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15th SAARC Conference 2008
Connectivity, heritage and conflict resolution:
A SOUTH ASIAN PERSPECTIVE

Part I

South Asia is a historically evolved region drawing its ‘identity consciousness’ from the rich tangible and intangible heritage found in its natural landscape. We in South Asia are nurtured within the legacy of a shared heritage for over three thousand years and its ethos is a classic representation of diversity and commonalities. Our heritage is essentially inclusive and not exclusive. The shared heritage of the people of South Asia is a key to understanding that diversity, which is the factor of commonality in our society. Compartmentalization of our society was a legacy of the Colonial rule where ‘imagined’ racial categories, mythic martial races along with policies of divide and rule formed the basis for multiple dichotomies in South Asia. The Post Colonial period witnessed the continuation of such dichotomies resulting in a sharper polarization and marginalization of communities through imagined categories introduced from above. It must be our collective endeavor to strive towards our connectivity as a key to sustaining the spirit of the SAARC as a gift to the next generation.

Situating select individuals of the shared heritage

As an entrée to the discourse let me unfold the nature of three brilliant south Asians – Rabindranath Tagore, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Lakshman Kadirgamar, who valued knowledge and shared culture as the prime social wealth. Their individual personalities epitomized the best qualities of Classical South Asian culture blended with the highest cultural norms of modernity of the Internationalist!

In their own individual styles they contributed subtle vibrations of understanding the rhythm of human nature - representing perhaps the ultimate essence of blending aesthetics, knowledge and intelligence. Tagore translated his ideals into living reality by founding the Shanti Niketan or the university without walls – the ashram of knowledge reciprocity. It was the point of convergence and catalyst for the beauty of nature and mind - this fusion Tagore believed to be the very poetry of life! Ananda Coomaraswamy who shifted his focus from earth science to aesthetics, rediscovered and redefined the indigenous tradition and its identity and fine tuned its underlying philosophy towards metaphysics. Kadirgamar’s philosophy of life, political philosophy and cultural philosophy, both, as a Sri Lankan and as an uncompromising internationalist, derived from the simple axiom that every one of its citizens had a right to live in dignity within this island and no one could deprive another of that sacred right. His respect for all religions, languages and cultures was a way of life for Kadirgamar through absolute conviction of his belief that while taking pride in his or her culture one must celebrate and respect other cultures. Respect for diversity was his norm.

All three of them were elegantly accomplished individuals who believed in the beauty of all encompassing culture of human dignity and possessed intellectual personalities celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. Their ideals will be a permanent beacon to all those who value quality of life and the culture of dignified humane aspirations.

Resolving Conflict in classical

South Asia

Resolving conflict is not a novel concept to South Asian societies. We need not be educated by the west on the nature of conflict and the modalities of neutralizing conflict. Our cultures had evolved in-built safety mechanisms neutralizing tensions and stress points in society as a survival strategy. In fact one of the earliest instances of a social contract, reflecting people to people connectivity, is attributed to South Asia. The Agganna sutta describes that people oppressed by conflict elected an individual who was called Mahasammata (‘the great elect’) as ruler to settle disputes. Mahasammata was expected to maintain peace and equilibrium in society through the laws of Dhamma or righteousness.

Interesting to note in this context is the in-built concepts of accountability, transparency and good governance that are inherent in the norms worked out by society, be it from above or from below. With the emergence of the advance state developing into empire systems, Buddhist texts highlight the concept of the Universal King or Chakkavatti raja. The Chakkavatti Sihanada sutta and Mahasudassana sutta, credit the universal king as the person responsible for duties and obligations not only towards the subjects but also for the total environment of his domain assuring his responsibility to maintain quality of life. The king agrees to uphold the code of conduct prescribed to the ruler known as dasa raja dhamma. Thus society and its habitat are considered integral components. This is repeated in the popular Buddhist invocation as:

Devo vassatu kalena

May there be rains at the right season

Sassasampatti hotu ca

May there be a plentiful harvest

Pito bhavatu loko ca

May the people be happy

Raja bhavatu dammiko

May the rulers govern with righteousness

Siddhartha Gautama unfolded a people friendly movement for this purpose. The creation of the order of bikkhu, also known as sangha or gana, was to resolve conflict at the group level. The guiding norm of this people to people connectivity was his instructions to the sangha "to wander among the people and spread the dhamma for the betterment for the people and the deities".

At the individual level one had to be accountable for ones own acts, to ones own self and to society in order to curtail conflict. The five precepts (or panchasheela) where one resolves to abstain from - destroying life, taking things not given, sexual misconduct, false speech and intoxicanting drinks are basic tenants of ethical conduct that do not disturb society. Lay ethics pronounced by the Buddha in the Sigalovada sutta, Parabhava sutta, Dhammika sutta, Mahamangala sutta to mention a few, clearly prescribe the duties and obligation of an individual towards his or her immediate family, society, servants and slaves, teachers, holy people and even the state. Perhaps one of the best examples of concord and amicable behavior neutralizing tension and conflict is known as the seven factors preventing decline (sapta aparihaniya dhamma) prescribed by the Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana sutta. The Lichchhavi of Vaishali were instructed by the Buddha that as long as they assemble in concord, rise in concord, continue time tested traditions, respect elders, respect women, respect places of worship, and respect the clergy they shall continue to prosper in unity and not decline. Drawing inspiration from the code of conduct prescribed in religious teachings, mainly Buddhism, Ashoka Maurya developed his own brand of conflict resolution through Ashoka Dhamma.

Situating the discourse

This discourse revolves around the relevance of people to people connectivity and heritage as an alternative system of conflict resolution.

For centuries the rich cultural personality of South Asian countries were nurtured through cross-cultural interactions. It is ironic that during the advanced period of ‘print capitalism’ (after Benedict Anderson) sustaining distance contraction, we have constructed vertically arranged ethno-national compartments. As Eric Wolf points out, one nation or culture cannot be studied in isolation because "human populations construct their cultures in interaction with one another" (1982: ix). Even the Diaspora does not form an isolated entity. One of the critical challenges we face in South Asia is bridging national, religious and cosmopolitan identities with a futuristic vision.

For years various groups and policy makers attempted to arrive at different formulas and processes seeking that illusive ‘peace’. Ironically enough peace initiatives have less involvement of the people, academics, artists and other social activists and are more the purview of policy makers, bureaucrats and politicians. In all their imagined wisdom they pronounced the basis, modalities and the execution of the ‘peace initiatives’ and peace processes that were inevitably doomed to failure. The people, academics, artists etc. who are the primary stake-holders in society were but by-standers watching the ‘unmaking of history’ through peace imposed from above. It is a process that must be embraced, cultivated, expressed and sustained by people and not by unimaginative decision-makers in society.

The discourse takes up specific areas that go beyond the narrow confines of hacked politics and administrative issues. The focus has to be on heritage, as an area of refinement that was never grasped by the crass minds of dull-witted policy makers. Heritage in this discourse is to be considered as a multifaceted catalyst. Heritage in the main is viewed as a source of people to people connectivity in conflict resolution. It seeks to understand the Pre Colonial heritage and question exclusiveness against inclusiveness; grassroots level peoples’ connectivity cutting across ethnic, language, religious and political divides juxtaposed to divisions imposed from above by Colonialism and later by local decision-makers. It looks at heritage as an idiom that expresses a common language of humanity where people reach out to each other for understanding, sharing and co-existence.

It then brings up the critical need to create an alternative space for a discourse leading to an alternate perspective for peace. The critical need of the hour is a definitive paradigm shift where a new discourse within a newly created alternative space will be a benchmark for future peace initiatives and a new thought process by the next generation. This perhaps is "the pluralist intellectual personality challenging exclusiveness" of futuristic South Asia envisioned by Amarthya Sen in Argumentative India.

Redefining Heritage

Heritage must be thrust beyond the narrow confines of culture per se. We seek to redefine heritage and situate culture, environment, knowledge and the next generation as its integral components providing it with a deeper construct. UNESCO has envisioned categories such as tangible and intangible heritage promoting World Heritage Sites and promotes conventions on Diversity and Peace Education

Heritage undoubtedly is the end product of human thought and action essentially reflecting higher achievements and refinements of any society. Thus heritage does not evolve in a vacuum or in isolation. It is cross-fertilized by other parallel cultures that are essentially shared. It represents the best of humane aspirations and connected destinies and is in fact one of the best sources of understanding societies, their behavior and thinking patterns. Each community carries the finger print of its own heritage personality while it shares many elements of other techno-cultural groups as well. Diversity therefore is a living reality and will continue to be so despite the overarching (and imagined) global culture imposed from above.

Culture and environment essentially have a symbiotic relationship. This calls for an alternative understanding of the total cultural ecology or the interacting and symbiotic relationship between resident communities and the natural environment of their habitat. It is a process that ultimately determined the nature and level of social, economic, political and religio-cultural formations in pre Industrial societies. We have to recognize it as a discursive process interacting with two or multiple systems in the formation of social systems on the one hand and cognitive aspects associated with such societies on the other.

Information on the culture-environment symbiosis shaping the thinking and behavior patterns in society, in the past or present, is transmitted to us through knowledge. In addition to traditional knowledge contemporary knowledge is embedded in each culture. It is incumbent upon us, as concerned citizens of South Asia, to recognize the enormous complexities involved in the maximization and application of knowledge information in multi-cultural societies situated within altering patterns of globalization.

Redefining the vision of the futuristic role of education therefore is one of the most central and challenging issues facing contemporary South Asian societies. Ironically enough, education is yet to be recognized as a valid factor in conflict resolution in South Asia. The negation of a liberal education in the Post Colonial Period is a major impediment that has produced a vertically divided society in this region. Humanizing and democratizing education through the Liberal Arts is seen as a remedial strategy in the process of restructuring the future educational policy in multi cultural South Asia. It is seen as a process that will ultimately sustain an intellectually independent next generation of South Asians who will represent the best of humanistic traditions and values as citizens of the world. In view of this, the document on Peace Education propagated by UNESCO must receive serious cognizance by all organizations and individuals who desire a liberal and inclusive education for the next generation.

Part II tomorrow

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