May 22 , 2015
It was an innocent question by a gentleman from Norwich that finally set the cat among the pigeons. The setting was delightfully innocuous: a panel discussion at the formal opening of the South Asia Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. The discussion had been preceded by a Tagore song by a young lecturer, a few speeches on SOAS and the new institute by its director and his colleagues and a soulful Punjabi song lamenting the tragedy of Partition (which immediately prompted a retort by Pakistan's United Nations permanent representative that her country was proud of its nationhood).
The question was short and snappy. The Narendra Modi government has increased India's international profile and enhanced its global standing. How, asked the Norwich man, is this being viewed in the neighbouring countries?
For the previous 20 minutes, the discussion had centred on a common South Asian identity that transcended borders and conflict zones and how initiatives, such as the one in SOAS, was contributing to it. Now, the fissures began to show. The Pakistani diplomat lamented that the hand of friendship extended by the Pakistan prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, hadn't been met by Modi's warm embrace. "A big country," she suggested "must have a big heart." Pakistan, she indicated, was excited by the emerging Asian century which, to her, was being led by China and the Southeast Asian nations. And yes, India and Pakistan would find a place in that brave new world.