I am grateful to the Center for South Asian Studies of t he University of Virginia for the kind invitation to deliver the inaugural address in this year's South Asia Seminar Series. The prestige of the University of Virginia is as immortal as that of its founder Thomas Jefferson. No tribute to Jefferson and his versatility as a truly Renaissance person, has been more eloquent than when President John F. Kennedy addressed a group of Nobel prize winners he had invited to the White House dinner as, & I quote; "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone" unquote.
Sri Lanka, held in the thraldom of colonialism at the time, can claim no special link with Jefferson. But a one-time Professor of Greek at your University, John Henry Wheeler, had a famous novelist as a daughter - Frances Parkinson Keyes - who was born on your Campus and who went on to visit my country long enough to be able to reject that infamous line of a colonial missionary's hymn which described the island of Ceylon as a place
"where every prospect pleases
And only man is vile".
Visiting the country a third of a century later, Keyes wrote “For I have been to Ceylon's isle, and felt the softness of its spicy breezes, and gazed upon its pleasing prospects, and beheld the lavish kindness with which the gifts of God are strewn. But I did not feel that those gifts were in vain or that any man I saw was vile... .".
I have no doubt that that rare sensitivity to appreciate an alien culture and its people across the ten thousand miles that lie between Charlottesville & Colombo pervades the academic atmosphere of your Centre for South Asian Studies as you research and analyse the rich diversity of South Asia's people, her languages, her religions and her cultures. It is this understanding based on a knowledge of different cultures that forms the bedrock of international peace and security quite separately from the mutual self interest of economic and ecological inter-dependence that binds us all in an increasingly integrated global community.
South Asia encompasses one fifth of humanity living in the geographically contiguous seven modern nations of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Before their emergence as nation-states in the post World War II era, they were ancient countries including the centre of the great Mohenjodaro and Harappa civilizations in the Indus valley which saw the invention of burnt brick and sophisticated flood control in highly organized and politically unified societies that conducted foreign trade and were well established by the year 2250 B.C. Later the great influx of Aryans took place across the Himalayan massif about 1750 B.C. bringing with them religious and social institutions which form the great Indian cultural tradition reflected in the Rig-Veda and complementing the Sinic civilizational tradition in the rich and enduring Asian heritage. The Brahmans and the two great Indian epics the Ramayans and the Mahabharata, together with the evidence of archaeology reveals the sweep of excellence in the sub continent from the Ganges Valley reaching Sri Lanka and even the Maldives where the famous Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl has found evidence of a civilization predating the advent of Islam in the 12th century. The Upanishads, the emergence of Jainism and finally the teachings of the Buddha, which has so profoundly shaped the history and way of life of my own country, continue the saga of the sub continent's cultural odyssey before the arrival of Islam and the Moghul rulers. The colonialism of the West followed, spurred by the geographical explorations of the Renaissance period and later by the commercial quest for raw materials and markets which the Industrial Revolution triggered.
From what that pioneer modern Indian historian Sardar Panikkar termed the "Vasco da Gama era" till the sub continent regained its independence after World War II South Asia played a subdued role in the march of human history. While Nepal had remained independent in name the rest of the sub-continent was under an alien colonial power. During this period the ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity of South Asia began to be transformed from a cultural strength to a political weakness - a transformation from which South Asia continues to suffer. The partition of India in 1947 followed by the independence of Bangladesh and the ethnic problems of Sri Lanka and now Bhutan predated the upsurge of ethnic nationalism and other forms of sub-national groupism that has become a phenomenon of the post Cold War period. Nonetheless, the struggle for freedom in India uniquely guided along non-violent civil disobedience lines by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi enthroned indigenous values and created national self-respect and a strong civil society. A new generation of leaders were at the helm of South Asia's modern nation states to guide them in their independent existence - leaders who were a blend of Western educated liberals and home grown nationalists united in their unalloyed desire to chart an independent course both in domestic policy as well as in foreign affairs. Their aspirations are best described in the words of Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address - "Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations - entangling alliances with none".
The decolonization of South Asia took place at a time of the Cold War and the pressure on the new states to choose between the competing blocs was intense. With the exception of Pakistan they opted to pursue independent foreign policies in the hope that they would be able to develop their countries without being drawn into a sphere of influence in a tense ideological struggle that could lead to nuclear conflict. Pakistan joined the movements of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa but opted to be in the pro-West defence pact CENTO before joining the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1978. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka took part in the 1954 Colombo Powers Conference which was a prelude to the 1955 Afro Asian Conference in Bandung and later the 1961 Belgrade Summit when 25 countries formed the Non-Aligned Movement which today has grown to 108. It was a collective act calling for the democratization of international affairs and a rejection of the great power monopoly over global decision making. It was a reaffirmation of the principles of equity, justice and freedom that lay at the heart of their freedom struggles as dependent colonies. The end of the Cold War has not invalidated those principles. In a post Cold War context there is thus a greater logic in the continuation of Non Aligned foreign policies in all the South Asian nations than in the extended existence of NATO.
The Cold War, it is now conceded, distorted international relations and forced all of us to look at global politics through the prism of the East-West conflict. Today at last we have been freed from that situation which for over four decades imposed a bipolar confrontation on the world. This new atmosphere of multipolarity which NAM consistently sought, has released the nations of South Asia from having their foreign policies interpreted in terms of choices imposed on them. It has also enabled those outside the region to approach South Asia not as a strategic region in the East-West competition but on its intrinsic merits. The ideological contest of the Cold War must not however be replaced by the unbridled playing out of repressed nationalisms of a sub –national character. Nor can we allow the East West contest to be replaced by a North-South divide.
A similar trend of liberalization and de-emphasis of ideology took place in the economic field. The newly independent nations of South Asia in an effort to accelerate economic development and eradicate poverty placed greater emphasis on public sector-driven policies than in market `driven economics. Mixed economic systems with a role for the domestic private sector prevailed but the obverse side of the new political nationalism was a protectionism that viewed foreign investment cautiously as a possible threat to economic independence, or to indigenous industry. Together with this were welfare policies which did help raise the living standards of the people through state intervention. The sluggish economic growth achieved under this economic philosophy derided as the Hindu rate of economic growth in comparison to the dramatic progress achieved by the so-called Tiger economies of the Newly-Industrializing Countries (NICs) of South-East Asia forced a reappraisal of existing economic policies that were essentially State-driven. Sri Lanka in 1977, elected a Government that was pledged to achieve a radical change of economic policy liberalizing the economy from all controls, replacing the food subsidy with food stamps and inviting foreign investment. The growth of over 8% in the first year was seen as evidence of the success of these policies. Other countries in South Asia followed but it was India's sweeping economic reforms that made the biggest impact internationally because of its vast size and huge economic market. The process of economic liberalization is obviously beneficial to the economies of South Asia and is an irreversible trend. Parties now in opposition may differ with incumbent Governments on points of detail but a broad sub-continental consensus exists on the efficacy of market friendly economic policies. This is another common bond linking the South Asian countries like the existence of democratic institutions, a common foreign policy of non alignment, the wide use of the English language and their common British colonial heritage. It is also a common link integrating South Asia with the global economy.
The impetus for regional economic organization had been evident in Europe in the first decade after World War II leading in 1956 to the Treaty of Rome the creation of the European Economic Community and eventually to today's European Union. In South-east Asia, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed a decade later. In the early 1980s undeterred by the fact that Indo-Pakistan tension had militated against regional cooperation, Bangladesh's Ziaur Rahman proposed a south Asian gathering to discuss the possibility of a regional economic union. The first meeting at Foreign Secretary level was held in Sri Lanka and after a Foreign Ministerial meeting in Delhi in 1983, the leaders of seven South Asian nations - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – met in Dhaka in December, 1985 and formally established the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). A charter was adopted with the principles of the UN Charter and Non-Alignment as guidelines including non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States. A three-tiered structure of Heads of State of Government Summit meetings, a Council of Ministers and a standing Committee of Foreign Secretaries was created with co-operation in specific technical areas to be undertaken through an Integrated Programme of Action. This initial phase avoided more ambitious proposals for co-operation in areas like trade. Unanimity was agreed upon as the decision making principle. Discussion of bilateral disputes was prohibited at an early stage of SAARC in an effort to smoothen the way forward.
Soon after its establishment, a SAARC Secretariat was created in Katmandu, a number of co-operative programmes and a Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism came into force. The first decade of SAARC has however, been unimpressive in terms of building regional cohesion. In comparison with ASEAN's first decade, however, SAARC's progress does not lag too far behind. At various times individual countries, including my own, have for bilateral political reasons been disenchanted with the concept but significantly the organization has survived these challenges. The diversity in the political systems of the member states, the power asymmetries and the fears of economic dominance have diminished but have by no means disappeared. The 1991 Colombo Summit set in motion a process toward a South Asian Preferential Trade Area (SAPTA) which will be ratified in November this year and will form the basis of a future South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). This harnessing of the enormous emerging market of South Asia as a generic whole and not as national entities will serve the collective interests of the South Asian states. Prospects for greater linkages with ASEAN, APEC, the European Union and NAFTA exist. The private sector which has been acknowledged as the engine of growth in the South Asian economies are being brought together by the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and a meeting of SAARC business leaders was held in Colombo recently on the initiative of President Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka at the 1995 New Delhi SAARC Summit. As SAARC enters its second decade the economic impetus has the best potential to forge regional co-operation. The world's investors are very conscious of the internal market of 1.2 billion and the potential for investment in infrastructural development in the region. I believe it is this regionalised economic development that will finally alleviate the poverty of the region that has contributed to its political tensions. The benefits of regional economic co-operation for development will soon be so evident that as with other regions political differences must diminish in importance and with it will follow disarmament and a solution to the problem of the rival nuclear weapon capabilities of India and Pakistan.
The end of the Cold War and the dramatic transformation in the economic policies of South Asia has changed the way in which the rest of the world looks at this region –even though the political problems of Kashmir in India and Tamil Tiger terrorism in Sri Lanka continue and democratic institutions in all countries have to mature into stability. The United States has been at the forefront of this new recognition of South Asia as a region of great potential as we enter the 21st century. Unlike with China in particular and East Asia in general, the USA has had no strong historical tradition of association with South Asia. Nor is the region a source of strategically important raw materials like oil. However, South Asia has moved steadily from the periphery of US foreign policy interest. The Clinton Administration created a separate Bureau for South Asian Affairs in the State Department headed by an Asst. Secretary of State. South Asian Americans are playing an increasingly influential role in shaping US policy towards this region. First Lady Hillary Clinton's goodwill visit to five South Asian Countries earlier this year and the visits of many cabinet Secretaries to the region underscore the importance of the region in terms of US foreign policy. US foreign
policy goals have been stated to be :
- the promotion of peace and stability by pursuing non
proliferation, regional security and arms control
- the building of democracy and helping those in transition to
- the promotion of prosperity in the region and in the U.S. by
promoting U.S. exports.
- the support of sustainable development.
While these goals are translated into action in South Asia US Co-operation in combating domestic and cross-border terrorism and in strengthening democratic institutions will also help South Asian democracies.
The publication in 1994 of the Asia Society's study mission report helped to focus on US interests in South Asia and the new opportunities for a post Cold War relationship. Anxieties persist on nuclear proliferation in South Asia, the problem of Kashmir as a tinder box situation and narcotics trafficking from South Asia. However, a number of positive factors also contribute towards the new US-South Asia relationship. South Asia has generated great interest in global investment circles and linkages are rapidly developing between the Asian Pacific region, South-East Asia and South Asia boosting the economic potential of Asia. Sri Lanka's special geo-strategic location enables that country to function as both a gateway and a lynch-pin.
The nation-building process is a complex one. It is also a continuous one. A half-century almost since the majority of South Asian nation-states regained their fundamental right to govern themselves the process goes on. The world remains in a transitional phase after the end of the Cold War. South Asia is poised for an economic take-off. However, the extent to which it does prosper depends largely on the attenuation of bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan in foreign policy and the consequent peace dividend for disarmament. The viability of its political institutions and their ability to cope with internal dissensions as well as progress on the path of sustainable development with population growth rates, environmental degradation and human rights given due recognition are key elements of a domestic policy mix that will form the launching pad for this take off. Based on the reality that Asia is the fastest growing region in the world confident predictions are being made that just as the 19th century belonged to Europe and the 20th century to America the centre of gravity of world affairs will shift in the 21st century to the Asian Pacific region. South Asia will have its own distinctive role in this development reasserting the strength of its ancient culture and rekindling the glory of its past.