South Asian Cooperation and the Role of the Punjabs
Priyashree Andley ·       

The year 2007 marks the fourth anniversary of the Indo-Pak peace process. However, both countries have to demonstrate greater understanding, flexibility and friendship to overcome their trust deficit. Confidence building measures, that both India and Pakistan have committed to in principle, are significant for peace in the region. Nevertheless, bureaucratic hurdles in implementing them should be overcome. Manmohan Singh had announced steps to accelerate the integration process in the South Asian region at the 14th SAARC Summit in New Delhi on 3-4 May 2007. India declared that it would liberalize its visa procedures for scholars, journalists, students, and those in need of medical help from SAARC countries. Singh emphasized his 'compelling vision' of a rapidly developing South Asia and its growing role in the world and expressed satisfaction that SAARC members had started resolving their bilateral differences, which had prevented the grouping from realizing its goals.

In this improved scenario, Tridivesh Singh Maini's South Asian Cooperation and the Role of The Punjabs, suggests means to strengthen cooperation between India and Pakistan in particular, and in the South Asian region in general. The author emphasizes the importance of border provinces for resolving disputes between countries because they share a common cultural heritage and can reap mutual economic benefits. The author has undertaken a study of the two Punjabs in India and Pakistan to illustrate his thesis. His reasons for selecting Punjab are its partition in 1947, strategic location in terms of markets in South and Central Asia, dominance of Punjabi culture in Pakistan's domestic polity and Amritsar-Lahore-Kabul being the traditional trade route of the Indian subcontinent.

The author begins by highlighting the achievements and failures of SAARC. The ongoing Indo-Pak peace process has addressed a major impediment to cooperation and growth within SAARC. It has also assuaged the apprehensions of the smaller nations by stressing the advantages of regional integration. The author asserts that though Kashmir no longer paralyses the organization's functioning, it has not disappeared completely from the SAARC agenda. He suggests that while Kashmir is a source of disagreement between the two countries, it need not restrict mobility, economic exchanges and intellectual collaboration between them. Another reason for SAARC's failure is the lack of a sound model for regional cooperation. However, it should be emphasized that the political failure of SAARC has been responsible for its economic failure. For example, weak economic ties between India and Pakistan are the result of political mistrust. The author suggests a functional and developmental model for integration in South Asia that lays the stress on greater political cooperation and equitable distribution of economic gains. These models attempt to concretize economic and political relations before resolving the conflict. The African regional groupings follow these models, but they too have their weaknesses.

The book recounts the role of Punjabi culture, initiatives taken by the two Punjabs to increase connectivity, the economic interests binding both sides and the role of the Punjabi diaspora in strengthening cross border cooperation. A comparison can be made on the connectivity initiatives taken in the two Kashmirs and Punjabs. Both sets of border states have introduced cross-border bus services. However, the two Kashmirs have been unable to open trade routes as yet, unlike the two Punjabs. In 2005, a trade route via the Wagah post was opened that has led to economic gains on both sides while the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad truck service still remains an initiative on paper.

The author also highlights the role of non-governmental consultative committees to encourage cooperation in agriculture, removing trade barriers, improving infrastructure at the Wagah post, and allowing free movement of commercial and private vehicles. This is a useful concept and if such a mechanism could be established between the two Kashmirs, it would ease travel restrictions allowing both sides to enjoy economic and commercial gains.

The role of Punjabiat in providing a cultural linkage between the two states is also examined. Common saints, Sufi culture, artists and poets on both sides have been significant sources of Punjabiat. It is argued that the cultural heritage can encourage adoption of economic strategies to access larger markets in different parts of the world. If this dimension is stretched to the two Kashmirs, will it serve the same purpose? 'Kashmiriyat' has been used and misused by leaders in the two countries for political gains, which has battered the original concept out of shape. This is a major difference between the Punjabs and Kashmirs. However, the book does not provide an in-depth analysis of the problems in promoting regional cultures, which can affect cooperation between South Asian neighbours.

The author elaborates the role of the Punjabi diaspora in promoting Punjabi culture. He highlights the role of the Academy of Punjab in North America, a non-religious and non-political organization engaged in the promotion of Punjabi literature and culture in Washington and other areas. Its members include immigrants from India and Pakistan and have contributed to removing misunderstandings between Punjabis by underlining their commonalities. Its role can influence other South Asian diaspora. For example, the Indo-American Kashmiri Forum is dedicated to the protection of human rights of the minority (Pandits) in Kashmir and plays an important role in representing them. Diaspora can play another important role by encouraging and funding educational exchanges for students in their home country.

Finally, the book makes several recommendations to encourage cooperation within South Asia. These include encouraging free movement of people by easing visa regimes and building a well-knit South Asian economy by opening transit facilities, encouraging the role of the private sector, joint agricultural research, encouraging free trade zones in border areas like Jammu and Kashmir and Northeast India, and involving South Asian diaspora in development process. The book is a good source for basic information on South Asian and Indo-Pak cooperation in Punjab. It makes clear that lawyers, journalists, scholars, artists, students and public servants can contribute to strengthening cooperation between countries without placing the sole responsibility on politicians. However, applying Maini's recommendations to other border states would require a more detailed study of their security scenario, political stability and political will and take account of the sensitivities of other parties involved in the conflict.