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The Futures of South Asia

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A look at possible future scenarios for India, Pakistan and other countries of this region.

by Sohail Inayatullah

IN SEARCH OF TRUTHS

A saffron robed monk trudges up the mountains of Nepal in search of a great guru.  He finally reaches the enlightened one, and patiently waits his turn until he is invited up to the rostrum, where the guru tells him the future.  India's future is bright but there will be a period of great difficulty.  First, Pakistan will attack India, possibly through nuclear weapons.  China will follow suit.  To the rescue will be first, Russia, and then, the United States. 

The lesson is not that we have been given privileged information--the future is far more mysterious than mystics or technocrats can imagine--but how the dominant model of international relations shapes our understanding of current and future events.  Not only are we handcuffed to the past but we are chained to the future.  Breaking free of these temporal boundaries is not an easy task.  Our language, our theories of the real, our understanding of daily events constantly force us into a fabricated present.  To begin to undo this tapestry of reality, we need to articulate visions and scenarios, not with the concern of predicting the future but with creating the possibility of another space, and thus to open up the present.  

THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL BOUNDARIES

As shown by the above allegedly divinely inspired intuitive forecast, our reference point creates the categories from which we know reality.  Thus, even as the mystic is far above reality, his upbringing represents conventional views of international relations.  More than that, the future then is not given to us through spiritual categories of reality (categories focused on service, justice, consciousness and compassion), but from a vision which reinforces States and the territories they occupy.  What is important than is what States do (security and economic development) not how humans act or how ideas can transform history. 

Being handcuffed to the future also means that one ascribes to a view that is expert-based (bureaucracy-driven) in terms of knowledge, State-oriented in terms of the parameters of what is real, and realpolitik-driven in terms of the possibilities of what can happen.  Alternative rendering of the real such as those by peoples organizations that exist outside State formations, different accounts of power are all seen as escapist, idealist, and unpractical since they do not conform to the vision of the state planner or his academic counterpart, the Western trained economist. 

Yet idealism does exist, but, in the quest for modernity it has been marginalized.  When non-modernist visions do enter politics, they enter in modernist frameworks creating "mullahism" and syndicated "hinduism"  or agressive Buddhism, thereby once again reducing the plurality of thought and action.  

VISIONS OF THE FUTURE

Fortunately, there are visions of South Asia,[ii] outside of conventional categories, as we show by summarizing the perspectives of various South Asian futurists.  Q.K. Ahmed, for instance, envisions a South Asia grounded in economic equity and people's participation in creating indigenous models of knowledge.  This vision includes increased power for communities and villages as well as basic rights: a right to peace, to work, to education, to housing, to technology, to health services, to information, and to a clean and safe environment.  However, rights should be given in the context of empowering individuals since they are the legitimate source of power. For Ahmed, political and economic power must be democratised.   

Sri Lankan community activist A.Y. Ariyaratne envisions a future that links the spiritual and the material.  Ariyaratne sees development as an awakening process that takes place in economic, social and individuals realms.  Ariyaratne's way out of the current crisis is through social movements focused on community development, self-reliance, and traditional cultural strength.  The goal is simply to remove centralized structures, obstacles to people's empowerment.  With basic needs met, positive peace is possible.  

However, while these visions offer us hope and inspiration, we need to remember that more than other group it is women who are handcuffed, often by governmental power. Most visions of the future do not recognize how women know the world, their categories of reality, their particular histories, or their alternative visions of the future.  For example, activist Nandini Joshi reminds us that it is women who have suffered the most in South Asia.  While changing social attitudes are important it is productive employment for them that would lead to their liberation--to economic security, social status and individual dignity. Without empowering South Asian women, South Asia's future is bleak.  Joshi's particular future is Gandhian, specifically she calls for local manufacturing of cloth in small scale hut industries.  By remaining in the village and recovering traditional local economies, the family can be maintained and women seen as Goddesses not as commodities.  

In contrast, Shivani Chakravorty believes that a return to a village economy is too simple a solution as it denies the pervasiveness of modernity.  Moreover, the village community does not necessarily guarantee a better future for women as it too is vertically structured.  Merely weaving cloth will not create a new future for India or South Asia, more dramatic steps are necessary.  A reconstitution of women in South Asian thought outside of the nationalist discourse (as in "Mother" India) is a necessary first step. For Chakravorty, women must confront modernity and in collaboration with men create new social structures where women are neither commodified nor deified seen as real people not as archetypes.  

Moving to the national level, Sohail Inayatullah writes that Pakistan's future consists of at least five possibilities. The first is a "Disciplined Capitalist Society" in which the military and a strong centrist civil service create the conditions for the development of a national bourgeoisie (indeed, this is the agenda of the latest military take-over).  The second scenario is "Islamic Socialism" in which basic needs are met through State control of the economy but not State control of cultural and religious life--these remain syncretic and personal.   The third scenario is the "Return of the Ideal," the original intention of Pakistan as a land of the pure and the search for the ideal Islamic polity that existed at the time of the Prophet. While this has remained the ideal, the cognitive dissonance between the Ideal and the reality of vicious politics, ethnic violence, and political corruption has led to a deep cynicism. The fourth scenario is the "End of Sovereignty:" through military intervention by India or cultural intervention from globalism; internally in the  breakdown of the stable self and the breakdown of the nation itself into many states.  Loss of sovereignty often leads to extremist renderings of reality, where local culture is saved but at the expense of basic human freedoms.  In the name of tradition then, dance, music and art are often denied to women, for example. The fifth scenario is "No Change" or the continuation of the grand disillusionment, the general malaise, with escape from South Asia as the only rational response.  

For South Asia, the problem is fundamentally moral: how to live with one's own moral failure when morality is central to personal and social valuation?  The challenge is to create a culture of tolerance, where politics is about negotiating desired futures instead of efforts to paint the Other as the national enemy, as less than pure.  Once the Other becomes the enemy, then the chains of history, of difference, become a noose that daily tightens until all others are the enemy, until no one is quite Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist enough. 

But even as we create new visions, the day to day reality is structural constraints imposed by external world authorities.  World Bank enforced privatization, for example, argues the late journalist B.M. Sinha, only make the chaos of India's present worse. Without dramatic changes such as limits to land and wealth ownership, bioregional models of economy that balance growth and distribution, India will plunge into a massive chaotic and violent revolution.  Sinha looks to new social movements and ideologies, such as P.R. Sarkar's Progressive Utilization Theory and his samaj (or cultural and bioregional) movements for the answers to the future.  He argues that the city Ananda Nagar designed by Sarkar is one example of appropriate ecological and social development, of economic democracy.   

But even as Sinha believes that the future will be bright, we also cannot ignore the possibilities of war.  For example, peace researcher, Johan Galtung has compared South Asia, particularly India, to the emerging European Community. He sees the future of South Asia as strongly India dominated. Galtung however does not stay within neo-realist discourse as he reminds us that as with all rises to superpower status, the decline is not far way.  The cost of the rise, however, will be untold suffering for many and glory for the few as expansion always comes at a cost.  Galtung asks, "Does that drama ... that prison ... have to be enacted again? Why don't we ever learn?" 

SCENARIOS

In terms of alternatives, we have a range of possibilities.  

The first is continued chaos and collapse--ethnic violence (and possible fission into many small nations), war, poverty, and powerlessness. 

The second is a return to a communitarian form of life: based on universal spiritual values; local knowledge and endogenous models of development; local forms of economic exchange, and the safeguarding of the environment.   

The third scenario is the belief that through free trade, smaller more efficient governments, an external dynamo such as Japan, exports will rise and a new South Asian middle class will emerge. This growth will lead to an economic confederation.

A fourth scenario, perhaps more creative, certainly less bounded to historical experience, is a Village high-tech model.  In this model, modernity is bypassed and South Asia enters the post-industrial society through computer intelligence, genetic engineering and other sorts of dazzling but miniature new "appropriate" technologies.  Further negative affects of modern industrialism are then minimized.  Not only does a bourgeois revolution occur but it does so without the traditional costs of development--the loss of community, for instance.  Related to this is the rise of a new South Asian culture, as with Bangra Rap, which leads to new types of economic activity (for example, new wave, punk, rock and rap are billion dollar industries for the US and England). In this scenario, it is not merely a return to an imagined past, but a creation of a new future. This means that both realism and history must be challenged. 

Unfortunately while visions help us out of the present, we are often too soon returned to the national.  The emphasis on mutual hate and fear of the Other continues to dominate discourses on the future and make efforts at critical thought to merely appear as idealistic words, fine for poets and philosophers but inappropriate for the important task of politics.  

However, the first step in creating an alternative South Asia is in imagining its possibility. Can we imagine an alternative South Asia where we do not live in such a situation of heightened epistemological distance?  Given the visions presented, are there chances for positive peace ahead? For South Asia, economic and cultural confederation based on sustainable development and rights for all minorities is preferred--since it promises peace and cultural interaction--but given how national identity is structured, how history is taught, and the dominance of the language of statecraft, it is unlikely.  

At the same time, cultural history (an agreed upon origin) and cultural authenticity are far more problematic with sovereignty threatened from above and below. Thus, while there are strong reasons for the continuation of the present, the breakdown of history and culture, from the globalizing forces of technology and capitalism, make the present unlikely.   

With the present unlikely to continue and given the weight of history, a confederation difficult to realise, what are we to do? If we do not envision and create alternative futures, then war and breakdown will be the result. Which way should we go? Which way will our history allow us to go? Which future do we want?

Notes

Dr. Sohail Inayatullah, a political scientist, is Professor of Futures Studies, Chair of the Futures Studies Program and David Sutton Fellow with the IMC (International Management Centres – Oxford Brookes University). In 1999 he holds the UNESCO Chair at the Centre for European Studies, University of Trier, Trier, Germany and the Tamkang Chair in Futures Studies at Tamkang University, Taipei, Taiwan. Inayatullah is fellow of the World Futures Studies Federation and the World Academy of Art and Science.  He is also visiting fellow at the Communication Centre, Queensland University of Technology. Inayatullah is co-editor of the Journal of Futures Studies and associate editor of New Renaissance. Inayatullah is on the editorial boards of Futures and Foresight.

 
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