Some reflections on India's relations with Southeast Asia

India and Southeast Asia

Posted on 1-May-2012

(The following is a slightly adapted version of a talk on the subject I gave to Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad in Delhi on 27th April 2012)

Accord      According to current knowledge, based on archaeology and genetic analyses, the first groups of humans arrived in India (I think that in discussions of this kind it is best to dispense with the modern, awkward, though politically correct, expression the subcontinent when referring to the Indian landmass) between around sixty and fifty thousand years ago. Over the next few millennia human groups moved from India on to the Malay peninsula, the Indonesian archipelago and beyond, some of the earliest of the species arriving in Australia about forty thousand years ago. What, it may be objected, has this got to do with the contacts between India and Southeast Asia in the more recent, historical epochs. The answer is, not much except to underline a basic fact of geography, that of proximity between India and the region, for otherwise this eastward migration of people in such remote past would not have been possible. I shall therefore not dwell any further on palaeoanthropology.

Before      Before continuing with this discussion, it will be useful to define the region of Southeast Asia. The simplest is to accept the current membership of the regional group ASEAN as comprising Southeast Asia: Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. I shall leave Myanmar out of this discussion because with that country India shared a common administration in the twentieth century until 1938 and with which India has a long land boundary—both of which factors give rise to conditions which are specific only to the relations between India and Myanmar.

     From probably as early as the second century BC there were regular trading contacts between India and the region which would have also involved the movement of people and of cultural influences. Parts of the region were points of exchange between traders from India and China. With the passage of time the volume of trade surely expanded. Peninsular India became a region through which much of the trade between Southeast Asia on the one side and West Asia and, beyond West Asia, the Roman Empire and its successors on the other side passed, creating much of the wealth of peninsular India between the eight and fifteenth century AC.

     This traffic meant that cultural influences travelled and it is almost certain that they  travelled in both directions but while very few have made the effort to look for and document Southeast Asian cultural influences on India, Indian cultural influence on the region has been observed, documented and discussed extensively. It is visible and clear in language, iconography, mythology, rituals and, particularly in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, which all follow Theravada Buddhism now, in contemporary religion. In the Malay peninsula, Java, Sumatra, Bali and Cambodia—much of modern Laos and Thailand were part of or under the suzerainty of the Khmer empire at its height—there prospered Hinduised kingdoms until, from around the thirteenth century after Christ, Theravada Bhuddhism supplanted Mahayana Buddhism which had earlier supplanted Hinduism in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and Islam replaced Hinduism or Mahayana Buddhism in the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago.

     The Philippines became a Spanish colony in the 16th century and was an American colony from 1898 to 1946 and about 90% of its population is Christian while its resentful Muslim minority has often tended towards extremist violence. Vietnam, which of all the countries of the region is culturally the closest to China and has for most of its history followed the Chinese religious traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, Mahayana Buddhism or Communism, destroyed most of the Hinduised Kingdom of Champa in central and Southern parts of the country in the 16th and 17th centuries and dealt with what remained in 1832. The result is that in these two countries such old Indian cultural influence as persists does so in an extremely attenuated form. Modern Singapore is above all a Chinese city state with Indian, Malay and other minorities and probably with very limited interest in cultural history.

     In Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia the cultural traditions imbibed from India continue to be so strong that people from India observing them have often reacted more emotionally and hyperbolically than rationally. At different epochs, serious historians have talked of Hindu colonies of Southeast Asia or of greater India. People of India, scholars as well as those pretending to be knowledgeable about the area, would do well to remember that a more modest description used by the French scholar G. Coedes, the Indianised States of Southeast Asia is more apt. It was my own personal experience in Thailand that visitors from India blabbered ceaselessly to audiences comprising resident Indians and a smattering of Thais—the more self-important the visitor, the more the talk—of Indian cultural links with Southeast Asia and invariably ended up illustrating their point by mentioning a few sanskritised Thai names, including in one case the names of the king and queen of Thailand, a few words of Sanskrit origin in use in Thai language and of course India’s great gift to the region, Buddhism, little realising how superficial their talk was and how much potential for offense such talk carried.

     To illustrate this last point, I need to give a few illustrations from personal knowledge and experience. An Indian journalist, who had edited an Indian newspaper told me how when in a long discussion with one of the Royal Princesses of Thailand, he had talked of Indian cultural influence on the region, the Princess had pointed out to him that it was more appropriate to talk of Indic culture rather than of Indian culture. On another occasion when rather foolishly I said to a Thai man that though Buddhism had been assimilated into the Hindu tradition in India, many Hindus worshipped the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, he told me sharply that the Buddha was a superior being and could not be an incarnation of a god such as Vishnu or of any other being. Then when a few years ago the Indian government had organised a meet to promote what they called spiritual tourism—why such a bombastic expression was chosen to describe an activity as mundane as promoting facilities being developed in India for helping Buddhist pilgrim traffic to India has remained unfathomable to me to this day—a friend brought home a Thai Buddhist bhikkhu and a bhikkhuni both of whom I had known in Bangkok. The bhikkhuni had in fact been a professor at one of the universities. She told me that she and other various bhikkhus and bhikkhunis were embarrassed when they were asked to help themselves to food laid on a buffet. She then added that not only did the organisers not know that Buddhist bhikkhus and bhhikkhunis did not help themselves to food but were given it in their bowls, but did not know that they did not know.

     Most people in India who talk facilely of Indian cultural influence in Southeast Asia and fatuously talk of Buddhism as India’s great gift to the region need to remind themselves that Mahayana Bhuddhism spread to Vietnam, Cambodia during the late period of the Khmer Empire, to Indonesia and eastwards to Korea and Japan through Central Asia and China and Theravada Buddhism travelled to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia from Srilanka. In fact the strength of the Theravada link between for example Thailand and Srilanka is best illustrated by the fact that even in the present day a school of Buddhist bikkhus in Thailand is called Lankanikaya just as a school in Sri Lanka is called Siamnikaya. Then there are other angles to the question of Buddhist links. During a visit to a monastery in northern Thailand, the head of the monastery showed me a fully grown peepal tree that had grown from a sapling from the Bodhi tree in Gaya given to him by the Indian Embassy in Bangkok many years ago. He asked me for another. Later in our conversation he said the Buddha was in fact Nepalese. I said to him that during the days of the Buddha no one thought or talked of India or Nepal but most of the Indo-Gangetic plain was divided between sixteen janapadas. He recited to me the names of all the janapadas and then said again that the Buddha was Nepalese. Our discussion of the Buddha’s nationality ended only when I said that the Buddha was born at Lumbini which is in modern Nepal and therefore he was Nepalese. Nor does for even Buddhist bhikkhus India mean only the places of Buddhist pilgrimage. Any number of them visit not only Gaya, Saranath and Sravasti (relatively few go to Kushinagar), but also Delhi and Agra. Additionally, Indians infatuated with Indian cultural influences in the region blind themselves to equally deep if not deeper Chinese cultural influences on the region.

     Looked at from the Thai side for example, from some aspects these old Hindu cultural links are extremely tenuous. There were in the Thai Royal Palace some one dozen court brahmans. They invariably appeared in public at the annual ploughing ceremony every year in the month of May. The function presided over by the present King was meant to ask for plentiful rain during the oncoming rainy season. The actual ploughing of an artificially prepared field was done by the civil servant head of the Ministry of Agriculture, the plough being pulled by two very attractive, well groomed and healthy bulls maintained by the Royal Palace and the seeds were broadcast by women employees of the Ministry of Agriculture obviously selected for their comeliness rather than physical strength necessary for agricultural labour. The official ploughman, his female helpers, a score of others with eight or nine of the court brahmans at the back dressed in white tunics and white dhotis wearing topknots which looked more like pigtails and blowing on their conch shells once every few minutes walking leisurely in a procession made three or four rounds of the field. Someone arranged for me to spend a whole afternoon once with these brahmans who lived with their families in a rather modest house some distance from the Grand Palace. Since they knew no language other than Thai, and since I had no knowledge of the language I had to talk to them through a translator. I asked them whether they knew where and when their ancestors had come to Thailand. They said that all they knew was that they had been invited by the kings of Sukhothai from Nakhon Si Thammarat in southern Thailand. I assume that their ancestors would have come from India to the Kingdom of Srivijaya—destroyed in the twelfth century by one of the Chola Kings-- of which Nakhon Si Thammarat had been part, but these people did not know. They did not know the language used in their book of rituals written in Thai script. It was not Sanskrit, of which they possessed no knowledge—in fact they knew no Indian language. All they knew was that their book contained songs or chants addressed to a goddess called Thippave or a similar sounding name. They told me—I suspected they had been prompted by someone I knew who was not present during that meeting to make the request—that they would like to send some of their twelve or fourteen year olds to India to learn Sanskrit and Hindu rituals. Even before I could start working on this request, they made a supplementary request that they would like these young people to receive education in business management in addition to Sanskrit and Hindu rituals. Since there was no way to work out a scheme within Indian institutional mechanisms to take care of education in Sanskrit, Hindu rituals and business management at the same time and that too with Indian government scholarship within the time left to me in Bangkok, I did not even make a beginning towards meeting these requests. All I did was to arrange for a Thai professor of Sanskrit and an Indian professor of Sanskrit sent and maintained in Bangkok by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to give these people weekly Sanskrit lessons. That was my personal contribution to the strengthening of India’s Hindu links to Thailand.

     My first exposure to Southeast Asia was between 1970 and 1972 in Laos. Apart from the institutions of Theravada Buddhism such as the numerous monasteries and the early morning processions of bikkhus going to beg for their daily food, dominant features of life in this war torn country were, local trade and commerce dominated by the Chinese with the tiny Indian community playing a bit part, the corruptions of flesh and spirit caused by the presence of a large number of Americans involved in some way or the other in the bombing the east and northeast of the country, a number of venal generals and politicians beholden to the Americans and a section of the political and bureaucratic elite including Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma whose principal emotional attachment was to France in addition of course to Laos. India occupied only a small niche in the intellectual and emotional world of people who ran the part of Laos which was open to the outside world. Another important figure of the region, Prince, later King Norodom Sinhanouk was likewise emotionally closer to France than to any country other  than Cambodia, though after the American inspired coup d’état against him in March 1970, he moved into the political embrace of China.  A quarter century later, in Thailand the picture was broadly similar: large portions of rice, fruit and gold trade and banking industry controlled by the Chinese who are very well integrated into the political system, a smaller and less prosperous Indian community, relatively low in the esteem of the local population, and playing only a marginal role in the local economy and none in local politics, an elite oriented towards the USA or the UK and now, especially the Chinese elite, emotionally attracted to the People’s Republic of China. In the world view of people who run modern Thailand, India’s place is smaller than that of the USA, the UK, Japan or the People’s Republic of China. I have no reason to think that the rest of Southeast Asia is very different. No particular diplomatic advantage comes to India from the ancient cultural links. More often than not talk of old cultural links with India serves as no more than a useful conversation starter.

     For conducting relations with Southeast Asia in the present day world rationally, it would be healthy for people in India to forget the old cultural links, whether Hindu or Buddhist, just as it is necessary to forget about the story of early human migrations along the Arabian coast to India and then on to Southeast Asia and Australia. The exchange of goods and ideas between India and Southeast Asia since before the beginning of the Christian era offers rich possibilities for historians of religion, art and ideas to study. It is ironical that some of the basic work in these areas has been done by western scholars while Indians or scholars from the countries of the region have done comparatively little beyond talking of greater India or of Indian colonies of Southeast Asia or talk of three theories of Indian cultural influence in Southeast Asia: a Kshatriya theory, a Vaishya theory and a Brahman theory! It is also ironical that references to traffic between India and the region in old Indian texts are relatively scant. People from Bengal, Odisha, Andhra and Tamilnadu all claim that their ancestors were the principal vectors of ideas and goods towards Southeast Asia. Serious scholarly study of the history of exchanges between India and the region belongs to serious scholars and that is where it should remain.

     Politicians and diplomats concerned with building India’s present day relations with Southeast Asia should aim at grounding them in economics and trade and that is what they are doing. India has two advantages: one of geographical proximity and the other that India has no territorial dispute with any country of the region, nor any clash of interest. Trade between India and ASEAN has gone up from US $ 2.9 billion in 1993 to $12.1 billion in 2003 to $47.5 billion in 2008 and is set to exceed $70 billion in 2012-2013. India and ASEAN signed an Agreement for Trade in Goods and Services in 2009 which entered into force in 2010. They have also agreed to negotiate a free trade agreement. Just to mention for the sake of getting an idea of the orders of magnitude involved, here are a few facts about trade between ASEAN and some of its other partners. The trade with China in 2010 was around $ 195 billion and China-ASEAN Free Trade agreement entered into force in January 2010. Trade with Japan was $203 billion in 2010 and Japan –ASEAN Agreement for Comprehensive Economic Partnership entered into force with all members of ASEAN by 2010. Korea-ASEAN trade was worth $ 90.2 billion in 2008 and is targeted to rise to $150 billion by 2015. Korea already has a free trade agreement with ASEAN in force. What India needs to guard against is viewing itself in competition for influence in the region with China or with any other country. Each country builds its economic relations with others on the basis of its capacities and on the basis of its overall priorities. Most members of the ASEAN would be loath to take sides between their extra-regional partners.

     There is one area in the region where India may find itself in a delicate situation. In South China Sea there are a number of conflicting and overlapping territorial claims between China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. An offshore block for petroleum extraction has been allotted by the Vietnamese government to the foreign arm of India’s Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC). The Chinese claim that the block lies in their territorial waters. The question that India will need to consider carefully is whether it should allow itself to be driven by a sense of national honour and go ahead with the contract between the ONGC and Vietnam in spite of Chinese objections or put the contract on hold till the various territorial claims are settled between the five countries. It may not be so wise for India to get into conflict with China in a sea so far away. But then India’s attitude towards China takes bizarre turns. There are people in India these days constantly singing siren songs about India becoming a countervailing force to China. Any report of  minor infractions of the de facto border provokes jingoistic hysteria. On the other hand, the Indian President and the Indian Prime Minister cancelled their programme of going to a Buddhist conference in Delhi because the Chinese government said it did not want them to. In 1957 the Indian prime minister told the Indian parliament that not a blade of grass grew on the plateau of Aksai Chin, meaning that it was not worth fighting with the Chinese over that tract of land and then the same Indian prime minister declared war on China by saying to pressmen at Madras airport on 11th September 1962 that he had ordered the Indian Army to throw the Chinese out, completely ignorant that his army was in no condition to do so.

     The sensible course for India is to maintain strong enough military presence along the line of actual control, the de facto land border between India and China, so that the line is maintained as a line of peace and tranquillity by both sides and enhance cooperation with China wherever possible. A race with China anywhere in the world is not necessary for India to enter into, least of all in Southeast Asia.


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