Millennium Post

Regional awareness to end prejudices

Most Indians know more about countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Though off course, we pretend as though we have an extensive knowledge of all SAARC countries.There are a number of reasons for this incomplete knowledge or the total lack of it. The first is the inadequate amount of information about the neighbourhood in our educational curriculum.This along with limited reportage  in the media of important developments in the neighbourhood, apart from crises and the dearth of   scholars who are genuine country experts count for gross ignorance. Also, last but not least, the fact that most of us, who are privileged enough to travel, tend to prefer destinations outside South Asia. It is only, when one visits other countries in South Asia, that one realises, how skewed our understanding of all countries in the neighbourhood, including Pakistan is. The writer has had the good fortune of visiting three important countries, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in the past two years. This may not be a remarkable achievement but is not too bad, if one considers the exposure of an average Indian to the SAARC region.

The most recent was a short sojourn to Sri Lanka. What has emerged out of these visits is a deeper understanding of the progress being made by these countries, in a number of spheres.  While Bangladesh is doing remarkably well in Human Development Indicators (HDI) and is home to an aspirational middle class much like India’s own counterpart, hungry to attain success, Pakistan which is portrayed only in a negative light is witnessing an interesting intellectual ferment within its society. Here institutions like the media and the judiciary are strengthening, and is not quite the country on the verge of collapse – as predicted by some of our strategic analysts. Sri Lanka is interesting, not merely for the fact, that it is a tourist friendly country but has attained a decent level of development and has a reasonable infrastructure even in the interiors. In five years or so it would not be surprising if it emerges as a tourist hub, along the lines of Bangkok in South Asia. Apart from the above points, it is only when one interacts with citizens in these respective countries that there are grievances against India over the way it behaves on certain issues. The common complaints include the lack of magnanimity on a lot of minor issues such as visa regimes, the sluggish approach of the Indian government towards infrastructural projects in these countries which are ultimately taken over by China. This includes the lack of genuine understanding in India about the state of affairs in these countries. Yet, there is a palpable goodwill for India, which can not be substituted by economic aid and investments by western countries or China. This is visible, not only through the popularity of Indian companies and brands, and their especially strong presence in countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the the hero worship of Bollywood and cricket stars, but also the curiosity of citizens of these countries, not just to learn more about India, but also to visit the latter. What clearly emerges is that in spite of all blunders committed by successive governments in New Delhi and some of our neighbouring countries, people are keen to mend fences and do appreciate a lot of aspects of India just as they resent certain policies of successive governments in New Delhi. If India wants to earn respect and not be resented, it needs to stop taking the neighbourhood for granted and rather than being patronising towards it should reach out not only at the governmental level but should encourage more student exchanges at the college and university level, more material on the economics, politics and social milieu of neighbouring countries in the educational curriculum and off course greater reporting of bread and butter issues of other South Asian countries in the Indian news. The key step however is to make it easier for greater interactions between citizens of South Asia.

Rather than merely complaining or getting worried about Chinese forays into the neighbourhood, it is time that India took some serious measures to behave like an elder brother, and not a big brother. It would be imperative for the political leadership to take the lead as has been done by Manmohan Singh and his predecessors Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Inder Kumar Gujral. Apart from this, the private sector too should play its rightful role not just in making investments but also projecting India. One way could be funding scholarships for students of SAARC countries wanting to visit India and vice-versa. While the Indian government has been trying to promote greater exchanges and a South Asian university has been set up, red tape and bureaucracy hamper such initiatives. It is time that New Delhi launched a goodwill offensive in the neighbourhood which is totally  de-hyphenated with China’s forays in South Asia.

The author is a New Delhi-based columnist

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