Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

Reimagining South Asian boundaries


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Regional cooperation in South Asian countries.

State-centric politics is the issue that plagues the regional cooperation in the region. But the consequences for the lives, livelihoods and the well-being of the people located at the edges of nation-states are overlooked. This issue is discussed in this article.

State plays central role in disputes

  • One of the major problems of South Asian politics is that it has to flow from within a state-centric paradigm.
  • This state-centrism has given the state structure the propriety to be the sole arbiter of disputes.
  • It is the state that articulates, defines, and represents “national” interests in negotiations with other states.
  • States in South Asia places importance on political boundaries as the “natural” shield even in the arbitration of South Asian affairs.
  • This approach happens to be the dominant South Asian pattern.
  • In this approach territorial boundaries are valued more than lives, livelihoods and the well-being of the people located at the edges of nation states.
  • “Patriotism” looms large as and when inter-state relationships are viewed through the statist lens.
  •  Hostility, real or imagined, is used as the governing principle in the arbitration of territorial disputes across South Asia.

Lack of regional identity

  • Basically, the term “region” seems to be a contested idea in a South Asian context.
  • This is because none of the South Asian states has ever recognised and respected the idea of regional identity or regional politics.
  • They have been wary of such natural division in politics.
  • Given that this is a reality, how could one even think of South Asia as a region to reckon with?

South Asia as region of regions

  • One must understand that South Asia is perhaps the most natural regional grouping of states around the world.
  • And, at the same time, it is also the most difficult and contested grouping.
  • South Asia needs to be rethought, not as a region of states, but as a region of regions.
  • As such it demonstrates itself more as a borderland that needs to be cultivated out of contact zones.
  • Such contact zone exists beyond the limits of territorial boundaries shared by the member-states.

So, how this applies to India-Nepal border dispute?

  • There is a need to go beyond the popular debates revolving around such “troubling” questions such as: how much area has been “encroached” upon by which state and on what basis.
  • Such questions appear to be “normal” in the way a “statist paradigm” deals with the issue.
  • To those who are to maintain their lifeworld at those zones these issues are troubling.

Interconnected (fluid) life

  • South Asian life, essentially at the edges of the nation state, is bound to be fluid.
  • This is because the boundary, which confirms the territorial limits of a nation state, is at the same time the affirmed threshold of another nation state.
  • In a certain sense, the people living at the edges of nation states within South Asia do not actually belong to any of the two nation states.
  • Or in other words, they belong to both the states at the same time.
  • Plurality, differences and inclusivity bring coherence to borderland ontology.
  • They defy the logic of singular, unifying, exclusive identities that the nation states privilege.

Implications for regional cooperation

  • Unless both India and Nepal agree to see the reality beyond the gaze of the statist paradigm, they would harm regional experiments such as the BIMSTEC or the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional initiative.
  • South Asian states need to realise the difference between “regional cooperation” merely as advocacy and as an issue that demands self-approval and self-promotion.
  • South Asian countries may claim success on regional cooperation while closing all doors of recognising difference and mutual tolerance.
  • Powerful countries operating within and beyond the orbit of South Asia might become successful in establishing their control.
  • To establish control these countries may use the token of “regional cooperation” as an issue of realpolitik.

Consider the question “South Asia is perhaps the most natural regional grouping of states around the world, yet it is also the most difficult and contested grouping. Comment.”


Region and regional identity are not just issues of “realpolitik” in South Asia; rather, the need is to “officially” accommodate this rather naturally drafted way of doing politics, if we are genuinely concerned about South Asian geopolitics.

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