Dr. Karan Singh, a rare and sensitive statesman, scholar and unique visionary, is the President of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi. Scion of the former ruling family of Jammu and Kashmir, Dr. Karan Singh is an expert on Indian culture and has written extensively on it. The areas of his special interest are the Himalayas Inter-Faith Ideologies, and Vedant. He is a Member of Parliament, and also a senior functionary of the Congress Party.


Keeping the Dialogue Alive


We in the SAARC region are heirs to ancient civilizations, we share common roots and cultural traits, and we are all willy-nilly moving towards a modern and globalized society. Our traditions may, sometimes, seem at variance with this escalating modernity, and our cultures may seem at odds with the rapid intervention that science, technology and economics are making, but it is my firm conclusion that our civilizations are strong enough to meet and integrate them, provided we creatively rearticulate them. Our social and psychological attitudes are changing speedily, and in, all this tumult, the coming together of creative minds and the exercise of dialogue will aid in the creation of a balanced and equitable society.

As residents of this region, we are neighbours in more ways than one; we share our roots and legacy, history and philosophy, faiths and languages. In fact, we mirror many aspects of our daily lives–our clothes, food habits, customs, social moorings and cultural artifacts. Our close ties flow from our shared civilizational history, going back to our very beginnings, to the Indus Valley, a society characterized by its advanced civic systems and progressive way of life and to the Himalayas which gave us our life–engendering rivers and philosophies. What connects us most deeply are our means of expression, be it faith, cultural forms or language. Though every aspect of our lives imprints us with our unique identity, making us who we are, it is these categories that immediately bind us together. In the SAARC nations, Hinduism links India and Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; Islam binds together Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives and Pakistan, while Buddhism helps to bridge peoples together in Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. We find numerous Hindu and Buddhist temples across the SAARC region. In fact, Afghanistan had some of the most amazing and gigantic rock-cut statues of the Buddha which, however, were destroyed by the Taliban in a frenzy of fundamentalist iconoclasm. The Sufi tradition binds people together through its simple but powerful message of love and human brotherhood. The Dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer in India, is visited by millions every year, regardless of their religious affiliation. The divine understands our supplications only as the language of the heart, not based on borders and boundaries.

Our cultural similarities are myriad as well. Cultural forms, such as music, dance, theatre, films and art, are a blend of the verbal and the non­-verbal. They convey our deepest desires, our fears, our joys and sorrows. They reflect our society; they reconfirm our identities. Across the length and breadth of the SAARC countries, this sharing is strong. The people of India and Bangladesh have grown up on a staple of the same classics in films and literature. They are as conversant with Tagore’s songs as they are fond of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s lyrics and Satyajit Ray’s films. Runa Laila made hearts beat to her rhythm in both the countries. In fact, it is Tagore’s songs which are today the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh. Ghalib is a favourite across India and Pakistan. So are Meer, Souda and Iqbal. Pakistan’s Farida Khanum and Amjad Farid still draw devoted listeners across India. Music knows no boundaries, and rhythm erases differences. Shafqat Amanat Ali and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan are part of many Indians’ musical favourites. Abida Parveen’s Sufiana singing makes us forget ourselves. It does not matter where she comes from, what is important is where she is taking us. Films and sports are the other connectors. Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani actors use their creative talents across borders. Bollywood is a hot favourite in most of the SAARC countries, especially with the young. Cricket is a passion, indeed an obsession, for most of us.

In the dialogue that ensues between us, we must recall this shared legacy – both from the past and the present. As a region, we have shared our misfortunes as much as our joys. Many of us still carry the trauma of partition with us. The loss of home and family is not easy to put behind. Ethnic violence and the fear of terrorism have also marked us, and our countries have been devastated by natural disasters. One of the biggest challenges that we are all trying to tackle is of poverty and lack of education. We are striving to keep pace with progress in science and technology. Therefore, when our sharing is so vast, diverse and intimate, when we understand and connect with each other so easily, an atmosphere of friendship and respect, of peace and support is the only way to move ahead. It is this idea that our dialogues should focus on.

The other very important aspect that gives us our identities, reflects our moorings and connects us instantly are our languages, because SAARC has a strong linguistic and literary dimension. We share Urdu with Pakistan, Nepali with Nepal and Bhutan, Bengali with Bangladesh and Tamil with Sri Lanka. Hindi is understood and spoken in many of the countries in the SAARC region. And, of course, there is English, the link language in many ways. The spoken word has been a vital medium in our cultures. Our stories, ideas and lessons have been handed down from one generation to the other by word of mouth. This tradition co-existed with our scripted literatures. Our philosophical and religious texts, and our narrative literatures preserve our legacy. Even today their significance is intact and perhaps their role in our lives is more vital than ever. These books are again beginning to play a critical role in our academic