The New Face of South Asia

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The New Face of South Asia

Terrorism, religious extremism and nuclear proliferation have given South Asia a depressing image. But there’s growing room for optimism.

When outsiders think about South Asia, they typically picture a region that’s wracked by violent religious extremism, a place where groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba are active and deadly. Then there’s the image of clandestine nuclear proliferation, personified by A.Q. Khan and his network. And of course there’s the enduring hostility between India and Pakistan. Despite occasional peace initiatives, the region’s nuclear-armed rivals find themselves frequently at loggerheads, not least because of concerns in India that terror attacks launched there have the support or encouragement of Pakistan.

However, while this view of South Asia is still too often reality, there are also some encouraging signs of change, a shift being led by India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives.

Sri Lanka has made rapid progress since the end of the Tamil insurgency. It has signed a free trade agreement with India, and Indo-Sri Lankan bilateral trade is booming. Indian investment firms and multinationals, meanwhile, have played a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s economic growth. It’s true that although the civil war is over, Tamil political demands haven’t yet been resolved. Still, the country’s strong economic performance is cause for genuine hope.

Even more encouraging for the region, though, has been the progress in relations between India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh had been threatening to emerge as a major trouble spot during the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led regime, which included Islamist parties bent upon boosting religious extremism in the country. Indeed, the sudden upsurge in extremism had even led some to speculate that Bangladesh could become the next Afghanistan.

But successive Bangladeshi governments have chosen not to tread this path. First, the caretaker government led by Fakharuddin Ahmed moved to try to rein in extremism. Then, Sheikh Hasina and her administration, after being ushered into office with an overwhelming majority, took up the fight against extremism with vigour. For example, her government established a war crimes trial for parties like Jamaat-e-Islami, which committed atrocities against the local population during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. It also took down several cells of Pakistani terror groups operating in Bangladesh. In addition, action was taken against the local Islamist group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. As a result of the clampdown on anti-India terror groups, India-Bangladesh relations improved significantly, especially after Bangladesh handed over several insurgent group leaders to India who had been hiding in Bangladesh and waging an insurgency in India’s north-east.

Such cooperation hasn’t gone unnoticed in India, and bilateral ties reached a new high when Hasina visited New Delhi in January 2010. Since then, both sides have taken steps to improve ties further, and they are working to resolve several outstanding issues, such as disputes over land boundaries, sharing of common river waters and addressing the trade deficit, which is currently unfavourable to Bangladesh.

Importantly, there has also been some understanding reached on the issue of transit. India has long been demanding transit through Bangladesh to its landlocked north-east, something it had actually had until 1965. Bangladeshi regimes since then have denied India this right, but Bangladesh now plans to involve Bhutan and Nepal in the transit issue. For example, it has allowed both Nepal and Bhutan, which are landlocked, to use Chittagong and Mongla Port. Bhutanese vehicles will use Indian territory to reach Bangladesh, and an agreement to this effect was signed during Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna’s recent visit to Bangladesh. While there, he also signed an agreement on the protection of Indian investments in Bangladesh. Indian multi-nationals plan to invest $3.5 billion in Bangladesh in the near future, which is likely to further boost Bangladesh’s economic growth. Further, unilateral, trade concessions are also likely when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Bangladesh later this year.

All this mark a new beginning for a significant part of South Asia. Pakistan and Afghanistan may still continue to be embroiled in religious and ethnic conflict, but the rest of the region appears keen and ready to move beyond such strife by prioritising economic growth and regional integration. Perhaps sometime soon, this characteristic of regional cooperation can also become a model for those parts of South Asia where peace and stability have for too long proven elusive.

Anand Kumar is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.