Cultural Diplomacy and India’s Civilizational Links with the Indian Ocean region - Baladas Ghoshal
Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies & Former Professor and Chair in Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
In an address to the International Conference on “India and Indian Ocean: Renewing the Maritime Trade and Civilizational Linkages” in Bhubaneswar on March 20, 2015, India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj declared that the Indian Ocean region “which extends from African coast to West Asia, South Asia and South East Asia and touches Australia has been a focus of our foreign policy . . .We call this Indian Ocean outreach as ‘SAGAR’. As Prime Minister said in Mauritius last week, we seek a future for Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR- Security and Growth for All in the Region. Our vision for the Indian Ocean Region is therefore built on fostering increasing cooperation in our region, use of our capabilities for the benefit of all in our common maritime home and assisting our maritime neighbours and island states in building their maritime security capabilities.” That sums up India’s basic approach to the Indian Ocean region in building friendship and cooperation through its civilizational links or what is known today as ‘soft power’ ever since Joseph Nye popularized the concept while referring to the United States’ strength vis-à-vis other countries in the world in the promotion of its foreign policy..The objective of this paper is to look back into India’s civilizational and historical links with the Indian Ocean region and how it can be of contemporary relevance in our popular diplomacy to widen and deepen our engagement with IORA countries.
One can approach relations between countries and regions from three levels of analyses – geo-strategic, geo-economic and geo-civilization. While economic, political and strategic interactions between countries are major determinants in strengthening both bilateral and multilateral relations, culture can bring people emotionally closer to each other. Culture creates a sense of commonness and allows people to relate to each other. It builds a bond based on common religious, linguistic and ethnic beliefs, which when used creatively can be an enduring link between people from different countries and even different cultures. “Culture" refers to a group or community with which we share common experiences that shape the way we understand the world. ? Common cultural traditions promote a convivial atmosphere and create conditions for cementing bond between countries, which is the main objective of foreign policy of a country. Geo-politics and geo-economics undoubtedly shape objective conditions for convergence of interests and improvement of relations between countries, they can also be contentious under different condition and can lead to conflicts, but geo-civilizational contacts are less contentious and shape common worldview.
Promotion of India’s strategic objectives need not be through the projection of its hard military power as the ‘Realist’ school would have us believe, but could be more effective through the exercise of its ‘soft’ power, in terms of education, culture and democracy. The liberal institutional approach emphasizes soft power aspects with cultural attraction, ideology and international institutions as the main resource. Soft power strategies rely more on common political values, peaceful means for conflict management, and economic cooperation in order to achieve common solutions. India’s ability to play a major role in the Indian Ocean region lies not so much in the area of trade and investment, undoubtedly important for development of relations between countries, and where China has overwhelming presence, but in its human resources, democracy and culture in which it has a distinct advantage over other Asian countries. It is in the area of creating and maintaining capabilities that India has a competitive advantage vis-à-vis China, starting with a basic feature such as a widespread, working knowledge of the English language, and a large education and skills infrastructure.
The Indian Ocean has been our common maritime home since time immemorial. India was home to some of the earliest seaports in the world and has had a long maritime tradition. The seas around us have facilitated links of commerce, culture, and religion with our extended neighbourhood across several millenniums. This is evident from our cultural footprints which stretch across Asia and Africa. This civilization link can be traced as far back as the 1st century BC, mainly through trade and socio-cultural links that also saw the influence and spread of Sanskrit and Indian art forms in those countries. The ancient Javanese script has many Sanskrit words like Kshatriya, dharmaputra, while shards of Indian pottery with the ancient Kharoshti script, prevalent in India then, have been found in Bali, the spread of the Sanskrit script helped the countries in the region communicate through vast regions. .Many Indians migrated and settled down in some countries in the Indian Ocean region as part of the colonial policy and practice. As a result of strong community linkages of the Indian Ocean, our respective cultural practices, values and societal ethos are well defined in our folk songs and writings. During the Kalinga period, Indian sailors used to embark on long voyages to Sri Lanka, Bali, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Malaya, Vietnam and also to China. As the voyages used to be undertaken in ships, ‘Boitha Bandana’ that is the worshipping of the ships is a practice that has been there since those days. One can find evidence of such ship voyages in the Sun Temple of Konarak, where in the wall panel one can see a boat containing a giraffe, which shows linkages with Africa. The festival of Baliyatra on Karthik Purnima in November is a continuation of this tradition and reminds us of a major connect with our ancient maritime legacy.
What does all these cultural interactions mean in today’s context and for foreign policy and inter-state or inter-regional relations? To give meaning and substance to Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and developing, deepening and strengthening relations with the IOR countries, India must undertake educational, scientific and cultural cooperation together with capacity-building programmes. New Delhi’s initiative to deepen ties with IOR countries through such programmes will definitely help to promote intra-regional trade and tourism among countries of the grouping. Improved relations with them will not only strengthen the security of our vast sea lanes in Indian Ocean but also secure our age-old cultural relations with them. India plans to develop a “coastal circuit” for tourism, as India has a long coastline of 7,500km which possesses rich culture and heritage. If this can be harnessed along with beach tourism, culture and pilgrim tourism, all states particularly coastal states like Odisha will be benefited, People-to-people contact, an essential element in successful regional cooperation, will also be enhanced, through such culture and pilgrim tourism.
Cooperation in the area of science, technology and the academia have the potential to enhance IORA's knowledge and capabilities in a number of important fields. Such fields include Indian Ocean phenomena (such as its biology, meteorology and weather patterns), coastal zone management, renewable energy, energy efficient technologies and the development of the region-wide ocean economy. There are a number of centres of excellence across the regions which should pool their resources effectively for comprehensive studies. Enhanced cooperation on ocean issues would have significant benefits for strategic stability, as this would provide a platform for the constructive involvement of extra-regional stakeholders. India should encourage the IORA to look into the possibility of developing an ocean economy framework for improved decision-making. The framework should incorporate the main areas of activities that could be harnessed to optimize the opportunities available within this sector including petroleum and minerals, fishing, seafood processing and aquaculture, deep ocean water applications, marine services, port-related activities, marine renewable energy and ocean knowledge. The government, private sector, scientists and general public should collaborate to drive the ocean agenda forward. In this context, scientists and academics play a crucial role. Through rigorous research in relevant fields, the academia can provide the knowledge and understanding that feeds into policy considerations. Co-operation between experts and centres of excellence across Member States would serve to provide a coherent region-wide academic perspective that would further facilitate the closer co-ordination of policymaking among different Member States. Particularly, there is a need to enhance ocean education in order to develop diverse, interdisciplinary capacities for managing ocean resources in a sustainable and mutually beneficial manner. India can take a major lead in this.
Baladas Ghoshal is Secretary General and Director (Academic) Society for Indian Ocean Studies. He can be contacted at email@example.com