Hindu and Buddhist priests and monks were the first people to carry India’s influence across its boundaries two millennia ago. The Buddhist monks largely chose the land routes with the exception of Sri Lanka, where Buddhism was taken by the son and daughter of emperor Ashoka – Mahinda and Sanghamitra – in 3rd century BCE. Monks from Northern India had traveled to Tibet, China, Mongolia and Bhutan carrying the religion of Buddha. On the other hand, the Hindu priests too managed to reach countries as far as Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia in the initial centuries of the first millennium carrying with them the benign religion of Hinduism. While there were references to instances of the Greek and Hindu scholars exchanging philosophical ideas in the pre-Christian era, recorded evidence of Hindu influence over the countries in the Indian Ocean region dates back to 4thcentury CE.
Almost for a millennium after that, the region, which is today described as South East Asia, used to be called as Greater India. Although the southern empires like the Cholas and Pandyas had undertaken military expeditions through the great oceans to expand their influence over remote islands like Borneo and Bali, it in effect remained cultural only to a great extent. The religion and culture of the benign colonisers were heartily welcomed by the subject societies leading to establishment of not only the religious customs and traditions but also large temples and monuments. From Bali in Indonesia to Cham areas in Vietnam to Angkor Vat ruins in Cambodia, the living and historical evidences of the influence of India is conspicuous to this day.
History progressed, and socio-politico-religious realities of these lands had undergone major changes over centuries. India too was preoccupied with its battles against the invaders for almost a millennium, and hence had no time for its cultural empire. Yet, the historical memories did not fade away. When the time came to unshackle from the imperialist yoke, India did not think only about itself, but the entire Asian neighbourhood. If Rishi Aurobindo talked about Asian renaissance as India’s historic responsibility, Gandhi and Nehru talked about Asian relations for anti-imperialist brotherhood.
In his address to a radio station in Tamil Nadu on the eve of independence, which also happened to be his birthday, Rishi Aurobindo talked about his five dreams.[i] While advocating for freedom and unity for people of India as his first dream, Aurobindo turned to Asian resurgence as his second dream in which India had an important role to play. “Asia has arisen; large parts are now quite free or are at this moment being liberated; its other still subject or partly subject parts are moving through whatever struggles towards freedom. Only a little has to be done and that will be done today or tomorrow. There, India has her part to play and has begun to play it with energy and ability which already indicate the measure of her possibilities and the place she can take in the council of nations,” he exhorted.
A few months before Aurobindo’s exhortation came the Asian Relations Conference on 23-25 March 1947 called by Jawahar Lal Nehru with the objective of bringing about a “psychological revolution,” “a new imagination of Asia”. There were 230 delegates and observers from 30 countries at the conference, highlighting the faith and trust reposed by many of them in India’s leadership. A new ‘Asianism’ or ‘Third Worldism’ was born at the conference. Unlike the Asianism of India thus far, which was limited to the cultural remnants in Greater India, Nehru’s mission was to create an Asian federation that would eventually be a step in the direction of greater world federation. Interestingly, Aurobindo too talks about the same idea as his third dream a few months later.
Although Nehru declared that his intention was not “against anybody,” he and other speakers at the conference were equally categorical that the new Asianism would make sure that Asians wouldn’t become the “playthings of others”. There was a clear desire articulated by many speakers at the conference that Asia should be free of Western influences. It cannot be Communist either. Hence the idea that Asian nations should form a coalition as Third World countries.
Gandhi was invited to deliver a speech on the last day of the conference. He made certain interesting observations. Terming all wise men from Zoroaster to Buddha to Jesus to Mohammad – not to talk of Rama and Krishna – to be belonging to East, Gandhi emphasised on Asia’s antidotal message to the West. “What I want you to understand is the message of Asia. It is not to be learnt through the western spectacles or by imitating the atom bomb. In this age of democracy, in this age of awakening of the poorest of the poor, you can redeliver this message with the greatest emphasis. You will complete the conquest of the West, not through vengeance, because you have been exploited, but with real understanding. I am sanguine, if all of you put your hearts together – not merely heads – to understand the secret of the message these wise men of the East have left to us, and if we really become worthy of that great message, the conquest of the West will be completed. This conquest will be loved by the West itself”, Gandhi told the conference.[ii]
Asian Relations Conference did not survive for long. Nehru’s Asianism dream died its quiet death after the Bandung Conference of Non-Aligned nations in Indonesia in 1955. But Asianism and Third Worldism did not die. Asianism survived through different experimentations in the region like EAS, SAARC, BIMSTEC and IORA. It manifested through the principle of ‘Neighbourhood First’ in 1990s and transformed into the principle of ‘together we grow’ under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Third Worldism took the shape of non-alignment in later years and ‘strategic autonomy’ today.
At a time when a new Cold War is beginning to threaten the world order, India needed to turn a leaf or two from the old-world politics of Asian centrality and strategic neutrality. More importantly, it should realise that it has a much bigger role to play in the world politics than what Nehru had intended to seven decades ago.
Asianism of the last century did not succeed partly because India and China – two large nations in the region – could not get along. The Sino-Indian War of 1962 had thrown water over Indian romanticism about leading the Third World with Asian centrality. But the fact that its immediate playground is its Asian neighbourhood was never forgotten. With the formation of SAARC and BIMSTEC, it tried to return to its pet theme. It evolved further when India became a full dialogue partner with ASEAN in 1995 and developed its own ‘Look East policy’.
Nelson Mandela, the legendary leader of South Africa visited India in the same year. That visit had resulted in the birth of another regional coalition called the Indian Ocean Rim Association – IORA. During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime, the Look East policy has been upgraded into Act East policy. Through these initiatives India tried to revive its Asianism theme. It had its Achilles’ Heel to its west in Pakistan and by extension the Arab and Islamic Middle East and West Asia. In the last few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has successfully attempted to overcome the jinx and build stronger ties with that region too.
While the 20th century ended with the collapse of the Cold War politics, the world did not remain multilateral for long. A new Cold War is taking shape in the new century with Eurasia and Indo-Pacific emerging as the epicentres of global power politics. Unlike the last century when the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was fought in far away Pacific-Atlantic region, the new Cold War is raging in India’s immediate neighbourhood.
One of the central themes of the Asianism of 1940s and 50s was that Asia wouldn’t be allowed to become a playground of big power rivalry. In his Shangri La address in 2018 at Singapore, Prime Minister Modi reiterated it by insisting on Indo-pacific region to be inclusive and peaceful.[iii] Many Asian nations aspire for it as new war clouds gather in the region.
Like at the time of budding Asianism in the last century, China remains a challenge in this region now also. During the last Cold War, China benefitted massively by siding openly with America from 1970s onwards. China’s current economic prosperity is a gift of America in the 1980s and 90s. India cannot afford such politics because the new Cold War is being fought at its doorstep. Aggression of China in the Indo-Pacific region and formation of new military alliances like AUKUS led by America to counter that aggression have the potential to turn the Asian region into an Armageddon. Together, they will bring highest number of nuclear submarines in India’s backyard.
India needs to recalibrate its response to this evolving challenge carefully. Western Quad may be a romantic idea to checkmate China in UAE and Israel, but what is more important for India is the Indian Ocean region. Countries in this region look up to India as the biggest power in the neighbourhood. At the Asian Relations Conference, there were a large number of leaders present from this region and they were the most supportive of all to India’s leadership. In a way, it is India’s natural region of comfort.
India needs to invest more energy on this region. It’s relations with immediate neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, with whom it shares a strong cultural and people-to-people bonds, need greater attention. China’s footprints are all over in the region. India needs to go beyond its diplomats and build newer and firmer bridges with leaders and peoples in these countries.
There is a misplaced obsession with India’s soft power potential in its neighbourhood among sections of Indian political establishment. It is time we realised that soft power in its conventional form is an over-used and outlived concept. Need of the hour is smart or sharp power, where the cultural advantages are used strategically to secure national interests. Building an International Airport at the Buddhist pilgrim centre of Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh by Modi government is one such example of smart power in action.[iv]
While we should continue to benefit from our growing bonds with America and other western powers, we must never give up on the core principles of foreign policy set at the time of independence that include Asian centrality, inclusivity, and strategic autonomy. While China is a ‘risen power,’ India is the ‘rising power’ in the region and if strategised well, it has the potential to play the pivotal role in building a ‘world union’ envisaged by Aurobindo and other leaders of independence on the basis of a resurgent Asianism.
Author Brief Bio: Shri Ram Madhav is an Indian politician, author and thinker who is the Former National General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He is a Member of the Board of Governors of India Foundation. He also serves as a Member of the National Executive of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).