Teaching at New Delhi’s South Asian University provides one with different insights about how to look at the question of regional cooperation.

Last month, when four member states led by India withdrew from the Saarc summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November, leading to its postponement, students seemed concerned not only about the future of the university, which was founded by Saarc, but were also anxious to know more about the potential of the institution to transcend the limitations of geopolitical borders.

Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Maldivians, Afghanis, Bhutanese and Indians share residences, classrooms and their everyday joys and anxieties at the University – perhaps something that had not been possible until this institution came into being. The setting up of this university was quite extraordinary given that its students, faculty and staff from different member countries of Saarc are provided with a visa that “overrides all the specific provisions made for nationals of different countries viz. Bangladesh, Pakistan etc”, according to a government notification.

The university can potentially redefine and reimagine the way regional cooperation can be seen. Thus, despite its limitations, it is a concrete example of the kind of cooperation that could last in the long term.

Besides students from Saarc countries, the region’s political leaders have voiced concern for the future of the regional cooperation body. For instance, during a presentation at the New Zealand Parliament on October 3, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned that if Saarc failed to deliver on its promises in a way that benefitted all member states, Sri Lanka would look for other options. This was a somewhat blunt public expression of unhappiness at the recent developments regarding Saarc.

Alternative structures

Some might question the utility of an initiative such as a regional university. But the South Asian University has proved to be a magnificent learning experience for social scientists with a bias towards creative re-imagination of the region.

For one, it has started conversations amidst nations in conflict. It has started building some bridges in situations of grim bilateral crises, and has shown the way in terms of how people-to-people contact could remain the most powerful basis of solidarity across borders. These can be seen not only in classrooms where conversations take place on different issues among students across borders but also in the way students and the faculty members come together through platforms such as Rickshaw, a students’ collective, and organise panel discussions on issues such as increasing intolerance in the region.

The recent tension in the context of Saarc seems to jeopardise these possibilities perhaps due to diplomatic myopia that finds it difficult to transcend the limitations of government-to-government deliberations to build regional cooperation. This myopia prevents nations from seeing the transformative potential the regional body has if it opts to become creative and exercises collective political will. This narrowness of vision might, in fact, accentuate feelings based on national identities and ignore possible processes that more creative initiatives might set in motion.

In these times of crises, it is important to look at alternative structures that could build a robust framework of lasting regional cooperation. It has to be built on the premise that instrumentalist mechanisms of the state have their limitations, and that there is a need to explore the possibilities embedded in the angst and joys of the people in the region.

Violence of all kinds clearly imposes a burden on people through casualties, displacement and economic insecurity. The masses largely do not want war as they suffer because of it. War is always a condition that is imposed on them, and then played through the sectarian and parochial idea of nation and territoriality.

As a process, the dominant understandings of regional cooperation have tended to privilege space in the geophysical and cartographic sense as opposed to the less tangible possibilities of culture and collective imaginings of the past.

As a result, the idea of cooperation has focused on relationships based on territorial identities carried out across militarised borders and geophysical spaces surrounded by these borders. This has allowed politics and economics of nation-states to become the most significant dimension of the dominant discourse of regional cooperation.

Thus, it is not difficult to see the disconnect between people and the nation in regional politics. Each nation – consisting of bureaucracies, ministries and political power brokers – interacts with a similar set of bureaucrats, ministers and power brokers in the other. The idea of regional cooperation is framed through the idioms in which these power brokers converse. These interactions – be they bilateral linkages or multilateral forums like Saarc – clearly indicate the fundamental inability of nation states in the region to transgress their rigid boundaries dictated by simplistic notions of sovereignty. They fail to move beyond existing formats of conversations and explore different forums and constituencies in South Asia, which might allow cooperation to become a less strenuous reality.

Long-lasting cooperation can come into being by a self-conscious dilution in the identities of nation states for the greater good of the collective. This is how an entity like the Europe Union became a reality despite its many fallacies. And it is this state of affairs that Saarc has fundamentally failed to achieve in the 30 years of its relatively irrelevant existence.

Spectacles of power

In these situations, where broad-based conversations are absent, and where it is easy to assume a few terrorists as representatives of entire nations, crises and distrust between nations set the foundation for interstate interactions. This frame of mind prevails due to the fact that simplistic instrumentalism of state-led cooperation does not give priority to the popular – the sense of belonging or the actual life-situations of what is routine, mundane, ordinary – which is often silenced.

To quote French Marxist theorist Guy Debord, “everything that was directly lived, has receded into a representation,” and states have worked hard to establish what Debord calls a “pseudo-world” through presenting life as a spectacle, which "is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving”.

Diplomatic moves, regular foreign relations measures or the possible militarisation of some of these activities are spectacles that seamlessly transform actual human relations into the unreal spectacles and performances of power that have considerable popular appeal. For instance, the widespread support in India to the recent surgical strikes across the Line of Control in Kashmir, and the general acceptance of anti-Indian militarist rhetoric in Pakistan seem to create such spectacles and undermine how actually people of these countries would like to live. Within this collective of spectacles and performances, the idea and possibilities of regional cooperation with any real sense gets trapped, and dismantled.

Consequences of this instrumentalisation of everyday life indicate the loss of a great history, the diminishing of an immense possibility and the derailing of a collective counter-culture of solidarity.

Irrespective of contemporary political spin manufactured in moments of inter-state anxieties, the reality of the region is not the perennial persistence of violence, conflict and nationalist frenzy. But what is performed in political rituals of our time are the negatively spectacular manifestations of this overwhelming reality.

Building different bridges

One needs to wonder if the connections between these nations can be forged through an instrumentalist mechanism alone, which merely tries to build formalised, ritualistic bridges.

Is it not possible to invoke the spirit of Bengali poet and revolutionary Nazrul Islam, who wrote Shyama Sangeet in praise of Kali and Sarbahara for the proletariat of the region? How many will remember today that he died in Bangladesh aghast at the violence and religious sectarianism devouring the region.

Any efforts towards a culturally sensible regional cooperation would need to bring into the conversation the revolutionary poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who stirred masses across borders through his poetry of love and revolution. It is his discomfort at the larger socio-economic milieu of oppression and deprivation that he composed in Intessab (Dedication) and expressed without contradiction in conversation with his beloved in Mujh se pehli si muhabbat mere mehboob na maang (Oh my love don’t ask me for the love I once gave you).

When resurrecting the more sensible of the older conversations and creating new avenues of expression in the arts, other forms of creative expression should emanate from a more historically and culturally-rooted sense of regional consciousness.

This would need to counter the often hollow and flippant mantra-like articulation of regional consciousness and South Asian sensibility that we often hear from forums of nation states, as well as Saarc. These are mere simplistic utterances without feeling or deeper meaning. Any consciousness, if imposed as a matter of political sloganeering, ceases to be a consciousness except in the sense of being unreal, being hyper-real or simply nonsensical.

The dominant idea of regional cooperation demonstrates the serious limitations of the nation-state in not merely its inability to be self-sustaining, but also in terms of its inability to forge lasting relationships within its instrumentalist frameworks. This dimension is seldom highlighted because regional cooperation often becomes the ground for creating performative spaces for powerful nation states within the global geopolitical context.

If regional cooperation has to move beyond the simple exercise of signing treaties, which has very little connection with actual residents of these countries, then it will have to seek refuge in carving out new spaces where engagement takes place organically among those for whom the nation ideally stands. But whether this can be done within the framework of the nation as it exists today remains the question.

A new hope

It is thus necessary to imagine South Asia differently in a new framework with a sense of hope. As German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch has noted, “hope means venturing beyond”. But venturing beyond the nation state and looking for hope of the collective is not something nation states in our region, or Saarc, could possibly do. It is an endeavor that lies beyond these rigid and unimaginative structures.

It is in such a context that political psychologist Ashis Nandy once said,

“[T]he more the scholars, artists and writers talk of the common heritage of the region, the more the functionaries in the region nervously eye their neighbours as enemies planning to wipe out their distinctive identities.”

It is precisely this sense of embedded subversiveness in the acts of reasonable people that is needed to rediscover South Asia and reinvent Saarc.

(This piece draws heavily from the work the two authors have been doing on this theme. Different versions of their thinking have been published in other forums.)

Ravi Kumar is associate professor in Sociology and former chairperson of the Department of Sociology at South Asian University, New Delhi. Sasanka Perera is professor of Sociology and vice-president at the same university.