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Rediff.com  » Business » Asean: Wise to take the culture route

Asean: Wise to take the culture route

November 24, 2007 13:46 IST

Manmohan Singh faced stiff competition in Singapore. No, not at the East Asia Summit or in meetings with the Asean. But the rival attractions of two imaginative exhibitions on India's past and an exhaustive three-day conference titled "Early Indian Influences in Southeast Asia" eclipsed his presence while China's Wen Jiabao basked in media glory that reflected the reality of economic and military power.

The conference organised by Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and three other local organisations signalled India's more subtle strength: ASEAN is only the ancient Hindu-Buddhist Suvarnabhumi in modern garb.

But is Singh's government aware of that or interested in tapping the rich lode of history in the continuing struggle for Southeast Asian hearts and minds? It seemed doubtful from the indifferent response to initiatives that would not have been possible -- certainly not on this grand scale with a dinner hosted by President S R Nathan -- if the word hadn't gone out that Singapore's government sees advantage in further developing its Indian connection.

But the Suvarnabhumi link has always had its detractors. There was dissent, for instance, when Pierre-Yves Manguin, an archaeologist from France's Ecole Française d'Extrème Orient and now with Singapore's Asia Research Institute, quoted the American Indologist, Sheldon Pollock, that it made "hardly more sense to distinguish between South and Southeast Asia than between north India and south India."

Nevertheless, Manguin stressed the need to decolonise history in a paper that also demonstrated Indian links with the region at least a millennium before the third-fifth centuries when what has been called Further India, Greater India, the East Indies, Indochina and Insulindia was recognised as "indianised."

There were echoes, too, of the old propaganda that Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee and Kalidas Nag launched the Greater India Society in Calcutta in the 1920s only to boast to their British masters that enslaved Indians also once fathered colonies.

The dismissiveness reminded me of the furore in Cambodia some years ago that the Archaeological Survey of India had ruined Angkor Wat's exquisite carvings. It transpired that the canard was spread by diplomats representing a European country that had lost out when UNESCO awarded restoration contracts.

Given such denigration, it was a relief when Tansen Sen, an engaging young Bengali academic who was brought up in China and teaches ancient Chinese history at New York's Baruch College, gently contradicted the claim that China's Sung emperor regarded South India's Chola kingdom as a "Tributary State of the First Class". According to Sen, Kiel University's Hermann Kulke, who made the claim, relied on a misinterpretation of a single Sung text.

Moreover, Chinese perceptions of the Cholas were shaped by the deceit and disinformation of their Srivijaya rivals whom Rajendra Chola humbled in two attacks. Sen might have added that the Celestial Empire was known for its mix of arrogance and guile.

Witness the Manchu emperor's edict in 1793 to Britain's ambassador, Lord Macartney, loftily acknowledging  George III's "sincere humility and obedience" in sending tribute and admonishing the monarch to "act in conformity with our wishes by strengthening your loyalty and swearing perpetual obedience..." while disdainfully spurning British manufactures.

India cannot compete with China in strategy or brute strength. But she can seek to reaffirm the cultural commonalty that links her with all the ASEAN countries. This column has pointed out before the limitations of soft power when not backed by military might and generous funding.

All the more reason, therefore, for making the most of  such historical assets as India does possess. Yet, Gauri Parimoo Krishnan, senior curator of the Asian Civilizations Museum which has mounted a fabulous "On the Nalanda Trail" exhibition to trace Buddhism's progress from India to China and Southeast Asia, had terrible difficulty persuading Calcutta Museum to lend her some priceless carvings that were gathering dust in storage.

She was lucky. Pushpalatha Naidu, senior executive at the National Library, one of the conference hosts, whose "KaalaChakra" display celebrates the cultural and commercial past of  the region's Indians, drew a blank. Nor is this all. I gather two Indian archaeologists were not allowed to accept invitations to the conference. This obstructiveness must be contrasted with the vigorous charm offensive China has launched in the region.

The conference and exhibition organisers could have done with tangible evidence of official Indian support. That might also have helped to evoke greater interest in the ethnic Chinese and Malays who comprise nearly 85 per cent of Singapore's population. Only then can Singapore be India's launching pad for the entire Suvarnabhumi region. The competition for Indochina has not changed over the centuries, nor the competitor his spots.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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