Foreign Relations | Speeches

Unity and Diversity: Keeping South Asia Together

Hindustan Times Leadership Initiative

New Delhi, India

November 5, 2004

I consider it my privilege to participate in this most interesting event - The Leadership Initiative, organized by the Hindustan Times Group. I wish to thank Madam Shobhana Bhartia and the organizing committee for the warm welcome and the hospitality extended to us. I have no doubt that the presence of many distinguished participants in the seminar, together with the excellent arrangements made for it, will prove it to be most interesting and constructive.

I take this opportunity to congratulate Shrimathi Bhartia and the Hindustan Times Group for initiating the series of seminars which are held annually, to bring together thinkers and men and women engaged in action, to reflect upon and exchange views on South Asia and its future. It is an innovative and most necessary exercise. I wish the organizers every success in the continuation of their laudable venture.

South Asia, or what is known as South Asia today, consisted of closely inter-related kingdoms with a civilization dating back to well over four millennia. The epic-center of South Asian civilization, in ancient times, were the great Mohan Jo Daro and Harappa civilizations of the Indus Valley: Our ancestors living in these periods invented burnt brick, as well as sophisticated irrigation and flood control systems which demonstrate a high level of technological development.

The political and social systems were based on highly organized and unified structures, conducting foreign relations and international trade, from around the 03rd Millennia BC. The Indo-Aryan influx that took place across the Himalayan Massif around 1750 BC, brought with it new religions, philosophies and social institutions, enriching the great Indian civilizations. The Rigvedha; the two great Indian epics - the Ramayana and Mahabharata and the Tamil Sangam texts, as much as available archeological evidence, amply reveal the sweep and richness of the civilizations and cultures across the sub continent, from the Himalayas through the Ganges valley, spreading right across the islands of Sri Lanka and Maldives. The saga of the sub-continent's cultural odyssey is seen to continue in the Upanishads, the emergence of Jainism and the teachings of the Buddha, which have so profoundly shaped the history, culture and the way of life of my own country.

During this entire period of South Asia's history, diverse waves of population influx saw the mixing of varied ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, in a flexible and changing, yet harmonious manner. Ancient socio-political structures in our region evolved to accommodate the ever changing situations caused by the constant migration of groups of people from across the borders. Independent and socially cohesive, mainly rural and some urban communities, lived and worked as separate and largely self-sufficient units, all of them bound together under the pervasive authority of the king or the prince who was the head of a strongly unified, political entity.

The politico-economic structures and organizations of ancient South Asian societies have been studied and written about by philosophers such as Karl Marx, Wittfogel and many other more recent thinkers and researchers. Marx evolved the theory of an "Asiatic Mode of Production" to distinguish the ancient Asian systems which he believed possessed specific and different systems of economic arrangements from other known economic systems in ancient Europe, Africa or South America.

It is clear that South Asia evolved for many long centuries along similar systems, within a common framework of socio-economic, political and cultural organization. Diverse groups and communities of peoples have lived side by side, in complementary interaction and without conflict, under the unified authority of a sovereign.

It may be interesting to note here, that modern historical and archeological research disproves the theories of an Aryan/Dravidian divide through different historical periods and that the constant influx and outflows of peoples within the subcontinent have blurred categories through the inevitable inter-mixing of human beings.

Diversity does not seem to have been the inevitable cause of conflict in ancient South Asia. The transformation of diversity into sources of friction seems to have arisen in the colonial era, when ethnic, linguistic and religious diversities began to be used and transformed from being the cultural strength of South Asia to its political weakness. The colonial rulers perfected the art of exacerbating and transforming diversity into conflict, for their benefit. The Upanishads, the laws of Manu, the principles of Jainism, Sikhism, Islam and the teachings of the Buddha on which were based the edicts of Emperor Asoka of the Mauryan dynasty, all celebrated diversity as being a part of the cosmic order and its equilibrium. All these philosophies recognized and accepted the existence of separate social groups, with different caste and social structures. Yet, they were all believed to be knit together by a common humanity in search of the ultimate reality.

With the advent of colonialism, diversity was no more celebrated and accepted as part of an existential necessity, but was seen as something to be opposed. Of course it was greatly advantageous to the invading rulers to divide us in order to rule and dominate us better.

But have we in South Asia realized the vast and massive potential that lies within our boundaries, in our seas, our rivers, our lands and in our human resources, that has been lost to us, due to the continuation of division and conflict amongst us?.

What have we done about this since the seven modern South Asian States gained independence over half a century ago? Bharat of former times has today become three separate States of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most of our South Asian Nation States are driven by internal conflicts - be they of ethnic or religious origin. The upsurge of ethnic and religious nationalism has become the single most dominant political phenomenon of post independent and post Cold War South Asia.

I strongly believe that our own brand of civilization and historical development gives us, South Asians, ample models to build unity in diversity. In this context I would have preferred it if the title of my talk was "Unity in Diversity" rather than "Unity and Diversity".

In no way should the multifarious diversities existing within our region and our Nations States be a cause for division. The very richness of that diversity is our strength and could prove to be so in the future, if it is properly guided towards development and prosperity.

The second part of the subject assigned to me happens to be "Keeping South Asia Together".

To keep something together it is pre-supposed that the relevant thing is already together. As it stands today, can we say that South Asia is together?.

Permit me, Ladies and Gentlemen, to make bold to state that there are only a few major factors that keep South Asia apart, such as the differences that have occurred between some of the States in the South Asian Community.

I daresay that we have undertaken many efforts to bring our nations closer together, but we have to do much more.

I propose that we envisage the building of a strong, regional Union of South Asia. In order to achieve the dream of the vast majority of our peoples for a strong system of regional cooperation, I believe that the one single most essential factor is the political will of our respective Governments. I despair at times at the lack of forward movement in this field. I seriously wonder sometimes whether we all realize the massive potential that is contained in a Union of South Asian States. Are we at all convinced about this? Can we hope that we could all commit ourselves to this great and noble vision?.

I dare say that we' have done much towards this, beginning with the Constitution of India which embeds the timeless principles of human rights and secularism. The philosophy of Mahathma Gandhi as translated by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar into an inclusive and pragmatic institution which is today the Constitution of India, has proved to be the source of inspiration to the entire region in encouraging us to adopt the humanist values of our collective legacy and to steer away from chauvinism, sectarianism and fundamentalism of various types. We have given birth to our own regional organization, the SAARC and kept it alive under trying and challenging circumstances. Yet, this is not enough, most of us would like to see SAARC alive, dynamic and proactive. To this end, South Asia must soon resolve the existing conflicts within our States and between them.

India and Pakistan have made serious efforts at resolving the cause of the conflict between their nations. The recent efforts undertaken towards this end are most encouraging to us all in South Asia. We know that the resolution of this long-standing problem requires much goodwill, and innovation on both sides and more than all else, vision and courage from its leaders. I have no doubt that the governments and the leaders of both States possess these qualities in abundance.

In the process of strengthening SAARC we can draw on the numerous successful experiences in other regions of the world. The European Union affords us many useful examples. I find it fascinating to note that ancient Europe, driven by multifarious divisions and conflicts which gave rise to so many wars between European nations right through the modern history of Europe stretching back about ten centuries, has succeeded at the seemingly impossible task of welding together a large number of European States, formerly in constant conflict with each other, into the highly successful and dynamic European Union, with a common parliament, common tax structures, common passports, a -single currency and so many other essential features of a common and single, legal, political and administrative unit.

Is it then not possible for us, South Asians, with much more commonalities right from our origins, to forge a new unity despite our diversities?.

SAARC has the potential of unifying South Asia and converting it into an economic powerhouse in the global world economy. It is the scaffolding on which we could build our unity. It is solely under exploited. We all know that nearly one fourth of the world's population live in South Asia. It is the world's single largest market with a staggeringly vast empowered middle class.

We take pride in the great achievements of our ancestors in evolving sophisticated language systems, highly developed bodies of literature, sophisticated art forms as demonstrated by our paintings, sculptures and architecture, as well as some of the world's most advanced technologies in architecture, irrigation, flood control, agriculture, manufacturing industries and so on. We also often repeat that all this technology and development was destroyed during centuries of colonial rule.

Yet, South Asian nations have enjoyed political independence for over half a century. We have not yet been able to reach many of the goals successfully achieved by many Asian and other nations which did not at the outset possess the advantages we initially started off with.

The most successful approach perhaps would be to proceed in parallel along several tracks. Major irritants could be handled at the highest political levels while economic and social co-operation is developed at an accelerated pace at other levels. I see no option other than the acceptance by all member States of the policy of close co-operation in economic and cultural spheres as well as people to people contact, even though there may exist some political differences between member States.

We have to search for practical tools that could help us along the path. Could we not commence with the UN's Millennium Development Goals Programme? A joint effort to strengthen individual programmes of each member State designed to implement the accepted goals of the programme could prove to be an excellent starting point for the promotion of close cooperation between us.

In South Asia, fundamental areas concerning human development show even .today, a weak level of performance. Permit me to quote from the Human Development Report 2004 of the UNDP just issued;.

- Life expectancy is the lowest and. infant mortality the highest in South Asia, than in the entire developing world,

- The annual population growth rate of South Asia is also the highest in the world,

- The numbers of those with access to improved sanitation is lower in South Asia than in the rest of the world.

- Adult literacy is the lowest in the whole world.

- GDP is also the lowest in South Asia as compared with the developing world.

- The number of telephone lines is less than half, and - the number of internet users seven times less in South Asia than in the developing countries as a whole.

These are symptoms that indicate a very serious fault in our systems. They affect the richest resource of South Asia - our people.

Therefore, it is evident that investment in human resource development is the most urgent need of the hour. India's investment in some areas of scientific development, for instance in Information Technology illustrates the heights we can reach, given the right policies, conditions and opportunities.

Sri Lanka has also achieved notable success in the areas of human development our rates of life expectancy, infant mortality, population growth and adult literacy have reached levels comparable with the developed world, even while our economy still remains weak with moderate GDP growth, per capita income and excessive expenditure that had to be made on the military conflict that has ensued in one part of the country for two decades. The reasons adduced to this anomalous situation is that Sri Lankan Governments adopted policies with a clear focus on human development.

I would like to propose that an effective platform for building close regional co-operation could be the UN Millennium Development Goals Programme, which has been unanimously accepted by all member States of UNO.

The seven member States of SAARC have commenced the process of drawing up Action plans under the UN Millennium Development Goals Programme.

All these concern human development. It is conceivable that SAARC formulates regional programmes and plans of action complementary to the national plans, having identified areas for urgent practical co-operation and mutual assistance between member States, in order to strengthen and enhance their national programmes. This would involve a vast array of actions in the spheres of education, health, economic infrastructure, strengthening rural entrepreneurs, culture and overall policy making and good governance.

If we are to achieve these objectives, the institutions of SAARC must be strengthened, beginning with the Secretariat. The latter needs to be expanded and financially strengthened and given more authority, initially only with regard to action in the economic development areas. Fears that some may entertain, with regard to political interference in the affairs of the member States can be met if a strengthened Secretariat is given powers for action mainly in areas concerned with economic development.

History gives us innumerable examples of instances where conflicts between Nations and States have found resolutions gradually through social, economic and trading interactions. The people to people contact and the networks of common interests created thereby generate a bedrock of mutual interest and trust, on which begins to be founded, at a later stage, more sophisticated and organized working arrangements such as regional associations and unions.

Hence, what I propose is not new. It is not greatly innovative. I simply venture to suggest that we let history move along its natural course by removing the unnecessary obstacles that we, humans, have placed in its path. The obstacles of sectarianism or narrow political interests pales into insignificance when placed on the larger canvas of national interest and the great vision of South Asian regional unity. Then there would be no limits to what a united South Asia could achieve together. I have worked closely for over 10 years with all South Asian leaders. I am fully aware that every one of them strongly espouses the cause of South Asian unity.

Last year the former Indian Prime Minister Mr.Atal Behari Vajpayee made a historic statement that "once we reach that stage we would not be far from mutual security co-operation, open borders, and even a single currency". I have no doubt that the present Prime Minister and his Government possess a similar vision. The leaders of the other SAARC Nations have expressed similar views at various times during the past years.

SAARC has arrived at an essential point in its regional co-operation, when it signed the framework Treaty on SAFTA in January this year at Islamabad. We have set ourselves the target of finalizing the details so that the Treaty will be operational by 2006. I must also caution here that SAFTA may not exceptionally lead to enhancement of intra-regional frame. We need to adopt further measures for trade facilitation in order to ensure that our countries achieve the full benefits of SAFTA.

The present conjuncture in the globalised economy is proving to us that global, multilateral trade processes such as WTO could be extremely disadvantageous to the developing countries. This affords a new relevance to regional co-operation. The success of regional organizations such as ASEAN, the European Union and others, strengthen us in our resolve to achieve a closer regional alliance. An effectively operational SAFTA would serve as a take off point for a wider South Asian economic co-operation.

It may be relevant here to mention that intra-SAARC trade remains at an extremely low 5%, compared for instance with 38% within the ASEAN region.

I shall summarise my proposals for an Action Plan for South Asian unity.

01. To do all that is required to keep to the targets. To make SAFTA operational by year 2006 together with the adoption of other measures required for trade and economic co-operation.

02. Formulate effective regional action plans within the UN Millennium Development Goals Programme and implement them within a limited timeframe. Thereby we would successfully alleviate much of the poverty which is the scourge of our nations.

03. Formulate action plans for achieving the targets set out in the SAARC Social Charter relating to poverty alleviation, health, education, women, youth and children. We must note here that the Millennium Development Goals Programme covers most of these areas. We could include therefore the targets set out in the Social Charter with the National and Regional Action Plans for the Millennium Development Goals Programme.

04. We still have a long way to go in successfully achieving the targets set out in the SAARC Convention for Child Welfare and Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution. We must address this urgently.

Our region must accelerate existing programmes for the liberation and upliftment of the woman. Development programmes which do not solicit active participation of women and youth in our countries will not reach their full potential in poverty alleviation and overall development of the society.

05. We must also adopt more innovative programmes for the people to people contact in our region. No doubt the business community, the lawyers and the judiciary and the accountants co-operate effectively within their regional associations.

We must also promote co-operation between other groups of professionals, intellectuals, artists and why not the politicians at various levels. I think that interaction between politicians within our region still remain at a most unsatisfactory level. I would say there is an urgent need to promote interaction amongst this group, because after all it is they who decide finally all policies, national, regional and international. Mutual understanding and awareness of each others problems will certainly help to reduce tensions in the region.

06. We must also begin to look at possible arrangements for strengthening regional security co-operation. This probably would prove to be most difficult under the present circumstances of prevailing tensions in our region. But it is also therefore a necessity. Varying systems of co-operation in security matters could be designed and adopted between different states with the objective of reaching regional security co-operation at a later stage.

In conclusion, it may be pertinent to state once more that cultural heritage need not be a divisive force. We must and I believe we can ensure that our diverse cultures, yet our common heritage contains the seed of unity within that diversity. If we work together we can draw strength from the richness of our civilizational traditions in order to give life to a new and modern South Asian unity. I truly believe that today we have arrived at the threshold of effective action to realize the dreams and aspirations of our people; freedom from poverty, from ignorance, under-development and from constant conflict which could best be achieved through regional unity of South Asian States.
I thank you.


President on working visit to New Delhi November 4 – 8, 2004