Emerging from the ashes of the Second World War, South Asia perhaps bore the severest brunt of its own liberation more than any other region in the world. The Partition of India in 1947 ranks as one of biggest tragedies of the Post the Second World War era. Over two million people were killed in the most gruesome circumstances and another twenty million or more were uprooted from their home and hearth never to return to what they knew as home for decades if not centuries.
Burma attained independence in January 1948. Sri Lanka followed suit in the February of 1948. Though Nepal became independent in terms of the Anglo-Nepal Treaty in 1923, its external relations continued to be ipso facto guided by the British. Similarly, Bhutan also was in a subsidiary alliance with the British in terms of the Treaty of Punakha signed on January 8, 1910, that gave the latter control over its foreign affairs. Maldives gained independence from the British on July 26, 1965. The Afghans fought three wars with the British in 1839-42, 1878-1880 and 1919. Finally, on August 8, 1919, the Anglo-Afghan treaty, also known as the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ended the Third Anglo-Afghan War with the British recognising the independence of Afghanistan.
Given the shared legacy of colonial exploitation, loot, plunder, and egregious excesses committed by the Imperial British in this sub-continent that extends from the borders of Iran in the west to the borders of Thailand in the east, it would have been but natural had the leadership of this expanse worked in tandem with each other to create a unified and integrated entity leveraging the synergies intrinsically embedded in this region.
Jawaharlal Nehru had in fact set the ball rolling even before India formally became independent by hosting the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi from March 23-April 2, 1947. The conference was organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). It resulted in the formation of the Asian Relations Organisation. It was followed by a second conference in Baguio in Philippines in 1950. However, by then, the Iron Curtain had descended across Europe. Winston Churchill had aptly used this metaphor to underscore the commencement of the Cold War in his speech at Fulton Falls in Missouri on March 5, 1946. This very soon started impacting Asia with the Korean War commencing on June 25, 1950.
However, the nub of the non-integration of South Asia lies in the bloody Partition of India and its aftermath that saw the invasion of Jammu & Kashmir by the nascent Pakistani state in the September of 1947 itself. India and the then “mutilated and moth-eaten” state, as Jinnah had memorably described Pakistan, lay at the heart of South Asia. To the north lay another behemoth China that after decades of civil war and a brutal fight with Imperial Japan finally became a Communist state called the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949.
However, in the early days, South Asian differences were not insurmountable. The world had just emerged from the unspeakable horrors of the Second World War that left sixty million people dead, witnessed the genocide of an entire race of people — the Jews. By the August of 1945, cities from Cologne and Coventry to Nanjing and Nagasaki had been reduced to rubble. The war saw the devastating potential of the use of the atom bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It, therefore, stood to reason that the leadership of South Asia that really had manageable intrinsic differences at that point in time before falling victim to the last vestiges of the divide and rule of the retreating British should have worked towards an arrangement that facilitated closer cooperation.
Elsewhere in the world, nations had started taking baby steps towards creating common markets and other such economic mechanisms. In Europe, despite losing 17 million people in the First World War and over forty out of the sixty million who died in World War Two, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established as early as 1951 within six years of the Second World War ending. By 1957 it had paved the way for the establishment of the European Economic Community under the aegis of the Treaty of Rome.
Under the leadership of statesmen like Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, Charles de Gaulle of France, Konrad Adenauer of Germany and other such visionaries, they worked to put a bloody and bitter past stretching back into millennia behind them in order to create a common and better future for the generations to come. Their efforts bore fruit and the long peace of Europe that brought with it incredible prosperity was only shattered twice by the Balkans conflict in the early 1990s and recently by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Elsewhere also the winds of integration were blowing. The newly liberated African nations started banding together. On May 25, 1963, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 32 African states that had achieved independence by that time agreed to establish the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). It has now expanded into a 54-nation organisation and has rebranded itself as the African Union. The Organisation of American States (OAS) was established way back in April 1948 itself. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada and Mexico was established in 1994. Even the small Island nations of the South Pacific have a 22-nation strong Pacific Community including Papua New Guinea that the Prime Minister recently visited with a lot of fanfare.
However, in South Asia, the one institution that was created in 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been rendered redundant by the Indo-Pakistan acerbity. South Asia is home to over two billion people. It has a very young demographic. It includes some of the fastest growing economies. It also has intractable problem states in its midst.
What India needs to understand and so do the other nations of South Asia is that the future lies in economic integration, customs union, free movement of goods, services, cultural influences and the rest across the region to do justice to the creative and economic potential of the generations to come. Already, social media and the Internet have made lines on the map redundant. What we need to get rid off are lines in the mind. South Asia, therefore, requires statespersons who can look beyond the horizon to the future that beckons rather than remain stuck in the ignoble wastebasket of history.