SAARC is thirty years young and I am about a decade older—about the age when a mid-life crisis is permissible. Mine came in the form of a search for a place called home. It ended, for now, in South Asian University in Delhi.
I was born and brought up entirely in Kathmandu, in Nepali-medium schools and government colleges. But my only Nepali employer was my mother who ran a small crockery-cutlery shop in Patan. Since the age of nineteen, I have been on the paychecks of the aid industry, home and abroad. That changed when I made a concerted decision to quit the aid industry and take up jobs in Oxford and Pretoria.
My current employer South Asian University is partly Nepali. The class I teach at South Asian University is also partly Nepali, but more importantly, it is only partly Indian, while being also partly Afghan, Bangladeshi, Bhutani, Maldivian, and Sri Lankan. I am a lot more at home with this class than I would have been if it was just one of any of these nationalities.
SAARC does not control what I do at South Asian University but the idea of pan-national regionalism in South Asia is common for us both. We at university are busy trying to figure out what all is this “regionalism” that dominates the SAARC talk. But first its political cousin, or flip-side of the coin, “nationalism.” In Latin, the word nation referred to a group of foreign students, congregating in a cosmopolitan university from faraway regions. By extension, the word referred to a community of opinion and purpose. Eventually, however, the word came to mean a body of a people, bound by passports and flags, and at times unleashed as mobs to keep what it considers “others” out.
The death of humanistic nations
There was probably a time when nations seamlessly spilled into regions in South Asia through flexible borders and humanistic regimes. Ashis Nandy is one of many who claimed that aggressive nationalism crept into South Asia, piggybacking first on colonial hegemony and then on anti-colonial movements. Rabindranath Tagore, an ardent pan-nationalist visionary who lived a century before European scholars coined the term “post-nationalism,” warned Japan not to follow the Western suit on narrow nationalism. But it seems, his own home region willingly traded humanist borders with Westphalian, soon after it got its own independent nation. Wagah between India and Pakistan is the epitome of Westphalian border psyche. Wars might have given rise to the self-defeating logic behind this hyper-masculine choreography of national muscle-power between India and Pakistan, but the Wagah syndrome now dominates state policies and talks on many other frontiers where India has never officially been at war.
Hyper-masculine nationalism is exactly what is problematic about the choreographed expressions of stately love like those of the SAARC summits. Instead of moderating individual egos to make room for a collective Southasia, summits end up triggering rivalries of nations—whether over bulletproof cars or paranoid security arrangements. The idea of South Asia then gets reduced to a mathematical summation of nations when it should have nurtured a common sensibility and belonging for all Southasians.
Let Africa inspire
Let us dig the history of regionalism elsewhere, especially from within the Global South. Let me be provocative and suggest that vision and leadership for this alter-national regionalism need not come only from big and rich nations, but from the tiniest and poorest. Take for example, Aime Cesaire and Franz Fanon—a teacher-student duo who launched the pan-Africanist canon as we know it today, who were both from Martinique, a small Caribbean island with a land area of about one thousand square kilometers and a population of 386,000 inhabitants. In fact, an entire generation of pan-African movement came from the small islands of the Caribbean, including George Padmore and C. L. R. James, who mentored Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana to lead the African independence movement against the European colonization.
African regionalism did not dwell on the statuses of GNP per capita or growth rates, let alone the sizes of armies and headcounts of nuclear missiles. Pan-Africanism flourished in the understanding that a community belongs together if they have suffered a common injustice and have risen against it together. It took roots in the anti-slavery movement and eventually culminated in an anti-colonial movement. It would not be far-fetched to claim that Gandhi fed indirectly off these movements during his two decades in South Africa. Yes, Africa today has many problems including political violence between states, but it still sets the standard on regionalism for the world. The first pan-national regional unit was not the European Union, it was the South African Customs Union which was achieved in 1889 and has stayed in place throughout Africa’s colonial and postcolonial turmoil.
Coming back to South Asia, there is nothing bitter about statesmen wining and dining to sign joint declarations, but SAARC will mean much only if it can influence the global order in a meaningful way. Can the world be made more just and democratic, not only for Southasians but for everybody else who has been disenfranchised by colonial history and its postcolonial residue? This and the next generation of Southasians must concern themselves with this central problem, rather than endless petty bargaining about aid, hydropower, and ego-massaging.
Problem of our century
Aid is a gone game. Half a century of bikas, a.k.a. develoment, only made Nepal more desperate; the definition of bikas itself needs to be fundamentally altered for any hope to follow for things to improve on the ground.
The main event of the twentieth century was the anti-colonial revolution, but the twenty-first century world remains marred in deeply flawed systems of international development. First of all I want to emphasize that “development” is not a neutral word. Although a dictionary may define it in a certain way, its uses and interpretations are pervasive, and it has come to acquire a political meaning that is clearly hegemonic. It is in this political meaning that “development” of the twentieth century is different from the “industrial revolution” of the century before and “enlightenment” even earlier.
It would be fair to say that, just after World War II, developmentalism replaced colonialism in giving rise to a new global order. When the “new states” in Asia and Africa became independent, development came to be considered the new common goal and aspiration for humanity. There was clearly a great deal of enthusiasm at the time for this. Over time, modalities of development changed, starting from a “two-sector” model to a “take-off” model to “protectionism” to “economic liberalization” of the 1990s. Regrettably, however, enthusiasm has died along the way. Scholars like James Ferguson have called today’s aid industry an “anti-politics machine” because it is concerned only with technical-managerial projects that carve out jobs for elites and technocrats while distancing itself from the big question of social and political justice.
The reason cynicism took over enthusiasm about development has a lot to do with the fact that this idea came from the West and remained Western, as we see in the current ownership pattern of the largest aid organizations and the values they prescribe. Despite calls that the aid industry must put meritocracy over citizenry superiority, the West has stuck with the unwritten tradition that the head of the World Bank is always an American and the head of the IMF is always a European. Bilateral donors operate with an implicit two-tier membership. The broader aid community remains bifurcated between “local” NGOs and “international.” In other words, the aid world continues to operate with the logic that donors are always right and poverty is the fault of the poor, in much the same logic that gave rise to a situation where Mt. Everest could only be climbed by a white mountaineer and America could only be discovered by a white explorer.
Does SAARC have a vision to offer to counter this? Does it even care? Or is it just another Queen Victoria in new garb? Nepal’s new collaboration with anybody, starting with neighbors as we talk of SAARC in this summit, should revolve around efforts that can alter the rules of the game on how to liberate itself and the world from the shackles of crypto-colonial aid.