Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The right to travel

“Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

At the beginning of August, I took a six-hour road trip which took me through four European countries. From the very modern conurbation of the Netherlands Randstad, we drove past the busy port of Antwerp just missing the massive traffic jams, skirted Brussels to enter picture post-card perfect pastoral scenes with undulating green fields, cows, streams and farmhouses, past pretty Luxembourg which looms just past a large IKEA store and finally into France, which surprised us with hills large enough to look like small mountains. Six hours. Four countries. Not one passport check.

And where were we headed? To a very old city, named for the crossroads it has always straddled, not famous around the world for its stunning Cathedral but for having been the bone of contention for centuries between France and Germany. Strasbourg. Today, Strasbourg is home to several European Institutions.

When I am abroad these days, I am filled more and more with a wistfulness, “I wish everyone at home could have this.” I don’t feel envy because I know each community has done its time, paid its dues, but when will the turn of ordinary Indians come?

Southasia, Europe and India lie at three points on a continuum of integration, each having something to learn from the others about resolving conflict and finding a way to work and live together.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation on national integration processes in South Asia, I would read comparisons of India and Europe that I always found interesting. I was examining national integration from the point of view of secessionist movements, so I had a strong sense of the shortcomings of existing policies and programmes. However, these other political scientists were looking—rightly—at Europe and India representing two levels of integration. Europe was moving from sovereign warring states, to states in a contract to coordinate defence and foreign affairs, migration and employment policies and a common currency. India was past that, and trying to create a common national identity. Europe, these scholars would say, had a lot to learn from India. True, I suppose, especially as the current economic crisis is fuelling nativism and xenophobia even in more liberal and inclusive European states, even before a common European identity could emerge.

Southasia, in turn, has a lot to learn from Europe. We have a real sense of shared heritage, with all our stories cross-referencing events and locations across borders. Our places of pilgrimage are scattered across the subcontinent. Our languages are common to more than one nation-state and our cuisines are distinctive but related. But we cannot visit each other easily or plan school tours or promise pilgrimages without elaborate visa procedures. Where Europe has effaced those obstacles, we have erected and fortified them.

I started this post two months ago. This month, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union, experts had many things to say, most derisive. This is a continent that fought bitterly for centuries, they said. “Is it meant to be an incentive for the EU to get its act together on the financial crisis?” “This award recognizes past accomplishment as the Obama one does potential.” I say it doesn’t matter.

Rivalries in Europe were older and more deep-rooted than the ones in Southasia. If they could be put aside, for any reason, in order for people to move freely in search of work, education or just for tourism, I say it’s a fine thing to emulate. If no-visa, no-passport travel is a distant dream, let us make consular access easier and offer visas-on-arrival as much as possible. The children of Southasia deserve free access to their shared heritage at the very least.