The recent overtures by India to strengthen neighbourly relations across South Asia have been noted as the hallmark of its foreign relations. Analysts would differ, and not unreasonably, that it is also due to the geopolitics of the region where non-Indian business ‘intrusion’ has been increasing. There is a general hype to this new attitude from India, which is an apparent departure from the patron-client relationship. The Nepali politicians seemed to be hailing Indian Prime Minister’s ‘efforts’ in unison cutting across political lines. But can this building up of a composite and cogent South Asia happen without developing institutional mechanisms that foster deep rooted sharing of intellectual processes across the region? It is only through such a complementing process of institutionalising dialogue across South Asian countries that a more organic evolution of relationships can be imagined. This is a protracted process compared to the signing and conduct of business relations. However, this would contribute to bolstering of business relations in the long run as well if one so wishes.
One way of doing this whole process is to organise an intellectual ambience that encapsulates this organic-ity and functions with the principle kernel that knowledge is non-hierarchical (which will start with the premise that in the process of knowing there is no hierarchy of knowledge) and always contestable. Taking off from this premise it can be a possible project to explore the commonalities, challenges and possibilities across South Asian countries. Once this happens as a common initiative of countries across the region, expressing their willingness to embark on a path that will of revelations narrowed and restricted by the boundaries of nation-state, it will open up possibilities for a dialogic South Asia. This intellectual project, whatever be its history or intention, got initiated in form of one institution – South Asian University. Though diverse institutions of SAARC have existed but an university compared to institutions such as SAARC Cultural Centre etc., involve a completely different process of ethos building – moving beyond bureaucratic detailing into the realm of much open and liberal intellectual sphere. However, amidst the recent emphasis on neighbourliness it does not seem to be occupy the same place of significance as many other issues as the zeal and enthusiasm on this front seem to lack.
Imagine a Bangladeshi, Nepali, Sri Lankan and Indian sociologist sitting together and deliberating on what should be taught as part of a Sociology post-graduate programme. This exercise takes place even on themes which otherwise seem irreconcilable, for instance, the identity question in Sri Lanka or questions of indigeneity, violence and religion in South Asian context. The same situation might come up while discussing regionalism and nationalism in classroom or in seminar halls. While deciding on curriculum and pedagogy it is also fiercely debated as to how can the courses represent the South Asian context transcending the narrow confines of national sociologies. This was inconceivable four years back and it is a reality in South Asian University, an initiative of the SAARC. Debates within departments such as sociology have seen such moments quite often.
When there are efforts being made to explore the South Asian neighbourliness an institution like SAU provides the platform where the possibilities of a dialogic South Asian ethos can be experimented. The MEA website tells us how unique is this experiment especially as an effort to bring together the different countries concretely – as students and teachers who make the rhetoric of South Asian cooperation a reality in flesh and blood. How far this happens and what can be the conditions to further concretise this, though, remain an issue but as an experiment this has been a major step in re-imagining South Asia in recent past.
The way this university was conceptualised it was kept in mind how the balance of power in administrative matters could be maintained. For instance, it’s rule no. 06 states that “the President will identify up to three Professors working in the University for appointment as Vice-Presidents. Subject to the availability of suitable candidates, the Vice-Presidential candidate should be from SAARC Member States other than that of the President”. Rules mention that the President and the Vice-President of the university should come from different countries. Similarly, the students should ideally come from across South Asia and the Indian students must not dominate the composition because of its sheer physical location in New Delhi. This, as a sociologist, compels one to engage with the challenges of teaching and researching in a situation where the Bangladeshi student brings fresh insights from his location and debates. Even when I think as a pure intellectual endeavour the University opens new possibilities to understand and analyse the South Asian societies, for instance, the identity question with the Afghani, Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan students in a classroom becomes a learning experience for any faculty from any part of South Asia who get exposed the complexities of a subject matter.
Commonalities and absence of dialogue
The South Asian societies share great amount of similarities – ranging from their economies to the social structures and the challenges confronting their societies. Whether it is the changes experienced by the social structures over different points of time under influence of variety of factors or the emergence of new forms of mass resistances or the challenges posed by religious sectarianism a dialogue across the region has been absent. Pakistani scholars working on Hindu temples in Pakistan or historians working on evolution of the region or sociologists grappling with similar issues across region are never institutionally brought together by the states. An effort that transcends the frequent political skirmishes between countries and establishes platforms of sharing would add to bringing out the vast amount of knowledge generated in the region.
This requires a concerted effort that transcends the national frontiers and academia is one such space, which can do that easily. It would create a dialogue that is bereft of enmities and sectarian prejudices. While at one level through research it generates tangible possibilities through pedagogical practices It makes the whole process organic. It evolves as a natural process rather than as a forced practice. In a classroom the academic engagement, in fact, does precisely this when it asks students from different countries to share, analyse and debate the issues that confronts their societies. From classrooms to the hostel rooms to cafeterias it creates a context for a dialogic South Asian ethos.
When students from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India share a room in the hostel, when they deal with questions that may have different national interpretations but they discuss it amicably within the classroom or when they celebrate each other’s independence days it ceases to be a mere pedagogical issue. It rather becomes an organic intellectual process that would produce minds engaged with the South Asian realities.
To have an atmosphere of South Asian-ness the states will have to sensitively get into institution buildings of kind that goes beyond the mere bureaucratic sharing of officials and rhetorical cultural exchanges or business cooperations. It can be done only through imagining a situation where national boundaries become porous and insignificant and when people across these borders start to locate themselves as organic constituents of any agenda, dream or programme. These will also be processes that bring together people to share the developments, concerns and hopes within this region.