The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was conceived in 1985 with the vision to increase cooperation among the nations of South Asia. The member states are all developing, post-colonial nations and this geopolitical organisation was perceived to usher in an era of collective development through economic cooperation and regional integration.
The South Asian Free Trade Area (implemented from January 1, 2006) has been a notable achievement of this regional organisation as it has increased trade. However, SAARC as a regional organisation has not flourished because peace in the Indian sub-continent has been elusive and two major member states (India and Pakistan) remain hostile to each other. Deteriorating regional security environment and growth of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan along with inter-state disputes remain the major limiting factors for this regional organisation. However, there is scope and need for greater cooperation. The member states are all plagued by problems of poverty, energy, and terrorism among many others. Collective functioning can help members achieve many of their developmental goals. The role of India as the regional powerhouse is crucial. India and Pakistan need to reconcile their differences and improve bilateral ties so as to ensure the full functionality of this regional organisation.
The need for educational and cultural cooperation in South Asia
South Asian nations are mostly post-colonial political entities. Many of them are plagued by diverse social and economic problems. Education and employment remain two important areas in the nation-building discourses of most South Asian countries. Many of the member states have high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. Regional cooperation in the field of education can improve the situation.
The South Asian countries had shared deep economic
and cultural ties due to their collective colonial past.
Through regional organisations such as SAARC, these countries can reconnect economically, politically and socially. Prof. Partha Ghosh in his paper titled “Culture, Cultural Productions and South Asian Spaces” presented at the conference titled ‘Culture as a Factor in Regional Cooperation in South Asia’ organised by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis stated, “The intra-regional and inter-regional migrations of people demonstrate that the South Asian cultural space is not limited to what is usually conceived as South Asia.” According to him, transnational cultural links are ominously present in the South Asian region. The connections between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, India and Nepal and Nepal and Lhotshampas demonstrate that cultural connections do play a role in inter-state and inter-regional migrations.
Culture can play an active role as a foreign policy tool. Dr Smruti Pattanaik, in her paper titled “Culture as a Foreign Policy Tool: India’s Experience in South Asia” presented at the same conference stated, “ Culture played an important role in a nation state’s political life and there was a need to acknowledge diversity within the states even when the states tried to build an identity of their own.” She argued that the newly constructed post-colonial nations rejected their inherent commonalities while forging their new boundaries.
Presently South Asian countries are open to accept diverse cultural realities and identities. In such a situation, cultural exchanges can bring countries closer. India and Pakistan share many common cultural elements. This opens an opportunity for the countries to use culture as an effective foreign policy tool to accentuate regional understanding and bilateral relations.
SAARC member states have given special attention to enhance the level of literacy in the region by promoting the quality of education. Right from its inception, SAARC has focused on greater contacts among the people of the region through regular and frequent interchanges of scholars and academics. During the fourth SAARC Summit (Islamabad 1988) education was sought to be included as an important area of cooperation. In the eighth summit (New Delhi, 1995) member states pledged to initiate more concrete programmes aimed at eradicating illiteracy in the region. The year 1996 was observed as the ‘SAARC Year of Literacy’.
The regional body has incessantly worked to ensure universal access to quality education and has undertaken several strategies to ensure that all children, particularly the girl child, have access to quality primary education. SAARC has recently pledged to promote greater cooperation in the field of vocational education. The success of such plans can have a positive impact on the problem of unemployment that affects the South Asian states.
SAARC nations have recently focused on implementing the New Delhi Declaration on Education which has been brought about by the BRICS states. The declaration aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all. It envisions initiating actions to formulate country-specific targets within the broader scope of the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) and integrate the SDG4 related targets
with the national and subnational level education sector development programmes.
SAARC also promotes education by sponsoring scholarships for individuals from the member states in various fields like medicine, rehabilitation science, rural development and forest management.
The South Asian University (SAU) has been a major achievement of SAARC. This University was predominantly envisioned by India. Presently it offers post-graduate and doctoral programmes in various disciplines like development economics, computer science, biotechnology, mathematics, sociology, international relations and law. It attracts students from all member nations and its degrees are recognised by all the eight SAARC countries. SAU conducted its first convocation on June 11, 2016 in New Delhi and 652 students were conferred postgraduate degrees. SAARC also promotes distance and open learning programmes and works closely with other international organisations in promoting education. SAARC and UNESCO have agreed to cooperate mutually so as to help member states achieve educational goals.
SAARC has been focused on encouraging greater cultural exchanges among its member states. In the tenth SAARC Summit (Colombo, 1998) the organisation recognised the profound cultural continuum of South Asia as a historical basis for sustaining harmonious relations among the people of the region and welcomed the offer of Sri Lanka to host a meeting on the agenda of establishing a South Asian Cultural Centre. The organisation has since then strived for protection, conservation and maintenance of South Asian Cultural Heritage and has taken various measures to enhance cultural cooperation among the member states. SAARC has organised numerous international film festivals to uphold various aspects of South Asian films. Such initiatives have significantly contributed to the promotion of culture among the SAARC countries.
The regional body has recognised culture as an important tool to bring the people of South Asia closer. They also stressed that cooperation in the area of culture was vital for reinforcing and projecting the distinct identity of South Asia. In 2007, SAARC planned to establish a SAARC Cultural Centre in Sri Lanka and a SAARC Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts in India. In 2014, the member states agreed to take measures to preserve and restitute the South Asian cultural property and create a SAARC heritage list.
The SAARC Cultural Centre (SCC) is an important achievement and was established in 2009 in Colombo. It is intended to function as a major meeting point for the artistic communities of the member states. It will provide the necessary facilities and conditions for individuals and groups in various fields of interest to meet and interact in a conducive environment. It is intended to cater to all forms of art such as performing arts, visual art and literature. It organises a number of cultural activities annually among member states.
The SAARC Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts could be another important venue of cultural exchanges. The Government of India informed in 2016 that the infrastructural work of the museum been completed and the interior work was under process.
The way forward
The political mistrust between the two key members of SAARC, namely India and Pakistan remains the major limiting factor for this organisation. Enhanced people to people contact may eventually lead to greater cooperation. In such a scenario, greater emphasis needs to be put on educational and cultural exchanges.
One can expect that with greater interactions and cooperation in education and culture, the political hostility between the two key South Asian players will diminish and the regional organisation will be able to realise its full potential. The role of the other member states in diffusing the tension through cultural and educational exchanges encompassing all the member states remains vital.