SPMRF Round Table Week (18 November to 25 November)

India and South East Asia: Time to Strengthen Relations

By Shakti Sinha

When one visits the temple complexes of Bagan (Myanmar), or Angkor Wat (Cambodia), or further east at Prambanan (Indonesia), what one sees out there is the natural genius of the society that it is located in, the people who have built it. As an Indian, I am very comfortable there, in familiar surroundings. But I also realise that each in its own way has its individual stamp and style to it. And that is the beauty of how an external impulse (from India) has been so well internalised that while retaining its core, the balance between the universality and the contextual.

What makes the Indo-South East Asian partnership even more fascinating is that the latter have retained what Indians themselves have forgotten? To give the example of Indira, whose worship has been completely given up in India, but who can forget the lovely roadside shrine of Erawan in Bangkok. Which inspires tremendous faith and devotion of all, not just of Thais or of Hindus.

My first introduction to the pervasiveness of broader Indic civilisation in all its multi-dimensionality was in national museums at Jakarta and Bangkok. Ganesha and Buddha dominate the galleries in all variety and idiom, though Siva, Vishnu, Brahmaand others are present in impressive numbers. The whole atmosphere is so locally rooted and yet where an Indian would feel completely at home. That I think capture the essence of our two-way relationship. There can be no productive relationships if it is simply a one- way relationship. I remember reading an article written by an Indonesian scholar from the Gadja Mada University, Yogyakarta arguing very strongly that Ganesha was Indonesian god who travelled to India.  There is a belief that the first mythical king of Burma was a prince of Ayodhya.And the Thais named their capital as ‘Ayutthya’, and their kings took on the name ‘Rama’.

In our own history, members of the Chola dynasty had gone and settled down in Cambodia. Generations later, the Cholas themselves had problem of succession, so a prince, a Chola descendant was summoned from Cambodia and made the king. Though from Cambodia, he was seen as a legitimate claimant. These shows clearly that that people in those days did not think of Cambodia or other areas as different entities but part of a common, larger sphere, a common sphere for everybody, which we call for Swarnabhumi. One cannot say where the real, or original, Swarnabhumi is, but we know we are a part of it. The Burmese have this belief that Myanmar is Jambudwip, but for us in India, Jambudwip is the land that India is located on. The question is not who is right since it establishes that we always thought of each other as inhabiting the same ‘cultural’ space. It is not just from the first mythical king of Burma, who was a prince of Ayodhya.

History, as taught to us, tells us that the close India-South East Asia relationship stopped 1000 years ago when in fact this is wrong. Pilgrims, even members of the ruling classes from Burma, Thailand etc. always came to India and built temples to resemble temples and shrines in India. The kings from Burma regularly contributed for the upkeep of the temple in Bodhgaya in the 18th and 19th century.  A Thai king in the 19th century almost bought the village of Bodh Gaya from the Tekari Raj when the incumbent raja was a minor and the state was being administered by a Court of Wards. It was only the vigilance exercised by staff members of the Tekari Raj, who petitioned senior officials and prevented this transaction. To put it in another way, the linkage between the people and societies continued throughout and was limited to pre- or early history.

Unfortunately, in our own reading of history, these ‘facts’ and ‘links’ do not exist. There is a complete black spot over the thousands of years. The reality is that it always been there, a very vibrant two-way relationship throughout. The Portuguese found thousands of Indians living and working in Malacca for instance in the 16th century. The relationship was strong because this relationship started initially with trade and in any sustainable relationship in trade, it can never be a one-way relationship. It then developed into a strong cultural and people-to-people relationship that did not employ any form of political or economic dominance.

In the early part of the colonial period when the Europeans were merely traders, the relationship between India and South East Asia remained very dense and was not disrupted. However, the establishment of the Raj and its economic policies resulted in India becoming de-industrialised and so we did not produce manufactured goods for export anymore. Instead, we all become exporters of raw materials and our trade links were therefore largely but not completely disrupted. Therefore, in our minds the whole relationship with Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR and Cambodia and Vietnam were fairly erased from collective memory, helped by colonial education. That’s the negative effect of colonial education, which we are still not ready to discard.  Post-independence, we all tried to become economically strong and adopted policies according to what we thought would be most effective. Two things happened as a result of these choices. One is that that India became autarkic and we cut our self from the world.  Therefore, we in India did not expand our trading relations or form regional economic groupings. Two, as a consequence, the network of our relationship far from reviving, took a downward trend. People-to-people ties in fact got disrupted.

However, we must recognise that world is changing, and it is changing much faster than what we realise.  The trouble with any major change in world affairs is that people do not understand that such a major change is happening till it is over.  Nobody knew when Germany started becoming such a serious challenge to United Kingdom in Europe that it would lead to a debilitating and long-drawn out war such as World War I. Similarly, nobody realised when America became stronger than the European powers put together. Today, one can say that Germany from the 1870’s emerged as a very big challenge to England. In fact, by that time America was in fact the largest economy in the world; we can see it now but at that moment none realised, or understood, it.  Arguably the world is undergoing a tremendous amount of change at present, possible the most transformative in human history. Our ability to use the international system would become weaker and weaker.  The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) has not happened and the WTO negotiations are winding down with no results.  The negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are also getting delayed.

Therefore, we are being forced to reconsider this larger global picture and start looking at alternative approaches; this is the time to re-engage with each other is much more in a comprehensive manner.  To give the example of Myanmar, any scholar or even bureaucrat about 70 years of age would be familiar with Rabindranath Tagore, with Calcutta University etc. But when we meet anybody about 20 years, their world revolves around the USA and the West. We must recognise that the world view of the younger generation has changed and therefore, in these circumstances, the need to re-engage across this broad swath of Asia with whom we traditionally share so much.

When the world is simultaneously becoming one village but separated by economic walls, is it not time  to start seeing each other more closely,  start interacting not just at the government level but also at the people-to-people level. We must make efforts to create more opportunities at local level, university to university, think tank to think tank, industrial sector to industrial sector. In this manner, we would make our relationship so much stronger.  This kind of understanding would need our school curriculum to understand our local and regional history in a manner that we appreciate each other so much better.

People to people to contacts do start with familiarity. And as we also have to look at the future we will see that we would be left standing pretty much on our own; partnership outside powers are important but ultimately they would look after their own interests, and would have limitations of capability. We must, therefore, understand that standing together with our old cultural partners, developing better understanding would be a natural development since we share common challenges. This would lead to synergy and to better outcomes in this part of the world for all stakeholders.

(The writer is a strategic thinker and presently Director, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi)

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