While there is a plethora of media chatter in every country in South Asia, it has always struck me as an odd thing that there’s very little cross-border dialogue going on.
I mean, how often do you hear a Pakistani and an Indian lawyer sitting down to talk about the problems and issues they’re dealing with in their respective countries? How about a Sri Lankan artist and a Bangladeshi photographer discussing the extent to which politics seeps into art on their national agendas? Or a Nepali activist and a - well you get the meaning. I’m talking about ordinary people from one country talking to their counterparts across the border. Not the fiery rhetoric of politicians looking for votes at home, or the diplomatic half-speak of officials, but real people engaged in a one-to-one dialogue, who may actually have a lot more in common with each other than they would at first suspect.
Once upon a time, the subcontinent was totally interconnected, before India’s eastern and western arms were amputated at Partition, before Burma broke away in the crumbling of empire. Lanka was connected to India by the stories of the Ramayana and its Tamil population, Nepal is mainly Hindu and bound by mythology and language to its giant southern neighbour. And it was from Afghanistan that Zahir ud-din Mohammed Babur came to conquer Hindustan and found the Mughal dynasty that would rule it for centuries.
South Asia in short,is like a large extended familiy, each country connected to its neighbours by some tie or another. Together, South Asians consist of one fifth of the planet’s population, sharing cultures, languages, food, religions.
You’d think South Asians would have figured out a way to form themselves into some kind of loose confederation - much in the line of European Union. There is some trade to be sure - even the enmity of Pakistan and India doesn’t always affect trade between the two. But there’s no common currency, no cementing of trade and defence ties and in fact, precious little dialogue between the neighbours.
So we’ve decided on South Asia Wired, to do something about that. In the coming months, we’ll be hosting occasional debates and discussions with invited guests talking to each other across the border.
Launching the series this week, we discusss whether Sri Lanka and Kashmir - both home to long-running, bitter and seemingly intractable conflicts - are ready for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The first TRC was set up to lay old demons to rest in post-apartheid South Africa. Victims and perpetrators of violence were invited to shed their stories at public forums. In exchange for the truth, a controversial amnesty was offered to some of the perpetrators. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, architect of the TRC, believed that hidden history would always block the healing of past trauma; that people needed to lay bare the truth so they could forgive each other and themselves and move on with their lives.
Would such a commission seeking out truth and reconciliation, work in Sri Lanka and in Kashmir?
In Sri Lanka, a bitter ethnic conflict ended on a particularly bloody note in 2009, with both government forces and the Tamil Tigers being blamed for the deliberate targetting of civilians. And Kashmir has been a theatre of overt and covert war between India and Pakistan for years, where armed insurgents as well as a brutal army and police have been responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and disappearances.
Colombo based Sanjana Hattotuwa is founder and co-editor of the award winning website of citizen journlism, Groundviews. He believes that after 27 years of war, it’s not just the victims and perpetrators who have to face some ugly truths, but also the bystanders, every Sri Lankan in fact, who must come to terms with a bloody past. But are Sri Lankans ready for a good hard look in the mirror?
Gautam Patel, lawyer, environmentalist and columnist whose blog, Prisoner of Agenda appears in syndicated metro papers in India, believes that a TRC in Kashmir would have to be prepared to show that it’s not just a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for the perpetrators of State-sponsored violence in the country.
South Asia Wired put the two men together to talk about the similarities and differences of their countries’ painful past, and to ruminate on what truth and reconciliation really mean.