(1998 July 29)

The tenth SAARC summit begins today in Kolomba. Thirteen years have passed since SAARC  was established in Dhaka, Bangladesh. But unfortunately nothing much has been achieved during  that period. We remain a poor region in the world and we are categorised by the west as developing countries, meaning, of course, that we are undeveloped. The westerners know how to hide their feelings and satisfy the ego of the so-called educated, especially the English educated, caste in our countries, created by them.

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation may have been established with good intentions. However, what is the kind of cooperation expected and what are we trying to achieve from this cooperation? I am not quite sure as to whether we have clear answers to these questions.

Have we ever tried to identify what kind of development we need in this part of the world? When the westerners brand us, as developing countries, they want us to remain undeveloped according to the criteria they use. They mean by development, the development that they have achieved. In SAARC are we cooperating to become developed the way the westerners have done? We are been forced to accept by the western economists, sociologists and their golas (isn’t it curious that while ‘guru’ has been accepted as an English word the ‘gola’ has not been given the same "status") in our region that there is only one type of development that being the western variety. The words developed, undeveloped, underdeveloped, developing are used at the international conferences relative to the western development. Why should the entire mankind be burdened with this development? It is simply because the gola economists and the sociologists have been brainwashed so that they cannot think otherwise

My "speciality", meaning the field in which I have collected certificates from the west and the western university campus in then Ceylon (now we have twelve such campuses in Sri Lanka), is very remote from subjects such as English, History, Economics, Political Science and Sociology studied by the "cream of intellectuals" produced by the country, and, in their eyes, I may not be qualified to write on SAARC in English. In fact, when "An Introduction to Tamil Racism in Sri Lanka" ( English Translation) was published, one of them, not a Tamil I must say, asked me even before reading the book, whether I am a Historian. However, no such questions were asked by anyone who read the Sinhala original!

In a way it is unfortunate that those who do not speak English  do not take part in the SAARC summit either as statesmen, or as bureaucrats. Not that it will make a big difference to have such people as most of the bureaucrats would have had a western education even if they had studied in Hindi, Urdu, Sinhala, Tamil, Bengali, Malayalam, Divehi or any other language spoken in the region but it will have its impact in the long run.

Prof. Samuel Huntington in his book "The Clash of Civilisations" states that SAARC is a failure. He thinks that unlike the countries that belong to other such associations , like the European Economic Community, for example, SAARC countries do not belong to one civilisation. According to him the people in the region belong to two civilisations, namely Hindu and Islamic. The Buddhists in the Theravada countries do not belong to any civilisation, as according to the definition of civilisation used by Prof. Huntington, there is no Buddhist civilisation. The Mahayana Buddhists are fortunate enough to belong to a civilisation, not due to Buddhism but because they belong to Confucian and Japanese civilisations. The western sociologists will never think that there is something wrong with their definition of civilisation, which leaves out so many people, and their golas will never question their definition. So the Theravada Buddhists, by definition, are in search of a civilisation! After all it is the western sociologists who tell us who belongs to which civilisation.

Irrespective of the definition of civilisation there may be something in what Prof. Huntington has to say. We do not have the feeling of belonging to one region, and in our respective countries very often we do not have a common bondage of belonging to one particular country. The western political scientists may say that the latter phenomenon is due to the fact that we are still in the process of nation building. However it emanates from the policies of the British who ruled us.

For example in Sri Lanka the Tamils for more than a century (at the beginning the English educated Tamils) have been trying to deny the country and the Sinhala people their history and the culture by equating more than 2000 years of history of a nation to about 200 years of history of an ethnic community, created under the patronage of the Dutch and the British. The Tamils having failed to control the centre, through equal representation at the legislature from the beginning of the century to about the fifth decade, since then are demanding a separate state in their so-called traditional homeland in the eastern and the northern provinces, which strangely enough were demarcated by the British only in 1889!

The Tamils refuse to live in Sri Lanka as an ethnic community retaining their identity and sharing a common culture with the Sinhala people. They want themselves to be recognised as a distinct nation inhabiting their so-called traditional homeland where they envisage establishing an Eelam. For this purpose they have created a mythical history going back to the days of Ravana! The Muslims having taken a cue from the Tamils are now demanding a separate Muslim region for themselves. The entire problem is due to the fact that the ethnic communities are refusing to share a common culture with the Sinhala people, while retaining their identities and living as equal citizens.

In South Asia we do not have a feeling of belonging to one region. One might say before we get that feeling we should learn to think as citizens belonging to our respective countries. I do not think that we have to wait till all such problems are solved in the individual countries before we attempt to organise ourselves as committed members of SAARC. The two processes can develop in parallel.

What are the common characteristics in South Asia. This region has given rise to at least three great religions, namely Buddhism, Jainaism and Hinduism. The culture of the region before the Muslims arrived was basically developed along a matrix of these three religions, which may be called the BJH matrix. Some regions may have been more Hindu while some others may have been more Buddhist or Jain. However there were common factors like samsara, karma and rebirth and all our theories, concepts and in general the system of knowledge were created around the BJH matrix.

After the Muslims came to India a somewhat different picture began to emerge. However that was not the first wave of immigration of people and culture (together with the associated system of knowledge). Previously the Aryan culture had been received by Bharath and the people in the region were able to assimilate that culture into their own and create the concepts of Brahman and Maya which after centuries of evolution culminated with beautiful concepts such as Sath Chith Anand and Nirgun Brahman. Nibbana and Avidya of the Buddhists are very close to these yet so far.

Even with the influx of the Muslim culture there have been assimilation in fields such as Music. Sikhism is another good example. These assimilations took some time and it should not be difficult to find out the common elements of a South Asian culture. In this respect those who are in the field of medicine can also contribute with their knowledge in Ayurvedic, Siddhi and Unani systems. As we have noted on several occasions during the last twelve years or so, since the formulation of the concept of Jathika Chinthanaya by Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, in connection with the Muslims in Sri Lanka, it has to be emphasised that the Muslims in South Asia differ from those in the Arab countries in many cultural respects.

In politics also, countries in South Asia have some common elements. We have produced more women leaders than any other region in the world. I am sure that a cynic will say that they are either widows, wives or daughters of male politicians and might even suggest that it is due to the remnants of feudalism that prevail in these countries. On the other hand it could due to other reasons. We may have found that democracy, where it is assumed that all people are interested in politics and understand politics, is a myth and that we still respect the extended family system, which did not originate with western medieval feudalism. As far as we are concerned families are still more important than the individual blown out of proportion by western liberalism.

We should not do away with our social structures simply because the westerners do not approve them. The liberalism and the so- called democracy and the western human rights do not constitute the only system that the entire mankind should adhere to. We should not break off with our systems just because we want to be accepted as enlightened people by the west. Who is worried about their testimonials.

This does not mean that we should not borrow and assimilate certain cultural elements from the west. We should do so without trying to imitate them or being forced to accept under cultural colonialism. This is a very vast field and I do not intend to go into details. Suffice to mention that even in cricket we can retain our identity. Let us continue to prepare slow pitches that take spin and evolve a South Asian brand of cricket, which is now been grudgingly recognised as sub continent cricket.

However we have to be careful. Our folk culture is being replaced by a popular culture that will change the attitudes of the people in the long run. Almost all the modern knowledge is created in the west and we are supposed to propagate them. We have to build our own systems of knowledge relative to our cultures. Even in this respect the west is not slow to react. I have noticed a dangerous track here too. In Sri Lanka there are some NGO’s , ex catholic priests and ex Bhikkus with NGO connections who have ventured into the business (for them it is a business), of creating knowledge within the Buddhist matrix. They try either to reduce Buddhism to a rational philosophy in the western tradition or to devoid Buddhism of the sammuthi sacca (conventional truths).

We should consider all these factors in creating a South Asian identity.. We have to identify our common elements and try to build up a feeling of South Asianness among us. However this has to be an integrated process where all people are involved. By having summits with a few officials on the pattern of some European conference nothing can be achieved.


SAARC has failed to achieve much because it is confined only to a few and is being built on the model of western economic associations. Millions of people living in this region are unaware that the SAARC summit is taking place at this very moment in Kolomba. How can the people get a feeling of belonging to South Asia under such circumstances. SAARC has been created artificially from above without any involvement of the people. The cultural ties that exist in the region have been forgotten. Only a few who belong to the educated caste think of themselves as South Asians. In fact they only think as South Asians, and do not feel as such. They are happy with propagating the ideas created in the west To be successful SAARC has to concentrate on culture first. Western style Economics only creates suspicion. Let us decide on the type of development we need and then create theories in Economics and other fields, relative to our cultures, with the participation of more concerned people.