Shared cultures and heritage for conflict resolution: A South Asia perspective

By Dr.Sudharshan Seneviratne

A stage of resignation envelopes the community. The long shadow of the gun has not only been the source of power and glory, but also of fear and terror as well. In the menacing shadow play, forces complementing each other, dance in each other’s momentum. The paralyzing depression is not due to violence and authority imposed from outside, but rather to the destructive violence emanating from within the womb of our society” Rajani Thiranagama ~ The Broken Palmyra

We lost our history once, and we are killing each other off trying to find it…..When memory dies, a people die….” A Sivanandan. When Memory Dies

The crippling impact of war and conflict, unleashed on most societies, has come to stay as a permanent feature and self perpetuating dynamic. Even after thousands of years of destruction to life, mind and matter, we have failed to learn from history

Its agonizing experience runs through several generations leaving behind a trail of depraved behavior, memories of hatred, suspicion and a deep sense of confusion and cynicism about social justice and goodness in humanity. We need to recognize this reality leading to urgent and pro-active engagements and interventions nurturing peace and understanding in the public domain as our commitment to humanity. If not, as Martin Luther King noted, “We shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people”.

Situating the discourse

The formative years of my intellectual life were exposed to diversity and connectivity representing the multiple whole of south Asia and I was humbled by the complexity of a sub continental culture. Those valued years were spent on a journey through the Grand Narrative and in-between histories searching for the “past in the present and present in the past”. I wish to unfold my topic from a trajectory based on shared cultural heritage, conflict resolution and south Asia perspective. In this connection, there is also a need for a deeper construct contextualizing these terms.

My sentiments are placed before you as a South Asian and internationalist, and also a socially engaged academic who recognizes ground realities beyond the rhetoric of generalizations. For nearly three decades a bloody carnage engulfed my country, Sri Lanka , as a conflict zone. Misunderstood histories and irrational biases and prejudices inflicted untold misery on its society irrespective of ethnic, language or religious identities.

Over the years of the conflict, policy makers attempted to devise various formulas seeking that illusive “peace”. Such initiatives were doomed to failure as peace imposed from above was not and will never be the aspiration or sentiments of the primary stake-holders in the country represented by the intelligentsia, artists, social activists and especially the people at the grass roots level. They essentially remained as by standers witnessing the unmaking of history and the nation!

Through those grim years, much soul searching was done by many of us as social activists and humanists, seeking answers to our own responsibility, commitment and accountability towards society. Some twenty five years back we undertook heritage initiatives towards peace and understanding that provided a platform perspective for post war reconciliation – to those who wished for an honest and humane approach towards such sentiments and engagements. It was all about translating humanistic ideals in to reality.

Dual Contradiction

In addition to blind fanaticism expressed by all contending groups in this conflict, our initiatives for peace had to be carried out between contradictions at two levels, common perhaps to all South Asian countries. On the one hand, Sri Lanka is a cross culturally pollinated land of convergence within the Indian Ocean Rim. Hence, its cultural mosaic is blended with assimilative external and indigenous elements of commonalities and diversity. This runs parallel to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, who believed in a “spacious and assimilative Indian identity” (Shani. Island ) a sentiment reasserted in Amartya Sen’s Argumantative India

On the other hand, Sri Lanka carries within its personality, like most other countries in South Asia , fissures structuring a vertically compartmentalized society. This is largely a result of the Colonial legacy that fostered multiple dichotomies in south Asia . They were continued in to the post Colonial period resulting in a sharper polarization and marginalization of communities through imagined categories. This process imposed from above only paved way to conflict situations

Keeping such ground realities in mind, we essentially had to work towards a dialogue reaching out to all stake holders within and outside the corridors of power. A new discourse within an alternative space had to be found as a bench-mark for future peace initiatives not only in Sri Lanka but relevant to south Asia as a whole. That alternative space was found in shared culture and heritage transcending borders and boundaries of sovereignty. The dialectic of this is, the negation of an over-arching economic integration imposed by globalization creating an undifferentiated amorphous whole, culturally or otherwise in South Asia

Situating South Asia

How do we then understand the personality of south Asia , its complex mosaic representing the plural, inclusive and shared heritage based on diversity and commonalities spread over time and space?

The political geography of the area known as the SAARC region largely came to incorporate British Colonial possessions and protectorates of the pre 1949 period. This identity is open to question. Colonial definition of South Asia is too narrow and vertical. Should we not redefine South Asia and situate it on a broader historical and cultural map?

The physical area encircled by the mountain rim Indukush – Himalaya – Arakanyoma and the Indian Ocean represents a cultural zone situated within natural boundaries. It is then logical that we incorporate adjacent countries in order to complete this cultural map of South Asia . Afghanistan has now received full member status and Myanmar is an Observer country within the SARRC organization. Both Afghanistan and Myanmar were funnels filtering community movement and technologies in to the region from the Pre Historic period.

At a future date Thailand (ancient Suvarnabhumi) may be consider as a potential member country due to strong techno-cultural and human interactions from an early date connecting the land mass surrounding the Bay of Bengal. The region we identify as South Asia must therefore be equated with a historically evolved habitat representing a varied and rich shared heritage. The social philosophies and the culture of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam connected us horizontally to a historical and not a-historical region.

The region thus redefined has also to be contextualized within a larger physical scape. That is the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) situating south Asia on a broader canvass of the international cultural and political map. The significance of the IOR, representing a population of about 1.9 billion, was recognized by way of establishing the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORARC) in 1997. In most member countries, its primary stake holders are the State party, Chambers of Commerce and the Academic community.

It is said that the “alliance is also one of the few to bring together economies from Asia, Mid East and Africa . This heterogeneity underscores the need for the grouping to be highly pluralistic in nature in order to accommodate the diversity among the member countries. The Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor, remarked about the usefulness of this grouping and expressed the view that IORARC countries – should think beyond water….” (Sasidaran Gopal & Ramkishen S Rajan)

The IORARC countries form an interconnected transcontinental crescent in a unique fashion. Its physical entities extend from east Africa across south Asia to South East Asia , forming an unbroken cultural zone. Transoceanic connectivity prevailed across this region from the pre historic period. This region also threw up some of the most spectacular civilizations that culturally enriched the world as a whole. The IOR was and is strategically located between several World Systems to its west and east, thus making it an assimilative zone from an early period. In this total dynamic, South Asia is centrally located in the IOR and provides it with a pivotal vantage position as a transoceanic portal of connectivity thereby enriching and enhancing its heritage of diversity.

This also carries the potential for South Asia to be a facilitator-mediator to the rest of the Indian Ocean Rim countries. In this connection we may take a leaf out of Singapore ’s experience in the ASEAN and its role as the main facilitator in the Asia Middle East Dialogue (AMED). It must be our collective endeavor to strive towards connectivity as a link zone to the Indian Ocean Rim as a whole.

South Asia houses nearly 1.5 billion representing one fifth of the world population belonging to different cultures and social and economic layers. The personality and interaction of our region is to be recognized not by looking at its political entities (that came together in 1985) but by touching upon our trans-political commonalities representing this region as a uniquely composite and shared heritage zone. As senior journalist Verghese notes, “ South Asia is…..not merely a geographical expression, but also an association of ideas, experiences, interactive cultures and aspirations straddling the past and the future”.

It is said that “More than the shared past it is the common future that now beacons south Asia and binds the SAARC together”. One of the critical challenges we face in South Asia is bridging national, religious, ethnic and cosmopolitan identities with a futuristic vision. This sentiment is reiterated in the August 2008 issue of Himal, on the need “…to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space without wishing violence on the existing nation states”.

People and countries of South Asia are able to understand each other and our shared heritage. This provides us with a strong platform to resolve historical contradictions as a shared problem within the region and by reaching out to each other in a mutually beneficial manner. We do not require third party peace merchants from outside the region or their sub-alterns within the region to educate us on our shared legacy and the value of mutual respect for each other. Mutual understanding and respect for each other and the ability to work together will one day be the strongest deterrent preventing the Balkanization of South Asia

Situating conflict and reconciliation in history

Conflict runs deep in the histories of any country and its people. Ancient material cultural remains and historical annals of South Asia record various forms of conflict, alienation and marginalization that prevailed from the Neolithic to the pre Colonial period. In historical south Asia , as many writings of Romila Thapar elaborates, the, we – they dichotomy did appear somewhat early where the concept of the “other” was based on technology, speech, lineage and affiliation with resource zones identified as “territory”. One could document varying levels of conflict depicted in the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Buddhist and Jain texts, Tamil Cankam texts and a range of other literary and archaeological sources.

Conversely, these societies also devised in-built systems of conflict resolution and codes of conduct reinforcing status quo and social harmony, sometimes imposed from above. Such pronouncements are found in the Agganna sutta, Mahaparinibbana sutta, Chakkvattisihanada sutta, Ashoka dhamma, Kautilya Arthashatra, Manu Dharmashastra and Tirukkural to mention a few. These texts quite clearly lay down norms and ideals of accountability, transparency, good governance and responsibility towards the protection of the habitat and its environment

It is Colonialisms imaging the world beyond its metropolitan base that gave rise to new forms of conflict based on imagined identities. The sum total of this was, as Romila Thapar notes, the subsequent development of “exclusionist nationalism” in South Asia . The post Colonial generation viewed sectional ideologies as a consequence of identity based on caste, religion, language and “race” leading to the alienation of many from resources, decision making processes and political discourse. Clearly, the dominating feature in the post Colonial political and economic landscape, that had by now internalized nationalism, was the potential for geo-political units being carved out on the basis of ethno-cultural, ethno-linguistic and / or along imagined racial lines.

These inverted sentiments were further compounded by a demand on the one hand for alternative political systems of totalitarianism based on social fascism or a structural alteration through a global incorporation diluting varied identities. 20th and 21st Century history of South Asia is punctuated with such developments, leading to a slow but sure attrition of democratic and liberal values.

Redefining heritage

Our vision often tends to get blurred by vertically constructed ethno-national and ethno-cultural compartments. Heritage therefore is needed to be situated beyond the narrow confines of culture per se. As people construct their cultures in interaction with one another, cultures and their associated societies cannot be isolated within a prism of exclusivity. What we must seek out is cultural diversity, often hidden by the overarching and imagined global culture. Hence, culture also does not stand alone and has essentially a symbiotic relationship with the natural and social environment. Formation of Pre modern identities within specific eco systems was largely based on this symbiosis. In view of this, heritage had to be redefined.

According to several UNESCO conventions heritage is categorized as:

· Cultural
· Natural
· Mixed
· Tangible &
· Intangible heritage

In 2007, the Central Cultural Fund, the Custodian Organization for UNESCO Declared World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, redefined heritage by recognizing four integral and interdependent components i.e.,

· Culture
· Environment
· Knowledge from the past
· Next generation

Heritage therefore is to be understood as an area of refinement and as a multi-faceted catalyst. It is also viewed, in the main, as a source of people to people connectivity in conflict resolution and as an idiom that expresses the common language of humanity where people reach out to each other for understanding, sharing and coexistence! This perhaps is Amarthya Sen’s “pluralistic intellectual personality challenging exclusiveness”.

Knowledge, Education & the Past

An essential component of heritage is thinking and behavior patterns transmitted from the past to us through multiple knowledge systems. In addition to knowledge from the past, contemporary knowledge is embedded in each society. We must come to terms with enormous complexities of maximizing education and knowledge information in multi-cultural societies situated within altering patterns of globalization.

Our generation failed to find timely solutions and remedial strategies in knowledge-based educational systems due to our preconceived biases and prejudices. This failing unleashed violent and anarchic responses from an alienated and parochial next generation who challenged a social system that did not incorporate them to its fold with dignity. They are rapidly developing a bias towards social fascist and fundamentalist ideologies nurturing centrifugal tendencies.

Ironically enough, in South Asia , education, especially multi cultural education, is yet to be recognized as a compelling factor in conflict resolution. Redefining the role of education in the process of peace building is one of the most central and challenging issues in contemporary south Asia . Text books have become the New Testament of Parochialism. It is not surprising that in post Independence South Asia, education has become a primary arena of communal conflict (Regi Siriwardena).

We therefore need to unshackle sectarian and parochial stranglehold over education in order to democratize, liberalize and humanize knowledge dissemination. This will ultimately sustain an intellectually independent critical minded next generation of South Asians nurtured in the best of humanistic traditions. In this regard, UNESCO document on Peace Education must receive serious consideration by all individuals and organizations desiring a liberal and inclusive education challenging and demythifying parochial images.

If the cultural landscape in South Asia represents a habitat of multi cultural and varying biological identities, then there are two critical questions we need to address with honesty. That is:

· How much of this diversity and is genuinely recognized by us
· The level of our commitment to the ethics of inclusiveness respecting other cultures.

It is here that professionals reading the past have an obligation to study our shared heritage, transmitted to us by history and by our predecessors, in the most scientific and impartial manner. This is because in contemporary times there is an intensification of utilizing language, religion and ethnic identities subverting the past for political legitimation and social hegemony within contested spaces by all contending parties for power. The emphasis is not simply about the dilution of historical sense or our collective memory loss but expunging memory in the subversion and falsification of history where our crippled minds are unable to read the past in an inclusive manner.

This situation has directly impacted educational policies and practice of heritage resource management situating the past on an inclusive canvas. If the past is unscientifically retrieved from material culture, textual and oral history in order to divide, marginalize and hegemonize communities, then it is the unbiased and scientific reading of that very past that could place alternative histories before the next generation and reorient their mindset beyond the mono country and mono culture. To me, as a historian-archaeologist, it is all about excavating truth!

Heritage intervention as an alternative dialogue

This brings us to the proactive role of utilizing Shared Cultures and Heritage for Conflict Resolution during the conflict and the post conflict period in Sri Lanka . We consider our contribution in this regard, both, as an engaging and moving experience that needs to be shared with our regional colleagues and as a strategy transcending vertical compartments and contours of power.

There are multiple factors that threaten the tangible and intangible heritage and its preservation in South Asian and in most historical societies in the world. These are largely conditioned by human created environmental problems, looting of cultural property, war situations, natural disasters, modernization and harvesting of parochial images from the past diluting cultural plurality. As an alternative to the monologue with the past we need to carry out a dialogue with the past and utilize education, environmental studies, history, and archaeology and heritage studies in order to charter a new road map in conflict resolution.

In the past two decades and especially in the post war period, we navigated our way through several inclusive and shared heritage initiatives on Heritage for Conflict Resolution at UNESCO declared World Heritage sites, select Universities, UNESCO school clubs at World Heritage sites and at several other venues.

As a basic premise heritage was presented as inclusive and not exclusive. The creation of new multi cultural museums showcasing our shared heritage, cultural mapping, heritage publications in all three national languages (Sinhala, Tamil & English), out-reach programs, training of the trainers programs in the north and east, public exhibitions on diversity and shared heritage are some of the activities among a long list of initiatives undertaken in this regard. A series of training activities also established a permanent bench-mark for pockets of good practice on heritage management especially disseminating professional standards and information to the next generation devoid of parochialisms.

I am pleased to note that, as socially engaged professionals, we received consistent support from government agencies, UN affiliated bodies, especially UNESCO, various diplomatic missions and especially the public and the next generation towards People to People initiatives based on shared heritage and peace education. The ideoscape of presenting heritage, as a shared reality along with a reoriented liberal education of the decolonized mind, is viewed as an urgent remedial strategy diffusing any impending conflicts in the region.

In addition to these initiatives, we need work within a wider scope anchoring ourselves to the grass roots level of the region. That is the people of south Asia . It is the heritage expressed through arts & crafts that carry traditions from the past and connectivity between the environment and community and also between communities from an early period. At the 2007 SAARC Cultural Ministers Meeting held in Colombo , our proposal for the SAARC Heritage Center carried the following message.

“It is apparent that the region must preserve this rich culture gifted to us through arts & crafts from the past in a redefined form and as a living source of cross-regional cultural connectivity blending tradition with modernity. This effort must be situated beyond seminars, conference halls and committee gatherings of select specialists or intellectuals at the proposed SAARC Cultural Centre.

The primary stake holders must be the people of our region. One avenue of activating this is by providing necessary space for the arts and crafts to represent a cross-section of South Asian culture intrinsic to each country and its internal regions.

Cross regional people to people cultural connectivity and environmental awareness are two major gains in this venture. Cross-fertilization of inter regional arts and crafts and the revitalization of indigenous arts and crafts that are facing extinction due to globalization will be another positive gain. This center is not only expected to revitalize such endangered arts and crafts, it must essentially play a pivotal role in the preservation of the tangible heritage and the intangible heritage (as per UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage – 1972 and Convention for the safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage – 2003).

This is also to be developed as an awareness-building and capacity-building venue. The target group will be our next generation. As a center disseminating value added cultural knowledge, it will bring together our children, the next generation of SAARC leadership, who belong to different ethnic, language, religious and cultural groups and inculcate within them the norms of respecting diversity and inclusiveness of our regional culture and shared aspirations. It is hoped that the new SAARC center developed at Matara in south Sri Lanka will play this visionary and pro-active role of People to People Connectivity.


South Asia must rediscover its place in the larger world. Alternative perspectives are critical at this juncture as we are challenged by questions of social and environmental cost conditioned by arrogant and hegemonic political behavior driven by aggressive globalization and its “imagined material development” imposed on us by external regions and powers. Today, this has resulted in traumatized communities and untold misery, damage to lives, property and crippling effects on the social fabric. Conversely, humanizing social, economic and cultural interactions within a sustainable environment is seen as the responsibility of South Asia to its resident community. We need to reach out, understand and share with each other our destiny in a global context.

In spite of recurring upheavals based on narrow sectrianisms, I am positively optimistic about the courage and wisdom of the people in our region, as Professor Sarvapalli Gopal would state, to overcome the “Fear of History” and move beyond primordial and abysmal parochialisms. The Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature notes this sentiment as a vision and an engagement Beyond Borders.

We have a moral obligation to manage the present world with wisdom for the very existence of the next generation. As much as we have borrowed the environment from the future generations it is incumbent upon us to pass down the best elements of our heritage to them. It is all about transmission of wisdom and ‘appropriate knowledge’ celebrating the gift of humanity from the past to the present and to the next generation.

(This is an abridged version of a Talk delivered at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). New Delhi , INDIA . On April 9th 2012.The writer wishes to thank The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi; Indo-Sri Lanka Foundation; High Commission of India in Colombo and High Commission of Sri Lanka in New Delhi for making this presentation possible. Sudharshan Seneviratne Ph.D., FSLCA. Professor of Archaeology. University of Peradeniya; Was Senior Advisor (Culture) Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2003 to 2005 and Director General. Central Cultural Fund. Custodian Org. for UNESCO Declared World Heritage Sites 2007 to 2010)

(This article is being posted on with Dr. Sudharshan’s consent)