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HEADING EAST

The prime minister of lndia is a rare statesman in his perception of lndia’s role in the Saarc countries. His choice of Bhutan for his first trip outside lndia clearly defines the role of a powerful lndia for the benefit of its neighbouring countries. lndia is now on a fast track to become a global power, and this is the time to revisit scientific and cultural ties with our neighbouring countries refracted through the prism of history. In the realm of science, the institutions are based on a universal fraternity, independent of religion, language and national boundaries. The case of CERN — the famous international organization running the high energy physics accelerator laboratory, born after the ravages of war in Europe — substantiates my point about a broad-based yet similar, though smaller, science and cultural centre for the Saarc countries in lndia. So, why could India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives not sit together to form a multidisciplinary facility for the Saarc countries. Scientists from the Saarc countries can come to this centre in lndia to do their experiments, exchange ideas and establish a unique knowledge base. The Saarc countries can enjoy the same status that the member states enjoy at CERN.

Again, just as we from lndia go to CERN to do our experiment (lndia, now enjoying observer status), scientists from other countries, not necessarily limited to the Saarc nations, can come to this centre, enhancing its scientific and cultural status.

Old glories

A little over two and a half thousand years ago, Asia was the cradle of knowledge and wisdom with lndia at the centre. We see mathematics and science flourishing with endless energy, literature with its heightened sensitivity binding the diverse social structure effortlessly. Buddha’s enlightenment reached out far and wide — China, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma and Tibet became devoted followers of Buddhism. Deep-rooted civilizational links were established over the years. Afghanistan is a special case. Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, Kabuliwala, immortalised this extraordinary linkage between the mountains of Afghanistan and the serenity of Bengal.

The mournful tunes played by the nomads on the rubab in the foothills of these mountains turned eventually to the music of the sarod, introduced by Mohammad Hashmi Khan Bangash, a horsetrader and musician in the royal court of Rewa. The santoor came from the Middle East. Persia also gave us Sufi music. The trade routes from lndia to Afghanistan also reinforced these cultural linkages. I mention Afghanistan, since Afghanistan today is dramatically different.

These linkages were established not by imperial domination nor by military aggression, but they evolved through the spontaneous evolution of a broader identity, a sense of cultural unity across the broad canvas of diversity. lndia has been, over the centuries, the melting pot of diverse cultures. We have the unique capacity to absorb the cultural roots of others and make them our own — so much of lndia today is Moghul, for that matter so much of lndia is British, especially the institutions. Even the Portuguese, French and Dutch have left their mark.

As Jawaharlal Nehru emphasized, lndia has been a great symbol of unity in diversity. So, the same sarod can be played once again in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring a sense of much needed tranquility to those ravaged countries. For too long, we from lndia have been going abroad to the promised land to better ourselves; it is time for lndia, as a rising nation of the East, to become the destination of not only the Saarc countries but the whole of Asia, if not the world — Go East and revive the old glory.