U.Va. Vice Provost Gowher Rizvi Calls for South Asian Unity in Wake of Mumbai Terrorist Attacks

December 11, 2008
December 11, 2008 — The recent terrorist incidents in Mumbai, India, greatly saddened Gowher Rizvi, the University of Virginia's vice provost for international programs, professor of global affairs and a son of South Asia. But he wasn't surprised.

Evidence and intelligence reports indicated some attack would take place in India, said Rizvi, whose 30-year career reflects his commitment to study and promote innovation in democracy worldwide, with an emphasis on South Asia. And though 150 were killed at 10 sites in Mumbai, all of South Asia is no stranger to terrorist attacks. 

He expressed the hope that the Mumbai attacks will serve as a wake up call and drive the nations of South Asia closer together, rather than further apart. He envisions a region drawn tighter by shared interests and cultures, rather than split by national rivalries.

Rizvi's understanding of the shared culture and history that links the South Asian countries and the need for governments to solve problems together has roots in his own life. His ancestral home is in Murshidabd in India; he was born in Bangladesh, raised in India's West Bengal region and has friends and relatives throughout South Asia.

"If countries move away from confrontational relations, all the problems they desire to solve will be easier to solve," he said.

While the Mumbai attacks drew the world's attention to India, Rizvi said terrorism is a problem throughout the region.

"The greatest number of victims and the greatest amount of terrorist deaths have occurred in Pakistan, as well as numerous attacks in India," Rizvi said. "Pakistan has to deal with the terrorists and needs all the help India and the U.S. can offer."

Rizvi pointed out that already there is a positive side to the events, with the interests of the three countries converging.

"India needs a stable Pakistan so that it does not become a training ground for militants. The U.S. needs Pakistan, as does India, to fight Al Qaeda on the western front, and Pakistan needs its hands free so it can fight terrorists, of which it has been the main victim," Rizvi said.

From Rizvi's perspective, the terrorist incidents provide an opportunity for the U.S. to change course in its relationship with Pakistan, moving from a policy of strengthening Pakistan's military forces toward one of providing economic assistance to its social sector.

Education and health issues are devastating South Asia, Rizvi said. In India, which is poised to become one of the three great economic powers by mid-century, 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 50 percent are illiterate.

The co-author of "The State of Access: Success and Failure of Democracies to Create Equal Opportunities" (with Jorrit De Jong), Rizvi has written about disadvantaged groups and the need to build an understanding of common cultural heritage in the region.

Among the poor of all the South Asian countries, the disadvantaged are the least healthy, educated and employed and have little, if any, political power. The main issue, in India and the other South Asian countries, is that they need to "carry the poorest and give them a share of the wealth. If India wants to be an economic superpower, it needs to carry its neighbors with it," Rizvi said.

Building on shared cultural and historical backgrounds is the key to an economically successful and peaceful South Asia, he said.

"The world and the people of South Asia see each other as separate states and through a government lens," Rizvi said. "All the people have a shared history, culture and aspirations. Their problems and successes are alike.

"Each country, as it develops, needs to develop a stake in their neighbor's prosperity," and promote regional cooperation in South Asia.
A passion for social justice, an interest in institution-building and a commitment to support developing human resources through higher education has driven Rizvi's career.

In addition to numerous academic appointments, he has worked to manage conflict and strengthen democratic institutions in Asia. Before coming to U.Va. Sept. 1, he developed a worldwide executive training program on "Innovations in Governance" at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. During a time at the Ford Foundation, his work focused on supporting efforts to promote social and economic development of historically disadvantaged groups in South Asia. He was responsible for a national education program in the U.S. to lead educational programs dealing with contemporary issues in Asian politics, economics, society and international relations during a one-year stint at the Asia Society in New York. He has also served as special assistant to the United Nations coordinator in Afghanistan.

His most recent major accomplishment was working with the government of India to establish the South Asian University, supported by eight countries in the region — India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Batan and Maldives.

The goal of the new university is to "produce a new generation of leaders who will see themselves as leaders of South Asia and have a South Asian outlook and create a shared South Asian vision," Rizvi said. "The next generation will bring that vision back home and work in their countries to achieve common goals with their neighbors."

Learning to share different perspectives is also Rizvi's goal in his work at U.Va.

"All students at U.Va. need to become global citizens. They need to understand the global complexities and learn to work in a multicultural context," he said.

The underlying key, he added, is learning that not all people "have shared assumptions."

— By Jane Ford