Introductory remarks by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

at the Panel discussion during the Seminar

‘Afkar-e-Taza: Rescuing the Past, Shaping the Future’

Lahore, April 1st – 3rd 2016

I will be very brief since I presume discussion, and responding to questions that are raised, will be a more useful way of dealing with this question. To introduce the topic however I will paraphrase some remarks I made at a seminar on working Towards an Asian Agenda also held in the Punjab, in Chandigarh just six months ago.

I noted then the need for more concerted Asian inputs in what current dominant forces believe is a unipolar world. This belief has led now to greater terrorist activity that threatens all of us, including the horrendous attack in this very city, less than a week ago.

One of the problems about concerted action from a South Asia perspective is possible worries about India taking a leading role. That seems essential, for reasons of geography as well as the size and wealth of India in comparison with its neighbours. But I recognize that this point may be challenged, and most obviously by Pakistan.

Personally I regret this, and I regret too the manipulation of the post-colonial situation in South Asia from the time in which the then dominant world powers realized the independence of their colonies was inevitable. The dispensation put in place then led to an othering confrontational situation, as opposed to the more civilized inclusive approach that should have been normal for the East.

All that however is water under the bridge, and we have to recognize that the suspicions that were engendered during the Cold War years will not be easy to overcome. Instead of engaging in wishful platitudes therefore, we need to think of ways in which the rest of South Asia will worry less about domination by one of our number. I was impressed then by the fact that the seminar in Chandigarh included participants from Central Asia, because that is a region which has ancient cultural and trade connections to the South, but it was cut away because of the dichotomies of the colonial era.

Strengthening links is vital, but I believe this may also contribute to resolving the South Asian problem, on the model of what Paul Scott suggested when he wrote of a stone thrown into a pond leading to ever widening ripples that then connect with the ripples of another stone. At its simplest, the overwhelming threat, that India’s size can be interpreted as by one or more other countries in South Asia, diminishes in the context of a larger group which will involve countries with greater economic leverage too, such as the energy rich nations of Central Asia.

Future discussions should focus then on how regional cooperation can be expanded, so as to avoid possible perceptions of security threats. The model of the European Union, which could not be replicated in an unbalanced situation as obtained in South Asia, can be more easily replicated in a larger grouping.

At the same time the problems that now beset Europe can be avoided, by greater mutual respect for the different cultural and social perspectives in the South and Central Asian region. For while we need to focus on what we have in common, we should also celebrate differences and seek out what we can learn from each other. In particular we all need to know more about the astonishing achievements of different elements in Islam basSouthed civilizations, that move beyond the monolithic vision of Islam that leads to confrontation such as many Islamic countries – but not those in Central Asia – are suffering from now.

Such educational initiatives should also include a cohesive programme in all our countries to increase awareness of the cooperation of the past, and the cultural connectivity that flourished. The way in which civilizations built on each other, and the role of trade in promoting personal interactions even in times of political hostility, needs celebration. That may also help to reduce prejudices, as has happened through for instance the Erasmus programme in Europe.

I should note too that, in addition to increasing cooperation with Central Asia, we should as a body move also towards better relations with ASEAN. That too will I think help to kick start SAARC again since – to return to Paul Scott’s metaphor of stones creating wider circles – success with other bodies will help to get over the distrust within SAARC that I have noted.

For this purpose I believe it would be helpful if there were regular meetings of senior administrators in our countries to work out not just common approaches, but also structures that would facilitate cooperation. At present SAARC centres hardly function, though I did find, when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management, that the SAARC Disaster Management Centre was an exception – and largely I think because of the excellent understanding between the Indian and the Pakistani heads of the relevant institutions, both professionals of the highest calibre.

More cooperation in such fields would I think help to bring us closer together, and also help countries like Sri Lanka, which no longer has as good civil servants as India and Pakistan have, to develop greater professionalism that would help to overcome the predilections of politicians. These can be destructive at times, for obvious reasons, but a bedrock of professional understanding would I think help us to work together more productively.