Event ReportsPublished on Sep 04, 2012
The SAARC region needed to be rescued from colonial era cultural definitions as they were too narrow and a broader range was sought to create cultural zones within the natural boundaries, argues well-known Sri Lankan archeologist Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne.
Using shared cultural heritage of South Asia for conflict resolutions

A well-known Sri Lankan archeologist, Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne, has underlined the need to understand history in context and remove irrational biases in South Asia which shared cultural heritage in pre-colonial days.

Delivering a talk on "Shared Cultures and Heritage for Conflict Resolution: A South Asia Perspective" at Observer Research Foundation on April 9, 2012, Prof. Seneviratne, a former Director General of the Central Cultural Fund, Sri Lanka, and Professor of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, argued that this shared cultural heritage could be utilised for conflict resolutions in the region.

The talk was chaired by well-known historian and author Prof. Romila Thapar. Many scholars, experts, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner and his staff attended the talk which was followed by a discussion.

Prof. Seneviratne said far from being a merely territorial expanse, South Asia was home to several different civilizations, making it multicultural and assimilative from an early period.

Pointing to the evidences emanating from cross regional research in South India and Sri Lanka, Prof. Seneviratne stressed on the diversity and connectivity representing the multiplicity in the region. Prof. Seneviratne’s own stint at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, had acquainted him first hand with multiculturalism.

Prof. Seneviratne’s talk probed the questions of genuine recognition of other cultures and levels of our commitment to respect multicultural ethics. He argued that in contemporary times, there had been an increased tendency to use the past for political legitimacy and social hegemony by parties contending for power. This was not a dilution but subversion and falsification of history which had impacted policies and even heritage resource management.

Various levels of conflicts have been depicted in historical texts, but there was an in-built system of conflict resolution and restoring social harmony. They also clearly laid down norms and ideas, accountability, transparency and good governance.

New forms of conflicts, however, were based on imagined identities which had subsequently led to development of exclusionist nationalism. This was a consequence of identity based on caste, religion, language and race, affecting the decision-making process and political discourse. Post colonial geopolitical units continued to be based on ethno-cultural and ethno-religious ethos. The consequence was that of a slow but sure erosion of democratic and liberal value systems.

Throughout the years of conflict, much soul searching had been done by many seeking answers to difficult questions and working to fulfill their commitment to society. These initiatives had to be carried through contradictions at two levels evident from the Indian example. On the one hand, cross cultural interactions had formed the social fabric of the modern India. Stalwarts like Gandhi, Tagore and later Amartya Sen had talked about this. On the other hand, there were differences and colonial-era divergences that had been propagated. This had resulted in marginalisation of communities through imagined categorisation.

Sri Lanka too presented an interesting contradiction which highlighted the debate between shared culture and parochial interpretations of history. It had successfully assimilated cultures of diverse origins to produce a multicultural environment, but differences were being accentuated by narrow-minded individuals for self-serving motivations. Therefore, dialogue had to include all stakeholders and an alternative space of reconciliation had to be found in shared cultural heritage.

The social philosophies of Hindu, Buddhism and Islam contributed to different cultural, social and economic layers which touched upon commonalities in the past and the future. One of the challenges was to bridge nationalistic, ethnic and religious, cosmopolitan identities with a futuristic vision.

The SAARC region needed to be rescued from colonial era cultural definitions as they were too narrow and a broader range was sought to create cultural zones within the natural boundaries. For instance, historically Afghanistan and Myanmar were source of cultural influences and Thailand too had linkages which could be revived. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) could portray South Asia on a broader canvas, and thus work on the IOR ARC as a step forward. A leaf could be taken out of Singapore’s experience in ASEAN and its role in facilitating Asia-Middle East dialogue.

In order to restore some historical links, there was a need to understand each other, and resolve conflicts, historical contradictions within the region without third party mediation. Mutual respect could one day be the strongest deterrent preventing fragmentation of South Asia.

Education is yet to be recognized as a viable tool in conflict resolution. The present generation had failed to find a solution in knowledge based education system due to biases and prejudices which reflected on the next generation and nurtured tendencies towards violence.

Text books have become testaments of parochialism, and there was a need to democratise and humanize knowledge dissemination. Sustaining an intellectually independent next generation South Asians nurtured in the best of humanistic sentiment was imperative. A scientific reading of the past could reorient minds of next generation away from mono country and mono culture, said Prof. Seneviratne. He concluded, saying that his efforts as being those akin to that of a historian archeologist excavating the truth.

Prof. Seneviratne explained in rich detail how shared cultural heritage of people of different identities could immensely help in resolving modern-day conflicts. A major obstacle towards this endeavor, however, was the widespread misunderstanding of history, and prejudices arising out of it. In reality, conflict resolution requires people involved in the conflict to assemble and discuss solutions. The crux of the process lies in talking about solutions, and not to over-analyse problems.

Prof Romila Thapar talked about the distinction between internal and external forms of nationalism. External nationalism in India was a reaction to British imperialism and was shaped by the independence struggle. Internal nationalism, on the other hand, was essentially sub-nationalist in nature and sought to magnify identities based on language, religion, caste etc. Ironically, these distinctions were colonial identifiers; in other words, they were not part of pre-colonial India.

It was true that all religions taught mutual harmony, tolerance, and peace. Notwithstanding its ideological appeal, it was crucial to distinguish between the core teachings of religions, which were religious in nature, from the teachings of social institutions of religion - monasteries, temple bodies, mosques and madrasas - which were essentially political and social in nature. In contrast with the harmonising core beliefs of religion, the preaching of the social institutions of religion had contributed in shaping differences among people.

(This report is prepared by Kaustav Chakrabarti and Akhilesh Variar, Research Assistants, Observer Research Foundation)

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