Chapter : 4
What Are Contemporary South Asia ?
- The expression ‘South Asia’ includes the following countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
- The mighty Himalayas in the north and the vast Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal in the south, west and east respectively provide a natural insularity to the region, which is largely responsible for the linguistic, social and cultural distinctiveness of the subcontinent.
- The boundaries of the region are not as clear in the east and the west, as they are in the north and the south.
- Afghanistan and Myanmar are often included in discussions of the region as a whole.
- China is an important player but is not considered to be a part of the region.
- The countries of South Asia do not have the same kind of political systems such as Sri Lanka and India have successfully operated their democratic systems since their independence from the British, Pakistan and Bangladesh have experienced both civilian and military rules.
The Military And Democracy In Pakistan
- After Pakistan framed its first constitution, General Ayub Khan took over the administration of the country but later he had to give up office when there was popular dissatisfaction against his rule.
- This gave way to a military takeover once again under General Yahya Khan.
- During Yahya’s military rule, Pakistan faced the Bangladesh crisis, and after a war with India in 1971,East Pakistan broke away to emerge as an independent country called Bangladesh. After this, an elected government under the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to power in Pakistan from 1971 to 1977.
- The Bhutto government was removed by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977. General Zia faced a pro-democracy movement from 1982 onwards and an elected democratic government was established once again in 1988 under the leadership of Benazir Bhutto.
- This phase of elective democracy lasted till 1999 when the army stepped in again and General Pervez Musharraf removed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
- In 2001, General Musharraf got himself elected as the President. Pakistan continues to be ruled by the army, though the army rulers have held some elections to give their rule a democratic image.
- The United States and other Western countries have encouraged the military’s authoritarian rule in the past, for their own reasons. Given their fear of the threat of what they call ‘global Islamic terrorism’ and the apprehension that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal might fall into the hands of these terrorist groups, the military
regime in Pakistan has been seen as the protector of Western interests in West Asia and South Asia.
Democracy In Bangladesh
- Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan from 1947 to 1971. It consisted of the partitioned areas of Bengal and Assam from British India.
- The people of this region resented the domination of western Pakistan and the imposition of the Urdu language. Soon after the partition, they began protests against the unfair treatment by the West Pakistan.
- They also demanded fair representation in administration and a fair share in political power. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the popular struggle against West Pakistani domination.
- Under the military rule of General Yahya Khan, the Pakistani army tried to suppress the mass movement of the Bengali people. Thousands were killed by the Pakistan army.
- This led to a large scale migration into India, creating a huge refugee problem for India. The government of India supported the demand of the people of East Pakistan for their independence and helped them financially and militarily.
- This resulted in a war between India and Pakistan in December 1971 that ended in the surrender of the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh as an independent country.
Monarchy And Democracy In Nepal
- Nepal was a Hindu kingdom in the past and then a constitutional monarchy in the modern period for many years.
- Throughout this period, political parties and the common people of Nepal demanded system of government. But the king, with the help of the army, retained full control over the government and restricted the expansion of democracy in Nepal.
- The king accepted the demand for a new democratic constitution in 1990, in the wake of a strong pro-democracy movement.
- However, democratic governments had a short and troubled career.
- In 2002, the king abolished the parliament and dismissed the government, thus ending even the limited democracy that existed in Nepal.
- In April 2006, there were massive, country wide, pro democracy protests.
- The largely non-violent movement was led by the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), the Maoists and social activists. Nepal’s transition to democracy is not complete.
- At the moment, Nepal is undergoing a unique moment in its history because it is moving towards the formation of a constituent assembly that will write the constitution for Nepal.
- In 2008, Nepal became a democratic republic after abolishing the monarchy. In 2015, it adopted a new constitution.
Ethnic Conflict And Democracy In Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka has retained democracy since its independence in 1948. But it faced a serious challenge, not from the military or monarchy but from ethnic conflict leading to the demand for secession by one of the regions.
- After its independence, politics in Sri Lanka was dominated by forces that represented the interest of the majority Sinhala community. They were hostile to a large number of Tamils who had migrated from India to Sri Lanka and settled there. This migration continued even after independence.
- The Sinhala nationalists thought that Sri Lanka should not give ‘concessions’ to the Tamils because Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala people only. The neglect of Tamil concerns led to militant Tamil nationalism.
- From 1983 onwards, the militant organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LT TE) has been fighting an armed struggle with the army of Sri Lanka and demanding ‘Tamil Eelam’ or a separate country for the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
- The government of India has from time to time tried to negotiate with the Sri Lankan government on the Tamil question.
- But in 1987, the government of India for the first time got directly involved in the Sri Lankan Tamil question.
India signed an accord with Sri Lanka and sent troops to stabilise relations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils.
- After independence, both India and Pakistan got involved in issue related to Kashmir. It led to wars in 1947-48 and 1965 which failed to settle the matter.
- Both the countries face conflict over strategic issues like the control of the Siachen glacier and over acquisition of arms.
- Both the countries continue to be suspicious of each other over security issue.
- Another issue of conflict among the two countries is over the sharing of river waters of Indus river system.
- The two countries are not in agreement over the demarcation in Sir Creek in the Rann of Kutch.
India And Its Other Neighbours
India and Sri Lanka
- The difficulties in the relationship between the governments of India and Sri Lanka are mostly over ethnic conflict in the island nation. Indian leaders and citizens find it impossible to remain neutral when Tamils are politically unhappy and are being killed.
- After the military intervention in 1987, the Indian government now prefers a policy of disengagement vis-à-vis Sri Lanka’s internal troubles. India signed a free trade agreement with Sri Lanka, which strengthened relations between two countries.
- India’s help in post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka has also brought the two countries closer.
India and Bhutan
- India enjoys a very special relationship with Bhutan too and does not have any major conflict with the Bhutanese government.
- The efforts made by the Bhutanese monarch to weed out the guerrillas and militants from north-eastern India that operate in his country have been helpful to India.
- India is involved in big hydroelectric projects in Bhutan and remains the Himalayan kingdom’s biggest source of development aid.
India and Maldives
- India’s ties with the Maldives remain warm and cordial. In November 1988, when some Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka attacked the Maldives, the Indian air force and navy reacted quickly to the Maldives’ request to help stop the invasion.
- India has also contributed towards the island’s economic development, tourism and fisheries.
Peace And Cooperation
- In spite of the many conflicts, the states of South Asia recognise the importance of cooperation and friendly relationship, among themselves.
- The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a major regional initiative by the South Asian states to evolve cooperation through multilateral means. It established in 1985. Unfortunately, due to persisting political differences, SAARC has not had much success.
- SAARC members signed the South Asian Free Trade (SAFTA) agreement which promised the formation of a free trade zone for the whole of South Asia in 2004.
- Some in India think that SAFTA is not worth for India as India already has bilateral agreements with Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
- Although India-Pakistan relations seem to be a story of endemic conflict and violence, there have been a series of efforts to manage tensions and build peace. The two countries have agreed to undertake confidence building measures to reduce the risk of war. Social activists and prominent personalities have collaborated to create an atmosphere of friendship among the people of both countries. Leaders have met at summits to understand each other better and to find solutions to the major problems between the two neighbours.
- China and the United States remain key players in South Asian politics. Sino-Indian relations have improved significantly in the last ten years, but China’s strategic partnership with Pakistan remains a major irritant. The demands of development and globalisation have brought the two Asian giants closer, and their economic ties have multiplied rapidly since 1991.