Evoking the madness of Manto, what we need is ‘one big roar of laughter across Southasia’

A Sapan syndicated feature available for use with attribution to Sapan News

Artists, journalists, sportspersons, healthcare workers, educators, businesspersons, students, gather for the first anniversary of a Southasian peace coalition.

By Beena Sarwar and Priyanka Singh

April 9, 2022, Sapan News Service: “Each of our countries is facing moments of total insanity and the only recourse is laughter – one big roar across Southasia,” said arts educator Salima Hashmi of Lahore, speaking at an event organised recently to mark a year of Sapan, the Southasia Peace Action Network

“To see the ludicrousness of Southasia right now,” she said, we need the “dark humour” of the great storyteller Saadat Hasan Manto. 

The online discussion tackled various themes in nine breakout sessions, even as Pakistan plunged into a constitutional crisis and Sri Lanka into an economic tailspin. 

“It’s us the little people who can say the emperor has no clothes, and laugh at the demi-gods pretending to be gods — because they all have feet of clay,” added Hashmi. Being able to “laugh and ridicule ourselves is necessary” to make sense of the situation, she said.

“If our governments are not going to come together, it’s up to all of us to come together,” said activist Khushi Kabir in Dhaka who moderated the group discussion on youth, education and student unions.

Launched in March 2021, Sapan is an inter-generational coalition that connects academics, activists, journalists, healthcare professionals and others from across the region as well as the overseas diaspora.

Journeying together 

Addressing the closing plenary from Alibag village in Maharashtra, activist Lalita Ramdas spontaneously broke into song: “Raasta hai lamba bhai, manzil hai dur…”  – the way is long, the goal is far, but journeying together, we’ll keep up the struggle. 

Hashmi, Kabir and Ramdas are founder members of the Sapan coalition.Participants at the milestone event titled A year of Sapan: Looking back, looking forward, upheld the importance of a regional approach to issues plaguing the people of Southasia.

Sapan counts several prominent Southasian and diasporic voices among its supporters including Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, and other founding members like author Urvashi Butalia, former member Planning Commission of India, Dr. Syeda Hameed, labour leader Karamat Ali, former senator Afrasiab Khattak and others.

Speakers at Sapan events have included internationally acclaimed public intellectuals including former UN Special Rapporteur Radhika Coomaraswamy, Afghan rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Sima Samar and the linguist Noam Chomsky, who joined Sapan’s September 2021 event to talk about the impact of “the second 9/11” on Southasia and Southasians — the first being the one in Chile, 1973. 

“Sapan is a fantastic effort, and it is here to stay,” affirmed Lalita Ramdas, 83. 

Her spouse, retired chief of the Indian Navy Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, 89, also a Sapan founder member, chaired the discussion on challenges to democracy in the region. Participants highlighted the increasing role of religion in politics and hyper nationalism among key challenges that confront Southasia today.

The Network builds on the work of earlier as well as current initiatives and organisations working on peace, justice, and human rights issues in Southasia. The coalition, entirely voluntary and not a registered body, has developed over 12 months into a robust intergenerational, inter-regional, and cross-diasporic entity. It brings together octogenarians on the same platform as millennials, grassroots workers on the ground in Southasia with diasporic IT professionals, and healthcare professionals across the region and beyond.

Why ‘Southasia’?

Sapan uses ‘Southasia’ as one word, following the lead of the pioneering regional magazine Himal Southasian – seeking “to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space – without wishing any violence on the existing nation-states”.

Southasia by Himal Southasian: Some may think this map is upside down “but that is because we are programmed to think of north as top-of-page”.  We need to “reconceptualise regionalism in a way that the focus is on the people rather than the nation states. This requires nothing less than turning our minds downside-up.” 

The old ‘South Asia’ is an “aloof geographical term”, a region of sharply defined borders and nation states “which reflects how “an outsider might see our region” say the editors of Himal. 

While admittedly limited to English-language discourse, ‘Southasia’ reflects more closely what we are, a “vast penumbra of intermingling cultures and identities,” beyond “our certitudes as citizens of modern-day nation-states”. 

Founding editor Kanak Mani Dixit in Kathmandu is among Sapan’s founder members.

Public meetings

Since its inception, the Network has on the last Sunday of every month held public meetings on a plethora of issues. The themes taken up include gender, environment, sports, the climate crisis, public health – with a special focus on the Covid-19 pandemic which has impacted public health as well as economies over the past year.

While these are “the more soft subjects” as Lalita Ramdas said, they flag the issue of equal rights and justice and join common threads such as hunger, poverty, lack of access to healthcare, and education. 

“We now need to get into the tougher, deeper issues that prevent us coming together as a region, including militarisation, nuclearisation, and religious ultra-nationalism rising in different forms across the region,” she suggested.

Participants agreed on the need for school education across the countries of Southasia to include the subject of Southasian regionalism, for which a curriculum would have to be developed. Previous Sapan resolutions include consensus statements on climate change and healthcare as a basic human right, suggesting that the Covid-19 crisis be used as an opportunity to break away from words into action. 

The resolution presented at the end of Sapan’s February 2022 session on ‘music and mystics’ tackled the Ukraine crisis, presenting the situation in its complexity and adding to the voices calling for an end to the war.

“Sapan which started as an experiment, is more and more a movement that will help take Southasia forward,” said researcher and student of law Vishal Sharma in Shimla presenting the opening plenary remarks. 

Participants also paid tribute to departed peacebuilders whose vision Sapan aims to take forward, such as Dr. Mubashir Hasan, former finance minister of Pakistan, who was one of the first to speak of a Southasian union or federation. 

The brief “In Memoriam’ section at the start of the session commemorated departed Southasians including journalists Kuldip Nayar and I.A. Rehman, human rights advocate Asma Jahangir, feminist poets Sufia Kamal and Kamla Bhasin, sociologist Rubina Saigol, and others. Dr. Saigol was an integral part of Sapan’s initial meeting of March 2021, and passed away from post-Covid complications five months later. 

Participants also remembered the late writer Sara Suleri, author of ‘Meatless Days’ who passed away recently.

Discussions

Sarita Bartaula, a youth activist from Nepal currently in the Washington D.C. area presented an overview of the Network’s activities over the past year, together with Waqas Nasir, a researcher and educationist in Lahore. 

As rapporteur for the education group Nasir also later presented key recommendations to the plenary along with other rapporteurs from the breakout rooms where small groups discussed the way forward on health, art, education, economic cooperation, sports and other issues. Entrepreneur Samir Gupta in Delhi and filmmaker Sahil Laul in Connecticut managed the logistics for this segment. 

Participants agreed on the need to learn from each other, and for regional seminars on socio-economic policy, as well as arts and sporting events. Suggestions included expanding the conversation beyond ideological boundaries, to involve all stakeholders who stand to benefit from greater economic cooperation. 

In the health group, Konchadi Vasanth Pai, 90, a retired pharmaceutical employee in Bangalore, flagged the issue of healthcare being out of reach of ordinary people. The moderator was Dr. Sabina Faiz Rashid, Dean, James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Bangladesh. 

“We need to stop just building doctors and hospitals” and look at issues holistically, ranging from mental health to community issues, said Dr Rashid.

Physician Dr. Fauzia Deeba from Quetta, based in the USA, was rapporteur for this group. Participants included several diasporic physicians as well as in the region.

Pioneering teacher trainer Zakia Sarwar, 83, from Karachi, chaired the education group, moderated by Lalita Ramdas. Participants included prominent educator Baela Raza Jamil in Lahore, lawyer/student Kawalpreet Kaur, Delhi and government college teacher Neeraj Gothwal in rural Jaipur, Rajasthan. 

With Admiral Ramdas in the chair for the ‘challenges to democracy group’, activist Kavita Srivastava in Rajasthan moderated, with Dr. Saeed Rid, Peace Studies professor in Islamabad as rapporteur. Participants included History professor Neeti Nair at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Dr. Faisal Barkat in Srinagar, advocate Arsh Dhanotia, New Delhi, and human rights activist Avinash K from Delhi. 

Prominent Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi in Ithaca, New York state, moderated the ‘economic regional cooperation and labour rights’ group with eminent participants including economist Jean Dreze in Ranchi, businessman Amin Hashwani and consultant Asif Saad in Karachi. Communications consultant Pragya Narang in Uttarakhand served as rapporteur. 

Award-winning filmmaker Rahul Roy in Delhi moderated the ‘arts and activism’ discussion. Besides Salima Hashmi, group participants included activists Sheema Kermani and Zohra Yusuf in Karachi and Siraj Khan in Boston, who runs the O.P. Nayar Foundation. The rapporteur was filmmaker Harsh Narayan, founder of South Asia Forum for Arts and Heritage.

Lalita Ramdas, founder of Greenpeace India, moderated the group on environment, with journalists Afia Salam in Karachi, Shalini Singh in Delhi, and researcher Aagam Sharma in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh. 

Renowned journalist Ruchira Gupta in Kolkata, founder of the women’s empowerment group ApneAap, moderated the discussion on ‘gender justice and gender violence’. Participants included Swarna Rajagopalan in Chennai, activist Sunil Jaglan in Haryana, and feminist Megha Manju Promodu from Kochi, Kerela. Journalist Lubna J. Naqvi in Karachi served as rapporteur.

Kunda Dixit, founding director Panos South Asia, Kathmandu, and founding editor of ‘Nepali Times’ moderated the media discussion, with Mandira Nayar as moderator, and joined by journalists from around the region.

Worldview

The members of Sapan believe that a great deal of pain and suffering could be mitigated through greater socio-economic cooperation, resource-sharing, and creation of a Southasia of soft borders reflecting the shared history and inter-connected space.

This worldview is reflected in Sapan’s first public event last April, when organisers quickly pivoted from the planned discussion on sports in April 2021 to expressions of concern and solidarity for those impacted by the pandemic. Several sports personalities and journalists who had confirmed participation joined regardless, like journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, former Pakistani test cricketer Jalaluddin, international squash player Nooreena Shams, besides ace journalists Afia Salam, Zainab Abbas and Sharda Ugra in in Karachi, Lahore, and Bangalore respectively, with analyst Nazneen Firdausi in Dhaka. 

Sapan’s next event on the last Sunday of April 2022 will focus on labour rights and democracy in Southasia ahead of May Day.

Beena Sarwar is a journalist and editor in Boston. Priyanka Singh is a data analytics consultant in Delhi. Both are Sapan founder members. This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.

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6 Comments

  1. I appreciate and congratulate span team in first anniversary of this useful and informative magazine with a special tribute to our lovely and beloved Beena Sarver for her meritorious services for propagation of love and harmony in whole south Asia. LOVE FOR ALL HATRED FOR NONE. It may be a logo or slogan for this magazine. Pl. comment on it!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Dear Madam Beena, I find shortage of words by which I express my happiness and gratitude the way  you are creating a congenial and a harmoniousrelationship between Pakistan and India and whole South Asia through SPAN!! I fully support your nice initiatives in this regard from the core of my heart. Moreover you are an extremely good writer as well.I consider you as the TOP SCRIBE in your group. I am really really proud of you! Allah bless you. Good night, Shak

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I salute both of you for nurturing peace and harmony between India and Pakistan with power of your pen. It is a pity that we oppress and persecute our womenfolk as it is a male dominated society female writers like Beena and Priyanka Singh are our real heroes so men must learn from their commitment and sacrifices. Kudos and Shabbash to them!!

      Liked by 2 people

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