Sri Aurobindo To GSAT-9: The Evolution Of An Idea That Rests On Akhand Bharat
The concept of Akhand Bharat is neither centered on India as a nation-state nor associated with territorial expansionism, it is a vision of modern young nation-states in the region coming together on the strength of an ancient and pluralistic culture.
The first general elections in India were held in 1952 – five years after Partition. Bharatiya Jana Sangh (Jan Sangh) was contesting the polls and its manifesto had declared its unassailable conviction about ‘Akhand Bharat’ (undivided India), despite the historical and political reality of Partition. The brainchild behind the manifesto was a young full-time worker, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who had been ‘loaned’ out to the newly formed political party Jan Sangh, the forerunner to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Since then Jan Sangh, the BJP as well as the RSS, which is the all-pervading ideological and human resource mitochondria in the party, have been criticised for expansionist fantasies of military conquest of Pakistan and forcible annexation of neighbouring countries – which include not only Pakistan but also Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
There is a definite influence of Sri Aurobindo here. The Indian nationalist, philosopher and yogi, on his Independence Day message had spoken about the necessity that Partition must go: "naturally, by an increasing recognition of the necessity not only of peace and concord but of common action" and "the creation of means for that purpose". Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of Jan Sangh, had visited Sri Aurobindo in 1951. Mira Alfasa – the ‘Mother’ – spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo spoke in 1967 about the visit of Dr Mukherjee and remembered him as a man, who would have been instrumental in fulfilling the vision of Sri Aurobindo of not just revoking the Partition between India and Pakistan but also creating ‘a federation of all nations’.
Upadhyaya And Lohia
By 1962, Upadhyaya found an ally for his stand on Akhand Bharat from the socialist camp. Veteran socialist leader Dr Ram Manohar Lohia together with Upadhyaya proclaimed an appeal to end the 'artificial situation' of Partition. They envisioned creating a 'Mahasangha' - an 'India-Pakistan Confederation' as a first step towards that process.
Two years later, Upadhyaya recorded in his political diary a conversation with the New York Times columnist. Interestingly, in his conversation with this columnist, Pandit Upadhyaya criticises him because ‘he would not write India without the appellative Hindu’. He opposed the positioning of a ‘Hindu India’ against a ‘Muslim Pakistan’ by the US media. Upadhyaya pointed out to the columnist that it was Justice Muhammad Chagla, who was the ambassador of India to the United States. The columnist retorted saying that it proved nothing, "By keeping Mountbatten as your Governor General for some time India did not become a country of Englishmen as well’. Upadhyaya pointed out the fallacy in the argument and said that the "Muslims in India were not exogenous”. The columnist nevertheless remained adamant and said that till India and Pakistan were reunited, they would be perceived only as Hindu and Muslim countries. And Upadhyaya terminates his political diary entry with the comment, “Partition and secularism go ill together”. (India, Pakistan and the United States, 30-March-1964)
The stand Upadhyaya took, which is obviously secular, is also consistent with the deeper Hindutva conception of the term Hindu as an expression that combines the cultural, spiritual and geographical dimensions in which the religious label becomes a subset. The religious identity, in the narrow sense, is subsumed by the Hindu identity which is geo-spiritual.
After the 1977 general elections, Janata Party came to power, with Jan Sangh becoming a vital part of the experiment. A dominant section of the press, which had crawled before Indira Gandhi now raised in a shrill way the bogey of Akhand Bharat. With RSS closer to power would it not instigate the government to achieve its goal of Akhand Bharat? The then RSS chief Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras was asked about the RSS’s conception of Akhand Bharat.
In a detailed reply he gave to journalists at the Press Club of India on 12 March 1979, Deoras explained the Sangh’s view on the matter. He “absolutely ruled out war”. We should wait till “the sober and saner elements in Pakistan and Bangladesh will realize the futility of the partition”. “Not in the distant future", he envisioned “a desire in the minds of these elements that we should come together in some form or other”. Then he predicted that “Bangladesh, Pakistan and India may come together for economic reasons to begin with and then it may develop into some sort of a loose confederation”. What he said was his idea of Akhand Bharat and pointed out that not only was it impossible through war but that the “whole structure of India before 1947 is not going to return”.
Zia Of Bangladesh: The Idea Of SAARC
One of the important achievements of the short-lived Janata experiment was that the relation between India and its neighbours improved. It is not a coincidence that the foreign ministry was then with Atal Behari Vajpayee – an RSS man. After an initial warming, the relations between India and Bangladesh under the Congress regime had stagnated. This stagnation was broken by the efforts of Vajpayee. Thus under Janata government, during 1979-80, India's exports to Bangladesh touched $115 million, which was then a record for 20 years – 1974-94. India's imports from Bangladesh, which were also declining rose from $1 million to $6 million in the same period.
In a precise fulfilment of the prediction of RSS chief Deoras, the requisition and a design for a regional cooperation among South Asian countries came in 1980 from the then president of Bangladesh Zia-ur-Rehman, who curiously enough was an anti-Indian politician. When the paper now called ‘Bangladesh Working Paper’, materialised into SAARC or South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation through a summit conference in Dacca, it was 1985. Between 1980 and 1985 much had changed in India. Indira Gandhi returned to power and was assassinated and her son Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister. India under Rajiv Gandhi became part of SAARC. In a subsequent press conference, Deoras applauded the formation of SAARC.
Vajpayee Era: Afghan-India Relations Post 9/11
In the same year SAARC was formed, Pakistan along with Iran and Turkey created another network – Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO). In 1991, with the breaking up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), nation-states with high Islamic populations (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Krygz Republic, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) which became independent and a part of ECO. Interestingly, Pakistan had thus created an effective geo-Islamic network spanning the entire former Soviet region extending up to Turkey. In the coming years, Pakistan increasingly started throwing spokes into the wheel of constructive regional integration attempts of SAARC. This created a stagnation and a limit to what SAARC could achieve.
In this connection, Afghanistan needs a special mention. After Soviet collapse, Afghanistan also became, as Raja Chandran, now a director of Carnegie India, Delhi, pointed out in a report in 2003, "ever since the Partition in 1947, Pakistan had blocked India's access to Afghanistan and beyond”. Earlier, India under Congress rule of both Indira and Rajiv had aligned themselves with the Soviet-backed rule there, which had placed India at a disadvantage. Jihad against Soviet occupation, which was sponsored by the US during the Cold War and was midwifed by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was also channelised into Kashmir. After the Cold War, Afghan jihad enabled Pakistan to become the epicentre of global jihad. So when 9/11 happened, the Vajpayee government took full advantage of the developing scenario.
As events unfolded, Vajpayee had said as early as November 2001 that India needed o play ‘maximum role in Afghanistan’. He made India break the Pakistan-barrier and shake hands with Afghanistan. Particularly participating in infrastructure projects in rebuilding Afghanistan helped India open a new front. All these efforts paved the way for Afghanistan to enter SAARC in 2008. And it has been a shot in the arm for India in achieving regional cooperation for development.
Modi And ‘SAARC Minus One’
In 2014, when Modi became the Prime Minister, he found the SAARC progress being held hostage by hurdles created by Pakistan. According to Raja Chandran, the Modi government proactively broke this Pakistan-imposed impasse in SAARC:
In the past, Delhi simply shrugged its shoulders. Although it was clear that the SAARC caravan was going nowhere with Pakistan, it seemed there was little that India could do. PM Modi, however, took a different track. At the Kathmandu summit, he called for a two-speed SAARC. Rather than let one country take the entire region hostage, Modi suggested, those who are ready for integration should move ahead.
Taking forward SAARC with clearly no big-brother attitude but with evident mutually beneficial actions, Modi was able to isolate Pakistan. What emerged as 'Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal' (BBIN) framework, has today become BBINAM with the inclusion of Afghanistan and Maldives. With both Delhi and Kabul desiring to open connectivity and boost economic ties and catalyse development, Pakistan adamantly refused any help – particularly in creating link roads between India and Afghanistan. If already Pakistan’s attempt to proxy-rule and almost colonise Afghanistan through Taliban had made Afghans develop an aversion for Pakistan’s games, this attitude only further increased the divide. Today, India has opened a direct air route to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan and is also developing Chabahar port in Iran, which will provide India another direct route to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan.
The use of BBINAM framework has already been effectively put to use by Modi in the SAARC context, which has left Pakistan both embarrassed and isolated.
After a month of his swearing in as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi asked Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to work on creating a satellite for the South Asian nations which they can use collectively to enhance development. It was to be launched in December 2016, coinciding with and commemorating of the first SAARC summit in December 1985.
Initially, Pakistan showed enthusiasm only to later raise questions, doubts and suspicions. It tried its best to either delay or stall the project. The result was that the December launch became impossible. Even Indian observers thought that the idea of India gifting a common communication satellite to the South Asian countries, if realised as an unprecedented event of space diplomacy and cooperation, would be only a concept that had to be dropped. One commentator wrote, quoting an anonymous ISRO scientist that the SAARC satellite was ‘a bad dream’ and that Indians should forget it. Pakistan made the ludicrous charge that India would steal the sensitive data of other countries through the satellite as it would have the control. Interestingly, other countries did not accept such paranoid charges. So ignoring protests from Pakistan, other countries signed the MoU for sharing and using the GSAT-9, or the SAARC satellite.
At last on 5 May 2017, the geostationary communication satellite took off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota. The South Asian satellite with 12 Ku band transponders, provides at least one transponder to every South Asian country, which they can utilise for a variety of services from DTH to telemedicine, education and disaster management. Now it is also possible to launch a common South Asian channel for all the countries.
The leaders of all South Asian countries minus one congratulated the dawn of space age regional cooperation in a coordinated video call. Perhaps, the richest tribute came from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. "The gap between talk and action is bridged today”, he said, "The imperative of regional cooperation is changed to the reality. If cooperation through land is not possible, it is certainly possible through sky and we are confident that we will integrate." In a veiled reference to the obstacles, Pakistan has created in India-Afghanistan connectivity, and through that inhibiting Afghan connectivity with other SAARC nations, he said, "If we can't cooperate on land, we surely can cooperate in space”. Maldives President Abdullah Yameen, who ended his congratulatory video on the launch with Modi’s famous Sabhka Saath, Sabhka Vikas, also made an indirect appeal to Pakistan to be more cooperative, “I call upon all South Asian friends to seize this opportunity.”
As the SAARC movement has literally taken to the skies, perhaps Modi has delivered his mentor’s message to Pakistan: ‘With you if you come; without you if you do not; despite you if you oppose’.
A question may now arise. Are the Sangh and the BJP doing all these through a meticulous planning? Is there a saffron conspiracy? The answer is ‘No’. There is no planning here. The Sangh trained politicians and statesmen simply are more sensitive and aware to the bonding they have with the neighbouring countries. So those years in which BJP has been in power, which constitute minority years in the seven decades since 1947, the relations with the neighbouring countries have visibly turned upbeat, Pakistan no exception, though the anti-Indian vested interests then had to go to elaborate lengths to sabotage the budding goodwill.
Akhand Bharat Is No Fantasy But It Is Not What You Think Either
The idea of Akhand Bharat has often been caricatured as a nation-state expansionist fantasy of Hindu nationalists. The academic critics and political pamphleteers portrayed it as the militaristic expansion of the Indian nation-state. It has been used as a stick to beat the Hindutva proponents. However, a study of how the concept of Akhand Bharat has shaped the actions of these proponents, says they have been in political power in the minority years of the last seven decades since Partition, and which taken together with the presentation of the concept by leading Hindutva ideologues, shows a completely different picture.
The vision of Akhand Bharat is not even centered on India as a nation-state. It is definitely not a concept even remotely associated with territorial expansionism, on the other hand, it takes the cooperation among the modern young nation-states in the region, which share a very ancient, common yet pluralist culture, to organic levels, using that cultural unity as the basis for regional ties essential for holistic development.
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