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

Conterday from yesterday

Structuring Conflict

This region had its own tradition of grasping the essential dynamics of conflict and had evolved remedial strategies in dealing with such situations as well. While conflict did exist in our pre modern society, it is Colonialism that inducted entirely new forms of conflicts that had long term consequences running well into the post Colonial period. Imaging South Asia and its past in the Colonial mind directly contributed to the rise of new forms of conflicts based on identities, which spilled over to other issues such as access or alienation from resources and decision-making process. It is also argued that in South Asia exclusionist nationalism tends to regard other cultures as subordinate and with an increasing tempo of intolerance (Thapar 2001:xix).

It is not surprising that the post Colonial generation viewed sectional ideologies as a consequence of identity based on religion, caste, language, ‘race’ or some other form of group affiliation and also as a natural process associated with the historical evolution of social systems in South Asia. Clearly the dominating features of this period are: economic alienation and the possibility of geo-political units being carved out on ethno-cultural or more specifically ‘racial’ lines. Such inverted sentiments are further compounded by internal readjustments demanded by those who wish for alternative political systems – such as social fascism, and externally through altered processes of globalization. It is correctly pointed out "Current nationalisms – ethnic religious, linguistic – cannot be entirely isolated from globalization" (Thapar 2004:21). It is in this context one must understand the role of reading the past in contested identities and in legitimating social and political power. This is the ‘other’ picture of our shared fate in South Asia.

The dialogue: alternative space for heritage and conflict resolution

The cultural landscape of South Asia essentially represents a habitat of multi-cultural and varied biological identities. In contemporary South Asia we possess ethnic, language, religious and religio-cultural diversity providing its regional society with multiple identities shaping the cosmopolitan cultural ethos of South Asia. The critical question is the level of our commitment to the ethical aspect of respecting other cultures. This is all about sensitivity towards cultural identities and interaction among culturally diverse resident communities.

Contraction of cultural spaces through globalization and the need to reorient the existing mindset from the narrow spectrum compartmentalized time, space and cultural rubric is an imperative. While South Asia celebrates a vibrant history of cultural pluralism and diversity, there is a tragic contradiction posed by conflicts triggered off on the basis of imagined racial lines. One of the most unfortunate features of such conflicts is the conscious and unconscious impact it has on educational policies, cultural resource management and the archaeological agenda in South Asia. Secondly, it also results in the destruction directed at cultural property by all participating groups. While Archaeology and history are subjects that are effectively used by all contending parties in conflicts where the past is subverted in creating imagined identities, conversely archaeology and heritage studies are perhaps the best avenues that could rectify the process of cultural plurality and demythifying all forms of parochialisms in a scientific manner and place alternative histories before the next generation for a better and rational understanding of the past. The mind set must be reoriented beyond the mono country and monoculture and be exposed to cross-regional and cross-cultural horizons.

It is the social responsibility of professionals and intellectuals with a humanistic social awareness to provide the society at large with an alternative strategy for social change and sustenance against destructive processes dislocating historically evolved social systems in South Asia or for that matter those found else where in the world. The ideoscape of presenting the heritage and the re-introduction of a liberal education in conflict resolution is suggested as an urgent remedial strategy as against the self-destructive path currently unfolding in our region.

South Asian countries are facing a grave threat of preserving its heritage conditioned by human created environmental problems, looting, war situations, natural disasters and threat to the tangible and intangible heritage introduced by ‘modernization’ and images of parochialism negating its cultural plurality. While there is a growing consciousness about the need to preserve our heritage for the next generation, there is yet some ambiguity as to what needs to be protected, modalities of protecting cultural property and whose heritage must be protected?

In view of this, a convergence of all stakeholders – incorporating the general public, relevant officers of the state, private sector (banking and hospitality management sectors), school children, other professionals, clergy, and international organizations - is seen as a logical necessity in this capacity building and awareness elevating exercise for empowerment. Bringing the message home on UNESCO Charters to all stakeholders through discussions, the audio-visual medium, interactive programs and hands-on activities is seen as a positive pro-active method that would yield a long term spin off of shaping an inclusive society and an appreciation of cultural property as an endowment of humanity from the past to the present and future generations.

Therefore, as an alternative to the monologue with the past we now have to carry out a dialogue with the past and utilize education, environmental studies, archaeology and heritage studies as a major avenue of chartering a new road map in conflict resolution. The state, UNESCO and the public at large must come to terms of a partnership in relation to Heritage Sites. Unless and until we learn to present the past incorporating all communities as its stakeholders respecting their tangible and intangible heritage and develop an unbiased historical explanation of the past, it will only alienate different groups from the mainstream culture for different reasons. The primary target group in our effort therefore is the next generation, who are the primary stakeholders of the heritage. While they belong to different religious, language and ethnic denominations they essentially form the future leadership of heritage managers.

Our efforts at utilizing both the tangible and the intangible heritage in conflict resolution are paying rich dividends and we are today hopeful towards positive attitudes by the next generation of professionals reading the past. Heritage is therefore to be situated beyond its narrow spectrum definition. It is be identified not as a static factor only looking at the past but its futuristic function in understanding shared cultures, cultural plurality and as a factor instructing the next generation of the true personality of the inclusive multi cultural mosaic of the South Asian society.

In spite of recurring upheavals I am positively optimistic about the wisdom of the people in our region to rise above abysmal parochialisms and reach out to each other with sanity and understanding on cultural connectivity and our shared heritage as a point of convergence "beyond the bloody dances of death" (Bhan 2006:99). It gives us hope to know of individuals who are involved in the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature who have a vision Beyond Borders. Recent happenings in South Asia with special reference to the Nalanda Project, Sri Lankas efforts to name multi-religious sites as World Heritage sites – gives a glimmer of hope on the perpetuation of our shared heritage valued by the people. Similarly, the founding of a liberal arts school in Pakistan by the Agha Khan Foundation and the conscious effort by Pakistan to promote Buddhist heritage as source of connectivity are laudable activities indeed. The Lumbini Project in Nepal could be a potentially high value site for people to people connectivity. All these efforts will essentially initiate a dialogue with those "who so far have remained outside the periphery of mainstream political discourse…..and in strengthening cultural connectivity and common historico-civilisational links…" (Bhan 2006:102).

At the 2007 SAARC Cultural Ministers Meeting held in Colombo, our proposal for the SAARC Heritage Center carried the following message.

"It is apparent that the region must preserve this rich culture bequeathed to us from the past in a redefined form and as a living source of cross-regional cultural connectivity sustaining the spirit of the SARRC and also blending tradition with modernity.

The convergence of the arts and crafts will represent a cross-section of South Asian culture intrinsic to each country and its internal regions. Cross regional people to people heritage connectivity and environmental awareness are two major gains in this venture. Cross-fertilization of inter regional arts and crafts and the revitalization of indigenous arts and crafts that are facing extinction will be another positive gain. All our countries are concerned of the impact of globalization and other market forces that are diluting the indigenous arts and crafts. This center shall not only revitalize such endangered arts and crafts, it shall play a pivotal role in the preservation of the tangible heritage (as per UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage – 1972) and the intangible heritage (as per UNESCO Convention for the safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage - 2003).

This centre could be developed as an awareness-building and capacity-building venue. The target group will be our next generation. Youth arriving here from the SAARC region as observers, apprentices and participants in the arts and crafts activity is to be seriously taken note of. As a center of dissemination of cultural knowledge it will bring together our children, the next generation of SAARC leadership, who belong to different ethnic, language, religious and cultural groups and inculcate within them the norms and values of respecting diversity, inclusiveness of our regional culture and shared aspirations eventually sustaining the spirit of the SAARC.

Conclusion

As South Asians we are in more than one-way shareholders to a common heritage situated in time and space. We are the inheritors of a culture that is so vibrantly enriched by sophisticated social philosophies that originated in this region and had an overarching impact beyond its natural landscape and also by both indigenous and shared values. This is indeed a tribute to the remarkable synthesis that has been achieved in South Asia between two or more related but divergent value systems. We have also been inspired for thousands of years by the messages of peace that emanated from this region, not only in terms of its sublime message of cultivating the supreme humane personality but also as a social philosophy that released dynamics of an expressive higher culture in art, sculpture, architecture and literature. This is spiritual and cultural connectivity at its best. Let us therefore recognize and celebrate these elements of our shared heritage lending connectivity to the people of South Asia!

Concluded.

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