Ethno-Nationalism, Cross Border Ramifications, Dynamics of Regional Cooperation in South Asia

- Nancy Jetly


The process of nation-building in the highly pluralistic societies of South Asia remains a challenging task as diverse and manifold ethnic, religious and linguistic groups are sought to be integrated within viable state structures. Issues of popular participation, party pluralism, decentralisation, balanced and equitable development remain on the top of national agendas. Linkages between issues of governance, devolution of power and imbalance in development on the one hand, and heightened ethnic conflicts, on the other are gaining increasing salience in almost all countries of South Asia. Inability of the states to evolve credible mechanisms for resolving conflicts, redressing regional imbalances and building national cohesion can only lead to greater polarisation within societies making for greater instability in the region.

South Asia is on the threshold of a new democratic order today. A heartening feature in South Asia is the undimmed commitment of its peoples to the values and norms of democratic processes for providing effective political growth, social justice and economic growth. Revival of democracy by itself, however, does not usher in an era of political stability in countries which have developed entrenched vested interests in authoritarianism. The need for patient nurturing of the essentially fragile democratic processes in the nascent democracies, therefore, remains imperative in the transitional phase of moving from authoritarianism to a democratic order.1

Although democracy is firmly in place in Pakistan as evidenced by the peaceful electoral transfer of power three times in the last eight years, there are signs of growing disillusionment with the steady decline of political institutions and lack of a political culture of participation and accomodation. Indeed, the greatest threat to the viability of democracy may not come from the traditional bureaucratic-military combine but from the insidious political decay and the subsequent crisis of governability. The growing economic crisis in Pakistan, amidst charges of corruption and inefficiency culminating in Bhutto's dismissal through a presidential ordinance, marked yet another spell of power tussle and political uncertainty.

Although Nawaz Sharif came to power through peaceful electoral transfer with a credible majority, the under currents of power equations remain unresolved. The continued Punjabi domination--military cum bureaucracy--in power centralisation makes for remote chances of any significant restructuring of power equations in Pakistan. Meanwhile, linguistic/regional identities continue to underline the fragmentation and essential hetrogenity of Pakistan's political entity. Efforts by successive regimes to project Islam as an official ideology in terms of a counterpoise to regional demands for cultural autonomy have not met with much success. Indeed, the continued challenge in Sindh only serves to underline the deep contradiction in Pak polity in terms of disharmony between ethnic pulls and Islamic identity. Meanwhile, Karachi continues to seethe with lawlessness and discontent.

The nexus between drug smuggling and easy availability of sophisticated arms has only intensified societal tensions between MQM and Sindhi nationalist groups and sharpened the politics of conflict. Running feuds between Shias and Sunnis in various cities across Pakistan underlines the gathering shadow of violence in Pakistan, the full implications of which have yet to unfold.

Bangladesh is back on the rails of democratic functioning as the Awami League victory put an end to the long period of agitational politics marked by intra-party squabbles and a strong degree of negativism. The urgent need for strengthening democratic structures, evolving rules of political culture and consensus, imposing a measure of self-discipline among the two major political parties, however, remains self-evident for sustaining democratic norms and practices in Bangladesh. This is particularly important in the context of the urgency of adoption of national developmental agenda in the prevailing situation of pervasive poverty. Bangladesh remains critically resource poor and alarmingly prone to natural disasters. It also remains a society of sharp social inequities in terms of distribution of income and wealth in both urban and rural areas and land distribution.

Bangladesh, however, does not face problems of nation building as other South Asian countries in view of its near homgenity in ethnic, linguistic and religious terms. Although this has generally made for a relative absence of linguistic/ethnic conflicts, its difficulties in integrating its small tribal minority causes concern. The government's repressive policies had led to the demand for autonomy to the Chittagong Hill tracts and sustained insurgency. The Chakma demands basically centre on political settlement of the tribal problem, deportation of Muslim resettlers and restoration of alienated tribal land. The need for creating conditions of normalcy in the Hill Tracts remains imperative for the repatriation of Chakma refugees in India in "safety and security." Bangladesh has a rich tradition of religious harmony, partly due to the practice of syncretic traditions of Islam and partly due to the prevailing socio-cultural milieu in the country. However, since mid-seventies there has been a gradual move towards an Islam based polity. Destruction of Hindu temples and property--even in the face of stiff criticism by the press and political parties--underlines the disturbing growth of fundamentalist forces within Bangladesh polity.

Nepal is also firmly set on the road to democracy as the democratic movement has ushered in major political and constitutional changes. It has also managed its democratic experiment--evidenced by peaceful albeit frequent change of governments--with considerable skill and credibility. Nepal is, however, still going through a momentous process of transition to consolidate democratic processes and structures. Narrow partisan interests and political brinkmanship make for continued uncertainty in the formative phase of democracy in the kingdom.

Even as centralisation of power and authority remains entrenched in the political tradition of Nepal, new expectations have been aroused among diverse social groups for greater access to political power under a democratic dispensation. This could lead to the sharpening of conflicts between different ethnic groups and regions in their growing claims for the available resources which remain slender. Some hill based ethnic organisations are already voicing demands for the end of Chetri domination of hill tribals even as the Terai people resent the migration of people from the hill areas. Such demands would tend to acquire greater urgency in the context of growing popular discontent with the economy straining the socio-economic fabric of Nepalese society. The hold of dominant caste groups/regions on the one hand, and the growing demands from new less-previleged groups on the other, is bound to make for ethnic/regional polarisation with long-term implications for Nepalese polity.

The small kingdom of Bhutan is also facing the most challenging period of its recent history as it seeks to cope with new ethnic challenges which are slowly getting intertwined with increasing demands for democracy. Revival of Bhutanese tradition and culture--Driglam Namze and measures like exclusion of Nepali from government school curriculum raised widespread fears of cultural imperialism among the people of Nepali origin in southern Bhutan. Another factor that escalated the crisis was the undertaking of the 1988 census to identify bonafide citizens which was seen by the southern Bhutanese as a ploy to reverse the democratic balance and reduce them to second class citizens in their own country. Frequent incidents of violent clashes, killing and ambushing of security forces by the militants have been reported since 1990. Bhutanese official circles have seen the stir in southern Bhutan as a threat to the survival of Bhutan as it struggled to stem the continued flow of illegal Nepalese immigrants. Meanwhile, thousands of Bhutanese of Nepalese origin have been forced out of their homes and live in camps in Nepal. The ethnic scene in Bhutan continues to be marked by unresolved tensions.

India, which is one of the largest functioning democracies in the world, has also in recent years been facing increasing challenges as it copes with pressures emanating from its regional, linguistic and religious diversity. The rising challenges of regionalism and erosion of state authority pose an increasing threat to its integrity. Progressive collapse of political and public institutions, increasing social unrest and growing corruption in public life have caused visible concern regarding an insidious crisis of governance across the spectrum.

Since independence, India has shown remarkable resilience in sustaining its democratic secular federal framework and coping with pressures emanating from diverse religious, linguistic and regional groups seeking better representation or claiming separate identities, within or outside the federal framework without damaging its national cohesiveness. In recent times, incipient threats to the Indian federal polity have made for growing strains on the Indian political structures. Regionalism in India which was in the early years of independence a function of cultural and linguistic diversity has acquired increasing political and economic dimensions. Of greater concern is the growing civil strife and incipient secessionism in many sensitive states. This remains a grave problem for India's security, notwithstanding the fact that these have been managed so far with some credibility. Assam which was on the boil for some time is today in a more stable and settled situation, notwithstanding ULFA's violent activities. Political processes are back in place in Punjab--having gone through an agonising and disturbing period of militancy and violence--which has settled to normal political functioning within the parameters of democratic processes. Kashmir is today on the threshold of peace as steady efforts for initiation of political processes to bring it back to the national democratic mainstream have borne fruit in the recent parliamentary and Assembly elections. The need for sustained efforts to patiently rebuild the sundered economic/political fabric of Kashmir and winning over the people of Kashmir would, however, continue to remain on the top of the national agenda.

Meanwhile, there is growing anxiety among informed circles in India regarding the sustained challenges posed by Hindutva making for unsettled prospects for a society and civilisation which had for centuries stood clear of such directed mobilisation. Religious fanaticism on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide has acquired alarming proportions in recent years. Political mobilisation and cynical manipulation of religion for political gains threatens to erode the very basis of secularism which was predicated on the disappearance of organised religion from the political scene. Indian democracy, based as it is on the framework of tolerant pluralism, would have to increasingly cope with the challenge of reconciling the issue of identity of the majority and credible guarantees for the rights of the minority as it is only a secular federal India that can survive as a viable entity. Given the enormous problems facing the Indian polity, the need for strengthening secularism, firming democratic functioning and reinvigorating the role of state remains imperative.2

Sri Lankan democracy has also been subjected to a certain erosion of democratic structures and norms over the last two decades. Although it has been able to sustain political democracy--partly due to embedded mechanisms and partly due to conscious decisions--it faces its most serious challenges from the crippling ethnic conflict. It would be useful to recall that it was the steady effort at Sinhalisation of the state by both the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) governments--in a bid to retain power in the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority--which led to the ethnic divide with the Tamil minority in the first place. Adoption of a series of discriminatory measures--declaration of Sinhalese as the only official language, standardisation of university admissions in the educational system, state sponsored Sinhalese settlement in Tamil areas--served to relegate the Tamils to the backwaters of the country's political administrative mainstream, giving rise to the demand for a separate Tamil State. The emergence of LTTE--in a clear bid to overstep the limits of Tamil United Liberation Front's (TULF's) constitutional struggle brought violence which was to become an endemic feature of Sri Lankan polity.

The never ending civil war, with grave human rights violations, has eroded the economy of the country which has long-term implications on the flow of foreign aid and investments. Sri Lankan economy which is in a state of virtual disarray offers little hope, should the state continue to be riven by ethnic schism and violence.

Sustained efforts to bring about political reconciliation have been further hampered by the fear of reprisal by the majority Sinhalese. The virtual collapse of the peace process initiated by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and LTTE's cynical intransigence--makes for disquieting prospects. Issues of power sharing, decentralisation, demographic balance and devolution of power would continue to remain of crucial importance for the multiethnic and multiplural society of Sri Lanka.


The present socio-political scene in South Asia thus underlines disturbing trends. Assertion of ethno-sectarian identities and magnified threat of religious fundamentalism is unleashing new pressures across the region. There is evidence of growing social unrest as the demands of new social groups have failed to be addressed effectively in the absence of credible conflict mechanisms. Widespread poverty and unemployment, widening economic disparities and growing corruption in public life exacerbates political and social turmoil, with increasing mobilisation for economic and political space by more and more socio-economic groups on the one hand, and limited resources and capabilities for redistribution of wealth, on the other. Decline in the state order and authority has led to greater violence outside the established political channels which gets compounded by the states' increasing inability to deal with problems of law and order. Terrorism and counter state measures make for increasing brutalisation of large sections of civil societies which has far-reaching implications for all South Asian societies. Intra-state linkages between militant organisations and between state and militant organisations as also trans-national linkages of narco terrorism remain a cause for grave concern for practically all countries of the region.

The spillover from domestic instability and violence is generating new inter-state tensions. The cross-border dimensions of internal instability strains the matrix of inter-state relationships in South Asia leading to heightened dissonance in the region. The overlap of large number of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups across the borders, as also easy accessibility across the borders often leads to spillover movement of refugees, guns and drugs, cutting across the sanctity of national borders.

The steady movement of refugees has emerged as a complex and multi-dimensional problem in South Asia, impacting as it does on bilateral and regional stability. The sheer magnitude and frequency of such movements had long-term implications for the region in terms of exacerbation of social, economic and political tensions. Although a number of factors can propel the generation and exodus of refugees, internal revolutions and regime changes, restructuring of state borders, anti-colonial wars and self-determination movements and external conflict,3 one of the most important factors for the cross border movement of refugees in South Asia is the increasingly sharp ethno-religious conflicts.

Although India has been the host to the largest inflow of refugees with practically no outflow--partly due to its vast ethno-cultural expanse, proximate borders and greater economic opportunities, and partly as a function of its ability to have internalised dissent from diverse quarters--most countries in South Asia have been both refugees-generating and refugees-receiving countries.

Following the grave crisis in 1983, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans fled to India. Thousands of Buddhist Chakmas who have been struggling for their political, cultural, economic rights in Bangladesh have also taken refuge in India. Bangladesh itself had to face the influx of Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar in 1978. Thousands of refugees have sought asylum in Nepal following the precipitated conflict between the Southern Bhutanese of Nepalese origin and Drukas. Pakistan is still reeling under the impact of about 3.15 million Afghan nationals who sought refuge following the Afghan conflict in the 1980s.

What is, however, of more overriding concern for the host countries--apart from the immense financial and administrative adjustments--is the long-term implication of the continued presence of refugees on their soil. With long intractable conflicts in their home countries, most refugees tend to settle down permanently in the country of refuge, creating their own social, cultural and economic interlinkages as they find new means of livelihood and take over jobs. This aggravates the pressure on limited jobs and scarce resources creating innumerable points of tensions between them and the local inhabitants. Increasing demographic pressures have led to fears and insecurity among the local populations about being reduced to minorities in their own homeland. For instance, the presence of Chakmas in Tripura has intensified tensions between them and the local inhabitants over the growing demographic imbalance within the state. The continued presence of Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu has led to grave social tensions in terms of rise in anti-social and criminal activities in the state. The pressures of the burgeoning Afghan population in Baluchistan on the socio-economic fabric of its society also underlines the same trend. Social tensions are also brewing in Nepal over the insidious encroachment of the Bhutanese refugees in both rural and urban areas in terms of employment and pressures on scarce resources.

The continued presence of refugees also tends to make them a part of the local political dynamics triggering off its own logic. The impact of Tamil refugees on AIDMK-DMK struggle for supremacy in Tamil Nadu politics, of Afghan refugees on Pak domestic political scene and of Bhutanese refugees on the party dynamics in Nepal are instances in point. More important, the growth of a flourishing criminal underworld--underpinned by a nexus between illegal traders, drug peddlars and gun dealers acting in tandem with internal security forces--causes grave concern for internal security. Induction of arms and anarchy alongwith the refugees is becoming a political liability queering the pitch of domestic politics in all countries of the region. Internecine conflict among militant refugee groups and their linkages with trans-border militant groups intensifies acts of violence. Reported LTTE linkages with Punjab and J&K extremists and its networking with ULFA and Peoples War Groups, as also Afghan militant's role in feeding and sustaining insurgency in Punjab and Kashmir has long-term implications for regional security in South Asia. Interstate linkages between militant organisations adds to the complexity of secessionist movements which are already posing a serious challenge to the national security of most South Asian countries.

Refugee movements also generate tensions and precipitate conflict between the concerned countries. The state's inability to deal with their internal problems remains at the core of the problem. Short-sighted government policies and exploitation of residual bilateral tensions by the refugee groups only exacerbates the existing strains. The strained Nepal-Bhutan relations, India-Sri Lanka relations and to some extent Pak-Afghan relations over the repatriation of refugees at one time or the other would underline this.

Growing linkages between drug trafficking and organised violence and the magnitude of the proliferation of small arms in the region are also becoming a major source of instability and insecurity in South Asia. The drug menace and inflow of unlimited weapons--a direct fall-out of Afghan influx to Pakistan--has increasing ramifications for political instability and cross-border terrorism. The growth of narcotics trade has been exponential in Pakistan, with a reported 1.5 to 2 million heroin addicts in Pakistan. Infiltration of drug money into Pakistani economy and political system at all levels has caused grave misgivings among the informed circles in Pakistan. There have also been reports of significant penetration by the narcotics network in major national institutions, law enforcement agencies and military intelligence of the country.4

There is also great concern about the growing nexus between drug barons and arms dealers. The widespread Kalashnikov culture in Pakistan is a function of the mutually supportive phenomenon of drugs and weapons. North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) itself is reported to have more than half a million Kalashnikov rifles.5 Easy availability of drug money and arms has raised the level of ethnic violence in Pakistan particularly in Sindh. Clashes between MQM and security forces, and running feuds between Shias and Sunnis continues to keep Karachi in flames. Increasing use of sophisticated weapons has intensified the level of sectarian violence in Punjab.

India is also emerging as a transit route for narcotic trade from both Pakistan and Myanmar for onward transmission to the European markets.6 There are also reports of increased arms smuggling from the Bangladesh-Burma border creating new sources of tension in the sensitive northeastern regions.

The transnational linkages of narco-terrorism have far reaching implications for the long-term stability of South Asia. The drug and weapon syndrome underpinning LTTE operations, Sikh terrorism and insurgency in Kashmir has frightening implications for regional security. The danger of the spread of narco-terrorism and its harmful effect on peace and neighbourly relations remains a matter of serious concern for practically all countries in the region. More important, mindless violence and terrorism have become self-serving with enormous costs in human and economic terms, the full implications of which for the future of South Asian societies have yet to be fully comprehended, both in qualitative and quantitative terms.


The urgent need for long-term and constructive policies to reconcile divisive and separatist forces for preserving national cohesiveness in the multi-plural societies in South Asia remains on the top of all national agendas today. The need for enduring political stability in each country, progressively underpinned by secular/federal framework with greater regional autonomy and responsive to the needs and aspirations of its peoples for effective political governance, social justice and economic growth remains imperative.

Greater efforts would have to be made by the ruling elites in all South Asian countries to be responsive to the new dynamics of wider political participation which invariably leads to the demands for broadened access to power and influence by the hitherto neglected socio-economic groups. The progress made towards genuine regionalism, decentralisation and devolution of power in all countries of the region would, in the final analysis, determine the thrust and direction of equitable development in South Asia.

More important, however, is the need for building bridges of trust and friendship through greater dialogue and exchanges in order to bring about a change in mindsets and political perceptions which have been condemned by inadequate understanding of the complexity of the problems and the compulsions they generate. The need for initiating a new and more relaxed chapter in South Asian political relations remains self-evident. India has given the call for a new framework to reexamine and solve the bilateral problems in a spirit of accomodation and mutual trust. There is today a greater need than ever before for rising above transient political perspectives to inspire greater confidence-building. There is also need to give a greater push to bilateral dialogues on the repatriation of refugees, cross border insurgency and narco-terrorism in order to tackle these problems in a realistic framework. The region would otherwise pay a heavy price for sustained domestic instability and political unrest as it continues to reel under externally instigated low cost insurgencies on the one hand, and the challenge of narco-terrorism, on the other. The rising scale of violence in civil societies across the region threatens to eat into the vitals of South Asian societies with long-term implications for its future generations. There is today increasing evidence of social unrest across the whole region.

South Asia continues to remain mired in acute problems of underdevelopment--staggering levels of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition is keeping its teeming millions in shackles of want and deprivation. There is no gainsaying that there is an urgent need for improvement in the quality of life of people in all parts of South Asia. There can be no islands of peace and development in the region. This necessitates a collective endeavour to find solutions for the common socio-economic ills.

The urgency for promoting a regional perspective on questions of development and security calls for coordinated action for working out programmes of cooperation with greater levels of mutual understanding and tolerance. A gradually evolved regional perspective and consensus on the overall questions of people's welfare and development would promote long-term peace and stability in South Asia. This would also help to overcome the common problems of the region, which being to some extent transnational in character, defy strictly national solutions. Issues of cross-border refugees, and trans-border linkages of narcoterrorism demand mutual understanding.

SAARC Conventions on eliminating terrorism and drug trafficking are very important steps forward in evolving regional mechanisms to tackle these problems. There is, however, need for greater and substantive follow-up action in this regard even as these conventions remain virtually ground for viable lack of adequate political push. The imperative need for strengthening the requisite political will by building consensus at the regional level through greater socio-cultural linkages, economic cooperation and political confidence-building measures only remains self-evident in this context.


1. For details, see, Nancy Jetly, Democratisation and Regional Cooperation in South Asia, (New Delhi, 1994).

2. Ibid.

3. S.D. Muni and Lok Raj Baral (eds), Refugees and Regional Security in South Asia, (New Delhi, 1996).

4. CIA Report cited in Strategic Digest (New Delhi), Vol. xxiii, No. 10, October 1993.

5. Prashant Dixit, "Small Arms, Drugs and International Terrorism," International Studies (New Delhi), Vol. 32, No. 2, April-June 1995.

6. Tara Kartha, "Narcotics and Weapons: The Case of Myanmar," Strategic Analysis (New Delhi), Vol. XIX, No. 3, June 1996.