How The Mahatma’s Values Resonate Across Australia Even Today

This article first appeared in Swarajya Mag on24th November 2018.

A landmark moment of Indian President Ram Nath Kovind’s recent visit to Australia was the unveiling of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue at the Paramatta City Council in Sydney. The Indian government of the day has left no stone unturned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of India’s foremost thought leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Ahead of the President inaugurating this new statue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the first Indian prime minister to visit Australia in 28 years, had unveiled a 2.5-metre tall bronze statue of Gandhi, which was sculpted by Ram Suttar, in Australia’s south-eastern state of Queensland.

In his speech during the ceremony, President Kovind recalled and expounded the famous lines of Gandhi’s favourite song, “Vaishnava Jan To Tene Kahiye”, saying this about it: “The essence of it is compassion, kindness, and goodness for others, for once and for always, without letting pride enter one’s mind. This captures the inner voice of the Mahatma.” He even thanked one of Australia’s popular singers, Heather Lee, for giving her voice to the song as a tribute. This perhaps gives us a curtain-raiser peep into how Gandhi has permeated Australia in significant ways.

I began research to see when the Australian media first reported about Gandhi, or whether at all they did, what was their sense, and what was the proportion of coverage. Some of the examples were noteworthy and striking as the reportage ranged from defining Gandhi as a persona to elaborating on some of the tools that Gandhi began to use to garner people together for a cause that began to find substantive resonance.

Mahatma Gandhi first appeared in the Evening News from Sydney on 8 January 1897, exactly four years after he arrived in South Africa, when he was just 27 years of age. Soon after that in 1906-1907, the World Australian news section of newspapers reported Gandhi’s first tryst to use ‘Satyagraha’ as a tool against the British in South Africa. He was far away in South Africa when the Australian media began to actually notice and showcase who Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi actually was and what were some of the ideals that he stood for.

It is fascinating to look at some substantive examples from academia and educational institutions in an attempt to contemporise history and its essence. The key is to extract the right lessons in order to learn from some of the leading lights of the past, like Gandhi, for example, and to share the learning with the present-day generation in an objective and nuanced manner.

In 2015, to mark Gandhi’s birth anniversary celebrations, the University of Sydney organised a programme celebrating his statement, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” As per available event reports, the discussion saw the participation of more than 250 prominent Australian and Indian leaders from the business, government, and education sectors. At this discussion, Professor Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney, emphasised how his thinking was shaped by a simple quotation from Gandhi: “My life is my message.”

Another interesting example is of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), which hosts Gandhi’s birth anniversary celebrations every year, and they even have a bust that was installed in 2010 at the library lawn. Marking the 150th birth anniversary this year, Prof Laurie Pearcey, who leads the UNSW’s global partnership team and who also happens to be the youngest pro-vice-chancellor in Australia, urged all who had gathered to reflect on the values of Gandhi in today’s world. To quote Pearcey, “Gandhi stressed that education is the key for not only changing attitudes, but also to shaping the new generation. He challenged us to be thoughtful and to be educated. He was an advocate of change and resistance, but also of harmony and tolerance and cooperation, which is why commemorating his birthday is just as important here in Australia as it is in India and in many countries around the world.”

At the event, Pearcey also confirmed that the UNSW views India as a key partner in its 2025 strategy. The university’s impressive Gandhi tribute this year also included an illumination of the library tower in Indian colours, and the digital display of Gandhi’s silhouette as well.

Think tanks in Australia are leading the way, too. One is the unique Center for Stories, which describes its mission as, “To create a vibrant, inclusive arts and cultural organisation that uses storytelling to inspire cohesion and understanding through rich and diverse programs.” This centre, which is in Perth, has scheduled a panel discussion on the topic, “Mahatma Gandhi: His Influence and Impact”, for December 2018.

The Australian legislature is doing its bit, too. From 2 October to 9 November this year, the Parliament of Western Australia hosted an exclusive exhibition of 30 photographs of Mahatma Gandhi to honour his message as well as the International Day of Non-violence. The exhibition was called ‘Borderless Gandhi’, and the Parliament described this significant collection in the following words: “Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian Nationalist movement against the British rule of India, and used and promoted nonviolent civil disobedience to effect social change. His birthday of 2 October is now known as the International Day of Non-Violence. The collection emphasises the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and the on-going relevance of his values of peace, equality and nonviolence.”

In 2017, the ‘Soft Power 30’ report was brought out by the University of Southern California and Portland Communications. This is a column on how museums can power a country’s soft power. The report notes, “Museums become more prominent as soft power platforms when they amplify civic discourse, accelerate cultural change, and contribute to cultural intelligence among the great diversity of city dwellers, visitors, policymakers, and leaders.”

It is no wonder, then, that the state government of Victoria in Australia rolled out a four-month-long digital interactive exhibition at their Immigration Museum in April 2018, showcasing the life and achievements of Mahatma Gandhi. This exhibition had more than 1,000 archival photographs, over 130 minutes of footage, over 60 minutes of film clips, and over 20 voice recordings of various episodes of the Mahatma’s speeches. The curators of the museum had featured the period of Gandhi’s life in which he migrated from India to England and then South Africa, as well as the change he helped bring about in India on his return.

Whether it is the media, world-renowned academic institutions, legislatures, museums, libraries, you name it – Mahatma Gandhi continues to inspire much of Australia in many ways. The Indian and Australian cricket teams may be at loggerheads now, but the cultural exchanges between the two nations tell a different story altogether. That so many Australians draw inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi speaks volumes for the reach of the Indian value system, as much in demand now as ever before.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow and Administrative in-charge of India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies.


Newton wins at BRICS Film Festival. How cinema can bring India and Brazil closer

This article first appeared in DailO on 3rd August 2018.

In Brazil, Indian filmmakers could find a market unlike any other.

“The influence in India of films is greater than newspapers and books combined,” said Jawaharlal Nehru.

The 2018 BRICS summit concluded in July, with various themes of economic and political cooperation discussed. Unknown to many, however, a much smaller event was also held as a part of the summit — the 3rd BRICS film festival.

The festival saw numerous film submissions, in a multitude of genres, from all the five nations. And in the midst of all these, the winner of the best film award was a movie about a polling station in a Naxal stronghold of India. Newton, the film in question, represents the best of Indian cinema of 2017, and its win at the festival shows the immense potential that Indian films have with respect to BRICS nations, especially Brazil.

It’s a common saying that every country has stories to tell, about their past, their culture now, and views of what the future will look like through their eyes. As India’s cultural reach grows with every passing day, it is still Indian cinema that is its primary driving force, and acts as a catalyst for Indian soft power — that is, India’s ability to influence the actions of other states using non-coercive elements such as culture.

Cinema represents, in many ways, one of the most tangible forms of soft power, as it allows for people of various backgrounds to be exposes to experiences and stories that are truly representative of India, its culture and its people. And with this exposure comes a clearer understanding, and then an appreciation, of what India is.

This appreciation is seen distinctly in Brazil. In May 2014, the country came out with a unique way of paying tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema, by releasing two postage stamps designed by two Indian graphic designers. The stamps were released to mark a nationwide film festival dedicated to contemporary Indian cinema.

However, to merely stop at appreciation is to limit the power of Indian film and TV. It is imperative that with this appreciation, there comes an aspiration among the people to be like the India that they see on the big screen.

And that aspiration is also seen clearly in Brazil, in the case of Caminho das Índias, or India: A Love Story, a Brazilian TV show in 2009 that followed the story of Maya and Bahuan, a call center employee in Rajasthan belonging to a Vaishya family and a student in America who hailed from a Dalit family, as they tried to navigate their love through the societal pressures of caste.

During its airing, Caminho was the most watched TV show in Brazil, reaching around 40 per centof all Brazilian households, consisting of around 40 million people — outdoing most other Brazilian prime-time telenovellas. The show served to be Brazil’s introduction into Indian culture on a large scale, with the film creators having both studied Indian cinema and TV, and shot the show in India.

And its success clearly shows the impact that Indian culture and society can have in a foreign land.

Despite being in Portuguese, the show incorporates numerous Hindi words, such as theek haiachha, and bhagwan, which have now found themselves added to the roster of everyday slang used in Brazil. Furthermore, the show featured all the aspects of a typical desi saas bahu serial — lots of family drama, an unmistakably Indian setting, characters in kurtas and saris, and numerous item songs, from Kajra Re to Nagada, all of which have now become clearly recognisable by Brazilians throughout the country.

Caminho in fact did not limit itself to Brazil, but was picked up by Telefutura, a Spanish American network. The network boasts a broadcast range of over 60 million, representing a sizeable new audience for the show. And with an average viewership of around 900,000 people per episode, the show outperformed other competing Spanish TV shows.

This demonstrates that the show’s resonance in Brazil is not a one-off thing, but rather indicative of the immense power that Indian Cinema, and indeed Indian culture, can have in capturing the imagination of a global audience.

This familiarity with Indian culture has manifested itself in other avenues, even permeating into Brazil’s most iconic of celebrations, La Carnival, through street performances and parades such as Bloco Bollywood.

Despite the positive impact of a show like Camhino, it is important to note that there still remains a sense of distance between the two nations. The two BRICS countries often find themselves extolling the shared values of democracy and increasing growth as creating a unique bond between the two nations, but this has done little to bridge their gap.

Trade between the two regions did pick up in 2017, having increased by34.71 per cent. However, this only translated to a total of US $ 7.6 billion, with India still only Brazil’s 10th largest trade partner. And while tourism between the two countries is slowly picking up, they still do not feature in each other’s top 10.

The creation of such a unique bond requires sustained action between the two nations, and one area where such action could take place is cinema.

India has often been a destination for various Brazilian actors looking to enter into the mainstream. One need only look at Giselli Monteiro and other such actors, who, on returning to Brazil as stars, create a sense of familiarity among the local people with India.

More importantly, in Brazil, Indian filmmakers could find a market for films unlike any other. Brazilian cinema, much like its Indian counterpart, has historically distinguished itself from both American and European film styles. And like many emerging Indian films, Brazilian cinema takes a much darker, gritty stance — with movies often exploring native themes of gang violence, extreme poverty and crime in an incredibly violent manner.

Here, independent Indian filmmakers, who wish to create films that deal with these subjects as opposed to a “masala” film, will find an additional market wherein their movies can be shown. A market that is both familiar with the Indian society, and one that is inclined to and appreciative of the rawness that such independent films would have. The seeds of this have already been sown by directors such as Anurag Kashyap, who partnered with Brazilian filmmaker Beatriz Seigner on a new film titled Los Silencios (The silence).

As such, shows such as Camhinos and other Indian movies would be complimented well by independent films, and in this manner, India could create a set of films that depict all aspects of Indian culture in a way that is accessible to the entirety of Brazil’s population. And it is through this accessibility that India would ensure that through cimena, the words of our founding fathers do indeed ring true.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow and Administrative in-charge of India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies. Aman Nair is a Junior Research Fellow at India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies.

Why yoga’s influence is growing in Putin’s Russia

This article first appeared in DailO on 19th June 2018.

One of the first names that comes to mind in relation to the word “yoga” is Swami Vivekananda and distinctively so. It was in Boston, USA, that he first spoke about India’s gift to the world. When introducing yoga to the West then, Swami Vivekananda elucidated that in addition to physical posturing, yoga is about strengthening the mind. The Bhagavad Gita, too, states that “yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self” and refers to all forms of yoga such as Karma Yoga (path of action), Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion) and Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge), in addition to physical posturing (Raja and Hatha Yoga).

For Swami Vivekananda, yoga is “for the worker” and it is “a union between man and the whole of humanity; to the mystic, between his higher and lower selves; to the lover, a union between himself and his God of love; to the philosopher, it is a union of all existence.”

In an article on yoga a few years ago, TIME Magazine made an observation that “while the East treats the man, the West treats the disease.” Learned Indian scholars have pointed out that the core underlying thread of Indian civilization is happiness, which makes understanding one’s inner self and connecting with spirituality as key. The core of spirituality is examining each and every experience and knowing exactly what one is searching for. Any form of yoga in all certainty helps one do that.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in addition to calling yoga “a passport to health assurance” rightly defined it as a journey “from I to we”, thus symbolising the journey of oneness. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly he said that “yoga is an invaluable gift of ancient Indian tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action, restraint and fulfilment, harmony between man and nature and a holistic approach to health and well-being. Yoga is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with ourselves, the world and nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us to deal with climate change”.

The United Nations resolution on International Day of Yoga (IDY), aimed at promoting healthy societies, was passed within 75 days of the Indian Prime Minister’s speech. The resolution was also co-sponsored by a record 177 countries. From Swami Vivekananda positing yoga as India’s composite soft power, to Oprah Winfrey hosting a dedicated show on it, to yoga being an integral part of the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on South Lawn since 2009, yoga has come a long way in linking the ancient wisdom of the East to the contemporary needs of the West.

In India, there are possible policy decisions that clearly point out that yoga is not just to be celebrated on one day of the year as an event, but can and must be transformed into a movement. Introduction of yoga parks and possible executive education courses on yoga and meditation at the legendary Nalanda University, are some examples of how this is being achieved.

Having said that, since the inception of IDY, the gift has spread far and wide to several countries uniquely and superbly showcasing India’s soft power. Even in countries where there was less participation and fanfare expected, like in Russia for instance, yoga has enthused a lot of excitement. In 2015, events to commemorate IDY were held at 244 venues in 80 cities in almost 60 regions of the country with close to 30,000 people participating. This liking for yoga however cannot be attributed to IDY alone. In fact there have been many organisations which have mushroomed in Russia that are taking yoga to the common man.

Russia has produced the likes of the legendary Indra Devi, also known as the first lady of yoga amongst her followers. She was responsible for teaching yoga in many countries, Argentina being one of them. In pursuit of embracing yoga, Indra Devi is said to have visited India and learnt yoga in Tamil Nadu from the Theosophical Society. She is also credited to have acted in Sher-e-Arab with the famous actor and film-maker Prithviraj Kapoor.

As per the Russian web portal, Russia Today, “1 in 3 Russians practise yoga today. According to some estimates, over 90 yoga studios in 70 Russian cities now offer yoga classes and workshops to all.” The portal goes on to add that there are close to three hundred thousand people in the country practising various types of yoga.

In 2008, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, then President, tried to popularise yoga. This is said to have contributed to several yoga centres and schools coming up in several regions of the country. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin once said that yoga “cannot fail to attract”. Boris Yeltsin’s wife, Naina Yeltsina, was known to practice yoga daily and encouraged all Russians to do the same.

The Russian quest for understanding oneself through yoga and spirituality with an Indian lens is not a new phenomenon. This can be traced back to the time when the Iron Curtain fell and spiritual thought began to be accessed. Indian spiritual giant Sri Aurobindo’s literature began to find deep resonance amongst the minds of the people. Academics in Russia soon began to translate some of Sri Aurobindo’s works for the benefit of those interested.

On the other hand, there have been several Russian philosophers who have persistently worked to bring Russia and India closer. One such name that resonates until this day is Nicholas Roerich, the painter and philosopher who spent his final days in the Kullu valley and who continues to be famously known for his Buddhist paintings which have been duly preserved.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow and Administrative in-charge of India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies. Shreya Challagalla is a Research Fellow at India Foundation’s Centre for Soft Power Studies.

How a monument dedicated to a South Korean queen in Ayodhya is a symbol of India’s soft power

This article first appeared in DailO on 9th November 2018.

The visit of South Korean First Lady Kim Jung-sook has solidified the ties between New Delhi and Seoul.

As the South Korean First Lady Kim Jung-sook set foot in India on

her first foreign visit without being accompanied by her husband, President Moon Jae-in, a historical page that defines India’s soft power narrative has been written and celebrated.

What is most significant is that the First Lady commemorated the rich legacy and lineage of Heo Hwang-ok of the Karak dynasty — whose original name is believed to have been Suriratna — by laying the foundation stone to expand a monument dedicated to the ancient queen, in Ayodhya.

On reaching the historic city, the Kim Jung-sook’s first stop was the existing plaque and park dedicated to Suriratna. She also attended grand Diwali celebrations alongside Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, including cultural shows and the spectacular lighting of more than 300,000 lamps on the banks of the Saryu river. Kim Jung-sook certainly made a strong and graceful statement by donning a sari at the festivities, but the greater statement was made by the reason for her very presence.

The original memorial for Suriratna was inaugurated in 2001 by a Korean delegation, which included over 100 historians and government representatives. Then in 2016, a Korean delegation proposed to develop the memorial further. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the governments of both countries.

The recent visit by the First Lady consolidated and solidified the cultural bond and the flourishing robust economic ties between India and South Korea. The ability to build such cultural connections is indeed the new currency in international relations. Professor Joseph Nye, who first coined the phrase “soft power” 27 years ago has said, “Power with others can be more effective than power over others,” and this is being demonstrated by India’s international relations in the present age.

Other nations are keeping pace. As part of its renewed foreign policy approach, South Korea has officially documented its foreign policy initiatives towards India, as part of its ‘New Southern Policy’. Apart from prospective economic reasons, South Korea also wants to enable an India led Indo-Pacific region by rejuvenating its relations with India. Several visiting South Korean ministers have reiterated that historically their country has had no sensitive geo-political issues with India.

In fact, while visiting India in July earlier this year, which was the longest visit by the head of either country, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, emphasised on the ancient relations between India and South Korea. He referred to queen Suriratna in one of his speeches during the visit and said, “India and Korea have a long history of exchanges and have been friends helping each other in difficult times. Indian Princess Heo Hwang-ok (Korean name) from the Kingdom of Ayuta came to Korea about 2,000 years ago and later became the Queen of Korea’s ancient Gaya Kingdom.”

Kim Byung-Mo, an anthropologist from Hanyang University, has identified Ayuta as Ayodhya in India. Chinese language texts have referred to a dream the then King of Ayodhya had, where God ordered him to send his 16-year-old daughter to South Korea to marry King Kim Suro. It is said by historians that today there are more than six million descendants of the couple, which is roughly about 10 per cent of the entire South Korean population. The visit of President Moon had also marked the 45th anniversary of establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties.

In this way, historic stories do not only illustrate, but also illuminate and inspire. Ayodhya, which is best known as the birthplace of Prince Rama and which interestingly translates as a “place of no conflict”, holds special significance for the said community of South Koreans, many of whom believe that they trace their ancestry to the city. In fact, it appears to be more than just a belief a fact, which was so firmly validated by the First Lady’s recent visit.

On YouTube there are videos available which show how Korean youth start by tracing India-South Korea relations to the story of Suriratna and attribute that as a focal point in strengthening relations between the two countries. The fact that her story resonates with Korea’s gen-next even to this date, speaks volumes.

The respect is mutual. Recently, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Uttarakhand Investors Summit in Dehradun, he affirmed that South Korea was a country that he had wished to emulate as erstwhile chief minister of Gujarat as the state and the country shared almost the same population. In his words, “I was asked who I see as my idol for development in Gujarat. Usually, when people are asked this, they say, ‘I want to make the place like America or like England.’ But I gave a different answer. I said that I want to make it (Gujarat) like South Korea.”

Many Indians won’t know this, but more than 100 years ago, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem on Korea, titled “Light of the East”. Even today, Koreans learn this poem during their college years.

  • In the golden age of Asia,
  • Korea was one of its lamp bearers,
  • And that lamp is waiting,
  • To be lighted once again
  • For the illumination of the East.

All this clearly indicates the close bond between the two countries. Expanding the monument for Heo Hwang-ok furthers cultural as well as economic bonds between India and South Korea, but this is about much more than just tourism. It is about honouring the beliefs of the descendants of Suriratna and focussing on that which connects in a world where the focus is more often on that which divides and disintegrates.

Amidst the hue and cry about the installation of statues in today’s India, let’s look beyond face value at the strategic big thinking involved in placing India in the global scene. Our statues and memorials are symbols of our soft power as a nation. We’re no longer sheepish players on the world stage. India is stepping into the limelight and presenting her soft power in all the right ways and with all the right vantage points in this old yet new narration.

As a country, important projects like Statue of Unity and a memorial for Suriratna in Ayodhya will posit India as a well-documented history and more importantly, it sets the scene for India’s cultural influence outside India to be adequately analysed in academic discourses.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation and the Admin in Charge of the Center for Soft Power

How the Indian President, Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to ‘My Son’ in Vietnam is a symbol of soft power

This article first appeared in DailO on 22nd November 2018.

The My Son Sanctuary is an exceptional example of cultural interchange between the two nations, and thus, a great conversation starter

India‘s President Ram Nath Kovind is midway through a significant trip to two important Indo-Pacific countries, namely Vietnam and Australia. His visit to Vietnam has been his first to an ASEAN country since assuming office. It has also come soon after the election of Vietnamese President Trong, which happened in October 2018.

What is very significant is the fact that President Kovind began his visit from Da Nang, a place believed to have a rich historical and civilisational connection with India. Da Nang is famous for its world heritage site My Son, which is the origin and home of the Hindu Cham civilisation — which dates back 2000 years — and the ancient temples of their people, constructed by the kings of Champa between the 4th and 13th centuries AD, which also have Buddhist connections. This further strengthens its ties to India, considering that Buddhism originated in the Indian subcontinent, as President Kovind also pointed out.

The Cham community is one of 50 ethnic groups living in and around the margins of Vietnam, and they share distinct characteristics with Indians. In fact, a documentary on India and Southeast Asia produced by India’s Ministry of External Affairs has stated that the Cham community also have part Tamil ancestry.

The importance of the visit to My Son cannot be missed as it is one of the foremost Hindu heritage sites of Southeast Asia. As per UNSECO, “The My Son Sanctuary is an exceptional example of cultural interchange, with an indigenous society adapting to external cultural influences, notably the Hindu art and architecture of the Indian sub-continent. The Champa Kingdom was an important phenomenon in the political and cultural history of South East Asia, vividly illustrated by the ruins of My Son.”

In fact, some more research-driven audio-visual documentaries about My Son also state that there were more than 70 temples at the site, with inscriptions in Sanskrit and Cham. There are also details which state that a large number of the inscriptions allude to and describe interesting historical events, such as the then on-going wars between Champa and Cambodia in the 12th century.

Most of My Son’s architecture was destroyed by the US during the Vietnam War. Interestingly, My Son is the only place in Vietnamese history without the influence of the US or France. Indeed, a great start to President Kovind’s visit, and one which marks the kindred spirit and emotional link shared between the two countries, as well as a deep cultural connect.

Slowly but surely, India has begun effective projection of her soft power symbols in Southeast Asia. Currently, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is helping Vietnam in the preservation and conservation of some of the temples there. To this effect, funds are released through the Ministry of External Affairs as part of India’s diplomatic outreach to such nations, with the ASI, under the Ministry of Culture, is the implementing agency. This type of work can go on for decades and is often monitored by third-party agencies such as the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

In 2010, as part of an India-Vietnam cultural exchange programme, a two-member ASI team visited Vietnam to make a preliminary assessment of the task to conserve the Cham monuments, including the UNESCO World Heritage My Son group of temples. A memorandum of understanding was signed in October 2014 and execution of the project began with three groups of temples. It’s definitely high time that we have detailed research of Hindu temples in Vietnam, and of their idols and structures. After all, Southeast Asia holds an integral part of the destiny of Hinduism.

As per a research paper by the Center on Globalisation, Governance and Competitiveness of the Duke University, “Tourism has become an essential and fast-growing economic activity and it accounts for about 45 per cent of service exports in developing countries.” The paper goes on to attribute that “Vietnam has already had success in offering MICE (Meetings Incentives Conventions and Exhibitions) products in addition to its more well-known cultural tourism offerings.” The President’s visit could reignite, or rather is a gentle reminder for tour operators that enabling tourism in a substantive manner through a focussed approach by tapping into sites such as My Son, is the way forward.

One of Vietnam’s former Deputy Prime Ministers, Vu Khoan, once famously asserted that, “The depth of diplomacy is culture.” What is also discernible is the vast reach of Buddhism, the flourishing and dominant religion in Southeast Asia — a common socio-cultural and religious thread. In fact, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations has established several chairs related to India in countries abroad, and there are several of them in universities in ASEAN countries.

Back to Vietnam, the visit of the President of India has had other highlights too. In a heart-warming gesture, students from the Vietnam National University, along with Indian embassy staff and their spouses, came together to sing the Hindi movie song, “Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge” (we will not break this friendship) from the popular movie Sholay, for the Indian president and his wife, Savita Kovind.

Music is not the only way to the President’s heart, who didn’t miss an opportunity to later tweet about Vietnamese cuisine and coffee, commenting on the fact that both are growing in popularity in India. He highlighted that Indians are popularly known to be tea drinkers; quite a testimony for the quality of coffee produced by Vietnam!

While drawing attention to the parallels between both countries, President Kovind noted that India and Vietnam both have a special year coming up, as 2019 marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi as well as the 50th anniversary since the passing away of Ho Chi Minh. Both are considered fathers and catalysts of change in their respective nations.

Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam are popular in India, especially in West Bengal where the famous chant ‘Amar Naam, Tumar Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam’ was earlier heard. The words have deep imprints and are recalled even to date.

President Kovind also referred to the deep connection between the two countries by tweeting, “The people-to-people network between Vietnam and India – an inheritor of one of the oldest people-to-people networks in Asia and the Indo-Pacific – is the foundation and the edifice of our partnership.”

In the book, Cultural and Civilisational Links between India and Southeast Asia, edited by Shyam Saran, the long-standing historical ties between India and the ASEAN region were determined by the nautical narratives of India. In one of the chapters titled, Indian–Southeast Asian Contacts and Cultural Exchanges: Evidence from Vietnam, the author, Le Thi Lien writes that, “trade along the sea and river systems played a vital role in cementing ties between India and Vietnam, mainly along the river systems, including goods such as metal ingots, gemstones, shell, carnelian, fine pottery, etc.”

For millennia, Indians have believed in the power of civilisation and that has been a key aspect of Indian identity. This very premise has given Indians a sense of belonging, inclusion, and loyalty. The country’s bilateral relations and foreign policies have also been determined by alluding to the relevance of civilisational ties. The focus has been on that which connects, which is always a healthy focus to have.

India’s meaningful steps in harnessing these civilisational connects are what truly distinguishes Indian soft power. This by no means is an imposition with strategically important countries like Vietnam and other ASEAN countries. The visit of President Kovind to culturally significant places like My Son was welcomed by the people of both countries, and it also reaffirms that India is no longer reticent to exhibit to the world that she is serious about harnessing these soft power tools.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation and the Admin in Charge of the Center for Soft Power

How the Kumbh Mela is enhancing India’s ‘spiritual diplomacy’ and global ‘soft power’

This article first appeared in DailO on 30th January 2019.

To envision that the Kumbh can be branded as an enabling tool for India’s diplomacy must be acknowledged as an out-of-the-box idea. The current political will, and cultural warmth, greeting foreign visitors at the Kumbh is highly significant.

The Kumbh Mela has catalysed Indian thought to pervade the world and the human mind in subtle and nuanced ways. The world’s largest peaceful congregation has enhanced India’s image abroad and has proved to be an important aspect of the country’s ‘spiritual diplomacy’.

India, this year, has taken special and specific efforts to showcase to the world the USP of the Kumbh Mela. Hundreds of tourists from around the globe are thronging the Kumbh to get an experience of a lifetime and are leaving absolutely astounded by the scale and sheer magnitude of such a gathering.

Anna Hermina, a resident of the Netherlands, has changed her name to ‘Swarnalakshmi’ after being deeply influenced by Hinduism. Speaking to India Today TV, Hermina went on to reflect on her experience of taking part in the Kumbh Mela, “Such a huge gathering is just incredible and shows the unity in this country. I was thinking of coming here during the Kumbh for 20 years but have finally succeeded today. I changed my name around four years back after being influenced by Hindu culture and traditions. Such a huge congregation is impossible in my country.”

The Kumbh Mela received a much-needed endorsement at UNESCO very recently — UNESCO listed the Kumbh as part of their Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, during its 12th session at South Korea.

The exact attribution given to the word ‘intangible’ by UNESCO is noteworthy. It says, “Intangible heritage refers to oral traditions, performing arts, social practices and rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts, which communities across the world associate with their culture, and pass on from generation to generation.”

UNESCO’s explanation for why the Kumbh made it to the list is worthy of mention as well.

It said, “Kumbh Mela made the list because it is the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth, and the event encapsulates the science of astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, and social and cultural customs, and practices, making it extremely rich in knowledge.”

This affirmation of Kumbh by UNESCO stands against the backdrop of its decision in 2003, when it realised the need to conserve intangible heritage as it is equally important to conserve culture.

The Kumbh is an unforgettable experience. Past editions have seen tourists from distant countries like Russia, who decided to experience the Mela despite not knowing the local language. This truly speaks volumes of the experience that the Kumbh allows one and all.

Clearly, the Kumbh Mela is proving to be one of India’s most effective soft power tools by attracting foreign tourists in several of its editions. This is not just restricted to tourism per se, but professionals and enthusiasts from abroad continue to visit Kumbh to study its impact as well. An interesting example was discernible in February 2013, when over 50 scholars, academics and philosophers from the world’s top Ivy League universities in the US, including Harvard and MIT, visited India just to understand the phenomenon called the Kumbh Mela and see how it is pulled off with such remarkable efficiency.

“In today’s information age, victory does not depend on whose army wins, but on whose story wins,” said John Arquilla, an American analyst and an academic of international relations. The Kumbh Mela has been a trendsetter for the great Indian story to be told and retold every time it is held.

The Kumbh has never been about stamping one’s authority or operating through coercion. With each passing edition, the Kumbh has signified the spirit of justice, equality, liberty and fraternity.

Interestingly, this time India is making a conscious effort to integrate the Kumbh story into its foreign policy orientation.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas, which was started by the late Shri Atal Bihar Vajpayee’s NDA government, was held recently in Varanasi with an objective to attract the delegates to also visit the Kumbh. In addition, for the first time in the history of the Kumbh, the ambassadors of countries and heads of missions based in Delhi were taken especially to witness the preparations in the run-up to the Kumbh.

As a mark of honour, flags of 125 countries were raised at Prayagraj. Uttar Pradesh, the heart of India, which recently saw the visit of the South Korean First Lady, is now opening its gates in a successive time frame to the world’s largest peaceful gathering of humanity.

What is also relevant to note here is that this spiritual diplomatic effort is not just being restricted to Delhi or government-to-government interactions and summits around Delhi. Although an initiative of India, its global vision of unity has resonated with travellers from around the world.

To envision that the Kumbh can be branded as an enabling tool to India’s spiritual diplomacy must certainly be acknowledged as an out-of-the-box idea. Whether this reaps the desired outcome is an assessment that will be made in due course.

There may have been suggestions to do this during previous editions as well, but the current Central and State Government machineries have left no stone unturned to think of it cohesively and to set the wheels in motion. This important process requires strong collective political will — a benchmark has certainly been set this time, in terms of thinking big and thinking global

Beyond the cultural and spiritual perspective, there is an important economic value-chain when it comes to the Kumbh. In terms of tourism, it is reported that the State Government of Uttar Pradesh has provided an international platform to Kumbh Mela through international tour operators, who have assembled in Lucknow, for the fourth UP Travel Mart. Around 53 international tour operators from 23 countries and 19 prominent Indian tour operators were estimated to have attended the event.

Harvard Professor Diana L. Eck, in her book India: A Sacred Geography, has written about how every place in India significantly resonates with its culture and therefore is sacred in its innate nature. She says, “What is clear from the study of India is that its geographical features — its rivers, mountains, hills, and coastlands — no matter how precisely rendered, mapped or measured, are also charged with stories of gods and heroes. It is a resonant, sacred geography.”

The Indian Government’s foreign policy doctrine, as enunciated in April 2015, has termed ‘Sanskriti Evam Sabhyata’ — cultural and civilisational links — as the key pillars of its foreign policy.

The Kumbh Mela is tapping into India’s civilisational story to enhance India’s global footprint.

And the demand for this indicates that this will be a continuum.


Sudarshan Ramabadran is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation and is the Admin in Charge of the Center for Soft Power