Projecting Cultural Contacts

Projecting Cultural Contacts

A North East India festival was organised by the Indian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand on July 27-29. Governments of the North Eastern States and a private Indian company M/s Trends MMS cooperated with the Indian Mission in making the event a success. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) obviously gave priority to this festival because Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, one of the three ministers of state in MEA went for its inauguration. The Thai government too gave it importance for it deputed deputy prime minister Jurin Laksanawisit to jointly inaugurate it with Singh. Significantly, the chief minister of Nagaland Neiphiu Rio and Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma were in Bangkok for the event. Officials from other North Eastern states also participated in the festival.

This festival was a second ‘edition’ of an endeavour to build a close connect between the North Eastern States and South East Asia. Indeed a MEA press release of August 1 notes “…an academic seminar on historical connect between North East India and South East Asia was organised during the festival”. Over the past two decades India has not been shy in focussing, in fact it has emphasised, these historical connections which include ethnic connections too. While it can be argued that this is within the rubric of the projection of cultural contacts between the region and India it has to be acknowledged that it is not entirely subsumed between the contacts that contributed to Indian influence witnessed in monuments seen in Angkor Wat in Cambodia or in different versions of the Ramayana which is, in many cases, part of the current cultural traditions of some South Eastern countries.

There is another aspect of the Indian desire to enhance comprehensive interaction between the ASEAN world and the North East. In the initial decades after independence as separatist insurgencies took root in many parts of the North East the central government was keen to keep the area isolated from foreign influences. It took time to make administrative and political arrangements to counter the insurgencies being supported and encouraged by a number of inimical foreign forces. These arrangements took the form of, among other steps, the creation of new states to fulfil the aspirations of the distinct groups which inhabited this part of the country. As these states settled down the people of these states saw a future in becoming an active part of Indian national life, while maintaining their distinct traditions and culture. This led to a decline in separatist sentiment. It also led to a greater sensitivity and attention being shown to this important strategic area of the country in Delhi. The Modi government has added to this process which was already leading to shedding inhibitions of keeping the region isolated from South East Asia. It has to be acknowledged though that part of the difficulty lay in the deliberate isolation which Myanmar had imposed on itself and the violent unrest in some parts of Myanmar. And Myanmar is the gateway to provide, at least, land connectivity from the North East to South East Asia.

The North East festival featured as the MEA press release states “trade, investment and tourism promotion as well as people to people and academic exchanges between North East Indian States and Thailand”. All this falls in the ambit of India’s now Act East policy. Trade, investments and tourism promotion are all laudable objectives between this region of India and Thailand. In fact the Ahom people of Assam have close connections with the Thai people. Both trace their origin to the Thai speaking people who lived in the south west China. They migrated southwards from there about a thousand years ago. One group went towards what is now Thailand and parts of Laos while another towards north eastern India. There are similarities in the current language of the Thais and the Ahom but naturally their evolution through a thousand years has been different. However, a sense of affinity among some Thais and some Ahom people remain.

While the connections between the North East and Thailand should be encouraged relations between this region and other ASEAN countries should also be actively pursued. This is especially in the areas of trade and investments. This requires a fillip to be given to the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway. As this writer has previously noted the present political situation in Myanmar where the generals are conducting themselves in a reprehensible manner towards the countries democratic forces should not be allowed to come in the way of pursuing this most important connectivity project.

There is one more aspect of the North East festival which deserves attention. It is the association of a private Indian company with it. Details of the role played by the company have not been made known by the Indian embassy. It should be done so that controversies do not emerge later. During the festival the MEA states that “a large number of artists, craftsmen, businessmen/exhibitors, tour operators, scholars and academicians from the North Eastern states of India participated in the festival”. How was their participation arranged? If the private company played a role, it should become transparent. In the past the Indian Council of Cultural Affairs was the nodal agency to make arrangements for such participation. The government also established inter-ministerial groups for this purpose. Now if private companies are performing even partly a co-ordinating role, then that should be clarified for endeavours such as this festival serve Indian foreign policy interests and should not become controversial. This writer is making this point by way of abundant caution to prevent any shadow of doubt to fall on such laudable initiatives as this undertaken by the Indian embassy in Bangkok.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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