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Why don’t South Asians talk to each other?

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.

4 Comments on “Why don’t South Asians talk to each other?”

  1. #1 jasmin
    on Sep 29th, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Why Gautam Patel? Why not a spokesperson from Panun Kashmir who speaks for the ousted Pandits? Amitabh Mattoo you spoke to, hardly speaks for Pandits, they all speak for Muslims, as if Muslims are the only ones inhabiting Kashmir. The media and such people divide when they speak in favour of one and totally ignore the other. RNW/ SAW never found time to visit Jammu refugee camps but has time to interview others in the subcontinent. How fair is RNW/ SAW?

  2. #2 Dheera Sujan
    on Sep 29th, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    We (RNW/SAW) try to be as fair as we can. The fact that we haven’t made it yet to the camps in Jammu is more a question of logistical capacity and less, please believe me on this Jasmin, than on a bias against Kashmiri Hindus. Kashmir, like Sri Lanka is a very emotive issue especially for the concerned parties. Take a look at our stories on Sri Lanka, some of which have had to have the comments section disabled because of the vitriolic nature of much of the response.
    The fact that we got these two people to discuss the idea of a TRC in these two places reflects the intense need there is to try to distance from the emotion - indignant rage or defensive rage depending on what side you’re sitting - and talk about the possibilities of forgiveness and healing torn communities.

  3. #3 Why don’t South Asians talk to each other? · Global Voices
    on Sep 29th, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    [...] some kind of loose confederation between South Asian countries looks like an unattainable dream. Dheera Sujan at South Asia Wired wonders why South Asians usually do not talk to each other. [...]

  4. #4 David Berridge
    on Oct 2nd, 2011 at 4:02 am

    These divisions to be found in South Asia are still very hot and active in places like Kashmir, Dheera, to begin to speak of a truth-and-recounciliation move there. The idea is good, but despite the common histories reaching out to all of South Asia, the modern historical problems have caused a myopic effect upon many people. I very much doubt you will find a consensus for an Asian common currency much less an agreement for one among the guests you shall have. To have two or more teachers in South Asian history at the high school level, early in the series, to outline the problems at the onset of the matter of South Asia coming together instead of drifting apart on common grounds, would be interesting. The time for TRCs is not yet ready until people as peers to one another across borders can come to fundamental agreements on when to move on as a start. Europe has taken roughly one thousand years to stabilize and when facing a crisis such as over Soverign National Debt, old prejudices and attitudes rise to the surface even among the elites of EU societies. There does have to be start somewhere, however, and I applaud the experiment you are embarking on, Dheera, as a beginning to a long process which is sorely needed.

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