Association of Indian Universities (AIU), with support of University of Jammu (JU), organized the first South Asian Universities Youth Festival (SAUFEST) from February 12 to 16, 2006 in Jammu. AIU invited Nepali universities also, and Kathmandu University (KU) sent a team of nine students and a teacher (the writer). Prof. Suresh Raj Sharma, the Vice Chancellor and Prof. Pushpa Raj Adhikary, the Dean of School of Science, joined this team during the formal sessions. We, the KU team, were the only direct representatives from Nepal till the second last day before eight delegates of Purbanchal University reached the venue. In addition, about 20 more Nepali students attended the Festival representing some Indian universities. Thus SAUFEST saw a significant presence of Nepal with more than three dozens youths participating in different programmes.
Our team (ten of us) had to leave Dhulikhel on February 3 to avoid the troubles of the journey within the country because of the strike announced by Maoists from February 5 to 11. Having stayed in Bhairahawa for three days, we entered India on February 6, and reached Jammu the next day, four days before the function started. Our early arrival was of primary curiosity to local media there. We had to explain each time how the political turmoil had precipitated our early journey. During our stay, any new reports about Nepal would demand our opinions, and ignorance was no excuse for us because we represented our country. Being university youths, we were expected to be capable of discussions on contemporary national issues. Moreover, early arrival to the venue gave us enough time to know the place and people. We visited different departments of Jammu University and interacted with teachers and students. Thus, it was also a chance of academic sharing for us. Our cultural presentations — Tamang Selo dance, fusion of classical and modern guitar, and Nepali Pop song — were among the highlights of the Festival. In addition, the presence of the Vice Chancellor and the Dean proved our seriousness to be a part of the mission. Local and national Indian media gave conspicuous coverage to the presence and participation of Nepali delegates.
From among the countries AIU had invited, students of Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Afghanistan attended the five day long Festival. Pakistan, though expected till the last days, did not send its youths to the Indian venue. The general feeling among the participants was that Pakistan had missed a significant opportunity of sharing and inspiration. With SAUFEST, the organizers had ventured into the mission to seek possibilities of unity in South Asia with its motto Harmony-2006 by providing the forum for South-Asian youths to befriend one another. Cultural sharing was the principal direction to realize unity in diversity. Both participating teachers and students showed enthusiasm in cultural presentations. Banaras Hindu University presented a harmony of six different songs by its students from six different countries: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It was in itself a message for youths that “harmony is possible”. Moreover, the presentation of the drama Jee Jaisi Apki Marji by Nadira Babbar’s Ek Jute Theater, and spiritual dance by Sonal Man Singh, a renowned classical dancer of the region, were some outstanding cultural attractions of the session. Elocution and Art and Craft were other items included.
In an enlightening speech, Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyer, Minister of Panchayati Raj, Youth Affairs and Sports, emphasized the mission as an attempt to integrate youths for an undivided South Asia. He postulated that friends from the university days, with a prospect of holding significant posts in their countries, will try to move ahead with common goals when time comes. Speakers in the programme emphasized that students play an important role in this mission by expanding the horizon of friendship and fraternity within the region. The valedictory oath “We will work for the development of South Asia with harmony and cooperation” and the concluding song, “We shall overcome one day” implanted in the participants a sense of urge to work towards the mission of “harmony forever”.
The Festival not only gave youth-exchange opportunities, but also a message that a university and the society exist mutually. The people of Jammu, the state government and local authorities owned the Festival, co-operated their best and took pride in its success. Jammu and Kashmir Police provided their vehicles to the University during the sessions. Government run guest houses, Vaishnavi Dham and Saraswati Dham, accommodated the delegates. JU gave high place to local cultures and encouraged all the delegates to take part in them. The participants were taken to neighboring villages to see the progress of villagers after the vocational trainings provided to women by the university professors. The trip to Mansar, a neighbouring tourist center, and the presentation of indigenous music and food were intended to inspire us to appreciate local customs.
SAUFEST has left a lasting impression on the participants that it should be continued over the years across the region, not only in India. The fact that Pakistan did not participate this time shows that it will not do so in the consecutive SAUFESTs, unless AIU shifts the venue out of India or the two countries settle into a peaceful relationship. For the organization of next SAUFEST, AIU has already proposed Kathmandu University for Nepal and Royal University of Bhutan for Bhutan. Further negotiations would help declare where it will be held. Thus, there is a possible responsibility for Nepal ahead, to be a platform for a few hundred south Asian youths and to be a part of a mission for the lasting integration of South Asia.