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SAARC Parliament: An Exploration into Approaches for
Conflict Management in South Asia

M.L. Sondhi and Shrikant Paranjpe

South Asia appears to be confronted with several issues that dominate the debate on the emergent order in the region.  In a sense these issues run as parallel arguments, yet there is an urgent need to accommodate these issues in the understanding of South Asia.

a) The question of hegemony and the legitimacy of the use of force:  South Asia has traditionally been analyzed within the framework of the regional state system.1 This approach considered India as a regional hegemon, Pakistan as bargainer or a partner state, small powers of the region a peripheral dependents and extra regional interests as a fourth constituent.  There was an implicit recognition hegemony and also the use of force to preserve national interest.  The Indian actions in Sri Lanka in 1987 2 and Maldives in 1989 3 symbolized this legitimacy.  The question that is raised today is whether this old model of hegemony is outdated.  Or, what is the degree to which hegemony would be acceptable and what form if any would it take?

 b) The issue of bilateralism:  The key to the problem of order in South Asia lies in the nature of the relationship that India and Pakistan develop.  As two critical powers of the region, they can create or destroy the order and stability in the region.  The relationship between these two powers had been dominated by two differing worldviews:  India had opposed extra-regional intervention and has advocated bilateralism as an approach.  Pakistan has, on the other hand, used extra-regional interests to exert pressure on India as a counter to Indian hegemony and thus has promoted extra-regional participation in the debate on South Asian issues.

 The third dimension is the question of order from the perspective of civil society. This debate revolves around three considerations: One, is the breakdown of state- centricity though economic considerations; two, is the

a) issue of the evolution of a ‘participatory state’ and three, the question of a common civilizational tie.  Civil society is based on the recognition of difference and diversity.  Civil Society is not the same thing as liberalism or democracy; modern capitalist economy is also not a guarantee for civil society.  But Civil Society makes liberalism and democracy desirable. 4 The argument is in favour of developing a ‘Participatory State’, 5 where segments of society excluded under more hierarchical systems are permitted greater involvement.  Public policy is thus to be a product of a dialogue, consultation and negotiation.  One consideration also centers around the role of religion, culture, history, etc., on the perceptions of the South Asian elite.  Does South Asia have a common civilizational tie?  Can we talk of a common social morality of South Asia if ideological / political impediments are lowered and there is free flow of people, information and ideas?

Traditionally, two competing frameworks have dominated Indian security thinking.  Each of these frameworks revolves around a set of a governing image – both having diverse perspectives, based on independent ideological presumptions.  The development of such an image is part of the desire to establish an ‘order’ in international relations.  The first framework is based on the question ‘how is peace maintained in a society of states?’  The answer revolves around two fundamental principles / dimensions:6  one, the recognition that in any conflictual situation the roots of conflict need to be tackled (conflict resolution, not conflict management); and two, the need to resolve conflict without recourse to violence.  The first is a long-term perspective and includes the consideration of the social, political, economic, and other aspects of conflict.  It presumes that conflicts are a product of tensions emanating in social, political and economic areas that ultimately escalate into military conflict.  The latter is a more short-term view that looks at the means of pacific settlement of disputes.  The second set is rooted in a realist / neorealist framework of analysis that is focused on the role of power.  It holds that in order to maintain security and thereby order, primary attention is to be given to the establishment and preservation of power in international relations.7 The post cold war era has witnessed the emergence of a third framework that is based on a new governing image.  This governing image is based on the perceptions about the role of technology.  It argues that the source of power today is technology and not traditional military strength.  The new governing image also acknowledges the limitations placed on the system by the inherent contradictions in the society that make it necessary for the system to absorb the burden of a large social sector.  The concept of a ‘safety

a) net’ to accommodate the ill effects of the onslaught of globalisation are a part of this governing image.  In a sense this image is a continuation of the realist / neorealist tradition but is tempered with the weight of the social sector.  All these three governing images continue to simultaneously influence policy making, sometimes as competing frameworks, sometimes as complimentary ones.

 An agenda for South Asia would have to be set at two levels:  A bilateral level of India and Pakistan and a regional level of SAARC.  The former would be in the realm of a continuous dialogue based on the mechanisms of confidence building techniques; the latter would have to follow an institutional line.

 Bilateral Dialogue

Both, India and Pakistan share some common post colonial legacies.  Both have attempted to address the problems of pluralistic societies and overcome the resistance of feudal tendencies in their effort at political and economic modernisation.  Both have strained their political institutions to accommodate socio-political upheavals. One may argue that the Indian experiment appears to have survived the test of time and that its political institutions have been able to cope with the demands placed on them.  On the other hand Pakistan still continues to experiment with its institutions in search of stability.

The Indian system that bases itself on the ‘unity in diversity’ formula may be extended to its neighbouring states.  in the long run a stable political order would be the essential ingredient to a less confrontationist foreign policy posture.  The developing world need not seek western models of globalisation for its stability; they can evolve their own indigenous ones.  They would certainly include such ingredients as culture and civilization, religion, ethnicity, etc. as their ingredients.  Religion, or faith, is an inseparable part of these cultures.  To develop a civil society based exclusively upon the post industrial revolution notions of scientism, rationalism and secularism without reference to faith may fit into the universal (read western) concepts of modernisation and development; but they may not work against the ground realities of the civilizations of the Third World.

While there is a persuasive case for familiarity with modern procedures of conflict management, traditional cultural approaches to conflict management cannot be ignored.  The discourse on civilization and culture would be relevant to both, the identification of conflict and for discovering mechanisms for managing them.  The Vajpayee terminology of ‘insaniyat’ as a basis of an approach to Kashmir coupled with a ‘cease fire’ symbolises the efforts at combining traditional peacemaking with modern scholarship in peace research.  The pluralism accepted through such an acceptance of diversity can lead to a stability that would transcend the opposition on such contentious issues like Kashmir and end its centrality in an Indo-Pakistan debate.  Thus at one level the dialogue can remain contained within a statecentric mode of Indian and Pakistani national interests.  At another, the pan-Islamic forces that would threaten the national integration of both the states need not influence it.  It is to that end that an Indo-Pakistani dialogue needs to address itself.


The period from 1985 until the beginning of the nineties marks the first phase of the development of SAARC.  This period laid the foundation for the eventual direction of regional cooperation in South Asia.  Some salient trends of this phase may be identified as follows:

The efforts at developing a framework for regional cooperation in South Asia started on a cautious note.  The policy of incrementalism and use of the Nordic approach was necessary due to the predominance of political determinants of interstate relations in South Asia.  The countries of this region required taking a political decision to establish a dialogue before initiating any discussion on technical, social, cultural, etc. matters.  The predominance of the ‘political’ in interstate matters necessitated a slow start to cooperation.  The debates on SARC, especially in the early nineties appeared to grapple with these changes of the post Soviet era.  The political realism of the regional state system was revised to accept the realities of the era that sought a return to interdependence.  However, South Asian approaches to regional order did not abandon the traditional approaches altogether.  The early nineties saw a slow adjustment to the new realities.  In retrospect, one finds these perceptions to be the springboard to a more active integrationist line.  The rapid changes in the international order in the early nineties and the spread of the ideology of market economy eventually pushed South Asia towards closer economic integration.  The impetus to integration thus shifted away from the one articulated by the Bangladesh proposal of 1980.  The Nordic model of SAARC8 had not sought an integrationist approach to the region.  It had accepted the principles of sovereignty as the basis of future cooperation. The critical debates in the context of SAARC in the nineties would focus on this issue of sovereignty.  The logic of integration would lead SAARC in the direction of dilution of political sovereignty.  The launching of (South Asian Preferential Trading Agreement) SAPTA presumes the acceptance of this direction.  The fundamental question is, at what point of time would the SAARC leadership be willing to confront itself with this reality.

 The fundamental paradigm appears to have shifted to multi-centricism, otherwise described as transnationalist or complex interdependency.  The basic approach to the understanding of the regional state system of South Asia had used the realist framework.  The shift in global concerns in the early 1990s forced the SAARC leadership to incorporate ‘cooperative, non-military, economic’ dimensions in SAARC.  The subsequent phase was characterized by the onslaught of a new form of capitalism of the expanding global market economic system and the emergence of trade blocs.  The rapidity with which the global economic agenda came to be structured around issues relating to trade and technology and the emergence of trade blocs had its impact o the direction of SAARC.  The creation of SAPTA in 1993 represents a culmination of

this thought process in South Asia that sought to relate to the global changes of the nineties.

The proposed new institutional arrangement is that of a South Asian Regional Parliament.9 The new governing image would have to overcome the earlier reluctance towards a political dialogue at a multilateral level within South Asia.  A broad based popular parliamentary forum for South Asia can perform the task of conflict management in the region and enable the process of political and economic integration so as to achieve a better social order.  While conflicts are inherently subjective, this does not mean that they do not have an objective reality.10 The conflicts that this legislature would seek to address would be manifest conflicts that are based on articulation of self interest and not latent conflicts based on perceptions.11 In terms of ‘management’ the understanding is that the issues would be handled by agreed upon procedures so that the conflict does not escalate beyond a certain point.  While this may only facilitate and not ensure a resolution, it would certainly arrest the further expansion and escalation of conflict by keeping it within the system.

At the conceptual level this approach seeks to incorporate the fundamental principle of ‘unity in diversity’12 that has remained the key to national integration and harmony in India. It recognizes the unique social cultural and ethnic diversity of the people of the region and seeks to identify a thread of unity within that diversity.  Extended at the regional level this approach uses the idiom of civilizational perspectives.  The SAARC Parliament model envisages a two-stage development.  The first stage is a transition stage where governmental influence over the organization is high.  The second stage is when popular participation would increase.  The transition would have to overcome the apathy and the reluctance on part of the governments to part with power and authority to what may appear a supra-national authority.

The Parliament would be essentially a deliberative body.  For Parliaments not only represent the ‘will’ of the people, they also deliberate.13  They perform the task of policymaking, representation and system maintenance.  As representatives, they integrate the community, as a deliberative body they endeavour to solve problems.  Parliaments open issues for discussion.  They are an excellent forum for regional / ethnic voices.  Legitimate aspirations that tend to get crushed under centralization

tendencies would not carry the label of ‘anti-national’ if they were voiced in a regional parliament.  It is from this primary function that the other functions take shape.  These include: (i) Informational: Free flow of people and information; (ii) Representational, grievance ventilation, educational and advisory: A forum where grievances can be ventilated and debated without prejudice to the existing territorial sovereignties and; (iii) Developmental: An agency for political, economic, industrial, cultural, development.  Since these functions would be accompanied by conflicts among those involved, one can include conflict management as a catalyst, which facilitates these functions.  The system maintenance activity of the Parliament would be effective to the extent to which conflict management is functioning.

The essential premises of arguments in favour of conflict management relate to the prevention of escalation of conflicts, eschewing coercive settlements, and initiating processes, which achieve mutual benefits.  Conflict management theories can help foreign policy makers to develop systematic processes for both preventive diplomacy and dispute resolution.  It would require a movement away from traditional strategic concepts to developing conceptual and political foundations for negotiations and joint problem solving to meet the challenges of ethnic-nationalist frictions.  A regional parliament is a mechanism that can domesticise and internalize some of the activities, which have hitherto been strictly in the realm of foreign policy.  A rethinking of metaphors, concepts and tools would be essential to this process of change.

A regional parliament offers new types of political interaction that would be an important condition for increasing transactions, linkages and coalitions.  It can go beyond the bureaucratic-technical parameters of the SAARC system and introduce political, moral, cultural and civilisational dimensions of regionalism in South Asia.

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