Opinion

Saarc seems to have been taken to the morgue from the ICU. Here’s why it needs to be revived

For the future of the South Asian region and its peoples depends on it.

India is gloating at its success in sabotaging the 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad on November 15-16 by deciding to boycott it. What is even more gratifying for New Delhi is that other constituents of the grouping have followed suit, first Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and subsequently Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

From a diplomatic standpoint it is no mean achievement given that the standard narrative is of its neighbours “ganging up” against India. But it is now Pakistan versus the rest. What kind of diplomatic pressure India exerted on the latter to make them toe its line is still not known, but it is common sense that it was inherent in the situation.

First, Saarc without India amounts to Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. Accounting for three quarters of the region in terms of almost everything important like area (after Afghanistan’s entry into Saarc in 2005 this is slightly less), population, Gross Domestic Product and military expenditure, India and Saarc are virtually interchangeable. Without India the organisation is defunct.

Second, those who went by India’s decision may be small but they also know geo-politics. Barring Afghanistan, their borders touch India’s borders, not Pakistan’s.

A failed experiment

But there is a larger question. Imagine that the Summit takes place as scheduled. Then, barring the homilies exchanged among the leaders and some routine resolutions passed, the entire attention would be on how India and Pakistan thrash out their bilateral differences on the side-lines of the conference over the question of Kashmir and more generally over Pakistan-inspired terrorism. Herein lies the bane of Saarc. It is so much overshadowed by the India-Pakistan encounter that it has become nothing but a failed experiment.

No wonder that intra-regional trade is as little as 4.6% of the region’s total international trade. Here is some comparison: it is 40% in North American Free Trade Agreement , 26% in Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and 67% in European Union. Further, the region accounts for about 25% of the world’s population but contributes barely 2.5% to the global trade, that too primarily because of India.

Let us not, therefore, shed crocodile tears at the tragedy of the Summit’s non-show. The two principal members of Saarc, India and Pakistan, have other ambitions. It is generally the view in India that for the failure of Saarc, Pakistan is responsible. The fact is that India is equally responsible. India has found the substitute of Saarc in sub-regional and sub-regional plus cooperation looking eastward, and Pakistan has found the same by looking extra regionally westward and also towards China in a big way if the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is any indication. The corridor runs through the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir right up to the Gwador Port in Balochistan. Hardly has the Summit controversy gone out of focus, the majority of Saarc members, barring Pakistan, are busy talking about the prospects of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, consisting of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal.

India and Pakistan, and in a lesser sense everyone else, may now wail at all diplomatic forums over the “death” of Saarc, while blaming one another of killing it. But all these 30 years of the grouping’s existence, the maximum they all have done is not to snap its respiratory support cord. Otherwise how can one explain that the Saarc Summit meeting which is supposed to be an annual affair is still debating its 19th Summit which ideally should have been its 31st? Many of the summits could not be held simply because some bilateral tension came in the way. Yet, strangely, the Saarc constitution prohibits any discussion on bilateral matters. Time and money is spent during Saarc summits on less important issues and that too by sheer passage of resolutions, not by their faithful implementation. Does Saarc matter in global reckoning? Minimally, to be charitable to the grouping. The latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its 2011 Year Book did not even mention Saarc while listing the regional groupings from across the globe. But it did not fail to list the Asean, another Asian grouping.

Why it matters

Mark Twain once said: “A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” The same is true of Saarc. It is a great idea but it has to succeed. And before that happens, the cobweb that has been woven in our inter-state relations will have to be cleared, which is easier said than done. Two factors matter the most, one, India’s unprecedented rise yet not enough to impress its neighbours that much, and two, the shadow of China which provides a constant source of anxiety to India but which is a positive factor for the rest of the region. This dichotomy comes in the way of South Asian regional consciousness.

Closely connected to this is the question of India’s own image of its greatness. People do not overlook that India is the world’s largest importer of weapons while China is one of the largest exporters. In bilateral economic terms, China is India’s biggest trading partner. Against this background, when India expects that India’s neighbours must give more importance to India instead of China the diatribe sounds hollow.

Saarc is just one instrument. The future of the South Asian region is in its peoples which the respective leaderships fear the most, as reflected in the increasingly stricter visa regimes. There is no doubt that if India and Pakistan loosen these regimes there will be a huge improvement in bilateral relationship. But unfortunately the present situation is just not conducive for that.

The bottomline is that the sooner the 19th Summit is held, the better. It should not be anybody’s case that the present stand-off between India and Pakistan should be allowed to linger indefinitely, for it is pregnant with dangerous possibilities.

There is no other organisation than Saarc that is particularly suited to facilitate this process, its general failure notwithstanding.

Partha S Ghosh is ICSSR National Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.