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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 20, May 8, 2010

Potentialities of South Asian Identity

Monday 10 May 2010, by Balraj Puri


The potentialities of South Asian identity were unfolded in a three-day SAARC writers and literature conference which I attended recently in Delhi. It became fairly obvious that bilateral disputes, which have retarded the growth of the region, are cut to size when viewed in the context of the SAARC. Moreover, the South Asian identity can be better developed through non-official efforts than by formal government efforts.

The delegates to the conference became conscious and emphasised the common civilisational heritage and cultural connectivity. More than formal sessions, off-session intervals gave opportunities of person-to-person contacts in which they learnt about one another’s country and commonalities between them. They also had a better under-standing of mutual disputes and ground realities than they used to get through pronouncements of their respective governments. While poetry, and its translation into English, was widely appreciated, it was classical music, in the afternoons, which mesmerised the hall-full audience of the India International Centre. The audience included interested persons from Delhi.

Many delegates visited the historical landmarks of Delhi which are in plenty and were reminded of the links with countries of some of them. The Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh, in particular, discovered the vital contribution of the Muslims to India’s composite personality, architecture, music, literature and arts and India’s contribution to Islam’s thought and practices.

Some intellectual participants were inspired to think of the unique role that the region can play in world affairs. The example of the European Union was often cited where after centuries of disputes and warfare member countries have learnt the benefit of living in harmony. After the devastation caused by the Second World War, they not only recovered fast and developed but are also making contribution in the affairs of the world.

The common threat of pollution and environmental degradation was also one of the themes of the conference. According to a Pakistani delegate, the real threat was that of political pollution. This reflected the common disillusion-ment with politicians. But the political consequences of environmental degradation too cannot be brushed aside. For instance, Indian rivers are the major source of supply of water to Pakistan. Depleting supply is becoming the main issue of dispute between the two countries. Construction of dams on rivers flowing to Bangladesh and inadequate flow of water were likewise a major cause of strained relations between India and Bangladesh. Similarly cracking bandhs on the Kosi river in Nepal had caused a flood in Bihar and vast devastation. It is said that the future wars would be on water.

The intellectuals of the region can take a more dispassionate view and make a solid contri-bution to the government actions in resolving such disputes as also of dealing with problems of global warning.


Another important lesson of the conference was increased awareness of commonalities at sub-national levels. The rich heritage of Urdu in India was a powerful bond between the Mahajirs from Pakistan and Urdu writers of India and to some extent Hindi writers also. The Mahajirs paid homage to the land of Ghalib and Mir who are universally respected in India and Pakistan. Similarly Punjabis of India and Pakistan felt proud of their Punjabi identity which had no less emotional appeal than that of their respective national identities. The upsurge of Punjabi identity in Pakistan, represented by organisations like Panjan Panian Dee Virasat (Cultural Heritage of Five Rivers) and Punjabi papers like Leharan, was appreciated by Indian Punjabis while Punjabi poetry recited by them was equally appreciated by Pakistani Punjabis. Sindhis were keen to meet Indian Sindhis.

Bengalis on both sides are proud of their languages and rich literary and cultural history. It is no accident that Tagore is the common author of the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. The conference was a good reminder of the common bonds. It was equally true about Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Nadu as also Sinhalese Buddhists and the land of birth of Lord Buddha. There are common bonds of other countries of the region also.

Indians have a special responsibility to develop South Asian and sub-national identities as it alone has common borders with all countries of the region and is by far the bigger country, not only in size but also in economic, military and political power. It is in India’s self-interest to cultivate these identities and to be more generous in helping the member countries in their develop-ment.

The recent SAARC conference was organised by the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature in collaboration with the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and attended by eminent persons from, besides India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives. For some of them it was their first visit to India which enabled them to understand it better and remove some of their misconceptions.

The author is the Director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, Jammu.

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