STATEMENT DELIVERED AT THE FIRST INDIA IDEAS CONCLAVE

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NAMASKAR !

I am most honoured to be invited to this important event amid such gracious hospitality.  Thank you India Foundation.

 

I  shall speak on one dimension of the vast subject of enduring peace in the region – peace and cooperation among the South Asian nations.

 

South Asia’s is the unenviable narrative of endless violence, insurgency,  separatist movements and even wars. It is a dangerous place as Amb. Parthasarthy has just remarked. Ours is a region where successive governments have failed to fulfil the most basic responsibility of providing peace.

 

Ours is the irony of a region that attained freedom from foreign domination through the power of nonviolence and yet, is unable to live without violence among ourselves.

 

Given such a background, what I am about to say may border the ideal, the unrealistic. But the pursuit of what appears to be realistic is not enough for south Asia. The duty of leaders who we expect to inform through this dialogue is to take our region and its people beyond the realm of what we have grown too comfortable in accepting as normal. I am going to share my dream of what we must strive for with daring.

 

As a South Asian citizen, I have welcomed the breeze of optimism that Prime Minister Modi and his government have brought to India and to the region – and no less to a world that looks hopefully to India in these difficult times. And it is this sense of optimism bolstered by the actions taken by his Government on all fronts, including internationally, that emboldens me to speak my mind.

 

I see three preconditions that must be accepted by all nations of South Asia for enduring peace and cooperation among themselves:

 

  1. Accepting the reality of our geography: The Hindukush-Himalayan ranges and the Indian Ocean  bind us together as a region to offer the good fortune of interdependence. The sad thing is, we acknowledge this but are afraid to become dependent on each other particularly on our largest neighbour. This arises mainly from the fear, doubt and suspicion of the smaller countries having to compromise their sovereignty. This is an obsession to which India may not have been sensitive enough. And the fuel for such feelings is plenty both within and outside our region. It is therefore, not surprising that whereas, interdependence should give rise to cooperation, we have hostilities that find expression in a variety of forms.

 

Sovereignty, I believe, is not a sacred relic to  be preserved at the cost of national progress and wellbeing. It is a precious value that finds meaning and will flourish when it serves as a means to strengthen freedom, peace,  progress and wellbeing. Sovereignty or independence, otherwise, have no purpose. If even the tiniest countries have become more secure and strong amid peace and prosperity in the EU, then why can’t the same be true here in South Asia? 

 

  1. Accepting the centrality and inevitability of India’s leadership to peace and prosperity in South Asia: In this regard, the natural configuration of the south Asian constellation is compelling:
    1. Located right in the centre, India is, disproportionately, the largest in more ways than one.
    2. India is the only country contiguous by land or sea to all other countries except Afghanistan. The very notion of south Asia as a region and the countries’ regard for each other as neighbours arises from the fact  that all share the commonality of being India’s neighbours.  This imposes serious limits to cooperation among the countries without facilitation by India.
    3. The only nation that is directly affected by events in all the countries, if only in parts, is India.
    4. Likewise, India is the only country whose internal conditions and developments directly affect the wellbeing of all South Asian nations. She is also the  member state that has the most to offer to all others.
    5. India is the only country that shares cultural, racial and historical connections and commonalities with all nations of the region.

 

In so saying, I do not suggest that good relations with neighbours matter less for India. On the contrary, large nations become great only when they can abide in harmony with their smaller neighbours. This is ever so true especially in the 21st century.

 

It is not enough that India is on a path of growth and prosperity and is poised to, possibly, become the fastest growing economy in the world. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are not doing too badly either on their own. The point I make is, so much more can be achieved in an atmosphere of peace through cooperation and without conflict or the fear of it.

 

Besides, there are now other responsibilities beyond national and regional prosperity which burden India. India is no longer the poor third world country trying hard to make herself relevant on the global stage. India of today matters and will matter even more. No world stage is complete now without Prime Minister Modi on it.

 

As a world economic (I find the adjective emerging really irrelevant) and military power  representing one sixth of humanity, this great nation has the right and responsibility of global leadership in our increasingly troubled world. This requires moral legitimacy and authority, which, among others, must come from the support and good will of her immediate neighbours.  And certainly, India’s stature and clout will be that much greater if, besides being a great nation, she carries the weight of an entire region.

 

  1. Accepting regional integration as not only a choice but as necessary in this competitive world: I believe it is only when the countries of South Asia go beyond the stage of sharing common aspirations to actually come together to become a truly integrated region of sovereign and equal nations, that we will experience enduring peace in South Asia.

 

I have always stood for full economic integration through a well regulated common market facilitated by a monetary union and efficient connectivity, wherein quality, access and  delivery  of minimum social services are standardized. Taking inspiration from the European Union, it is not unthinkable to imagine a South Asian  commonwealth where those with more take on the moral responsibility to help the ones with less to maintain equitable quality of life in the region. India is already doing this at the bilateral level and Bhutan is deeply grateful. But doing so under  SAARC  auspices might serve the higher purpose of building greater confidence in  regional integration.

 

I will go as far as to even suggest a shared regional security arrangement. The threats to be considered in this regard should not be just military or external but include more importantly, the natural and man-made calamities that are increasing in frequency and magnitude all over the world. If we were able to achieve this even on a modest scale to begin with, we will build greater confidence and trust among our security establishments while enhancing cooperation, resilience and preparedness to protect our people against the rising incidents of disasters.

 

As long as we are unwilling or unable to share perceptions or subscribe to a common understanding in this vital area, misunderstandings will continue and mischief-making by various elements, internal and external will not abate. What makes this particularly urgent and worth pursuing against all odds is that we have two countries in our region that are nuclear armed with another nuclear power as our regional neighbour.

 

Again, I repeat, these are dreams. But then if we do not pursue what is ideal in a world where imagination is the only limit to what man can achieve, then south Asia will continue to be a region where peace will remain  elusive. We must not allow our prevailing bilateral issues to cloud our vision for a future of enduring peace. We must not allow these to daunt us and limit our aspirations and endeavour for peace.

 

Lastly, as our region and people prosper, albeit with great inequities, we are at risk of forgetting what gives us contentment and happiness. We are in danger of losing our humanity as we compete and strive to earn more to consume and waste more of the less we need; as relationships become less sincere and as families and communities crumble amid erosion of values and spirituality. Peace in the end has to do with the peace of mindthe basic condition for happiness. That comes from being able to balance ones material needs with those of the spiritual - the needs of the body with those of the mind.

 

Dhanyabad.

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Author: Jigmi Thinley, former PM of Bhutan