Uttaraayan, marking a return

January 16, 2011


This weekend, India celebrated Makara Sankranti, which marks the beginning of the Sun’s northward journey (Uttaraayan). The festival brings longer days, warmth and life back to this subcontinent whose southern reaches are almost equatorial and whose northern reaches stretch well past the Tropic of Cancer. Some parts of north India celebrate it as a festival of kites. In Tamil Nadu, from where I write this blog, Makara Sankranti marks the end of the harvest and is celebrated as a four-day holiday—Pongal—during which agricultural waste is cleaned up with bonfires, some part of the harvest cooked and shared, and family reunions and excursions planned.

As my profile tells you, I also run a small non-profit. The last quarter is spent preparing for our annual campaign to raise awareness about gender violence, as one of the many 16 Days Campaigns held around the world. The process consumes our small team, and leaves us good for very little else—including blogging! But that’s done for now, and like the sun shifting course, I am back to the other, not entirely unrelated, hemisphere of my life—research and writing on security.

In the last three months, much has happened. The Happy Families image presented in India during President Obama’s visit has somewhat unraveled with news breaking of corruption scandals that seem to involve just about everyone. The leaking of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks opened another Pandora’s box, raising enough questions to merit a post of its own. A new UN agency devoted to gender equality has come into existence, bringing together the work and mandate of four organizations. India is back in the UN Security Council after a long gap. So much to read, reflect and write about here!

SouthAsian of the Decade: Top Five Candidates

December 28, 2009


Who or what has made the most important contributions towards peaceful coexistence in South Asia?


Five candidates present themselves for such an award. Some of these have been chosen for their efforts over many years, and others, in keeping with the spirit of President Obama’s Nobel for Peace, based on their potential to do good. Each of them is also representative of a category of actors or initiatives that have made a difference.

1. The Neemrana Process

Since 1990, far from the hysteria of news headlines, twice a year, an unofficial bilateral meeting has been held between Indians and Pakistanis. The process takes its name from its original venue but is now held alternately in India and Pakistan. Participants include academics, mediapersons and perhaps most importantly, former bureaucrats and military officers. This enables the group to have both members of civil society who will bring new ideas, as well as former decision-makers who will keep the discussions realistic while providing a way to communicate with governments. It is more or less the same core group that carries over from one meeting to another, assuring that trust and continuity. After each meeting, held under the Chatham House Rule, a briefing is provided to governments. Many important peace initiatives, including the restoration of bus services linking Kashmiris on both sides of the border, are said to be Neemrana products.

The Neemrana process may have started it, but it would appear in retrospect that by the early 1990s, South Asia was truly ready for a number of people-to-people, civil society and institutional initiatives for interaction and cooperation. A miniscule sample:
Pakistan India People’s Forum
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP) annual conflict transformation workshops
South Asian Forum for Human Rights

2. Himal Magazine

“Himal Southasian is Southasia’s first and only regional news and analysis magazine,” states the magazine’s website. Since 1987, Himal has covered political events, social issues, development debates and international relations in South Asia, with a team of correspondents and columnists from around the region.

Check out Himal’s Right-side Up map of South Asia.

Himal represents the potential of the South Asian intelligentsia to create and sustain a critical dialogue on issues that transcend interstates borders. Research carried out by some of the region’s think-tanks shows what is possible when there is financial and institutional support for what are necessarily large projects involving multiple institutions, researchers, cases and field-sites.

RCSS Research Awards, the Kodikara and Mahbub Ul Haq fellowships.
The Calcutta Research Group’s dialogues and conferences.

The most interesting development has been the development of online publications and portals as platforms for sharing information and ideas about common issues.

South Asian Media Net
South Asian Women in Media
Panos South Asia

The mainstream media remain hamstrung by commercial and political considerations and have been unable to match Himal or these online initiatives. Op-ed pages have all but disappeared and most papers do not have the resources to place correspondents across the region.

3. Zee Television
Satellite television channels entered South Asia in the early 1990s. Founded in 1992, Zee TV was India’s first general entertainment satellite channel, with its footprint covering a large swathe of Asian countries from the Emirates to Singapore. The reach and appeal of Zee’s programming laid the foundations for a regional popular culture built on film and non-film music, soap operas and game shows. The network grew to include news and entertainment channels in many of India’s major languages, which were beamed across provincial and national borders. Simultaneously, so did other networks.

Star Network
Sun Network

In the last decade, Zee’s entertainment channels have reached and reached out to members of the Indian diaspora; for instance, it has facilitated the participation of Indians from the UK, US and the Gulf to participate in its music contest shows. But pathbreaking from our point of view, in recent years, its highly-rated musical reality shows have included Pakistani participants as serious contenders and the perquisites of participation, including performing at shows and recording contracts, have extended to them. The result: across borders, people are viewing the programmes (and commercials); voting for their favourites through the mobile phone and Internet; and discussing the shows in open, unmoderated Internet fora. When the 26/11 Mumbai attack happened, Zee was hosting Pakistani participants for the 2008-09 season, providing a counterpoint from within popular culture to the popular mood.

Long before satellite television, SAARC decision-makers saw the potential of this medium to build bridges across the region. They started a series where cultural programmes from each country would be broadcast across the region.  Commercial radio had also presaged what satellite television has shown possible; the popular Radio Ceylon ‘Binaca Geetmala’ which played the top 10 hits from Hindi film music week after week for decades, was a great example.

4. The Internet

It is a cliché to say that the Internet has broken down communication barriers worldwide; why should South Asia be an exception? Growing connectivity and rapid growth in mobile phone networks is accelerating growth in this area beyond our imagination.

Let a very small sample of hypertext links do most of the talking in this instance.

Chowk, a portal where “all are welcome to read, write and think.”  Read their ‘about us.’
Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Friendship Forum on Facebook
WISCOMP ’07 on Facebook
ICT for Peacebuilding
Citizen Journalism: Third Eye from Bangladesh

The flip side of this nominee is of course, that those who would reinforce barriers and shatter the peace also use the Internet. But that’s the subject of another post.

5. The Indian Premier League

Cricket is a subcontinental passion, and that’s an understatement. Cricket is power, glamour and money. The Indian Premier League is a cricket competition based on the newest and shortest format of the classic sport, organised by the Board of Cricket Control in India, which is the richest cricket authority in the world. In the first two editions of the tournament, eight teams formed the league, each named for an Indian city. The players however, came from all over the world, and their presence in any side was secured by auction. The resultant spectacle: Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans playing for the same side, in one case called the ‘Mumbai Indians.’

The IPL tournament has not been untouched by the realities of South Asian international relations. The attacks on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan created genuine security concerns with regard to the second edition of the tournament.

But the IPL, cricket and potentially, any sports offer an opportunity to engage in different ways with each other. India and Pakistan have experienced this in cricket series after series; the contest on the field may be tense, intense, fraught; but those who cross the border to view matches receive a welcome that is like no other.

There should be a sixth candidate here, which now has acquired the elusive qualities of the Cheshire Cat and the Scarlet Pimpernel combined: Funding agencies. Through the 1990s and into the last decade, foundations such as Ford, MacArthur, Friedrich Ebert, Hans Seidel, etc. funded non-official dialogues; cross-border workshops; research collaborations between individuals and institutions across problematic borders, and large research projects on regional issues. They provided seed-money to institutions that have contributed to creating a climate where the worst provocations still do not quite escalate to all-out conflict. This funding is now drying up with foundations re-ordering their priorities. Unfortunately, South Asian individual and corporate philanthropy stops short of political initiatives, sticking largely to traditional charitable activities and extending at most to development and social welfare projects.  When we return to this list in December 2019, we will know what became of all these regional peacebuilding initiatives once the funding dried up.

SouthAsian of the Year: Meher Mohammed Khalil

December 28, 2009


Who has done the most this last year to promote peace and build confidence in South Asia?


Who has done the most this last year to promote peacebuilding and regional integration in South Asia?

“South Asian of the Year” goes easily to Mohammed Khalil, the quick-thinking bus driver in Lahore who managed to save the Sri Lankan cricket team when it was attacked in broad daylight by terrorists.

Security concerns following the 26/11 attack on Mumbai caused the Indian team that was supposed to play this tour, but they pulled out. The Sri Lankans replaced them. Then on March 3, 2009, as the team set out from their hotel towards the stadium, they were ambushed by gunmen. The driver bravely and speedily drove the bus out towards Gaddafi Stadium which was then sealed. The players ducked and lay flat to escape with mostly minor injuries.

(Watch a newsclip here.)

One act of bravery salvaged a situation that could have begun years of acrimonious exchange between governments and cricket boards and snuffed out any hope for goodwill towards Pakistan in cricket(and cricketer)-loving South Asia.

A season for lists and mellow truthfulness… a post for December 31, 2009

December 28, 2009


2009 is ending and so, according to some, is the first decade of the 21st century.

T’is the season for looking over the shoulder and pronouncing verdict on which person has made the greatest impact in the last year, and t’is definitely the season for lists and mellow truthfulness.

Everyone has awards (serious and tongue-in-cheek) and top five-ten-twenty lists; why not the ASI blog?

In a series of posts that follow this, I will present for your consideration some South Asian award nominations and ranking lists. These nominations are based on an unscientifically conducted, anecdotally driven search of this blogger’s memory.

New Delhi Notes: Attending darbar, reflecting on federalism in large states

October 6, 2009


This is a series of small travel notes, containing observations and reflections on broader issues. This one is about the everyday dimensions of federalism in a continental state.


There is a story about the 17th century Maratha king, Shivaji, that children growing up in Maharashtra hear often. After years of adversarial relations, Shivaji decided to visit the Mughal darbar (court) with his son. He was received not as an equal adversary but as a lowly tributary, made to stand in the back of the courtiers’ ranks. His protest was met with arrest. However, he is said to have escaped from Agra fort in a basket of sweets, only to expand and consolidate his control over large swathes of the Deccan. Decades ago, as a Mumbaikar/ Bombayite working in Delhi, this story had special resonance as one navigated Delhi’s many protocols and hierarchies.

Delhi is a very beautiful city. There are seven cities here, the newest of which was built by Lutyens. In every season of the year, there is something to admire and enjoy here. In recent decades, India’s capital has also become very cosmopolitan and that has added a special quality to the Delhi experience: visit Delhi, check out India, you might say.

Coming from India’s southernmost metro to this city, this difference is particularly striking. Even more than it used to be when one visited from Mumbai (then Bombay). For a port-city in a region with an aggressive internationalist history, Chennai’s preoccupations remain very local—language politics, identity politics, development concerns (infrastructural growth, employment), water and its foreign policy concerns are first focused on the global Tamil diaspora. Delhi’s politics are an instrument for furthering Chennai’s autonomy and Delhi’s concerns with Pakistan and China are of great concern in Chennai, but in a cerebral register quite different from the emotional one where Sri Lanka policy is debated. The Chennai-ite could be a foreign tourist in Delhi; language, food, culture and worldview are so different in the two cities.

The Chennai-Delhi, Tamil Nadu-India relationship has changed beyond recognition over the decades. Language politics—resistance to the imposition of a single national language—may be said to be at the heart of it, and the Tamil Nadu leadership’s sustained advocacy of systemic change along the secession-separatism-autonomy continuum are an expression of this resistance. Between 1947-1963, secession was an important demand in the Dravidian movement’s political platform, and their leader spent his time in Parliament raising related issues over and over again. Circumstances prompted a shift in strategy, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam contested and won state assembly elections in 1967. Dravidian parties have held power in Tamil Nadu ever since, in the forefront nationally on two ongoing debates: greater autonomy for states in the Indian federation and Sri Lanka policy. Since 1996, Dravidian parties have been an important part of ruling coalitions at the centre, leveraging their Parliamentary presence to further their political concerns.

But even if it is not impossible, the journey from secession to insider-status, the journey of the ordinary traveller from inability to communicate to feeling at home, is more arduous on both levels than a blog-post can indicate. The Tamil Nadu-India relationship suggests that not merely federalism, but flexible federalism—where there is a lot of ‘space’ or ‘give’ in the fabric—are what it takes. This is a constant negotiation, which is why autonomy demands and debates never go out of fashion in large states.

A mutual orientation

May 27, 2009.


Swarna Rajagopalan introduces herself and the themes on which she will blog.


People are Asia. The colours and cultures, foods and frenzies, warmth and vigour, passions and politics, states and nations of this large continent are made and re-made by its people everyday. The security of Asia is the security not just of its states but also of its people—as individuals, as families, as clans, as communities, as towns and cities and as larger collective entities than that. Each Asian carries within her memories and habits of many generations, bringing yesterday’s legacy and today’s energy to bear on hopes and anxieties about a secure, just and peaceful tomorrow.

In my posts in this Asian Security Initiative blog, I will make people—especially the people of South Asia—the central referent of “security.” Of course, states and other collective formations matter; but what Amartya Sen and others have come to describe as “human security” will be my fundamental concern here. In my posts, therefore, you will read about the things that make individuals and communities (in)secure such as migration, disaster and gender violence. You will read about the impact of “traditional” security actions and policies on citizens and communities; for instance, the environmental consequences of modern conflict or the way foreign policy relates to cultural issues. I will also very occasionally comment on traditional security concerns, such as foreign policy or inter-state conflict.

But who am I and why should you read me? I am a Bombay-raised, Chennai-based, Illinois-trained political scientist. My journey as a scholar has been an effort to relate the academic and the political to people’s real world, real life experience. Sometimes I think that a scholar is but a story-teller with historical and analytical perspective and as a citizen-scholar, the compulsion is to tell the story that would not otherwise be heard in a particular forum or share the picture that no one might otherwise see.

This blog is one segment of a journey; readers and writers are fellow-travellers here for a short stretch. Each of us will start and finish at different points, sharing our stories along the way, learning from each other and craning to see what the other sees out of the confines of this small window.  No matter that the journey is short, the quarters confined and the view but a porthole, we will define the journey by a mutual commitment to sharing, listening, looking and learning.