Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India's culture Diplomacy and Soft Power

  • Amb (Retd) Bhaswati Mukherjee

    By: Amb (Retd) Bhaswati Mukherjee
    Venue: Pondicherry University
    Date: October 18, 2019

It is with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation to visit Pondicherry and deliver this lecture. It is my second visit. I have been a follower of Shri Aurobindo’s philosophy for many years. It is most appropriate that the theme of today’s lecture here in Pondicherry so close to Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram and Auroville focuses on India’s cultural diplomacy and its soft power.

Shri Aurobindo has often been quoted in UNESCO’s debates from his seminal poem entitled "Who”, which underlines his mysticism on one hand and the unity of our culture on the other, thereby demonstrating the continuing relevance of his philosophy. To cite a few lines from "Who”:

"In the blue of the sky
in the green of the forest,
who is the hand
that has painted the glow?
It is He in the Sun
who is ageless and deathless,
and into the midnight
His shadow is thrown.
When darkness was blind
and engulfed with darkness,
He was seated within it,
immense and alone.”

What is soft power? How is it linked with cultural diplomacy? My visit comes soon after the historic 2nd Informal Summit between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mamallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram). It was a spectacular demonstration of India’s magnificent Tamil heritage and soft power. It also demonstrated the shared cultural and civilizational connect between India and China. The magnificent rock sculptures at Mamallapuram had been visited by Hiuen Tsang in 630 AD at the height of the Pallava reign. Thus the ‘Chennai Connect’ is the new buzz word for India’s soft power.

It is internationally recognised that one of India’s significant global contribution’s has been the exercise of its soft power, drawing on its ancient cultural and civilisational roots. ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ was among the first precursors of Global Citizenship as it is understood today – the concept that all individuals are collectively responsible towards each other and their shared future. It forms the basis of UNESCO’s ongoing dialogue between cultures, religions and civilisations. Today, India’s soft power as represented through her vibrant cultural and civilisational heritage and through her Diaspora spread worldwide, serves as a powerful reminder that India’s values of secularism, tolerance, inclusiveness and cross fertilisation of cultures which are an intrinsic part of our civilisation, are more relevant than ever before in the uncertain international scenario of today.

Cultural diplomacy is therefore an important dimension of a country’s soft power. The international impact of India’s soft power was felt long before the term found place in popular parlance in the 21st century. Indian arts, culture and spiritualism have attracted people from all around the world for centuries. Our Prime Minister in Modi 1.0 reoriented Indian diplomacy by combining new elements of soft power. The five pillars of this soft power, used in a strategic sense are Samman (dignity), Samvaad (dialouge), Samriddhi (shared prosperity), Suruksha (regional and global security), and Sanskriti evam Sabhayata (Cultural and civilizational links). These are interlinked with India’s broader political and economic goals of the country.

Now in his second term, PM Modi has sought to embed India’s political values in a larger geopolitical context and has put special emphasis on the idea that India can be the ‘viswaguru’ or world teacher. The aim is to build an Asian Century on the basis of ‘vikasvaad’ that would bring peace and stability. As the ‘Chennai Connect’ between India and China demonstrates, Asia, the largest continent in the world, is bringing the message of peace, brotherhood, coexistence and prosperity to the rest of the world.

Cultural bonding can be one of the ways to prevent conflict and promote peace. The pursuit of cultural diplomacy and soft power in India is underpinned by MEA’s iconic institutional structure, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) which was established in 1950 with the objective of reviving and strengthening India’s cultural relations with rest of the world. This reorientation of our foreign policy was indeed timely and intrinsic to a successful foreign policy initiative, not just in our neighbourhood but also with our strategic partners and new dialogue partners in Africa and Latin America.

Indian spirituality has had a global presence for centuries. One of its important manifestations in today’s world is the large number of Yoga centres spread across the world. At the personal initiative of PM Modi soon after his election in 2014, the UN General Assembly recognised 21st June as International Day of Yoga. It has been commemorated on that day across the world since 21st June 2015.

PM in a powerful presentation related to yoga on 27 September 2014 at the United Nations General Assembly made this proposal which was approved by 193 members of the UNGA on 11 December 2014. He said "Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day”.

Other elements of India’s soft power include Indian classical dance in various forms which enjoy a high degree of world-wide acclaim and appreciation. The global popularity of Bollywood films is another instance of the strength of India’s soft power not to mention Indian cuisine. Today, UK defines its national food as ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’! Our Prime Minister has also underlined that tourism is an important means to promote mutual understanding, achieve economic growth and create jobs.

Religious tourism is another way to spread this soft power across India’s borders, including through the ‘Buddhist Circuit’. This constitutes a journey purely for internal peace. It is a journey through austere Stupas and ancient monasteries reverberating with the mystical chants of sacred Buddhist mantras. Every point on the Buddhist circuit has a history steeped in myth and meaning; every monument stands testimony to faith fused into reality. In Sanskrit, the word "Bodh” means knowledge; Buddha would thus mean "One who has attained all knowledge” or "one in whom there is no conflict, no suffering", in short, one, who has mastered himself. The Chinese call him the Zen Master.

Another example is the ‘Ramayana Circuit’. In May 2018, PM Narendra Modi and his Nepalese counterpart KP Sharma Oli jointly inaugurated direct bus service between Janakpur (Nepal) and Ayodhya (India). 15 destinations have been identified for development under’ Ramayana Circuit’ theme under Swadesh Darshan Scheme. They are Ayodhya, Nandigram, Shringverpur and Chitrakoot (Uttar Pradesh), Sitamarhi, Buxar and Darbhanga (Bihar), Chitrakoot (Madhya Pradesh), Jagdalpur (Chhattisgarh), Mahendragiri (Odisha), Nashik and Nagpur (Maharashtra), Bhadrachalam (Telangana), Hampi (Karnataka) and Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu).

Cultural diplomacy and soft power are important instruments in regional and international cooperation and are of particular relevance in our region i.e. South Asia. Culture and cultural diplomacy have emerged as the force to connect, to build bilateral relations and to heal the raptures created by history and politics. It may take time for such a process to mature since some of our neighbours continue to be apprehensive of cultural connectivity across states and frontiers. The process, however, as far as India is concerned, continues and will continue. The internet, the social networking sites, our television channels, Indian movies, especially Bollywood, and visits by acclaimed musical and cultural troupes and theatre groups have contributed to the cultural connectivity across borders.

Some examples are the joint commemoration by India and Bangladesh of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary and Nazrul’s 100th birth anniversary. It is unique that both the Indian and Bangladeshi national anthem has been composed by Rabindranath Tagore. India has revived the old Buddhism tourism circuit to link up with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and other States in our wider neighbourhood which had Buddha’s footprints. Thus, India’s culture and soft power are an example of how both help States to overcome years of mutual mistrust and push forward the process of regional integration.

The formation of the EU is an excellent example of the triumph of soft power to settle centuries of dispute and conflict in Europe. Immediately after World War II, school children from France and Germany were sent on exchange programmes to learn about each other’s culture, language and customs. The result today is striking. Within the European Union, the strongest partnership is the Franco-German one.

Another important element of soft power is India’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Intangible heritage includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendents, such as oral traditions, performing arts, religious and cultural festivals and traditional crafts. This includes Vedic chanting and the Kathakali (dance drama). Multilaterally, UNESCO through the World Heritage Committee on one hand and the Committee for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage on the other is India’s partner in promoting an international, inter-cultural dialogue and promoting in the long run international peace and security.

Practitioners of Indian cultural diplomacy need to acknowledge that our culture and civilisation is complex. Even to our younger generation here in India it is difficult to comprehend except through careful scholarship and application. Another issue is to bring that culture to our Diaspora as India’s soft power, since it is a living culture and can only survive if nurtured and strengthened by successive generations including our Diaspora. Unless we present our traditions called our ‘parampara’, and our civilisation and cultural heritage in a manner which is both comprehensible and attractive to young India who form 80% of our vast population, this heritage cannot be nurtured and strengthened.

Keeping that perspective in mind, an understanding of what is culture and what is heritage should be the starting point of an understanding of India’s cultural and civilisational heritage. At the Rukmini Devi Memorial Lecture at Kalakshetra historian and my old professor from alma-mater, Miranda House, Delhi University, Dr. Romila Thapar defined heritage as that which has been inherited. This is implicit in the term ‘parampara’, also called tradition, which goes into the making of our culture and civilisation. Dr. Thapar cautioned that heritage should not be thought of as static since each generation changes the content, sometimes substantially. This civilizational heritage called ‘sanskriti’ or ‘shristhi’ when juxtaposed with ‘prakriti’ or natural heritage becomes cultural heritage. Dr. Thapar noted: "We have to seek out and discuss insights that will give meaning to construction of our heritage.”

Speaking of culture and imperialism and its impact on India, Dr. Thapar pointed out that "dominant cultures, such as the European culture which are backed by wealth, leave the maximum traces for posterity. They have texts, describing their ideas, which are icons in stone and metal, and their architectural forms indicate their religious and social preferences. The Renaissance period in European history is a splendid example. Subordinate groups in society leave few such traces. They do not have the wealth to build monumental temples and mosques or to house manuscripts in libraries. Those at the lower end of the social ranking provide the wherewithal for the wealth, but are not participants in elite culture. Their culture has been different and much of it from the past has to be inferred from how they are viewed by the elite.”

How should we mark the territorial boundaries of Indian civilization? It has often been defined from the perspective of the Ganges heartland, the perspective from which histories were usually written until recently. But civilization when seen from the rim, from India’s far flung frontiers, indicate other more distant but significant contacts. Cartographic boundaries enclose and isolate lands. Frontier zones extend them and open them up. The concept of civilization has become territorially open-ended. Hence, any definition of India’s neighbourhood today includes not just her immediate territorial neighbours but also Indonesia on one hand since the island of Bali is very close to Andaman Islands and the Middle East with whom we have traditional historic and civilizational links. The above directly impacts not only India’s strategic space but also underline the importance of safeguarding India’s civilisational and cultural integrity in a globalised age of multiculturalism, hybridism and trans- cultural norms.

The difficulty arises from the complexity of the task of interpreting this heritage historically in an objective manner. Efforts to date our civilisation began with the Harappan culture in 2500 BC, the migration of Aryans to India in 1500 BC, the rise of Budhisim and Jainism around 486 and 468 BC, the invasion of Alexander the Great in 326 BC and the rise of the Great empires in North and South India thereafter, such as the Mauryas, the Guptas, as well as the Pallavas and the Chalukyas. Of particular significance were the visits by foreign chroniclers including Fa-Hsein in 405 AD and Hiuen Tsang in 630 AD. Their chronicles are important inputs in calculating eras, as they provide the means of cross evidence in dating our ancient history. They were not the only visitors. After the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni in 997 AD, we were visited by Alberuni in 1030 AD and later the visit of Ibn Batutah around 1325 AD and others. This part of our history is referred to commonly as the Ancient and Medieval Indian periods.

Efforts were made to belittle or downgrade our heritage in the next historical period, referred to as Modern India after the arrival of the Dutch, Portuguese, French and British to India, the rise of the foreign settlements, the complete domination of India under colonial rule and the rise of our national movement. During this period too, as chronicled by Edward W. Said in his seminal work entitled ‘Culture and Imperialism’, interpretation of our heritage was dominated by the notion that the West needed to bring civilisation to primitive people or to destroy it where it existed, an approach which later led to the great movement of decolonisation in Asia, Africa and the Arab world. Said noted that the notion of inferior races helped fuel the imperial acquisition of territory during this period. The culture of imperialism therefore entailed venerating one’s own culture to the exclusion of other cultures, a notion completely antithetical to the Indian approach. Mark Twain called it the ‘white man’s burden’.

This attitude is best symbolised in Macaulay’s Minute in 1835 when he said: "We must at present do our best to create a class, who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” He continued: "I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. It is I believe no exaggeration to say that all the historical information that has been collected from all the books which have been written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England”.

One of the most authoritative works of A.L. Basham entitled ‘The Wonder that was India’, rejects the earlier prevalent interpretation of the West that Indian civilisation is un-political, spiritual and unchanging i.e., that Indian civilisation itself is static and non-dynamic. Basham demonstrates that India has a dynamic civilisational and cultural heritage and that Indian civilisation is much more than a history of its religions. India’s oral traditions had an important contribution, and as a result, Indians through the ages were fully conscious of the antiquity of their own culture.

Some say that mystics, exemplified by the development of the Bhakti and Sufi movements, were the earliest practitioners of cultural diplomacy in India. The Bhakti movement did not recognise any class or caste distinction and brought their message of universal love across India. Both movements demonstrated the universality of India’s soft power, its culture and civilisation.

Kabir declared:

"I am not Hindu or Muslim
Allah and Ram is the breadth of my body.”

Kabir equated Ram with Rahim and Hari with Hazrat and Krishna with Karim. After his death, his Hindu and Muslim disciples could not even agree whether to bury or cremate him. There are two Samadhis of Kabir at Maghar, one is venerated by Hindus and the other by Muslims. It is important to underline that the two movements, whether Sufism or the Bhakti movement, mirror a spiritual development, which fought against ritualism, fanaticism and sectarianism. Thus, India’s soft power as demonstrated in its cultural and civilisational heritage is secular and based on tolerance and cross fertilisation with other cultures.

Let me now move to India’s soft power and its legacy to its Diaspora and to global heritage. India’s heritage is present in distant parts of the world, taken by Indians by sea or by land from ancient times. As a member of the UN World Heritage Committee, India is seeking international recognition of several projects. Let me give one example.

Aapravasi Ghat in Mauritius which marks the entry point of more than two million indentured labour from India, a point of no return, was inscribed in July, 06 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, only after my detailed presentation as Ambassador to UNESCO and India’s representative on the World Heritage Committee on the similarity between the indentured and the slaves. Even then, I had to counter the Western argument that the indentured were similar to modern day immigrants, leaving behind the poverty, disease and dirt of India for better horizons abroad. Aapravasi Ghat represents the most significant surviving manifestation of the indentured labour system that existed in colonial times in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Established after the formal abolition of slavery in 1834, Aapravasi Ghat marks the point where the indentured labour, drawn mainly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh Provinces but also from Southern Provinces of colonial India, would pass through these gates either to stay on in Mauritius to work as indentured labour in the sugar plantations or to sail on to further destinations, such as Guyana, Suriname and Reunion Island, to name a few.

Thus, during this period from 1834 i.e. after the abolition of slavery to the early 20th century, more than two million indentured labour travelled on this route, also known as ‘Coolie Route’, to Mauritius and other destinations. This route represents therefore not just the development of a new system of a contractual labour but also the conservation of the civilisational heritage, traditions and values that these people carried with them to far off destinations, including Mauritius. This resulted, a century later, in the evolution of multicultural societies in these new countries from where most often these indentured labour never returned to their homeland. It reflects the spread of India’s civilisation beyond its boundaries to far flung destinations such as Mauritius but also Suriname, Guyana, South Africa, Fiji, to name a few.

The International Indentured Labour Route Project has been recognised by UNESCO’s Executive Board as a significant contribution to the ‘Memory of the World Register’, similar to the Slave Route. It also highlights India’s contribution to the cultural diversity of its Diaspora spread worldwide, including our oral traditions, such as the Bhojpuri language and songs which are still sung in Mauritius, Guyana and Suriname and all over the Caribbean. They recall the memories of their great Motherland, India and keep alive the cultural traditions brought 150 years ago to these countries.

Soft power and its dissemination are now linked to the rise of public diplomacy. In MEA too, we have a special focus on public diplomacy through our External Publicity Division. Cultural diplomacy, the deployment of a state’s culture in support of its foreign policy goals is now regarded in many countries as a subset of the practice of public diplomacy, a Government’s communication with external audiences in order to positively influence them. It underpins people to people contact and is seen as a confidence building measure across borders.

Unfortunately cultural diplomacy is still regarded to be at a lower level in most Foreign Offices than traditional diplomacy which is based on a country’s hard power depending on its strategic and military options. Yet, cultural diplomacy has the potential to contribute much more effectively to achieve objectives of foreign policy. To enable cultural diplomacy to reach its full potential the practice needs to be understood better. In particular, it makes a significant contribution to national image, branding and social cohesion. In presenting a national image abroad, cultural diplomacy can positively overcome with its message an audience suspicious of official messages and serve to reduce tension.

Our soft power which is multidimensional and based on our cultural heritage is India’s gift to the world. This message of love, tolerance and understanding is more relevant than ever before in a world where the forces of fundamentalism and extremism are raising their ugly heads. It is a composite culture spread worldwide. It reflects the evolution of our own history, the manner in which India seamlessly absorbed other cultures but never lost its own. William Dalrymple had pertinently noted in this context:

"India has always had a strange way with her conquerors. In defeat, she beckons them in, then slowly seduces, assimilates and transforms them”.

Dalrymple was only echoing Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. As part of MEA’s outreach programme, I had visited Vishwa Bharati University, Shantiniketan and read Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s inspirational message which still resonates today.

Gurudev had said:

"India represents the wealth of mind which is for all.
We acknowledge India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture
And India’s right to accept from others their best.”

Even at that time and age, Gurudev had understood that our soft power was our unique strength and a global heritage. We need to disseminate this soft power through the institutions of cultural diplomacy of our country so that we can build bridges across borders and across continents for greater international understanding, peace and harmony. This is our responsibility. It is what we owe to India and to our future generations.

We also have a responsibility to understand, nurture, strengthen and conserve this heritage for our future generations. This is the least that we owe to India and her 25 million Diaspora, the largest in the world.