The Saarc summit, which starts in New Delhi today, must encourage such exchanges for they strengthen people-to-people contact, writes Karan Singh.
Beyond the compulsions of politics and the imperatives of economics, there is a cultural dimension to unity within Saarc. The eight countries that constitute Saarc today — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — have several examples of shared culture, which is a dynamic factor for greater interaction and understanding. The Saarc summit in New Delhi over April 3-4 will, it is hoped, give this area the attention it deserves.
The cultural dimension flows from a joint civilisational history as well as the legacy of colonial rule. Hindu and Buddhist temples are to be found throughout this region, all the way to Afghanistan, where, tragically, in a frenzy of iconoclasm, the Taliban blew up two gigantic rock-cut statues of the Buddha. There are also a number of Sufi centres in this region, the most important of which is the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer, which millions visit every year regardless of religious affiliation.
If Hinduism is the predominant religion linking India and Nepal, Islam is the common thread running through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Maldives. Buddhism bridges India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal. India is the land of the Buddha and apart from the palace of his birth in Lumbini, Nepal, all the monuments and sacred places associated with his life are in India.
For the Sikhs, the most holy shrine, of course, is the Golden Temple at Amritsar, while Jain temples include Ranakpur, which, in its own way, rivals the Taj Mahal. This last, of course, is the best known monument in the entire Saarc region.
Striking commonalities exist too in the traditions of music, in sartorial wear and in cuisine. There is also a powerful shared linguistic and literary dimension to Saarc. We share Urdu with Pakistan, Nepali with Nepal, Bengali with Bangladesh and Tamil with Sri Lanka. Both India and Bangladesh sings Rabindranath Tagore’s songs, who also wrote the national anthems of both the countries. Mirza Ghalib, Meer, Souda and Iqbal are recited both in India and Pakistan, and English is the link language for the entire region.
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) recently hosted an artists’ camp in Jaisalmer, where 24 well-known painters from Saarc countries met for 10 days to exchange experiences and produce a canvas each. We are very happy that leaders at the summit will be able to view this exhibition. The ICCR also organised a special evening of Saarc dance and music at the Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi on the eve of the summit. The ICCR is also supporting a Saarc conference of writers and poets.
While these events are specially designed to coincide with the summit, ICCR has in general been doing its best to promote cultural interaction within Saarc. We have invited creative groups from each of these countries, including Begum Farida Khanum and Amjad Farid from Pakistan and the Soul Group from Sri Lanka. We have also brought in art exhibitions from Saarc countries and regularly send out Indian artistic troupes. At the popular level, the unifying forms of culture have become more evident. Bollywood has a huge following in all Saarc countries. Television soap operas have vast audiences, as do bands like Indian Ocean. Our passion for cricket can be felt across the region, both in moments of triumph as well as tragedy.
Given these strong foundations and linkages, the theme of the Saarc summit, Connectivity, is relevant. The advantage of cultural interactions is that they transcend political, religious and other barriers, and strengthen people-to-people contacts. If Saarc is to grow to its full stature, it has to address numerous issues, of which poverty alleviation is a priority area. But it must also encourage cultural and intellectual contacts.
The ICCR is setting up a South Asian Centre for Arts and Culture in Mumbai by the end of the year. There is a proposal to set up a South Asia University as well. Academic interactions between Saarc countries are far from satisfactory. A university could play a catalytic role in strengthening academic exchanges and the intercourse of ideas. There is also a proposal to set up a Saarc Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts.
The potential of building upon connectivities in culture within Saarc countries is vast and needs to be actively pursued. It is hoped the Saarc summit will take due cognisance of this crucial factor.
Karan Singh is President, Indian Council for Cultural Relations