Asean: Sharing values and common destiny
Celebrating the silver jubilee of the India-Asean relations, cultural and intellectual exchanges and people-to-people contact continue to be an important pillar for the member countries today
It was to commemorate 25 years of the establishment of India-Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) relations on the 70th Independence Day that Bhopal witnessed the coming together of delegates from the 10 Asean nations for a youth summit. The cultural linkages between Southeast Asia and India date back to two millennia, with shared heritage and histories. The socio-cultural linkages between the two enable us to acquire a better understanding of the relations amongst the India-Asean nations.
Evidence of the earliest contacts between India and its Southeast Asia neighbours can be traced to the first century AD. Excavations of the Pyu settlements in present day Myanmar show evidence of the earliest Southeast Asian contacts with India, and one of the sites is called Beikthano (meaning the city of vishnu). Indian influence is evident in Pyu architecture, coinage, statues of Hindu deities and the Buddha, and other early forms of epigraphy. Pyu coins have been unearthed from as far as the Mekong Delta, indicating that trade and culture followed the same route.
Besides the famed temples of Cambodia like Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm with distinct Indian connections and influences, another group of sites scattered through central Thailand called Dvaravati, associated with the Mon inhabitants, which flourished from the seventh century AD to the end of the first millennium, also show heavy influence of Indian culture, especially Buddhist influence, in addition to that of Vaishnav and Shaivite traditions. The Kingdoms of Cham, which were the southern neighbours of Vietnam, also demonstrated extensive influence of Indian culture, with the famous area of ‘My Son’ having a complex of temples dedicated to Shiva.
The Government of India is actively involved, along with its Asean partners, in its efforts to preserve, protect and restore many of these symbols and structures that represent the civilisational bonds between Asean and India. In his address at the inaugural session of the summit, Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen V K Singh, laid stress on continued efforts to build synergies between India and Asean member states based on the civilisational links and commonalities between India and Southeast Asia.
Commerce primarily took place via the seas with the ancient port of Tamralipti at the mouth of the Ganges being one of the earliest points of embarkation. From there, ships sailed across to the Malay Peninsula, either along the coast of Bengal and Myanmar or through the Bay of Bengal. Later routes diversified, for example, from Tamralipti in Odisha to Sri Lanka and the Nicobar Islands, which would then either go on through the Sunda Straits or the Straits of Malacca. Not only were the trade networks vast but importantly, commerce and exchange was a two-way process, with both Indians and Southeast Asians playing an active role in it.
Many centuries have passed since the first signs of the budding commercial relationship between India and Southeast Asia, and while the exchanges have waxed and waned over the centuries, trade between India and Southeast Asia remains an important aspect of our engagement in the 21st century, with Asean being India’s fourth largest trading partner today.
When the world is on the edge due to the challenge of climate change, it becomes vital for nations to come together to understand its consequences and mitigate it with utmost priority. To understand the seriousness, Asean recognises the importance of creating synergy between the mutually-reinforcing Asean 2025 blueprints and the sustainable development goals (SDGs) within the framework of Asean-UN cooperation.
Owing to its location and geo-strategic condition, Asean is one of the most vulnerable regions to the challenge of climate change. In recent past, several Asean countries are among the hardest hit by natural disasters such as drought, sea level rise, and typhoon. Indonesia and Thailand were hit by tsunami in 2004, earthquake happened in Myanmar in 2012. Philippines and Vietnam too suffered from Taiphoon Haiyan in 2013. This takes on special significance considering Asia and the Pacific is home to half of the world’s poor.
Due to location and geo-strategic condition, Asean is one of the most exposures to climate change vulnerability in the region. The SDGs is a shared goal at the multilateral level but also at the regional level and this initiative shows that Asean is at the forefront of the effort to achieve the mutually-reinforcing goals of the blueprints and the SDGs.
Cultural and intellectual exchanges and people-to-people contacts continue to be an important pillar of India-Asean relations today, and we aim to expand them through various initiatives, such as through the exchange of artists, students, journalists, farmers and parliamentarians, as well as a multiplicity of think-tank initiatives.
Connectivity is the key to facilitate socio-cultural exchanges and an important priority that we are working on. India shares both a land and maritime boundary with Asean. The linkages between Asean and India’s North-Eastern States and communities are not just of close geographical proximity but of blood relations. The Tai race from Thailand has its descendants, the Ahoms, living in the north-eastern State of Assam. The Khamtis who are descendants of the Tai from Thailand and Myanmar are also found in both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Meanwhile, the Khasis in Meghalaya are believed to have ancestral links to Thailand. As connectivity expands, so will the people-to-people exchanges along the border.
Stressing over youth engagement among regions and India’s millennia back relations with Asean, at the valedictory function of Indo-Asean youth summit, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said Buddhism and Ramayana connect members of Asean alliance, including Muslim-dominated Indonesia, to India.
Recalling her trip to Indonesia last year, Swaraj said the country is full of motifs from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. She said every major road junction depicts the famous image from Gita — of Arjun bowing before Krishna, the charioteer.
Narrating India’s deep relation with Asean, she also narrated to the youth delegation how Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s curiosity got better of him and he asked the sculptor what he was making. “But you are a Muslim,'” he told the sculptor, only to be told, ‘Hamne mazhab badla hai purkhe nahi’ (we have changed our religion, not ancestors), she said. She asked the Indian participants of the summit to visit these countries and see how India and these countries were embracing each other.
During the summit, while culture, connectivity and commerce occupied the central stage there was also emphasis on using soft power to enhance better understanding between the two regions (India-Asean). There was also consensus on promoting digital connectivity for better access of information amongst the youth of the region, thus enabling them in participating meaningfully in the globalised, knowledge-based economy. The summit which concluded with the establishment of India-Asean youth council urged the members to make it an action oriented forum with concrete and sustainable results.
(The writer is a senior research fellow at India Foundation, New Delhi)
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