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July 12, 2002

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Dinanath Mishra

A South Asian Confederation by 2020?

The idea of a confederation of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar and the Maldives seems utopian, more so when viewed against the backdrop of the present hostility and the furiously fought wars between India and Pakistan of the past.

The bitter memories of genocide perpetrated by Pakistan on its eastern wing during the Bangladesh freedom struggle looks like a bad omen for the idea. Pakistan’s colonial designs over Afghanistan has brought about bitter strife among various tribes.

Trust among the nation states of this region is the singular essential element for the seeds of the confederation to sprout, and trust is rarely seen between these nations.

Despite all these negative factors, Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani spoke of a confederation recently. Even Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, the famed socialist, spoke about a confederation in the region. Many thinkers have written about this especially after the European Union began to take shape. The idea of European unity was almost impossible with a history replete with wars with each other.

Even the two great wars of the 20th century were fought mainly in Europe. By the end of the century, the futuristic idea of unity was born. The process moved onward in slow motion because it had to adjust with the delicate sovereignty of the nation states.

The idea of a confederation in our region is not a specific road map for the future, it is the result of a positive attitude in favour of future generations of the region. It is not a specific prediction of the future. It is a specific wish.

The biggest hurdle is Pakistan. Till date, the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism has been growing there with State support. The terror factories of the jihadis have been in operation in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the North Western Frontier Province. Their supporters in mainstream politics had a network in military and administrative establishments and ingrained anti-India genes in the body politics of Pakistan. They had almost succeeded in their colonial designs against Afghanistan and were engaged in de-stabilising Jammu and Kashmir by exporting jihadi terrorism. Breeding fundamentalists, thousands of madarsas continued unabated.

Pakistan nourished the dream of becoming an Islamic superpower, but September 11, 2001 changed the course of history, especially in this part of the world.

President Musharraf reluctantly agreed to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which Pakistan itself created. Recent developments in Pakistan are indicative of Pervez Musharraf’s strategical U-turn on Kashmir. Several correspondents from Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi have written about the changing scenario.

Mariana Baabar writes from Islamabad in the weekly Outlook, dated July 8, 'It's no longer a state secret, it's a grim reality most Pakistanis are quite reconciled to. President Pervez Musharraf’s blatant and audacious U-turn on Kashmir, restraining jihadis from crossing the LoC [the Line of Control which separates India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir], believe it or not, seems to have won popular endorsement. People here feel the military regime's new Kashmir policy is judicious, they think it would be beneficial for the country, they even argue it is about time to counter rabid jihadis from tearing the social fabric of the nation apart.'

General Musharraf looks as if he were marching forward reluctantly under US pressure. It is bound to be a slow-motioned, complicated drama, for Pakistan as a nation state, as a government, as a society, is full of contradictions. Nevertheless, it is a hopeful development in our neighbourhood, not only for India, more so for Pakistani society itself and the region as a whole.

It is very early to predict the future of Pakistan and its strategy as there are numerous complexities. If the U-turn is a reality, more real is a potent threat to Musharraf's regime and person. Social and political support from the elite and the masses does not matter against a determined physical veto by highly motivated jihadis.

Musharraf’s threat does not come from the jihadis alone, it can emanate from the military itself. In certain circumstances, even the US may have to opt for another general but the main question is whether or not Musharraf’s strategic approach can continue. If it continues, irrespective of the person at the helm of affairs under US pressure, it is welcome.

The destruction of the terror factories, demolition of the fundamentalist network, dissolving the animosity against India and normalisation of good neighbourly relations when put together is too big an agenda to be achieved by the general or his successor.

If it is achieved, it would be a miracle. Only the naďve, the chronic optimists can invest their hopes in it. The history of Islam and jihad gives ample evidence of resilience of fundamentalist courses.

In spite of all this, one has to concede the existence of liberal and modern Muslims in Pakistan who think jihadi ideology is like iron in Pakistan’s liberal soul and in the ongoing process of surgical cleansing, a little of Kashmir has to be extracted. They concede its inevitability because Pakistan is a frontline state in the war against terrorism.

The situation along the LoC is considerably relaxed compared to previous tensions. The grand realities within Pakistan generate a feeble hope, nevertheless, hope. Normalcy in relations still looks a distant goal but it is not unforeseeable.

India seems to be ready for a confederation if there is continuous improvement in this direction. Countries like Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka may be willing to start the process this decade itself, others may need a little persuasion. Pakistan is the real hurdle. If it is not ready to accept a futuristic agenda, India should start the process of a loose federation to be achieved by 2020 excluding Pakistan.

Dinanath Mishra is a well known commentator.

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