South Asia: Disputed borders hindering growth

Dr. Javid Iqbal

SOUTH Asia is not getting its act right. The borders between nations are mired in dispute, in parts if not holistically. Even if dimension of dispute is partial vis-à-vis physical landmarks, it is enough to dampen the spirit of inter-state relationships. Unacceptability of lines marked and nationalistic hype remains the norm. The net outfall is failure to combine as a region to provide economic succour to people. This is hindering growth, markedly so. The masses according to global surveys remain largely poor and malnourished, with ever heightening defence budgets. Unemployment and underemployment is rampant in the region with rapidly increasing population and shrinking resources. As if disputed borders were not enough to mar relations, sharing of resources mainly water add to the existent tension. The friction between upper and lower riparian states within resolvable limits in the past has of late moved beyond subscribing to mechanism of resolution.
While referring to South Asia, two principal countries in the region—India and Pakistan come to mind readily, though it concerns other countries in the region as well—Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. Apart from disputed lines between nations within South Asia, there is Durand line to the west and McMahan line to the northeast in contention. The spill over of border disputes is thus beyond South Asia. In one of the recent spats between Pakistan and Afghanistan, former Afghan president—Hamid Karzai tweeted: Pakistan has “no legal authority to dictate terms on the Durand Line”. Karzai added in his tweet, ‘’We remind the Government of Pakistan that Afghanistan hasn’t and will not recognize the Durand line,” Karzai’s comment followed Pakistan’s decision to close the border between the two states for an indefinite period on February 16 after a recent surge in terrorist attacks across the country. Karzai seemed to echo the sentiment of many of his country’s officials, such as Ambassador Omar Zakhilwalal—accredited to Islamabad.
China considers McMahan line a colonial legacy. Contending the line dates back to colonial times. Chinese delegation walked out in protest in a meeting with British Indian government during colonial times. Much propagated Panchsheel—five principles of co-existence, mostly Nehru inspired diplomatic idiom did not stall for long Chinese claim of unsettled borders. The contention precipitated 1962 Sino-Indian war. War didn’t resolve the dispute, contending claims remain. McMahan line is as much a colonial legacy as the Durand line—a 2640-kilometre-long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, established in 1893 following an agreement between Sir Mortimer Durand, a representative of British India, and Abdur Rahman Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan. Durand is as much a free line as the line between Indian and Nepal. The free movement of people might be a boon for inter-state relationships and regional growth, yet there are cross border ethnicity issues causing friction.
The colonial legacy is noticeable in the line drawn between India and Pakistan. There is an international border more or less accepted in physical landmarks, though ideologically it remains contested. Akhand Bharat concept still finds a voice among diehards. Apart from international border, there is a working border—contention gets another name. And, last but not the least—Line of Control (LoC) with the air of a forced holding. Lest, we forget, beyond its northernmost point LoC remains contested in the forbidding heights of Siachen. Not much beyond it is line of actual control (LOAC) yet another contentious Sino-Indian line.
What marks South Asia from other regional groupings such as European Union (EU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the unfortunate fact of disputed borders coming in the way of regional cooperation. Europe has had its problem of nationalities, problems do exist, which is true of ASEAN countries as well, however these regions have not allowed differences to come in the way of regional growth. The effort has been geared to tone down conflict and avoid rhetoric by infusing economic cooperation. This acts as an anti-dote to contention poisoning relationships. It helps to exorcise contention. The disputes, even if they exist, as they do, get diluted. Economy and the welfare of masses remains the prime consideration. SAARC—South Asian Association of Regional countries, on a contrary note has contention written all over it. Disputed borders and nationalistic hype over it dictates the agenda.
SAARC remains though its dysfunctional state is a sad commentary on the state of affairs. Indo-Pak spat continues to mar the organization. Indian efforts to isolate Pakistan in the international arena haven’t brought the expected results. Given that India overweighs Pakistan in size, economic might, and in its wide market, however Pakistan has geostrategic advantages tilting the balance. It is the geostrategic advantage that China capitalized on in working out China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) linking its north-western province Xingjiang with warm water port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. CPEC is the most vital link of OBOR…the grandiose one belt, one road design involving more or less 65 countries.
The debate that should political resolution precede economic cooperation or economic cooperation may be used as a breeder for evolving ways and means geared to political resolution continues. The debate has to reach a logical end-sooner the better. EU and ASEAN experiences may be used as guiding factors.

—Courtesy: GK
[Yaar Zinda, Sohbat Baqi [Reunion is subordinate to survival] [The author is doctor in medicine, a social activist, and a senior columnist]

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