Nilanjana Sen writes about Regional Integration through the Education route. This nicely articulated piece appeared on South Asia Monitor, an online publication of Society for Policy Studies.

For long we have attempted to understand South Asia by standing in the wrong shoes. We often display cultural insensitivity since a perspective from the west tends to guide our understanding of the region. It is imperative that we develop a knowledge system that captures the essence of South Asia, but at the same time a creative engagement with narratives beyond the region is essential.

Regional Integration: The Why and How?

South Asia is the least integrated region in the world with internal trade as low as 4.23% and it has seen some of the worst instances of violence. It is stressed that the low level of integration in economic terms and the frequent occurrence of violence can be attributed partly to the political differences between the South Asian countries. In addition to this, there is the absence of a well-functioning regional body and lack of political will to consciously design a regional identity.

Regional integration in South Asia can be facilitated through greater economic cooperation—increase in the regional trade; or it can assume a direct social orientation with a focus on increasing the interaction between the members of civil society and their improved relations with the political class. An enhanced focus on education can give impetus to the integration process by facilitating research on the region and encouraging greater engagement.

Education and Regional Integration – Idealism accompanied by Pragmatism

As post colonial states the countries in the region privilege sovereignty as a principle and borders hold particular relevance for them. The South Asian University (SAU) is contributing to the development of a regional consciousness and the formation of an identity based on certain universal strivings which are not limited by national borders. The universal strivings need to be cultivated to appreciate their true value and in this regard education assumes an important role. We all feel the need to be protected against similar challenges. We fear exclusion, aspire for representation and seek justice. A successful integration process will require collective effort to create a more aware and humane milieu.

Since the students at the SAU are enrolled for the Master’s or PhD level courses, most of them complete their basic education in their home countries. Many students are acutely conscious of their national identity and adopting a regional identity may prove to be a difficult proposition for them. However what grants the SAU a unique character is its ability to ensure that the national identity and regional identity complement each other even as they exist existing independently. The two are not opposed to each other and the University does not place one above the other. But while the formation of a regional identity follows a secular logic and is based on certain universal values, national identities anchor themselves on unique social and political experiences. At the SAU the aim is to ensure that the two identities are not undermined in anyway. While respect for secular ethics is essential so is an appreciation for unique political and cultural identities.

Interestingly the SAU has enabled its students to develop a unique orientation both to be South Asian and a citizen of the world. Many argue that the vision of the university is idealistic to the extent of being unrealistic, but they forget that those who aspire to create a better world often dream of the impossible. Rabindranath Tagore established Vishwabharati (World University) at a time when most people were immersed in nationalistic fervour. A successful integration process will rely heavily on idealism accompanied by pragmatism.

The SAU has brought together students from all the SAARC countries in an attempt to increase sensitivity to local contexts. Since mistrust between the governments of the region is a major impediment in the integration process, a multi-cultural university setting such as that of the SAU allows us to acknowledge the underlying unities that bind us.

One of the stated goals of the SAU is to draw on the diversity in the region and ensure that a transfer of knowledge takes place. South Asia has seen a low level of academic engagement between the countries of the region. The establishment of the SAU is a monumental step towards ensuring that knowledge transcends national borders. The creation of knowledge by a creed that is conscious of its South Asian Identity can make meaningful contributions to disciplines such as the social sciences, which are yet to democratize fully. This will not only contribute to greater engagement in the region, but will also impact the way South Asia is perceived internationally.

Apart from contributing to the academic research on South Asia, the SAU has tapped the cultural commonalities in the region. This is evidenced from the joint celebration of Independence Day of Pakistan and India on 15 August, the celebration of Language Day and other major festivals like Holi, Diwali, Eid, etc.

The South Asian University: Task Ahead

There is a lot of scope for innovation in a new university setting, and it is imperative that students be provided with opportunities to become active members in the shaping of the institution. A vibrant and active student community contributes to the overall image of a university and the students of the SAU have a tough task ahead. Since the University is in its nascent stages a greater interaction between the administration and the students is necessary to ensure a more communicative environment and effective decision making. Eventually the University should increase participation of professors from the different South Asian countries to give it a truly South Asian character. People from South Asia often have a mindset that engenders a Kafkaesque bureaucracy; the SAU should set an example for other universities by ensuring the presence of an effective and responsive system.

Future of Regional Integration

The establishment of the SAU is the first step towards ensuring greater coordination between the political class, the academic community and civil society in South Asia. As steps are being taken to reinvigorate the SAARC as a regional body and increase the interaction between the political leadership of the different countries, a simultaneous democratisation of the public sphere in South Asia needs to take place. This would entail a growing participation of the civil society and a strengthening of its relationship with the political class. The SAU is one such public space where students are encouraged to engage in discussions on issues that matter in South Asia and beyond. The shaping of the University will have a major impact on the future of regional integration in South Asia. Hence the students, faculty and administration will need to be conscious of the responsibility they have as stakeholders in the University and the region at large.

(Nilanjana Sen is a student at South Asia University who is interning with the SPS. She can be contacted at

The original article can be read HERE.