Soft Power—India-Gulf Educational and Cultural Ties
Mr.Chairman, (Ambassador Talmiz Ahmed),
Chancellor of the University,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank the leaders of Symbiosis International University for inviting me to this Conference. I suspect that I have been invited because I live in Kerala, the state, which has been touched most by the Gulf, in ancient and in modern times. Since I am in education in Kerala, I linkages with the education scene in the Gulf. Yet another affinity I have is that my younger brother, T.P.Seetharam, is the Indian Ambassador to the UAE. Of course, I must add that what I say will be on my own responsibility and should not be attributed to him.
Months after this Conference was planned, much after I accepted your invitation to make a presentation on the influence of India’s soft power in the Gulf, a game changing visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took place to one of the leading countries in the Gulf. It transformed not only India’s relations with the UAE, but also sent waves across the Arab world. It appeared as though the Symbiosis International University had the wisdom and the foresight to anticipate those developments. That is how this Conference has become celebratory, rather than speculative. Today, we can speak with greater confidence about the potential for India-Gulf partnership. We can assert that age-old cultural ties can blossom into mutually beneficial links at critical times.
The very fact that we characterize India-Gulf relations today as “Link West” tells the story of the times. The word, “West” so far meant the lands farther west of West Asia. This is not the first time that we are looking west. The problem was that both India and the Gulf were looking west and, therefore, we hardly saw each other. When we began to see each other, we discovered the immense possibilities of employment for Indians in the Gulf, which transformed the skyline of the entire region. The inclement weather and other hardships did not deter the Indians from making flowers bloom in the desert. The Gulf, in turn, welcomed them with open arms and the wages they earned and their remittances transformed the Indian economy.
Indian cultural contacts date back centuries and continue with intensity today. These will only increase in the future, regardless of the political and economic future of India and the Gulf. For thirty years or more, the skilled and semi skilled Indians served the Gulf countries with devotion. They were able to mix with the local community because of the freedom they enjoyed for cultural exchanges and worship. Indian habits and customs were familiar in these countries because of the interactions of the past. Many Indian workers spoke Arabic even before they went to the Gulf and it was not long after that the Arabs began speaking in Hindi and Malayalam, which their forefathers had brought back from their voyages to the east. Indians in the Gulf invited their employers and friends to India to savor the salubrious weather of the Kerala coast and to rejuvenate them with Ayurvedic treatment. No wonder that these complementarities made the Gulf home to 7 million Indians and remittances exceeded 35 billion dollars a year. I come from Kerala, where no one has remained untouched by the two way Gulf wave.
The seven Emirates that formed the UAE in 1971 have for long had close interaction with the west coast of India with Bombay, Pune, Gujarat, Malabar being main points of interaction. Pearls, dates and salted fish were exported to India and almost all their needs from food items to textiles and furniture coming from India. Sheikh Zayed's palace in Al Ain, now a museum is full of Indian furniture and textiles. Young men would offer "the finest silks of India" when seeking brides. Indian sword was a priced possession. Families were sent to Bombay for holiday and shopping when the menfolk were busy at sea during the pearl diving season. Miraj near Pune was a popular destination for medical care. Wood and coir to make boats and boats themselves came from the Malabar Coast. Indian food, spices and oudh (perfumes) became essential elements of daily life in the Gulf. Indian merchants dominated trade in the gulf, while teachers, doctors, accountants and professionals from India were pioneering service providers as lifestyle changed from that of wandering as Bedouins to a settled urban living.
With television came Bollywood dubbed into Arabic with a large fan following every gossip in the life of actors on and off screen. Urdu, Hindi and Malayalam are spoken specially by those of the older generation. Cricket infrastructure has come up in Sharjah, Dubai and even in Abu Dhabi to attract matches between the teams of the subcontinent. No event attracts more people in these cities than an India-Pakistan cricket match.
Indian associations and community organizations flourish and compete with each other in bringing classical, folk and cinematic events to the Gulf as corporate sponsorship is easy to mobilize. Pandit Jasraj, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Amjad Ali Khan, Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Kathak, Mammooty, Mohanlal, all attract huge audiences. Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority is currently hosting the Indian Symphony Orchestra of Mumbai, Gulzar rendering Rabindra Sangeeth and a reputed Kathak group for a predominantly Emirati audience at ticketed events at the prestigious Emirates Palace. Contemporary Indian artists are featured prominently at art exhibitions. The Abu Dhabi branch of the Louvre has already acquired an antique Nataraja statue from a museum in Australia and a large Indian miniature paintings collection that belonged to James Ivory of the 'Merchant-Ivory' fame. Onam is celebrated on every Friday from August to November in some part or other of the Gulf with more fanfare and colour than in Kerala.
Several Indian newspapers and journals are printed and distributed in the Gulf and local newspapers have large sections of news from India. In some countries, Indians outnumber the local populations, but they are not disruptive of the political or cultural milieu of those countries. Just as Indian restaurants flourish there, Arab food is much sought after in Kerala today.
As the people to people contacts grew, so did trade relations. GCC is the biggest trading partner of India today and it provides half of India’s oil requirements. For India, Gulf is a bigger market for its goods than the European Union today.
India’s principled support for Palestine was an anchor of India’s relations with the Arab world right from the time of India’s independence. Yasser Arafat was received in India several times as the head of state of Palestine, not just as a freedom fighter. The sentiments of the OIC on Kashmir and the Muslim community in India were tempered by the fact that India stood for justice for the Palestinians throughout. India recognized Palestine as a state far ahead of many others.
Even with all these ingredients, India-Gulf relations did not become a strategic partnership. It had to wait for the right moment when global power shifted from the west to the east, the United States began disengaging from the region because of its rapidly reducing dependence on Gulf oil, the menace of terrorism and piracy demanded cooperation between India and the region and India’s economic growth and keenness to seek investments impressed the Gulf community.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck gold in the Gulf during his recent visit to the UAE because of the firm foundations of traditional links and the imperatives of cooperation, which emerged in recent times. He received a warm welcome by the Crown Prince and his brothers at the Abu Dhabi airport, held cordial discussions with them, visited the grand mosque, met Indian workers in a labor camp, received the gift of a plot of land for a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi and issued a historic Joint Statement with the Crown Prince. In Dubai, a 50,000 strong audience heard an electrifying speech about his accomplishments and future plans. Basking in the glory of a highly successful visit, Prime Minister Modi wondered why no Indian Prime Minister had visited the UAE for 34 years, even though there were 700 flights a week from India to the Gulf. He was implying that the Governments were far behind the people in forging ties in the Gulf.
Modi spoke at length at his Dubai oration on the implications of the new understanding on terrorism, making it clear that the UAE had clearly sided with the Indian view on terrorism as the two had decided to “coordinate efforts to counter radicalization and misuse of religion by groups and countries for inciting hatred, perpetrating and justifying terrorism or pursuing political aims.” Though he did not mention Pakistan by name, he said that terrorism as an instrument of policy stood condemned. The support to India’s proposed Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism was also significant, he said. The main reason why the Convention ran into rough weather was the argument by some Islamic countries that freedom fighters should not be deemed terrorists by definition. With the new understanding of terrorism, there would no more be “good Taliban and bad Taliban.” The establishment of a dialogue mechanism between National Security Advisers and security agencies took anti-terrorism to the level of defence cooperation, including regular exercises and training of naval, air, land and Special Forces and in coastal defence. The UAE also announced support for India’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
A ‘Dawn’ editorial remarked that the visit should be nothing less than a wake-up call for Pakistan. Even more significantly, it said, "Lingering territorial disputes are no longer the driving force behind foreign policy. Instead, the foreign interests of states are now, more than ever before, viewed through an economic lens. States can be rivals in one sphere and partners in another.” The Indian initiative was noted with admiration as part of the contemporary trend of playing on different chessboards at the same time.
The editorial called for maturity in Pakistan`s foreign policy and said that "as a thaw with Iran opens up opportunities to the west, and the possibility of building an economic partnership with India to the east -- however remote it might seem at the moment -- remains a viable foreign policy goal. It`s time to emerge from the old world, and recognize the changes happening in our region before it`s too late". The speculation was that India had stepped into the UAE-Pakistan breach caused by Pakistan’s refusal to send troops to the Yemen war. Some observers even complained that the UAE had given a platform in Dubai for anti-Pakistan rhetoric.
Securing a commitment of increased UAE investment in India was a greater challenge. But Prime Minister Modi convinced them that India was emerging as the new frontier of investment opportunities, especially with the new initiatives by the Government to facilitate trade and investment. The UAE readily agreed to make an immediate investment of USD 75 billion and to increase trade by 60%.
Prime minister Modi’s Arab Odyssey was both a culmination of age-old ties and a beginning of a new era. The ease with which an Islamic country related to a person of Modi’s background and reputation was striking. The UAE rulers seemed to care more about India’s future than about Modi’s past. The success of his visit to the UAE was an instance of brand India having greater appeal than brand Modi.
I dwelt at length on the visit of our Prime Minister to show how the soft power of India played itself out in forging a strategic partnership in the Gulf. The cultural and educational cooperation will also grow in the new dispensation. India already has cultural and educational exchange programmes between India and the Gulf. India is synonymous with education and a large number of Indian schools have multiplied educational opportunities. Indian universities of repute have campuses in the Gulf. Indian cultural centres attract not only the Indian community, but also the local population. The Gulf has discovered the vast technology and knowledge resources of India. Joint research projects have already been launched in several Gulf countries. India’s experience of pluralism despite its diversity and economic problems should provide inspiration to the Gulf, which is struggling with sectarian divisions.
India and the Gulf have rediscovered each other in the new global context. But what gives strength to the new partnership are the civilizational links and cultural affinities. Soft power is at work between India and the Gulf.