VKIC’s Foundation Day was celebrated in a solemn way on January 31, 2018. That evening the prestigious VKIC Sanmaan was bestowed on Smt. Gayatri Debi of Agartala, Tripura and Smt. Jonaki Baro of Dhekiajuli, Assam. They were each presented with a citation, a memento, a seleng sador and a cash award.
Welcoming the audience, VKIC’s Chairman Sri Dipok Kumar Barthakur described the day as really auspicious because the Ahom festival of Me-Dam-Me-Phi was also being celebrated. He said that VKIC has been carrying out research work that is of benefit to society. Mentioning the presence of Dr Arvind Gupta, the designated speaker on the occasion, the chairman hoped that he will share his varied experiences and also strengthen ties with VKIC in the days ahead.
Receiving the VKIC Sanmaan, Smt. Gayatri Debi said that the honour was not just for her but for the many Jati Janajatis of Tripura. The work she and her Ashram were doing was service to the people. She sang a devotional song and urged the all mothers to act as if they were mothers to all who came their way.
In her acceptance speech, Smt. Jonaki Baro briefly spoke about her work with women belonging to indigenous communities and emphasised the need to spread awareness of health among them. Society must do more to help them meet their health care needs.
Abridged text of Dr Arvind Gupta’s speech delivered on the occasion of VKIC’s 22nd Foundation Day The topic for me today is “Exploring emerging opportunities for India in South East Asia. Now the vantage point from which I would like to speak is the North East. The region is a gateway to South East Asia. It is where South Asia and South East Asia meet. Cultures have met for millennia producing a culture very diverse in language, creativity etc.
This is a unique region. Firstly it is surrounded by so many countries. Bhutan, Myanmar, China. The Andaman and Nicobar islands are closer to South East Asian countries than to mainland India. Interactions of diverse currents of culture and history have produced a unique mixture. There is a lot of impact of South East Asia on India. Cross a bit into the other side and there is impact of India.
In the last few minutes I have talked with people I have come to know that there are 3,000 wetlands in Assam. The future of humanity is how we conserve these wetlands, this biodiversity. Otherwise if we destroy them, either due to manmade reasons or natural reasons like climate change etc. the future of mankind is endangered. Culture defines us and when we preserve our wetlands, biodiversity we preserve our culture and our identity. This becomes very evident when we come to the North Eastern region; not that other regions are not important.
North East had a chequered history. For centuries there have been two-way migrations of people, ideas, trade, commerce and religion. I was reading a book by Sunil Amrith. A well-known book Crossing the Bay of Bengal, where he documents millions of Indians who crossed the sea, went to Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia etc. for trade and commerce. The 19th century was full of such migrations. The links are very deep. That is why Indian culture is so visible in South East Asia. If you go to Kuala Lumpur on the outskirts are the Batu caves. A Tamil festival Thaipusam is organised there. Then we have the INA and Subhas Chandra Bose who undertook to defeat the British and he came all the way from Singapore to Manipur. There are many such connections and we seem to have forgotten them. It is only recently that we have realised the importance of connections with South East Asia.
In March 1947 the Asian Relations Conference took place. There was a feeling of Asian solidarity. Representatives from Mongolia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and many other countries came. The idea was that Asian solidarity will emerge. But unfortunately that didn’t happen, that is because geo-politics took a different turn altogether. India went to war with China. It dented India’s image. Then SEATO emerged. The links which were inherent were broken.
In 1967 ASEAN was formed. India was invited, we did not join. Some of the countries were viewed as part of the Western Block. Many fault lines occurred – Vietnam War, Korean War and internal coups in those countries.
We could not link up with the growth opportunities. Some of the countries became tigers [powerful economic forces]. Severing of ties went against our interest. This was the situation till 1990s. The situation takes a turn in 1991 as the USSR disappeared. The balance of power changed. Under Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao India begins to rethink and reorient. And that is the beginning of the Look East Policy, of India forging newer relations with South East Asia.
It is now almost 25 years of the Look East Policy and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has changed it into Act East Policy. But this has happened in several steps, not overnight. First with ASEAN we held sectoral dialogues, not full blooded engagements. Ten they made us a dialogue partner. Then with ASEAN we have East Asia Summit. We became member of the ASEAN regional forum. Then we started having some people relationship and also conducted a three-tier agreement with them. Now we have Act East Policy and dealing with them more comprehensively.
We became a member of negotiations – Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). In the process there has been a lot of opening up. A large number of Indians have gone now for business, for tourism, for education to ASEAN countries. Singapore now has a large number of Indians who are studying there, working there. India also started a number of projects with ASEAN. Connectivity is important. The trilateral highway will connect India with Myanmar and Thailand. And in phase two with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. That is a very important part of connectivity. There are about 700 flights between India and Singapore every week. But we must realise that while this is growing, what is the context. Why is it happening?
In 1990 the balance of power changed. That was the rise of China, which is the subtext of India’s [South East Asia] policy. It had an impact on all the countries of the region, including India. There are two or three main elements to this rise of China. One is that China’s cooperation or engagement with ASEAN has become very deep. They have an annual trade something like 450 billion dollars. Indian trade with all ASEAN countries is about 70 billion dollars. So there is this huge difference.
China has gone and occupied all the islands of South China Sea. This sea connects Pacific and Indian oceans. It has also built a lot of military infrastructure. They have almost built a line that makes South China Sea look like a lake of China. Thirty to forty per cent of our trade passes through South China Sea. The few steps they have taken in the last few years have created a lot of apprehension in the minds of South East Asian countries. They are in a dilemma.
On the one hand they have huge economic dependence of China. All their exports are to China; 470 billion dollars trade with China. On the other hand, here is China which is coming in a big way militarily creating a security dilemma for these countries. South East Asian countries, except for Indonesia, are small. Because of their dependence on China they cannot do anything. So they have started once again to look towards India - as a balancer. They do not like to have this one-sided relationship with China. They want to have India involved in South East Asia. They are saying: Look India and South East Asia have cultural linkages for the last 2,000 years. You have a natural place in South East Asia, but you are not there. So in the last 20 years or so the logic has been India and South East Asia must rediscover each other. And this rediscovery should be based on cultural linkages. Culture becomes one of the drivers of India-South East Asia relationship. The influence of Hinduism is visible in all parts of South East Asia. The 9th century Shaivite temple in Bandung Java, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, temples in Vietnam, figures of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in temples of Laos and Myanmar. Ramayana is re-enacted in local languages there. Then there are roots of Pali and Sanskrit in historical texts. The ancient kingdom of Ayutthaya in Thailand, and the Thai king is still known as Rama. The Hinduised kingdom, the first organised state Sri Vijaya was in Malaysia. Champa is a form of fossilized Hinduism of the Champa tribes. They still follow the worship of Shiva, Parvati and Karthikeya. VKIC can consider studying some of these linkages.
Buddhism is equally strong in the region. In Vivekananda International Foundation we had a big programme – Hindu Buddhist Samvad. It was inaugurated by the Prime Minister in 2015. We have had two more after that. The fourth will happen in Tokyo in June this year. There are Buddhists coming to India. People must be well taken care of, sites must be well kept. The Vietnamese President is visiting in March this tear. His first port of call is Bodh Gaya. So this is a very natural advantage that India has. Even in Muslim rituals in Malaysia and in other places you find Indian culture being present. So culture is our first imperative. The second I will mention is the security imperative which is also very important. Here also several new opportunities are arising. And these are in the area of maritime security. Today Andaman Nicobar is an important part of India. If you take care of Andaman Nicobar, you take care of entire Bay of Bengal. And climate change is also creating havoc in the island territories as well. And many of these countries want to cooperate with India; to deal with these non-traditional security threats like climate change, piracy, terrorism, radicalisation. They know that these bring threats to their stability as well. And India has a lot of experience with dealing with these. I think this is one area we can talk about. And very recently we had a commemorative summit, 25 years of India ASEAN relations. There were ten heads of state of government. They came up with a joint statement. And they talked about terrorism. So on the terrorism front if we strengthen our naval outreach, we strengthen our counter-terrorism operations, cyber security – the other big area in which they want to cooperate with India. Space technology has application for remote sensing for instance. Many of these countries, parts of them are still poor like Vietnam, Cambodia etc. They would like to benefit from Indian expertise. So science and technology could be another area where we can cooperate.
The third driver of our relationship should be growing economic cooperation and connectivity. Today unless we have good connectivity we will not have the pace of economic development. Today our Act East Policy is not just related to these 10 countries, it is now going beyond. We are now interacting under this framework with Japan, Australia, South Korea, even with Fiji. So new opportunities are today opening up and we must take advantage of that. In fact Japan is very interested in joining hands with India to take up projects in the North East. Japan is also worried about China’s rise and wants to connect with India and work with India in the North East. Other countries are also interested. India alone cannot do it. We do not have that kind of resources. Today is the right time to do it because of the apprehensions about the growth of China. We still have to do a lot of work in this area. Because our trade unfortunately is very limited; it is just about 70 billion dollars. The combined GDP of the ten countries is as much that of India, something like five/six million dollars. Their population is around 600 million ours is about 1.3 billion. So together it is a big force. We have to find ways of engaging in our relationship.
I think the Act East Policy will not succeed unless we bring the North East into the Policy in a big way and that can be done through better connectivity, better border management, more people to people contact, and I think deeper cultural connect. Because the culture of North East is very rich and it influenced South East Asian countries like Myanmar, Thailand etc. So if we have to bring the North East into our discourse – India ASEAN discourse – the region can play a big role through culture, connectivity and so on. And if the trilateral highway comes through it will also bring in lots of opportunities for the development of the North East.