In the middle of all this, the India-Pakistan standoff continues.
Last week, I attended two back-to-back international conferences. The first was in Brussels, hosted by the International Institute of Communications (IIC) — the 48th Annual Conference on trends in converged, cross-border, cross-sector and digital-ecosystems. The second one was in Muscat, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Near East and South Asia (NESA) Centre. It was the 11th annual edition of their flagship event — the South Asia Security Conference on building regional security, countering extremism and terrorism.
As both the conferences were on very strict Chatham House Rules, I cannot write about the deliberations but the reason I have chosen to write about the events themselves is to highlight the almost medieval mindset that continue to hold the destiny of two billion South Asians to ransom.
On April 16, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the erstwhile Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, the architect of Operation Overlord that finally liberated Europe from the scourge of Nazism during the Second World War and later President of the United States of America, gave voice to the following sentiment: “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket that is fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
Sixty-four years later, these words ironically sum up the reality of South Asia. In 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan destabilised the western edge of South Asia. It led to the Afghan jihad, the rise of Taliban, Al Qaeda, 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom, radicalisation and narcotisation of the region, free flow of weapons and, 37 years later, the stalemate still continues. The new US strategy towards Afghanistan is premised upon a negotiated settlement between the National Unity government of Afghanistan and Taliban. However, with China, Russia and even Iran now taking an active interest in the affairs of that country, a new chapter in the old great game is unfolding.
Today, we are witnessing the subversion of the eastern edge of South Asia with the genocide of the Rohingyas playing itself out in its goriest manifestation. According to estimates available in public space, half a million of them have already become refugees and the numbers are rising because of the ethnic cleansing unleashed by the Myanmar junta. Even the top civilian leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has maintained a deafening silence. The last time a refugee crisis of this magnitude erupted, in 1971, it changed the map of South Asia, forever. The situation has already started polarising domestic politics, be it Bangladesh or even India where none other than the Supreme Court had to step in to stop the NDA government from deporting these hapless migrants whose home and hearth has been pillaged by the marauding Myanmarese Army.
In the middle of all this, the India-Pakistan standoff continues. The tacticalisation of nuclear weapons by Pakistan has added another dimension of instability to this dynamic. With the so-called core issues unresolved, Kashmir for Pakistan and terror for India, the military build-up in both the countries continues unabated with new weapon platforms being procured every other month. Within South Asia, the big spender is India. India’s military expenditure has been rising steadily and has now reached $55.9 billion as of 2016. This figure, however, does not include spending on paramilitary forces; that number is another one million. Pakistan would spend $8.78 billion in 2017-18, though the real spend is, at least, 50 per cent higher than what is officially stated in budget figures.
Contrasted with the human development numbers, this constitutes sheer wasteful prolificacy by both the countries. South Asia region is home to a majority of the developing world’s poor. According to the World Bank’s estimates on poverty, about 571 million people in the region survive on less than $1.25 a day, and make up more than 44 per cent of the developing world’s poor.
Today, Pakistan has a population of 207 million and India, 1.3 billion. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s human development indicators, 21 per cent of Pakistan’s population lives on under $1.25 a day. In India’s case, this has come down from 41.6 per cent in 2005, but has now become rather obstinate at 22.6 per cent. This coincides with a period when India’s gross domestic product grew at an average of over 7.7 per cent for a decade, from 2004-14, while Pakistan’s economic condition deteriorated. Coupled with this is the median age of Pakistan’s population at 22.5 years and India’s 26.5 year, making the demographics a ticking time bomb in both the countries, given the paucity of employment opportunities, stable work paradigms and sluggish economic growth.
There is, however, a flip side to this story. The number of Internet users in India is 465 million with 226 million on social media, while the corresponding figures for Pakistan are 35 million and 44 million respectively. This provides an opportunity to both the countries to leverage digital economy and the reach of the new media to provide livelihoods to their young people and also build a new narrative between both the countries, specially when the march of technology has rendered Westphalian boundaries redundant.
Despite the fact that both the countries are not talking to each other there are zillions of packets of data flying around on Internet-based encrypted platforms like WhatsApp between the two populaces, indicating that people are not only talking to each other but possibly doing much more, away from the prying eyes of their respective Orwellian states.
Herein lies the contradiction between the traditional definitions of sovereignty and their complete erosion by Facebook and Twitter lands of the world that policymakers in both the countries have failed to grasp. The young in both the countries may not have yet broken out of the corrosive narratives of the past, but they increasingly have less time for the jingoism that their respective establishments unleash on each other periodically. That is the space that liberal opinion on both sides must occupy to change the discourse between India and Pakistan that lie at the heart of the South Asia conundrum. If this sounds like a guns vs butter story, precisely that is what it is. For seven decades, this region has chosen guns over butter. The time has come to reverse this equation.