South Asian Cooperation and the Role of the Punjabs. Tridivesh Singh Maini. New Delhi: Siddharth Publications , 2007 

South Asian Cooperation and the Role of the Punjabs is a book that approaches the topic of conflict resolution with a difference. Trividesh Singh Maini’s book does not approach peaceful cooperation from the normative security framework. Nor, for that matter, does the author take the increasingly emergent economic approach to conflict resolution despite the fact that the book’s content deals with the subject of regional cooperation. Alternatively, Maini’s book helps its reader understand the dynamics of cooperation and peace among members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan and the island nations of Sri Lanka and Maldives) by presenting a cultural analysis.

This use of culture is persuasive. The author posits himself and his book as scholarship that thinks outside the bureaucratic box of normal research on South Asia with its vested interests in the region to reveal the “emotional” trajectory of cooperation that is occurring in this region. Using culture to support his thesis, Maini illustrates for the reader various cultural exchanges between two cities, Amritsar in East Punjab in India and Lahore in West Punjab in Pakistan. These include visits to religious shrines, literary exchanges and especially recent transportation events such as the initiation of bus services to help people meet their relatives on the other side of the border.

            Significantly, as a core thesis of the book, Singh demonstrates rather eloquently that where border provinces and regions have some common cultural characteristics and a common heritage—as do the two Punjabs—the keenness for improving conflictual relations between the regions is higher. In this respect, this book represents for its reader a much-needed refreshing proposal for conflict resolution in the India-Pakistan conflict, the conclusions for which can be extrapolated and applied to other conflict prone border regions in other parts of the world.

            In achieving its objective, Singh’s book begins by providing the reader with an analysis of SAARC that offers an important political and regional context for the later examination of his local-national case studies of cultural cooperation in Amritsar and Lahore. Of the four SAARC objectives, just one—to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their potential—is directly related to Singh’s own argument about the way to achieve peace and cooperation in the region. Significantly, however, Singh feels that even with this objective, SAARC has failed to fulfill its potential, as serious consideration to the free movement of people within the regions’ boundaries is rarely considered and a state of violence and insecurity between the border regions continues, especially between Jammu and Kashmir regions, which have exclusively dominated SAARC’s conflict resolution strategies. Singh blames the security politics and foreign policies of India and Pakistan for having created the limitations and shortcomings in achieving South Asian cooperation and peace goals in the region.

            In reinforcing his core theme, Singh’s presentation of collaborative events in West and East Punjab are offered as examples of alternative, understudied, cultural routes to South Asian cooperation compared to SAARC. Giving background to his case studies, Singh provides a rich repertoire of historical and geographical context of India and Pakistan for the scholar of comparative studies. He uses maps to direct his reader to the ways in which colonialism reproduced place and fostered displacement caused by the 1947 Indian partition. In doing so he demonstrates how Punjab, or the “five rivers of Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Jhelum and Chenab,” became two separate countries, peoples and identities. Pakistan Punjab, with 25 percent of the original Punjab territory, currently makes up 56 percent of that country’s population, while India’s state of Punjab, representing only 1.6 percent of India’s territory, holds a meager 2.3 percent of India’s population. In Pakistan, the Punjab identity is a majority while in India the Punjab constitutes a very small minority.

            Subsequently in a third chapter, “Initiatives Taken by the Two Punjabs,” Singh drives home his book’s thesis. In examining what he refers to as the meaningful and rational Punjab-Punjab consultation, which he describes as a “path of peace” between the two big brothers of South Asia (India and Pakistan), Singh’s book goes on to demonstrate the ways in which people-to-people contact is paving the way for friendship between the two countries.

            For example, of the several illustrations of cultural interconnectivity between the two Punjabs, Singh describes the most significant: the January 24, 2006, bus tour between Lahore and Amristsar. The Pakistani bus was named Dosti (friendship) while the Indian bus was called Punj Aab (five waters/rivers). Other events richly illustrated are the dual carriage way from Nankana Sahib to Lahore; the Kartarpur Corridor to allow the religious Sikh pilgrimage to occur between the Punjabs; India’s permission granted to Sikh Jathas from India to visit Pakistan freely; and the Punjab Games, a sort of grass-roots Olympiad which used traditional Punjab games.

            Culture, argues Singh, is the pivot of the successful Punjab-Punjab cooperation. Saving his theoretical framing and analysis of the concept of culture for the fourth chapter, the author quotes anthropologist Sir Edward B. Taylor’s definition of culture as civilization (including knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and habits) to support his own adherence to culture as a conceptual variable (83). It is the two Punjabs’ common cultural attributes that Singh argues are responsible for their cooperative success. Having suffered partition, the people of both regions have used this shared experience to deepen their Punjabiat identity. Now a shared Punjabi cultural identity in the millennium has developed out of the collective and personal memories of ancestral homes that date back two hundred years, of former refugees, whether they are Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim.

            The international relations scholar will conclude a reading of this book by asking whether Singh’s case study of “cultural corridors for peacemaking” can be applied to conflict zones with comparative features elsewhere: in other parts of India, for example Jammu/Kashmir; or conflicts in other countries, for example Turkey/Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Ethiopia/Eritrea, and Rwanda/the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name just a few. My optimistic pacifism inclines toward Singh’s culturalist optimism, and so I endorse this book as one that draws important lessons for contemporary international public policy on conflict resolution strategy in these regions.

            However, my rigorous academic training in political science and international relations forces me to compel the author of this book to at least consider the deeper “political” and “security” contexts of his own case studies in India and Pakistan. After all, doesn’t the construction of a Punjabati identity have its own security and political dilemmas? What happens if either side—especially the Pakistan Punjab majority—begins to make irredentist and/or secessionist claims as groups begin to resuscitate their nationalism? Will irredentist and secessionist claims foster a backlash from the Indian state and thereby broker even more conflictual relations with its neighbor Pakistan?

            Despite the fact that these questions are left unresolved in the current book; South Asian Cooperation and the Role of the Punjabs is an excellent contribution to an increasing body of research dedicated to global peace studies.


by Rita Kiki Edozie
Michigan State University

Source journal: Spring 2008 Volume 1, Issue 2