Beyond physical proximity
There is a need to reinvent civilisational linkages with Southeast Asia
Prime Minister Modi's just-concluded three-nation tour was the second most comprehensive outreach to ASEAN, to Southeast Asia this year. The first was in January when all the ASEAN heads of states were invited for Republic Day. The international strategic community eagerly awaited Modi's keynote address at the Shangrila Dialogue 2018, as it would indicate India's approach to ASEAN and the level to which she aspires to engage with this multi-dimensional formation.
Narendra Modi's latest foray has clearly demonstrated India's active intent of engaging with this region at a multi-dimensional level. This is a region, in which civilisational India had once played an active role in bringing about, to use an expression from the legendary doyen of nationalist journalism, Ramananda Chatterjee, "inter-continental contact and fusion." But this fusion was brought about by a process of osmosis and a gradual blending.
One of the keynotes in Prime Minister Modi's visit throughout the region was the need to restate and reinvent our civilisational linkages – our linkages of Sanskriti evam Sabhyata – under the framework of the present. Thus, India was not simply reiterating the contours of a nostalgic past but was rather referring to a rich, dynamic and active past which can continue to shape and direct our present strategic, economic and cultural aspirations. Clearly, this visit, for those who care to examine it in some detail, has also made a strong pitch for a stronger and more vibrant soft-power partnership in the region, a partnership which will substantially complement the efforts in the other sectors as well.
The visit to Indonesia evoked emotion and came across as one of the most strategically crucial interactions. Emotions, because, Indonesia was the starting point for our scholars of yore, to begin trying to understand India's civilisational interactions in the region. Indonesia, for example, fascinated a number of Indian thinkers and scholars, Rabindranath Tagore being foremost among them. The philosopher and historian of civilisations, Kalidas Nag, for example, a close associate of Tagore and a member of that group of Indian scholars who were fascinated by civilisational India's interaction with Southeast Asia and the fusion of cultures that emerged from it, wrote as far back as 1941 on how the 'cultural relations between India and Indonesia continued, with more or less vigour, through centuries.' Nag, observed how, 'Inspite of general conversion to Islam and partial conversion to Christianity, the peoples of Java have retained some of the finest traits of Hindu culture.' Nag argued, and scholars today would continue to agree with him, that the whole of 'Indonesia deserves to be studied with the utmost care and thoroughness by Indologists in general and by Indian scholars in particular.' In Indonesia, Nag saw a perfect reflection of 'Classical Asia and Epic India' and was convinced that young Indian scholars must increasingly take up the study of Indonesia and of the region in general to discover the many striking 'links of our common artistic and spiritual life...The living tradition of their arts and crafts, when studied from within, will help undoubtedly to foster the artistic life of India.' Nag also called for interaction and exchange between universities in this region and universities in India, Tagore, he pointed out had already initiated this in Santiniketan.
Throughout his Indonesian sojourn, Prime Minister Modi reminded us of our cultural and spiritual proximity and also emphasised, very crucially how India and Indonesia were physically close as well. This was a closeness which, he emphasised, needed to be enhanced through greater activity and connectivity. In fact, when he spoke of the complementarity between his vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and President Jokowi's vision of the 'Maritime Fulcrum Policy', Prime Minister Modi was, in fact, laying a new framework and dimension to the past civilisational linkages and partnership, which were spontaneous and had evolved through centuries. His repeated reference to the Indian 'Bali Jatra' also underlined the fact, that our ancestors too recognised India and Indonesia's physical proximity.
In his Shangrila Dialogue keynote, reiterating that the five pillars of his foreign policy of 'Samman (respect), Samvad (dialogue), Sahyog (cooperation), Shanti (peace), and Samriddhi (prosperity), would be the framework of engagement in the region, Modi expressed India's aspirations of seeing greater involvement in the region. His vision of the 'Indo-Pacific' as stretching from the 'shores of Africa to that of the Americas', is a crucial delineation and pushes the Indian narrative of the Indo-Pacific westward, a region which has again seen India's active engagement and footprints over the centuries.
This widening of the Indo-Pacific and Modi's exhortation to prevent the return of the age of 'great power rivalries' in the region are perhaps two key and significant pointers from his address, 'Asia of rivalry will hold us all back. Asia of cooperation will shape this century. So, each nation must ask itself: Are its choices building a more united world, or forcing new divisions?' In the same breath, he also spoke of how our civilisational partnerships and friendships were 'not alliances of containment.'
It was a visit that sought to relay the civilisational linkages of the past, to rekindle the spirit of the Epics, to articulate India's vision of engagement based on her civilisational ethos and to fine-tune the structures of present engagement imbued by that past spirit of cooperation, with India seeking to be a more active and responsible player in strengthening and perpetuating the vision and spirit of ASEAN.
(Dr. Anirban Ganguly is Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)