It is time for collective action to preserve South Asian culture

It is time for collective action to preserve South Asian culture

South Asia, the region known for its resplendent diversity and magnetising camaraderie, is the cradle of religions, viz., Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism.

South Asia, the region known for its resplendent diversity and magnetising camaraderie, is the cradle of religions, viz., Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Although the spiritual paths and practices of these religions follow a distinct set of rules, the basic tenets of quartet pivots around compassion, amity, non- violence and tolerance.

Widely seen as an economic bright spot, with its manifold market size and energetic young population, the region is on a forward march to realise its full-potential.

But all is not well as numerous faultiness within the region stymie the economic progress, peace and harmony, the basic elements for the regional integration and development.

The rise of religious fundamentalism and conservatism, amid the heightened global-right factor, endangers the secular fabric and the rich heritage, core ethos of South Asia.

As the virulent strain of "intolerance" has been unfurling across the region, the time has come to act collectively and swiftly in order to ameliorate the cultural spirit, a legacy inherited from time immemorial.

It is apparent that the new threat to these ideals and values is not from external drivers but from centrifugal forces itself. The majority-minority angle, a crucial component of vote bank politics, complemented with vested political interests and the personality cult of right-wing political figures whose true faces are camouflaged under the banner of nationalism has failed to cherish the diversity of region as a whole.

It is pertinent to mention that the empires and kingdoms in the Indian sub-continent were built not on the lines of religion but in accepting the plurality and unity. Glorifying the ancient past, theorising the medieval wars through communal optics and the modern secular culture as a process vitiating the age old values are the central facets of ultra-conservatism.

Adding fuel to the fire, the new wave of conservative nationalism, in addition to ethnocentrism and xenophobia, has been creating a suitable seedbed for ultra-nationalist groups to intensify their divisive agenda on a broader scale.

Food politics, renaming of cities, mob lynching and exclusion of minority groups solely on the basis of religion are just the tip of the iceberg as the issue is deeply structural and deeply political in nature.

As member countries in the region entangled in bitter animosity, thanks to widespread misgivings and geopolitical tussle, makes it difficult to design a collective action.

India, often perceived as big daddy in the region, has been dilly-dallying to play an instrumental role in mobilising different players across the region in countering all sorts of fundamentalism.

With its sheer size and the growing clout as soft power, India has the ability to pilot the de-radicalisation and secularisation project in the region. But the Indian government led by the BJP, a Hindu-nationalist party, has stirred a hornet's nest by amending Citizenship Act of 1955, a step deemed as discriminatory and anti-secular in nature.

It has resulted in a considerable damage to the image of this South-Asian giant. The apathy on the part of Central government towards nationwide protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) would be detrimental to its national interest and can create numerous fissures not only within the country but also in the region.

The region has been embroiling with umpteen number of issues such as Tamil question in Sri Lanka, Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the plight of Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, upsurge of Islamic radicalism in the Maldives, recent instances of communal violence in India's capital city, to name a few.

India, the largest democratic country in the world, believes in the concept of vasudhaika kutumbam (the entire world is a family), mutual respect, kindness, non-aggression and harmonious co-existence.

It is important to notice that these ideals and values forms the core of its foreign policy outlook. It is widely perceived that New Delhi has been meddling in the internal affairs of neighbourhood countries, the reason which provoke them to play Chinese card.

Dearth of trust, in addition to geopolitical disputes, is debilitating the robustness of the region. The efforts to integrate the economies and a full scale regional co-operation, using the forums such as SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), are as slow as molasses in January.

Home to about 1.9 billion population, the Indian subcontinent can play a significant role in reshaping Asia's future. The region has a tremendous potential in terms of economic opportunities and in creating new doorways for the co-operation among the members.

The key strengths of these nations can be harnessed in a most effective way, in the matters of common interest, if they act as group rather than discrete entities.

India shares a strong cultural and historical bond with almost every nation in the region. In this regard, it gives a better room for India to enhance its relationship in areas such as education, skill development, cultural exchange, people to people contacts, science and technology and so forth, in order to gain trust of these nations.

China's debt-trap diplomacy has raised eyebrows throughout the region which play in New Delhi's advantage to reinforce its alliance with these countries.

India has been trying to pull players like the USA and Japan in order to counter the growing influence of china in South-Asia, a region which India considers as its backyard, which transformed into a whole new ball game.

Rather than looking it as a new theatre of geopolitical game both India and China can collaborate in domains like regional connectivity and infrastructural development in the region.

Although, BIMSTEC has been gaining momentum in recent past, it cannot be an alternative to SAARC, as it involves all the players in the region, including Pakistan.

It is quite visible that Indo-Pak factor, among other things, has derailed the spirit of SAARC. It is need of the hour to reboot SAARC with whole new energy, according to current regional needs.

(The author is Director, Samudrala VK IAS Academy and columnist on international affairs and trade)

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