Lalit Mansingh, a former Foreign Secretary and India’s Ambassador to the United States, is a scholar and statesman with rare insight into the psyche of relationships among nations. Son of a prominent Oriya Poet, Mr. Mayadhar Mansinha, he is a versatile spokesperson and proponent of cultural interaction in the Region, speaks and writes regularly on social and cultural issues to promote it. He is the Additional Chairman of FOSWAL.


South Asia: Divided by History, United in Hope

A historic meeting of South Asian leaders is underway in the idyllic Thimphu, the dwelling of gods and angels. With the entry of Afghanistan, SAARC is now a family of eight members, whose collective membership is close to a quarter of the world’s population. Signalling the importance of the meeting, there will be senior representatives of the observer states – the United States, Japan, China and others.

The mood may be celebratory – and there is much cause for celebration. Our region has seen unprecedented economic growth in the recent past. Trade and economic exchanges within the region are expanding. The opening of bus and rail routes has enabled our people to discover their common heritage. The ongoing peace process between India and Pakistan is healing old wounds and generating fresh hopes. The Nobel Prize won by Mr. Mohammed Yunus has brought pride to all of us in the region.

The SAARC Summits discuss the issues of peace, development and progress. They take note of the high GDP growth of the region and monitor the progress in implementing SAFTA – the South Asia Free Trade Area. At the conclusion of the parleys, there will no doubt be a Declaration, pointing to a prosperous future for the millions of people in this region.

Away from the glamour and glitter of the SAARC summits and the arc lights of the media lies another reality, where hope battles against despair, courage against brutality and progress against tradition.

South Asia, as described by the late economist, Mahbub-ul Haq, ‘is a region divided – divided by the hopes of the rich and the despair of the poor.’ It is a region with over 500 million destitutes struggling for survival. The region, according to Haq, is ‘the world’s poorest, the most illiterate, the most malnourished, the least sensitive to the needs of women …’

Mahbub-ul Haq’s report on ‘Human Development in South Asia 1999′, his last before he died, is brutally honest and unsparing of any country in the region. India accounts for the largest number of dowry deaths. Sri Lanka has the highest rate of murders and armed robberies. Bangladesh has the highest rates of rapes.

The statistics haven’t improved much since Mahbubul Haq died. A recent report indicates that an estimated 5 million girls were eliminated in India by female foeticide between 1986 and 2001. Trafficking in women is common to all countries in the region.

Terrorism continues to kill. It has claimed some 60,000 victims in India and an equal number in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, too.

This also is our common heritage.

What role can writers play in resolving the intractable problems, which are so far removed from their areas of interest?

No, I do not expect them to stop the terrorists or punish the traffickers in women. I do expect them, however, to influence society so that national policies can take us in the right direction.

The physical well-being of people can be left in the care of politicians, civil servants, economists, engineers and other professionals. However, writers and intellectuals are the physicians of the soul and the spirit. They have the unique ability to discover the truth beneath, behind and beyond the surface of the physical realities. They can detach themselves and look into the future.

Writers have given society hope in times of disorder and despair. The melody of Ghalib’s poetry was heard amidst the tremors accompanying the collapse of the political order in India. Tagore provided inspiration for a generation fighting for freedom from colonial rule. Nazrul Islam was the ‘bidrohi’ poet, the rebel against injustice, tyranny and exploitation. Writers have played many roles in history – as revolutionaries, reformers, dissenters and activists. Governments may ignore them, but society listens to them.

Who can disagree with Shamsur Rahman’s wishes in his poem ‘Our Struggle’?

In every street
Lane by lane
On each and every house
I want to write in giant letters
The single word ‘freedom’.

The write