Conditions for Peace in South Asia: An Overview


Md. Moynul Haque*
Md. Farid Hossain**

Abstract: This article offers a theoretical view to understand the state of peace in South Asia in general. Why expected peace is not achieved yet?  What conditions countries must look into for meaningful peace? This article will try to address the answers. The lasting peace in south Asia is not achieved yet because of the asymmetric political settings in different countries, unequal and uneven development and thereby failure of robust and holistic regional integration. All these factors contributed south Asia to be known as a complex and volatile region. Peace initiatives often marred due to the failure of understanding the common structural settings. The countries in South Asia lacks political will in tackling the setbacks but at the same time problem of understanding those conditions as to why peace is far away, has little cared. Most commonly scholars, peace builders, practitioners have come up with the ideas to contribute for a  region in which everyone lives with peace, harmony and prosperity but focused little on the conditional issues in understanding peace. Achieving peace is more than the absence of violence. In the state level, peace can be achieved when both countries interest will be compromised and favorably adjusted.

Keywords: Understanding Peace, South Asia, Galtung Model.


In the current global system, states are keen to advance their national interests and so they may come into conflicts. This is obvious in the state level diplomacy. The state with big size, booming economy, military preparedness often exerts influence on relatively politically and economically weak countries. It is evident in South Asian region particularly in countries between India- Bangladesh, India-Pakistan etc. In the state level, sought for peace is absent rather countries shows their readiness in the struggle for power politics. This situation dashed the minimum level of hope for peace where peace adheres the notion of mutual respect and understanding.  It was hoped that with the end of the cold war, a new international order of peace would prevail across the globe by creating an environment of cooperation and mutual accommodation among states. Furthermore, peace was severely disrupted by ethnic and religious conflict, low level of cooperation, mistrust, overall political mismanagement in state level in the South Asian region.

South Asia is a turbulent, complex region with a prominent place in the global map of ethnic conflict. It is characterized by multi-ethnic societies with striking internal divisions along linguistic, regional, communal and sectarian lines, externally linked to one another across national boundaries (Conference: 2008). Even though it has a common cultural background and shared political experience, many groups have been fiercely fighting with each other, challenging the national governments and frustrating their nation-building efforts, such as in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka. Collective peace in South Asia demand reducing the gap. It is noted that disrupting peace in South Asia is mainly due to the degree of its different size of the states, lacking the level of cooperation, mutual faith and understanding and most commonly the diversified socio-political settings and national interests. The power bloc namely India translates peace out of their national interest where other countries does not sufficiently respond and vice versa. A viable peace can be materialized if the conditions for peace are well cared. A detailed discussion will be made on this synopsis in the following parts of the article.

Meaningful Peace in South Asia

Peace is seen merely from academic perspectives as the absence of war. An agreement or a treaty to end hostilities, freedom from quarrels and disagreement; harmonious relations- these are some of peace connotations.

In South Asian context, peace situation can be understood in the light of the practical performance of state behavior. The notion of peace is simple described as the absence of war (Collins, 1982) leading to prevail peace situation. The word peace is conjures images of harmony and bliss in psychological, social and political sense (Grewal, 2003). Peace has been defined in dictionary both in positive and negative terms.  But according to Johan Galtung, negative peace is “the absence of violence, absence of war” and positive peace is “the integration of human society” (Galtung, 1969).

The option for positive peace in South Asia could rely on mutual understanding and respect. Broadly defined “peace is the least application of violence and coercion to the individual and to the freedom of access of the individual to cherished values” (Mcdougal, 1991). Peace situation is expected by all and everywhere, i.e., in the human relationships and among the states. The key to attaining peace is this simple formula: Peace = Understanding + Respect (Munoz, 2010).

Peace sought for understanding and being tolerant of another’s point of view. In order to peaceful coexistence, we need understanding and respect. Intolerance leads to acute differences among people. Thus peace is hampered in a system where people believed that their way is right, and anyone else’s way of thinking that differs even slightly from their beliefs is wrong.

Respect is the second part of the peace equation. Respect is defined as a willingness to show consideration and appreciation for the beliefs of others. We can tolerate other people’s viewpoints, but without respecting their views and showing consideration for them when making decisions, the concept of understanding becomes moot. If we don’t show respect for other people’s beliefs and take them into consideration when making a decision, you can pretty much rest assured that not all parties involved are going to be happy with the final decision.

Conditions Conducive to Peace

Johan Galtung, eminent theorist of peace described five conditions (Galtung, 1984) conducive to peace situation. These conditions essentially are the theories of peace. These are:

  • Symmetry or the degree of equality between two states;
  • Homology means some degree of structural similarity between the two states;
  • Symbiosis means close association of two entities that are dependent one another;
  • Entropy means that cooperation between the two states should exist in all levels-governmental and nongovernmental;
  • Institution building means the existence or creation of a common institution as the supra-national level.

South Asia represents eight countries among which India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh etc. occupies large area in its size. These countries are fashioned in different degree of equality. With total area of 3,166,414 square kilometers (Encyclopedia Britannica), India is the seventh-largest country in the world. Seemingly, in this region small countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives have slow voice.  As such an asymmetrical relationship exists among countries because one is larger in territory, population and resources than those of other states. In other words, the smaller state is threatened by the larger state and is likely to suffer from insecurity. One of Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that living next to US “is like sleeping with an elephant; no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt” (Rosenfeld, 2003).

South Asian states by its very nature are asymmetrical. One state is larger than the other. Since countries cannot refashioned its neighbors and it has to live with such differences.  As far as symmetry is concerned, India and Pakistan are asymmetrical in respect of size of territory, population, economic resources and military strength. Naturally, India plays the dominant power in the region. India is by far the largest country in the area covering around three-fourths the land area of the subcontinent. It also has the largest population of around three times the combined population of the 7 other countries in the region. India is also the most populous democracy in the worldand is a nuclear power.  However, with regard to size of conventional army, India has larger standing armed forces than that of Pakistan. For the overwhelming existence, India’s neighbors perceive threats to their security coming primarily from India whereas India considers neighbors as an integral part of its own security system.  The pre-eminence of India in the South Asian power configuration given its geography, demography, economics, and ecology are something about which neither India nor its neighbors can do nothing but accept.

Homology means some degree of structural similarity between the two states. Cultural affinity, shared socio-political history, same level of development-all these factors bring people closer to each other. All the commonness help to understand each other better. The structural similarity thus paves the way to peace. In South Asia, we have countries at different level of development. To put it more bluntly, some are poorer than others. Of some 900 million souls inhibiting the area, over 50 percent live on bare subsistence, and some 70 percent are below the absolute poverty line. Millions of crawling babies need clean water, hygienic food, clothing and live saving medicines (Rashid, 2005).

The region embraced three distinct political patterns: democracy, military dictatorship and monarchy. India is practiced the largest democratic tradition while  Pakistan, Bangladesh Nepal still struggling to consolidate its democratic norms. By and large, South Asia is marked by significant level of heterogeneity. It is multi-ethnic and multi-religious region with an uneven distribution of national power hierarchies. If there is anything in common that influences the lives in South Asia transcending national boundaries, it is religion. Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are the major religion either of which is overwhelmingly practiced in each of the countries in the religion. However, these commonalities are not sufficed to understand meaningful peace in South Asia.

Symbiosis means close association of two entities that are dependent on one another. Literally equal effort and mutual dependency promotes the pace of peace. In the era of globalization, economic development ensues with the free flow of goods across boundaries. In South Asia, economic meaning of peace requires the agreement of cooperation in state level. For example, one needs technology and the other needs raw materials. In another, a landlocked country needs transit facilities for trade and movement of people. In South Asia, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan are three land locked countries which solely depend upon their neighbors for the transit of goods. Nepal and Bhutan rely on India. Afghanistan relies on Pakistan to access the sea for foreign trade. But in practice, the implementation level in close cooperation is blurred. For instance, Bhutan gets much concession in transit with India, compared to Nepal. Transit treaty remains one of the major concerns for Nepal. Among the world’s 13 landlocked developing countries, Nepal has been facing several constraints that limit its competiveness in the international trade. Nepal is incurring a huge amount of loss in transit as it is currently using Kolkata Port, which is virtually unable to dock big ships due to the rising delta. Similarly, Afghanistan is facing many problems dealing with Pakistan on the transit issue (Spotlight, 2012).

Symbiosis does not exist in India-Bangladesh relations. Lack of close co-operation restricts the legal trade among South Asian countries. As a result the investment flows are negligible and physical connectivity is highly restrictive. With the very absence of equal efforts and joint collaboration for economic and political development, South Asian peace is often hijacked.

If it is not properly addressed, the issue of transit could appear as a roll back for peace in South Asia. Secure, uninterrupted and relatively cheap transit rights would not only contribute to their better bilateral relations with India and increased trade relations but would also ease some of their foreign exchange problems (Rashid, 2005).

Entropy means that cooperation between the two states should exist in the all levels-governmental and non-governmental. The relationship between the two states is essentially to promote interaction between the peoples of the two countries and this relationship may exist independently of governments and their official policies. This means that cooperation and exchange of people at nongovernmental level are one of the necessary conditions for good relations between the two countries. Except for the Maldives and Bhutan, India has bilateral disputes with all her neighbors (Kishore, 1996). However, with the establishment of a democratic government in Nepal and withdrawal of India’s peacekeeping forces from Sri Lanka in 1990, India’s bilateral relations with these two countries have improved considerably. But India’s relations with Bangladesh have not improved despite the resolution of the Tin Bigha controversy. The disputes over Chakma refugee problems and the Farakka issue on the sharing of the Ganges water continue to adversely affect Indo-Bangladesh relations. Level of entropy is seen relatively low in between and among states in South Asia.

In the area of cooperation, for example energy supply is still dealt with recklessly. Member states often failed to reach peaceful agreement for securing sustainable energy supply. The sky-rocketing oil prices and increasing energy demand have put severe strains on resources of all South Asian Countries. The common energy policy for the region could lead a mature pace of economic development, decreasing inflation, curbing poverty and political and social stability in the region.

The term institution building means the existence or creation of a common institution at the supra-national level such as the European Union. A supranational authority is one that exercises some degree of authority over states. It is composed of states and is created for the performance of specific functions and it has been invested with power to take decision. These means sacrifice or surrender a limited portion of sovereignty to supranational authority. Often the supranational authorities intervene in conflict situations among member and restore peace in the region.

Like many third world countries, the South Asian countries also lack of viable institutional order and stability. As a consequence, no country in the region is free from domestic threat to peace and stability.  While looking at the current socio-political scenario of South Asian region there seems no encouraging prospects for South Asian Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The underlying motive of SAARC was the premise that cooperation among nations in the spirit of equality and partnership would bring mutual benefit and stimulate solidarity through multilateral cooperation. But SAARC’s slow progress and modest achievements over the past decade have evoked different reactions among different people.

SAARC as a common institution for regional peace and development came into being out of suspension and feared for hegemonic rise. The reason was the proposal’s reference to the security matters in South Asia. Indian policy makers also feared that proposal for a regional organization might prove an opportunity for the small neighbors to regionalize all bilateral issues and to join with each other to ‘gang up’ against India (Wiggins, et al., 1992). Pakistan assumed that it might be an Indian strategy to organize other South Asian countries against Pakistan and ensure a regional market for Indian products, thereby consolidating and further strengthening India’s economic dominance in the region (Thornton, 1991). Thus posit strife in the attempts for viable institution building in South Asia. So, lacking of vibrant institution South Asia countries could not rely on each other for peaceful co existence.

Concluding Remarks

Options for meaningful Peace in South Asia depend on state level cooperation. Multiple factors such as religious extremism, high levels of corruption, inequitable development and among others have led to South Asia being termed as the most volatile region in the world.

It is noted that in South Asia, the biggest challenge to peace is the power asymmetry in the region. The asymmetrical relation in terms of economic hegemony is very acute.  The dilemma in South Asia is that they are not ready for full scaled economic integration for the fear of either is being swamped up into Indian economy due to its hegemonic behavior or losing their sovereignty to some extent. They are also literally not ready to solve long standing political conflicts due mainly their desire to maintain supremacy one over another.

South Asia could have more economic prosperity and political instability if the conditions of homology maintained. Most of the countries lack same sense of nation-hood. Multifarious intra state problem, acute rich-poor gap, uneven development quashed the imminent culture of peace.

Building a solid institution is one of the conditions for Peace in the region. South Asian country still running after SAARC to make it professionally staffed institution. Additionally, the government level cooperation and measures of soft diplomacy is not adequately utilized to mould public opinion. There should be extended the level of entropy among states and a regional institution like SAARC should respond more actively in bringing peace in South Asia. So far viewed in South Asia, despite religious and cultural heterogeneity, there is no problem at the public level, the centre of the problem lies with ‘politics’ of the nation states and its agencies.

Therefore, promoting peace in South Asia entails efforts in those above key conditions. The most ardent condition for pace in South Asia is building confidence in political mindset and filling the huge trust deficit between the countries. State should have keen interest easing political tensions for substantial growth of regional peace. Greater efforts will have to be made with increased political will and commitment. In this respect, India will have to take on disproportionately greater responsibility while the other South Asian countries will be have to commit to cooperation and openness. Therefore, it can be argued that unless these problems are not ironed out, South Asia will not bring the peace and the process itself will remain at crossroad. Moreover, if peace is to be achieved through integration or vice-versa a new paradigm of forward looking process needs to be employed by the South Asian nations wherein they can discuss contentious issues with freely and fairly.


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* Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Jagannaty University, Dhaka.

** Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Jagannaty University, Dhaka.

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