For A Genuine South Asian Parliament
By Jawed Naqvi
31 January, 2006
Popular leftist icon Tariq Ali was speaking in Delhi this past week to audiences of slum-dwellers, academics, factory workers and communist leaders. He addressed an anti-imperialist rally in the company of Prakash Karat, the CPI-M’s phlegmatic general secretary. He forcefully
spoke in his Punjabi-accented Urdu to a sizeable rally about the growing resistance to American hegemony in Latin America, about the pivotal role played by Cuba in creating an alternative political space right in the backyard of the United States itself.
The audiences savoured his stories of the resistance under way in Latin America. He recalled how Cuba had dispatched 14,000 doctors in one go to Venezuela to set up people’s health infrastructures in the neighbouring country and how Venezuela had made available its enormous oil resources to Cuba and others in the region to sideline American domination of their economies.
The story of an old Venezuelan woman was a tear-jerker. When the middle class, nudged by Washington, appeared to be plotting against Chavez, and the economy was sinking into a serious crisis, Chavez undertook a tour of townships on the outskirts of Caracas. An old woman accosted the president, took him to her small rundown house where she was cooking a paltry meal.
“Chavez,” she told her president, “I have burnt my chairs for fuel, tomorrow it would be the table. I have two or three wooden doors in the house that would be enough fuel for the next several days. We’ll look after ourselves, so that you don’t get deterred from your mission to
usher a new dawn for our people.”
The encounter gave the president some badly needed courage at a rare time when he was feeling truly low, Ali said, quoting from his numerous visits to Venezuela. The stories seemed so far away from South Asia’s own completely different kind of engagement with the United States, and
yet the message was enticing enough to probe a salvage operation.
The opportunity came with one of Ali’s favourite ideas that came up at an informal chat with students and teachers at Delhi University when he dwelled on his dream of a South Asian union. This was perhaps the most tricky part of his lecture tour not only because even Tariq Ali didn’t
seem to have a very clear answer to a student’s question: “How is your concept of a South Asian union different from the idea of Akhand Bharat, which the rightwing Hindus want?”
Tariq Ali tends to get impatient with those who come in the way of his brilliant flourishes. On this occasion he managed to mumble something to the effect that Muslims would be safe under such a union, which they would be denied under Hindutva. But clearly the problem was more complex. It was not just about exhorting the two biggest countries of the region with an emotional appeal to pare down their defence budgets so as to be able to spend more on education, health and other urgent needs of their peoples.
The question that troubled his listeners really had more to do with the fear of a union that didn’t in any basic way alter the picture for any of the countries, much less for their people. Imagine a pact, as one history lecturer observed at the end of Tariq Ali’s talk, with rightward leaning governments of South Asia, all fighting their versions of terrorism under American tutelage, would such a union not be tantamount to a veritable axis? The nightmarish prospect was too disconcerting to persist with the debate.
In other words, the fact that not much bonhomie exists in today’s circumstances between the states of South Asia, should be seen with considerable relief. For who would want Indian troops to be summoned to help Pakistani garrisons in Balochistan, or who would welcome Pakistani
commandoes taking potshots at Naxalite insurgents in the heartland of India? Or who would want both the countries joining hands to bail out the authoritarian monarch of Nepal, as they seem so eager to do, in a bloody anti-Maoist operation?
So basically, any idea of a confederation of South Asian countries is viable if the member states first become reasonably agreeable democracies. At this point someone mentioned Arundhati Roy’s idea of a parallel parliament for India, which could be replicated at a South Asian level.
Roy had first presented the idea at a lecture in Aligarh in April 2004. She had appealed to India’s grassroots workers, struggling across the country, to unite. She had urged ‘single-issue’ resistance movements to become more involved with each other’s issues. “Many non-violent
resistance movements fighting isolated, single-issue battles across the country have realized that their kind of special interest politics which had its time and place, is no longer enough. That they feel cornered and ineffectual is not good enough reason to abandon non-violent resistance as a strategy,” Roy declared.
In a way non-violent resistance had atrophied into feel-good political theatre, which at its most successful offered a photo opportunity for the media, and at its least successful, was simply ignored.
“The ‘Ngo’isation of civil society initiatives is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. It’s de-politicising us, making us dependent on aid and handouts. We need to re-imagine the meaning of civil disobedience,” Roy had appealed.
“Perhaps we need an elected shadow parliament outside the Lok Sabha, without whose support and affirmation parliament cannot easily function. A shadow parliament that keeps up an underground drumbeat, that shares intelligence and information (all of which is increasingly unavailable
in the mainstream media).
“Fearlessly, but non-violently we must disable the working parts of this machine that is consuming us.” It is this parliament that could replicate itself in other countries of South Asia and then strike a bond with each other at the grassroots. Tariq Ali’s dream may yet be fulfilled. Roy was there to listen to him last week. Now it’s his turn to listen to her.