Originally Published 2011-05-06 00:00:00 Published on May 06, 2011
The emphasis ever since Dr Manmohan Singh Govt came to power in 2004 has been on 'making borders irrelevant without redrawing them'. To ensure this, there has been a continuing stress on connecting India's border provinces with those of its neighbouring countries.
Keep the SAARC borders soft and irrelevant
Ever since its advent nearly two and a half decades ago, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), South Asia’s grouping of eight countries, has been held hostage to bilateral disputes, mostly between India and Pakistan. As a consequence, SAARC has not been able to facilitate cooperation between member states. There is a need to look at alternative models.

The emphasis ever since the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Manmohan Singh took over the reins in 2004, has been on ’making borders irrelevant without redrawing them’. To ensure this, there has been a continuing stress on connecting India’s border provinces with those of its neighbouring countries.

It would be crucial to mention here that the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime had conceived of the bus service between the two Kashmirs and the train service between the provinces of Rajasthan and Sind. But the connectivity between other border regions has especially increased during the UPA regime. A perfect example is the connectivity between the Punjabs, which was virtually non-existent before the first Amritsar-Lahore bus was flagged off in January 2006 followed by the bus from Amritsar to Nankana Sahib in March 2006.

At one point, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran had said that border regions have become extremely important as the points of mutual interaction with neighbours. Saran said such regions become bridges that link countries and could be leveraged for development of border regions and their economic wellbeing. A new vision of South Asia demands a new mindset, he had added.

If one were to look at connectivity with Pakistan, some of the important steps have been implementing the NDA government’s idea of increasing connectivity between Rajasthan and Sind, the two Kashmirs and the two Punjabs. Connectivity with Bangladesh and Bhutan has also gone up by road.

In non-SAARC countries, as a separate instance, there has been increasing talk of greater connectivity with China and Myanmar. But there is skepticism about the potency of such engagement between border provinces, as ultimately the provinces cannot make their own foreign policy and are at the behest of the federal governments. Still, it is important to keep in mind that connectivity between border provinces will sustain irrespective of the relationship between countries.

Those in border provinces are bound by the logic of geography. There is no better case than Rajasthan and Sind, where there are divided families and a porous border existed right till the 1990s. People even crossed over from Rajasthan to buy groceries from the Pakistani side. The case of the two Punjabs is slightly different as the region was witness to a bloody vivisection. More than six decades later, not only are the two provinces bound by what is described as soft power-in the form of a common language and culture and the desire of Sikh pilgrims to visit their religious shrines in Pakistan-but also by economic interests. These provinces thus become stake holders in the process.

Having seen or anticipated the benefits of cooperation, those in border provinces, while not oblivious to national politics, are not likely to be part of the nationalist hysteria or discourse spewed in other parts of the country. On the other hand, good relations with a neighbouring state can become the plank for an election, as were the case in the Punjab assembly election of February 2007 and Barmer constituency in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. Here, the promise of a train service between Rajasthan and Sind was used successfully by Manvendra Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate.

It would also be important to mention that this cooperation can help, rather than harming national interest. For instance, in the case of the two Punjabs, it has been argued that interaction in the 2004-2006 period between politicians and common Punjabis helped in healing wounds between the provinces and in changing perceptions about the other country. Cooperation between border provinces in South Asia may not kick off immediately, but the logic of geography and a common historical past cannot be ignored for long.

(K Yhome is a Research Fellow and Tridivesh Singh Maini an Associate Fellow at  Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: Tehelka
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