Friday, September 11, 2015

Asean’s shared cultural destiny with India

Photo courtesy of ISIS Malaysia/RIS India
By Chester B Cabalza

Blogger's Notes:

Commentary of an Academic 
(Copyright @ 2015 by Chester B Cabalza. All Rights Reserved).

Last month, I was invited by ISIS Malaysia and RIS India to attend the Fourth ASEAN-India Network of Think Thanks in the beautiful city of Kula Lumpur. I talked about Asean-India’s shared destiny and rebuilding cross-cultural exchanges and future ties.

But before sharing important insights about my topic, I would like to commend the organizers for the job well done. More substantive ideas were exchanged in just a two-day high-level dialogue. During the short visit, my appreciation extends to the Malaysian government for having an Asean lane in their immigration, making it convenient for many travelers around the region. This tangible action shows Malaysia’s serious take on the Asean integration that will commence by end of the year.

I would also like to thank few Malaysian colonels who were my former students at the National Defense College of the Philippines for hosting my visit to Malaysia’s seat of power in Putrajaya.   

Going back to the successful conference, the organizers gathered together distinguished scholars, seasoned diplomats, and respected practitioners from Asean and India to share their expertise on various dimensions including non-traditional security threats, regional security architecture, economic partnership, cultural links, and way forward.  

Shared destiny

‘Shared destiny’ is a fluid concept to describe the relationship of the regional group Asean and subcontinental India. The undeniable provocation of shared destiny is an overstatement of the overflowing cultural and historical ties. Such dramatization of strengthened partnerships has been embroidered and cemented by rich traditional heritage in the past and current cultural commonalities of our peoples and societies to continuously rebuild cross-cultural exchanges by laying the ground and carving possible niches for future ties. 

Historical narratives describe that Indian influences continued to operate on Southeast Asia until the present. But countries in the region retained its own recognizable social and cultural forms, preserved and evolved from their separate origins before the coming of Indian elements.

It seems like that the favored camaraderie is viewed as a major breakthrough for this lasting partnership molded by a rich history of regional resilience and understanding with respect to the presence of multitude heterogeneous languages, cultures, and religions in the spirit of shared common values empowered by unity in diversity to adapt/adopt to present realities and future discourses of cultural cooperation.


‘Indianized’ is also a heavy concept to describe India’s past link with Southeast Asia. Historical connection calls it the Indianization of the region since the beginning of anno domini (A.D.) until western colonialism.

But the connection between Southeast Asia and India is an anthropological approach to our centuries-old historical and cultural links. These are formed through inevitable diffusion of cultures since antedated maritime traditions and terrestrial explorations, as evidenced by the rise of civilizations along the great rivers and its tributaries around these nations, enriched by the presence of important archaeological excavations, linguistic expressions, and philosophical manifestations embedded in our shared heritage.

Undoubtedly, classical India was an ancient geocultural power in South Asia that cultivated a deep respect for learning and for education, beginning with literacy, mathematics described by Arabs as India’s art, medical sciences and philosophy.

With the confluence of maritime trade and high culture, Indians began to transmit their wide knowledge, religious practices, traditions and customs to peoples in other geographical regions.

India secured intermittently naval posts and commanding cultural influence to the vastness of islands in the south of India and east of China that would later become today as the geographical and geocultural region of Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, Islam’s lasting footprint to insular Southeast Asia, a patchwork of sprouting Muslim sultanates at the beginning had advanced for dominion and control over the Malacca Strait at the heart of the region due to its strategic location as a great center of commerce, following the Islamic conquest of northern India and setting its stronghold through Delhi Sultanate by thirteenth century.

This newfound religion was farther carried out to Southeast Asia by Indian traders who received favorable approval to spread Islam. These and other aspects of Indian civilization were overlaid on a well-developed preexisting base whose character was distinctly different. Islam was transmitted eastward along the sea routes while earlier Indian merchants did the other way to stretch the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism westward at India’s backdoor.

Compared with India, full colonialism came late to most of Southeast Asia. It took time for smaller kingdoms and sultanates to develop a national response to colonialism. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that modern nationalism and common effort were late and slow to grow.

As in India, some Southeast Asians found the colonial system attractive and personally rewarding, but generally it gained wider resistance among local political elites. In most of Southeast Asia’s colonial rule, it left very few educated people to form a stable political base and too few with any political experience. Simply stated, both Southeast Asia and India suffered the same fate of western colonialism.

Indian scholar Prakash thinks that Indian culture was believed to have been transmitted in three phases. (1) the establishment of the stations and emporia of Indian traders and mariners along the coastal region; (2) foundation of colonies and settlements of Indian people, Brahmans and Buddhists, in some localities; and, (3) setting of fully Indianized states, characterized by purely Indian civilizations, in the islands and peninsulas.

But Filipino Indologist Joefe Santarita deems that the culture of early Southeast Asians were neither eliminated nor cornered. It implied effective commingling and cooperation with the natives and their consequent conversion and merger in the complex of an Indo-Asian civilization.

Recent studies on Indian contact to prehistorical Southeast Asia are mushrooming now, with increasing number of scholars specializing in the region. New studies should give new fresh perspectives and interpretations on such grand engagements between India and Southeast Asia.

Again Santarita’s research shows that the naming of the Philippines as Panyupayana clearly gives a clue that the archipelagic Philippines has been in the radar of Indians for millennia.

Filipino archaeologist Eric Casino believes that archaeological discovery of material cultures like large ocean-going balangay in Butuan, Agusan del Norte based from carbon-14 dated artifacts unearthed in different locations in 320 AD, 1250 AD, and 900 AD; the discovery of the Golden Tara of Agusan conceived as a female Boddhisattva of the Buddhist pantheon – a counterpart of the Hindu goddess Saki as a Tara, or wife of a Buddhist god dated around the 13th or 14th century; and the presence of the Silver Paleograph, a strip of silver metal inscribed with ancient ideograms of Indic writings, are indications of Indian mediation through the Indianized states of Indonesia and Indochina.

These prognostic views based from archaeological and cultural case studies in some important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, although less expounded in my research, should ignite more production of knowledge that would usher to numerous local studies and new interpretations of ancient engagements to be written and reviewed by Southeast Asian and Indian contemporary scholars to emphasize the value of past relations.    

Rebuilding cross-cultural exchanges

Southeast Asia lies between two great economic powers and cultural influences of India and China in the region. They combine shipping and land crossings. Cultural bearers from the two giant nations had to wait for the change of winds during monsoon season in the past to transmit and receive hybrid customs and traditions.

But the central dynamics in Southeast Asian and Indian rich history and close-knitted cultural links are products of interaction between and amongst peoples, primarily through trade in the down rivers, along the coasts, across the seas and oceans, networks of transnational trains, sophisticated land transport networks, and to more open skies.

Given the context of cross-cultural exchanges, imperative social and cultural problems are scrutinized to understand its effects to Southeast Asia in particular, or Asean and India as a whole.

This broader picture seen at the complex social and cultural landscapes in Asean shows that diversity does provide opportunities but challenges as well. The region alone is a plural regional bloc that may test its intact integration. The discrepancy in beliefs could potentially hinder programs because unanimous decision will be hard to get, although there may be mechanisms to contain it.

In relation to prospects of elevating Asean-India social and cultural cooperation, we have seen today elevated cultural links embarked by past connections and future ties expanded in higher education level.

This sector of education should be tackled seriously since the skills embodied in the new generation are honed over the years inside the education system. The task is to sense future needs for skills so that the supply of skills matches the demand of skills.

Creativity is the driver for society to turn out new products. It is more of a societal competitive parameter than an economic one considering that traditional economic instruments and economic policies will not do much to enhance creativity.

Over the years, Asean-India’s socio-cultural collaborations increased to include human resource development, science and technology, people-to-people contacts, health and pharmaceuticals, transport and infrastructure, small and medium enterprises, tourism, information and communication technology, agriculture, energy and Initiative for ASEAN Integration.

Although, each member-state in the Asean vary on their bilateral engagement with India, based from the core political interests and past cultural dependency with India, covering the extent of holistic foreign policies using soft power approach based on cultural and historical ties. Soft power approach may consist of soft power strategies emphasizing common political values, peaceful means for conflict management, and economic cooperation in order to achieve common solutions.

Future ties

Communication and dialogues are important elements for successful interregional ties. The historical and cultural links of Asean and India are affirmations of continuous intensification of regional cooperation to enhance national and strengthen regional capacities without impinging on competitiveness of common but differentiated responsibility, respective capabilities as well as reflecting on different social and economic conditions of different stakeholders.

However, the most immediate concern that has to be addressed in narrowing the development gap in two regional blocs is also the most basic agreement on the definition of development and provision of milestones. It is difficult to measure development gap and whether the government and other member-states have been successful in narrowing down the gaps if no clear metrics or measures as well as mechanisms are in place. For sure culture-bound measurements can be used to address social-based problems to cultivate stronger regional ties between Asean and India.

Together, Asean and India should hand in hand and equally engage each other in many fronts. Its cultural ties and historical links could cement this mutual relationship. Given all the confidence and potential each country has in the region and its cultural relations with India, they must continue to gauge assistance and learn best practices from each other in education, people-to-people contacts, and other artistic and cultural avenues to strongly forge this bond. 

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