New Delhi: The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, India’s oldest premier think tank, is hosting the 9th South Asia Conference on ‘Culture as a Factor in Regional Cooperation in South Asia’ on November 26-27, 2015.
The Conference seeks to focus on how India and its South Asian neighbours perceive their common cultural heritage and to what extent inter-state cultural linkages will help the nation states establish trust and understanding and help construct a new regional identity.
Most states in South Asia are multi-cultural in character. In the post-colonial phase of their existence, they were confronted with the twin problems of state and nation building. While the former involved building institutions of governance, the latter necessitated efforts to achieve unity in diversity. States seeking to construct a monolithic identity amalgamating diverse linguistic, religion and ethnic identities faced the challenge of integrating the minorities. In view of the overlapping cultural spaces cutting across state borders, such homogenization efforts led to spilling over of ethnic conflicts across states. The borders thus became new frontiers of such contested identities— national versus sub-national. It was natural, therefore, for discourses on interstate relations to be enmeshed in arguments in favour of, and against, pluri-cultural national identities. Recognition of plurality was often misconstrued as shedding of sovereignty to other states which housed same ethno-linguistic and cultural communities. While in many cases such geo-cultural continuity and commonality have led to inter-state tension and conflicts, there is distinct possibility of culture playing an integrative role and creating and propelling regional integration in South Asia or at least playing a positive role in contributing to bilateral relations.
With the South Asian states pushing for regional integration, culture has emerged as a force to connect, to build relations and heal the ruptures created by history and politics. As cultural actors challenge the territorial limits that nation-states impose on culture, they engender new possibilities of states caving in to their demands and using their borders as bridges rather than barriers.
The nation-states in South Asia, in spite of their exclusive nation building projects, are succumbing to the process of globalisation and revolution in the information technology that has propelled emergence of the new media. Cultural contacts and social interactions no more require state sanctions and visas; rather the netizens have been able to dilute the exclusivity that they imbibed through their political socialisation and textbook education. Television channels, movies and visits by cultural troupes have contributed to the cultural connectivity even across ethno-cultural groups.
Even if culture has so far been used in South Asia sparingly and cautiously as a foreign policy tool, the use of culture as a connecting tool is quite noticeable in recent years. There are efforts today to jointly produce movies especially in the India Pakistan context; effort is also being made to make people to people contact part of bilateral as well as regional agenda. Recently Tagore 150th birth centenary was celebrated by India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and Nazrul birth anniversary were jointly celebrated by India and Bangladesh. The old Buddhist tourism circuit is being revived to link up with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the wider world. Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and India are taking steps to celebrate their common cultural heritages. There are many in Pakistan who are trying to revive, re-establish and reinvent their past socio-cultural connectivity with India.
Therefore, it can be argued that “culture”is staging a comeback in inter-state and regional politics and it could help states to overcome years of mutual mistrust and push the process of regional integration forward.
It is in this background that the conference aims at exploring the answers to the following questions:
The South Asia Conference is an annual conference, organised by the IDSA. Since the countries in the South Asian region not only share many features of governance and structures, but face similar challenges, the successive South Asia Conferences have attempted to engage policy makers, scholars and grassroots activists to dialogue on key concerns with the objective to achieve sustainable peace and security.
The conference seeks to draw on a cross-section of policy makers, academics, civil society actors and young professionals from the whole south Asian region to provide a platform for shared reflection on issues of common interest.
For more information on the conference, please log on to the IDSA website on www.idsa.in