Monday, February 07, 2005

BANGLADESH: Forgotten Saarc and power elite

+ The power elites of the two countries are certainly proud of their military arsenal embellished with nuclear weapons and they are never tired of the race for getting the better of the other in military terms. But when it comes to increasing the pace of cooperation between them as well as other countries of the region such enthusiasm is hardly visible except in rhetoric. However, the smaller and poorer countries of the region are also not free from the influence of militarism and creation of a self-serving military and bureaucratic elite.+


Forgotten Saarc and power elite
Syed Fattahul Alim

2/8/2005


THE 13th summit of the seven-nation South Asian regional forum, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), could not be held on schedule. Though failure to hold a summit or its postponement, especially in the case of Saarc, is nothing new, putting it off this time has caused resentments among the ruling political quarters as Dhaka was eagerly awaiting this prestigious regional meet of the top government leaders of the region. But it is not simply the prospect that Dhaka would host the event this time or that the incumbent Prime Minister of Bangladesh would become the chairman of the forum for the next term, in fact the occasion provides the singular opportunity for the leaders of the regional nations to share their views on various regional and international issues and reach a common ground. This helps the peoples of the whole South Asia to see eye to eye with one another on developments that have bearing on their lives. But all these opportunities were lost, though for the time being. But looking at its past records, does the forum really amount to much? India, the biggest member of Saarc, is so populous and resourceful that all other six partners of the forum together cannot in any way match it. Indian leadership is certainly aware of its clout and makes no secret of it in its relations with the neighbours. Of course, self-interest is the guiding spirit of every single nation on earth. And in the case of the lesser members of the global community of nations, nothing much is expected of them and their selfishness, too, is accepted as something very natural and par for the course. What is more, their demonstration of selfishness is hardly ever noticed by other members of the community. But that is not the case with nations in possession of a lot of resources and other kinds of power, whether economic or military or both. And their selfishness is also scrutinised more critically, rather disapprovingly, than that of their lesser counterparts. In fact, the neighbours expect more responsibility from the bigger nation. Problem arises when the latter fails to live up to that expectation. It is then hardly surprising that, in the South Asian context, other members of Saarc expect more from India than they expect from other countries of the region. Has India ever looked at its less endowed neighbours with such consideration? If one forgets about the pre-Saarc era, did it even take the responsibility after this seven-nation forum came into existence? If Bangladesh, the host of the 13th Saarc summit, reads the Indian leadership's failure to join the scheduled event, which led to the ultimate postponement of the regional get-together as something deliberate, then that should not come as a surprise for the leadership in Delhi, either.

Whatever have been the real circumstances or reasons, other than those that offered officially, behind the bungled Dhaka summit of Saarc, the fact is, it is always the preference of the leadership, be those dictated by fear, indifference or otherwise, that count in the long run. But under any circumstances, the outcome is given a justification. The fact that the seven-nation South Asian forum until now produced so little speaks volumes for how seriously the leaders of the respective nations took up their responsibility of making the agenda of this forum a success.

Saarc, as conceived at its inception, was not a club for the leaders of the nations of the South Asian nations to just talk and relax. The objective was to begin a meaningful cooperation among the people so that they might build a better future for themselves together. Unfortunately, during its two-decade long history, it progressed rather willy-nilly in fits and starts. Not unlike in the present case, most of the times in the past the summits could not be held on the preset dates. Frankly speaking, the special circumstances given on this occasion aside, the failure to hold the summit is in truth a part of the legacy. Save for the quarters among the intelligentsia, media people in particular, and the leadership involved in organising the occasions, the people at large in the subcontinent have for all practical purposes been quite in the dark about the existence of the forum, let alone its performance or achievement. And for this disappointing state of affairs, it is the leadership of the nations to blame. Small wonder that the dreams of those fearless statesmen who could first overcome the earlier limitations as well as misplaced notions about the possibility of a shared dream of all the people of South Asia and come forward to create this regional forum remained an unrealised dream even twenty years after its formation.

Meanwhile, civil society activists from different countries of South Asia met in a gathering and formed what they called People's Summit for People's Saarc. The goal of this alternative summit was to remove the barriers to people-to-people contact in the Saarc region by doing away with the existing visa system and thereby deliver the benefits of Saarc to the people of the region. The declared motto of the purported people's Saarc apart, what the organisers of the forum stressed deserve some attention.

Militarism and extremism in politics are turning out to be the main scourge of the power elites of the countries. It is balance of terror, not power, that the two nuclear neighbours of Saarc, India and Pakistan to be specific, have established in the region, they maintained. Nuclearisation is certainly militarism at its worst. But whose ego are those nuclear weapons boosting in those two powerful members of Saarc? Of the people or of their present leadership?

The power elites of the two countries are certainly proud of their military arsenal embellished with nuclear weapons and they are never tired of the race for getting the better of the other in military terms. But when it comes to increasing the pace of cooperation between them as well as other countries of the region such enthusiasm is hardly visible except in rhetoric. However, the smaller and poorer countries of the region are also not free from the influence of militarism and creation of a self-serving military and bureaucratic elite.

The people's institutions of the entire South Asian region, especially the civil societies and other stakeholders, need to be more active and vocal against the power elites in their respective bureaucracies and politics. They need to create more pressure on the government leaders in order that they allocate more time and resources for the cooperative forums like Saarc than wasting those on destructive ventures like nuclear bombs, missiles and various other kinds of conventional military hardware.