We are meeting here in the shadow of the catastrophe of a horrible earthquake which spread across a large area, from Islamabad to Baramula, Uri, Mandi, Amritsar, Delhi, because natural catastrophes don’t respect boundaries.

Human compassion also transcends borders and boundaries. Both President Musharraf of Pakistan and our Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, have offered help to each other. That is precisely what defines cultural dimensions of our region.

We at the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature have been endeavouring to include cultural dimensions to the original vision of SAARC which was formed in 1985 for economic cooperation. Our endeavours, to project the significance of cultural connectivity in the region spanned over the last two decades—with vision and commitment.

Let us first try to decipher the contours of culture. Is it our art and literature ? Is it our anthropological heritage ? Is it our way of life ? Is it how we think, behave, go about our business of life ? Is it about our traditions ? Our historical memories ?

And who can be sure that Time does not distort those historical memories ?

And haven’t the accepted cultural norms been undergoing constant changes and transformation over centuries of human existence on this planet ? Was buying and selling of slaves not a component of human culture in certain parts of the world ? Weren’t human sacrifices a part of culture ? Weren’t gladiators a part of entertainment culture ? Weren’t fighting wars for territories not an essential part of human culture ? Weren’t expanding empires for power, for supremacy, for glory, a part of culture?

Weren’t mummifying the kings after their death, and surrounding them with all their queens and concubines and slaves, mostly by poisoning them and mummifying them, along with the choicest of foods and clothes and jewellery, so that the mighty kings shouldn’t be deprived of the comforts and luxuries they were accustomed to in their lives, and keep enjoying them till eternity, a part of culture ?

And, discovering new lands by those couple of nations who had the knowledge and the money to build strong ships, and had the courage to negotiate the turbulent oceans ? What was the culture involved ? To establish their supremacy over new lands, make the inhabitants their slaves, whipping them to load their own food and minerals and wealth on the ships of the invaders ?

In the half-lit grey Museum in Mauritius, I saw a unique map of the world. The continents and oceans of the world were lying flat on a sepia-tinted paper, the size of a medium-sized table. It was lying there, the world, with a thick red line dividing it in the middle.

What was this red line ? A couple of centuries back, the Dutch and the Spaniards occupied that lush green island by turns, fought each other, turned out one, while the other ruled over it. Eventually, they sat across the table, and decided to divide not only that island but the whole world into two halves, “One part you explore, exploit and rule ; the other we will !” - they decided, cheered, and raised toast to this unique decision.

The whole world was lying there, on an old, worn-out, sepia-coloured, hand-made paper, with a river of blood flowing in the middle. And I was reminded of more recent histories of similar rivers of blood : during Partition in our own country, during the World Wars, during ethnic cleansings, during carpet bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq, vast chunks of humanity brutally killed and uprooted !

Which culture and which civilization are we talking about ?

The same brutality can be witnessed even without apparent wars. Because wars are being fought every day, brutality lives on, rich becoming richer and the poor pushed to starvations and deaths !

Wars continue to be fought in the name of nationalism, patriotism, religions, territories ! And believe it, for cultures too !

With the technological revolution, globalisation has brought people closer as never before. But at the same time it has stolen our dreams from our eyes, compassion from our hearts, sensitivity from our souls!

Most of the countries in this sub-continent have historical, religious and cultural affinities. Even, economic interdependence. But when SAARC Charter was finalized, the leaders and economists forgot to include the important connecting force in the region : culture.

In the 11th SAARC Summit, when our Foundation had already organized some major SAARC Writers Conferences in India, in Nepal, in Bangladesh, and several cultural initiatives with young scholars and writers in Tribhuvan University, Dhaka University, Jehangirnagar University, had translated literature from across the region, published anthologies, launched a comprehensive website: www.foundationsaarcwriters.com, Culture was mentioned for the first time in the SAARC Declaration, and it was decided that a SAARC Culture Centre would be set up in Sri Lanka.

It is still in the process of taking shape, and it has only performing arts as its main focus.

Over the years we have had major SAARC Conferences of Writers and Intellectuals in Maldives, in Bhutan, in Nepal, in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, in Sri Lanka and in India. This current Conference was also scheduled to be held in Dhaka. All arrangements had been made by the Bangladesh National Chapter of our Foundation, but due to some unavoidable circumstances, members of our National Centre in Bangladesh advised us to shift the venue to Delhi. Eight of the Members have joined us here.

In the 12th Summit, culture was included in the Agenda of cooperation between SAARC countries, but the road-map was not defined, and even the tone was hesitant.

This Fourteenth SAARC Conference of Writers, Intellectuals and Policy Makers has been convened to churn out ideas and offer them to the 13th SAARC Summit to be held in Dhaka, emphasising that the cultural spheres in this region constitute crucial public spheres of exchange, dialogue and debate of ideas, perceptions and ever-evolving images, and could be used most effectively to explore and discover vast areas of peace, mutual understanding, values and perceptions, anxieties and aspirations, dreams and concerns of the peoples of the South Asia.

I, therefore, call upon you to evaluate in various sessions of this Conference, the potential of culture to exert a significant role, the role that other intangibles have failed to perform.

Undeniably, cultures germinate from racial traditions, religious beliefs and practices. Therefore, the deep imprint of both ethnicity and religion is unavoidable, and will continue to separate cultures.

Cultures also retain outdated perceptions, practices and biases that were impregnated by religious conformists, regressive dynasties, dictators and their cronies. Belief in the superiority of their culture drives the gullible to be arrogant, intolerant, chauvinistic.

Lately, in democratic and pluralist societies, culture is also being used as a prefix to nationalism, to create the cult of “Cultural Nationalism”, which demands the minorities to adopt the culture of the majority to qualify to be accepted as “patriots”.

In such a depressing scenario, can cultures be expected to converge ? Can cultures bring us closer to each other and serve as a bridge ?

Dear friends, we the writers and artists and the intellectuals are not cultural zealots. We have a strange relationship with culture – a relationship of acceptance and rejection. We do admit that cultures are the ecology of human society. These give them their peculiar identities – the way they behave, think, fantasize and create beauty of infinite varieties. But where cultural perceptions and practices start denying space to human individuality, stall growth, curb the spirit of enquiry, and put a ceiling on aspirations, thoughts, choices and admiration for other practices and forms, we are the first to stand up and protest. We the writers and intellectuals feel it is our moral responsibility to fight, resist, raise our voice of dissent and be counted.

We the writers, performers and artistes of all forms everywhere stand by the denied, the deprived, the denounced, and with the victims of poverty and restrictions, and rigidity of interpretation of the moth-eaten beliefs of moral brigades of pseudo-moralists and revivalists. We purge the culture of fundamentalist traits and sterilise it to convey timely sensibilities and compassionate profiles. This to me is not only the essence of culture but its renewal, replenishment and rejuvenation, in a manner that would make it universally acceptable and admired.

We are not a part of the arrogant tattoo of the boots of history, nor should we allow ourselves to be trampled under them.

We have to consolidate our voices for a better and more peaceful world for our children, by working to create a more just, sustainable and compassionate future for the coming generations by increasing our pubic visibility, our sense of interconnection, and our access to visions, stories, poetry and shared dreams for a more tolerant, more peaceful, multipolar world ; for a better and more just civil society where issues of poverty and hunger, of illiteracy and malnutrition, of workers and peasants, of minorities and women, of tribals and dalits, of peace, civil liberties, food and shelter for everyone should be of primary concern.

We have only one tool by which we can contribute to this dream : the power of our words and our collective voice.

As a writer I am a witness to the horrors of daily life and I cannot look the other way because I am no coward. And I believe that those who remain silent, inadvertently become a part of the dark conspiracy. Words are my only tools of protest, words which have the resonance of metal striking against metal.

By writing I feel myself on trial every single minute of my life, and it is by writing alone that I feel liberated.

I believe that those parts of history which are painful should be forgotten, forgiven, reconciled, because life has to go on, acquiring harmonious dimensions and expanding visions and hearts and souls !

In fact, all creative people believe that there is yet beauty in this brutal, savage, damaged, distorted world of ours.

All the Big Bullies of the world cannot dictate the destinies of mankind because we writers will keep raising our united voice against a world being constantly terrorized, increasingly globalized, torn asunder by fundamentalism and terrorism, dominated by unipolar politics, marginalizing plurality and diverse cultures.

We swim against the current. And we have the courage of our convictions.

With our convictions, we resolve to strengthen the bondage among like-minded creative writers and intellectuals, resolving to stand up as one body, with our firm belief in peace and tranquility, resolving to recognise our real enemies and raise our voice whenever our right to assert and articulate truth is threatened anywhere.

As writers, we are not concerned only with the ancient culture and civilisational links, we are also concerned with crucial public spheres of debate, of ideas, of ever-renewing perceptions and ever-evolving images, of even demolishing cultural and traditional ways of life and social taboos. We, the writers, keep demolishing, kneading, moulding culture all the time. We need more opportunities of interacting with each other, and evolve a South Asian identity which is respected globally.

We, the writers, have to articulate and raise our voices against the growing violence against the exploited and oppressed poor, against working classes, ordinary consumers, footpath and slum dwellers, against adivasis, against the landless people, against women and children, against minorities, against backward classes and dalits, against bonded labourers and against denotified and nomadic tribals.

Because writers believe that there is yet beauty in this brutal, savage, damaged, distorted world of ours. We want the lost dreams come back home in the eyes, and compassion to come back home in the hearts.

It is the writers and intellectuals and creative people who can form bonds and friendships and relationships across borders because they understand that nationalism and religions and regions are narrow-minded concepts, and have got to be redefined in the context of global terror and terror of globalisation and imperialism. It is not, therefore, accidental that the most powerful voice against unilateral invasion on Iraq has been raised by the common people of the world.

We expect our concerns will be articulated in the next Thirteenth SAARC Summit in Dhaka. We request the SAARC Summit to institutionalize regular exchanges of writers, performers, painters, sculptors, including those of scientists, technocrats, great minds in information technology, as they are rewriting the new definitions of not only culture but of all human activities that will be acceptable in the times that have already arrived.

Meeting of creative minds is always a miraculous experience. Throughout the history of civilizations, it is the written word that has endured. It is creative thought and its expression that has overpowered and transcended Time and Space, because Word is the Universe.

It is only the writer who has the courage to defy, the way the British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion did after the bombing of Iraq :

They read good books

And quote

But never learn a language

Other than the scream of rockets.

Our talk is drowned in :

Elections, money, empire, oil, and Dad

We are here to resolve that we will not allow our culture, our literature, our languages to die.

We are here to resolve to save hope, save dreams, save beauty, save the earth !

We are mad dreamers no doubt, but our dreams do make miracles happen.