By Kuldip Nayar

South Asian Human Rights (SAHR) is a body comprising activists from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives. They celebrated the tenth anniversary of SAHR at New Delhi a few days ago. Kamal Hussain, first Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, was there. So were I. A Rehman, a human rights exponent, from Pakistan and P Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives from Sri Lanka, sensitive and independent editor Maitur Rahman from Dhaka was also present. His paper was the best.

The Indian media, inured to paid news, did not give even one word to the three-day conference. Knowing that New Delhi is too absorbed in projecting the image of being a great power to pay heed to the aspirations of small neighbouring countries, SAHR still decided to meet in India because it sees it as an oasis in the desert that still emits some optimism.

Therefore, India was very much in the picture in the discussion. Speakers saw the lengthening shadow of authoritarianism in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Bangladesh. It was admitted that the army had come to assume an important role in their countries. Their skepticism was whether the democratic open society of India was not being buffeted by too many demands on the security forces and by the draconian laws to suppress dissent or the aggressive opponents. There was fear that the right to differ was being attacked in the name of nationalism and unity.

Saravanamuttu from Sri Lanka drew the attention of the conference to India’s compromising attitude towards President Mahinda Rajapaksa, an emerging dictator, because of the fear of China’s influence in Sri Lanka. Saravanamuttu saw no visible sign of political settlement to the Tamil issue in his country.

Dr Hameeda Hossain, officiating chairperson because of I.K. Gujral’s indifferent health, said although South Asia nurtured diverse cultures, it remained divided by hostility, mired in poverty and gross inequalities. This became more or less the consensus at the conference.

But Matiur Rahman went to the heart of the problem: religious terrorism. He said the religious groups were active under one or different names in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. They have “clandestine communication and cooperation among themselves.” He startled the conference when he said that “numerous NGOs had links to international terrorist organsiations.” Huji-B and JMB of Bangladesh, he said, had connections with religious organizations in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

My experience in India says that religious discrimination has led to the birth of extremist organizations. Of course, there are some Muslim countries which have spread fanaticism through madrasas and money. But the Hindu fanatic organizations are not blame-free. Now that saffron terrorists have taken birth, India’s secular polity has a question mark against it.

SAHR has to go back to its original charter, adopted in 2000, that the foundation for a human rights culture rests on the essentials of a participatory democracy—the point emphasised by Kamal Hossain. Such a polity has to respect diversity, a principle which is lessening day by day.

The people of the region do not have to give up their sovereignty or identities. They have to give up only distrust and suspicions to build for the common good. How can they do so when even a country like India does not encourage a South Asian conference to be held? The organizers had a hard time to get visas.

A letter written three months earlier to seek permission was cleared only five days before the conference commenced. And to get a visa for Pakistani nationals is almost impossible. The approval letter for eight of them was dated September 8, 2010. It came by ordinary post for the conference scheduled for September 13-14.

South Asia needs to establish peace with justice in each of the SAARC countries and between the members.  This can only be possible through a collective understanding of values and standards. But if people are not allowed to meet, because of the barriers of security, how do they bridge the chasm of mistrust and prejudice? EOM

Website: www.kuldipnayar.com