One may argue that the year 2016 was not much different. However, in one aspect, 2016 was different from the previous years.
This was the year when the Saarc summit conference scheduled to take place in Islamabad did not happen. It was also the year when, twice, we saw senior level Indian and Pakistani officials leaving multilateral regional forums halfway because of bilateral hostilities. This was also the year when we saw our governments sparring with each other more ferociously than they have done in the past.
And this was also the year when smog blurred the boundaries between Lahore and Ludhiana. In continuation of all this, it seems, an impeding drought is set to afflict farmlands in Bahawalpur and Bathinda alike.
The idea of sustainable development and the ideals of shared human future remained under threat in 2016 like they have never been since the Earth Summit Rio 1992. Today, not just in South Asia but also in many parts of the world, cooperation and collaboration are being increasingly replaced with clashes and conflict.
Regional and global institutions put together painfully over the last many decades are either suspended — as in the case of Saarc — or they run the risk of falling apart — as is the case with the European Union after the British exit from it and the recent international agreements on reversing carbon emissions after the results of US presidential elections.
Only recently, an influential thinker of our age wrote a book and proclaimed that history has reached its climactic end. The almost universal spread of democracy and market capitalism even in such socialist places as Vietnam and China looked like having won the battle of political and economic ideas forever. Today, history is making a comeback with a vengeance.
Historical prejudices are rearing their ugly heads in such established democracies as the United States and Great Britain. Political parties and politicians in many parts of Europe are invoking an imaginary past, promising a future that brings back lost past glories and even racial unity.
Within South Asia, India’s beef ban is a nod to a mythical past that may, or may not, have existed thousands of years ago; Buddhist attacks against Christians and Muslims have their origin in injuries and insults inflicted decades, even centuries ago; religious and sectarian violence in Pakistan is nothing if it is not based in historical arguments and counter arguments.
It was also not long ago that when an eminent sage told us that the world has become flat. That barriers, boundaries and borders have ceased to matter in the age of free flow of information on the internet. That the twin forces of globalisation, — that is, information and communication technology and the increasingly free flow of money and merchandise across the world — has made us netizens; citizens of a virtual world where differences of language, culture and class have evaporated, making us simultaneously belong nowhere and everywhere.
Today the world is more divided both geographically (due to conflict between nations and countries) and civilisationally (due to conflict between individuals and communities on linguistic, ethnic, religious, economic and cultural grounds). The freedom to partake in a global discussion over such global issues as climate change and the plight of people running away from violent conflict is under serious threat due to increased internet and communication surveillance everywhere; due to reinvigorated media and internet censorship practices in almost every country; and due to the criminalisation of such revolutionary changes brought in by the internet as electronic transfers of money across international borders.
In short, during 2016, confidence in and support for regional and global cooperation and integration decreased everywhere. The world today seems to be closing in rather than opening up. It is increasingly becoming fashionable to blame the neighbours, the outsiders for all that has gone bad over the years — loss of jobs, shrinking and degrading of such natural resources, as land and water, economic stagnation and rising disparity between haves and have-nots.
There is certainly much to despair about 2016 but there is also much to hope for and expect. Since today is as much a historical moment to take the initiative into our own hands as it is time for serious introspection on what has gone wrong, where and why to put a globalised and shared view of our globalised and shared future back on the agenda.
The course of history today seems to be moving in a direction that is opposite to the ideas and the ideals that many of us cherish and champion. Political economy of the world is changing in such a way that most of us appear to ourselves as hapless bystanders who can only wring their hands in despair and do nothing else.
It is times like these when individuals and institutions dare to challenge the course of history, that have the courage of conviction to contest the received wisdom of the day and the intellectual strength to counter the dominant ideas and ideologies of the times. It is these individuals and institutions who change the course of history by first challenging it; who prepare the ground for new breakthroughs in knowledge by countering the received wisdom; who lay the foundations for a new and better future by countering the dominant ideas and ideologies. From Galileo to Einstein and from Moses to Marx, that has been the history of the human kind and this is how it will be.
How can we forget that it took only two courageous men to come up with the idea of collaboration between the coal and steel industries of France and Germany to create the most successful multilateral forum of our times?
I will be repeating what people much more knowledgeable and wise than me have said — that today’s challenges are global and that no national solutions can effectively address them. The seas, the rivers, the mountains, the glaciers, the deserts, the rains and the winds know no boundaries. What happens to glaciers in the Himalayas impacts river flows in Bangladesh, raises sea levels in the Maldives and beyond and impacts agriculture everywhere in South Asia. Can Pakistan alone, or for that matter any other country in the region on its own, address these issues? The answer, as we all know, is a resounding no.
If we know the answer, it is only logical that we then work towards implementing it. Nay, it is imperative to bring shared regional and global issues back on the top of a shared regional and global agenda. It is the only way to create an equitable, peaceful and prosperous comity of nations and community of individuals that is not just at peace and harmony within itself but also with the natural world around it.
New year offers a moment to contemplate on what we have done wrong in previous years, including 2016, to analyse how well or badly are we faring in the present and to plan what we need to do in the future to avoid a repeat of our mistakes of the past; and to learn from all that is good and great in our present — not just the bad and the ugly that is hampering our collective progress.