’d add economic freedom to that list.

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