Northeast India in Indian Public Diplomacy

India's Northeast remains a distinct cultural unit within India. The land, its people, languages, customs, cultural practices have lot in common with countries of Southeast Asia like Thailand, Myanmar etc. For example, Thai language, culture and customs are studied, preserved, promoted & practised extensively by the Ahom tribe - a dominant ehtnic group - in Assam. There are museums, cultural centres dedicated to such pursuits. Similarly, if you go to Moreh in Manipur you can just "walk over" to Myanmar at certain hours during the day when the borders are opened for sometime. Some Naga tribes are in Myanmar and not in Nagaland. Apart from similarities in physical appearances - the Mongoloid features - there are also similarities between languages and dialects of Northeast India to Southeast Asia. If you look at dietary habits, cuisines of Northeast are very "unindian" (Indian food for most people is Punjabi - tandoori chicken, paneer tikka or the occassional Masala Dosa!) There are some shared dishes and styles of cooking with Southeast Asian countries which one won't find in the rest of India. Besides, Tinsukia in Assam is 24 hours away by road from Bangkok but 40-50 hours away by train from New Delhi! Cultural alienation from the rest of India is not surprising. Coupled with the irrelevance of Northeast in Indian electoral politics, it feeds into the growing discontent in the region leading to militant movements against the Indian state.
Despite the similarities between India's Northeast and Southeast Asia, people to people contact between the regions remain minimal. This was recognised at the policy level by former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao during whose tenure India started its "Look East" policy to spread India's influence towards the east. This was also a strategic move to counter a rising China rapidly growing in influence in Myanmar, Nepal & Bangladesh. While trade ties and strategic ties have grown manifold people to people exchanges are not as frequent as they should have been. The direct Air India flight "Narmada," started from Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi Airport at Guwahati to Bangkok has been scrapped. No international flights operate between India's Northeast to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia remains low when it comes to 'mindshare' and Northeasterners look towards Delhi or Kolkata for ideas and inspiration. The media (TV programmes especially) rarely have content about/from Southeast Asia. Very few students from Northeast prefer to go for higher studies in institutes such as Asian Insititute of Management at Manila or Bangkok Institute of Technology, similarly very few students come to universities in Northeast from say Myanmar or Cambodia. The history curriculum in Indian schools too seek to downplay the links with Southeast Asia and talk about the region's evolution vis-a-vis North/South India and emphasise the ties with mainland India instead. Cultural exchanges remain few between the regions. A Cambodian/Thai cultural or food festival in Guwahati makes more sense than one in New Delhi. Similarly, ICCR and other such organizations should also strive to promote India's Northeast in these countries. It is yet to become a trade and cultural hub of India for Southeast Asia. The road to India's Northeast is still via New Delhi.
India's public diplomacy will do well to aggressively promote people to people contacts between these two regions. Instead of stage managing or institutional showcasing there should be an attempt to promote spontaneity and embed popular conciousness with ideas about each other. The government should actually make it easier for the Northeast to reach out to Southeast Asia and vice-versa. Cultural similarities between the regions should be effectively leveraged, and in the long run, this will only facilitate Northeast India's development & progress.
-- Madhur


"Caminho das Índias" - Brazilian Telenovela

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I read this really interesting piece in Hindustan Times regarding the Brazilian soap (telenovela) that is based on India. The writer mentions that it is "the strongest manifestation of India's appeal" and says that there is a growing interest and curiosity about everything 'Indian' in Brazil. The soap is called "Caminho das Índias" or Passage to India and is a real popular one on Brazilian TV. Read the article here : Made in Brazil.
There is also a website of the novela:
Watch You Tube teaser :


-- Madhur


Indian Public Diplomacy - Time to be assertive?

Joseph Nye, the "Guru" of Public Diplomacy, had once stated that India (along with China) has adopted a foreign policy that made it more attractive in the eyes of others but have not been able to leverage its soft power resources like US, or Europe.
Very interesting point. Historically India has sought the moral high ground in international relations through non-aligned movement, the Panchasheel principles, Bandung Conference, membership of the Commonwealth etc. This to an extent generated considerable goodwill towards India internationally, projecting the image of a pacifist nation inspired by democratic values & Nehruvian vision of peaceful co-existence. It also helped India achieve the strategic objective of preserving it's sovereignty in a recently decolonised world mired in Cold War politics.
However, with ambitions of becoming a major world power, India now will be called on to take some pragmatic but 'hard' decisions. This might mean doing away with some of the "nice" image and being more assertive. For example, the vote against Iran in the recent past thus burying the prospects of a Indo-Iranian gas pipeline project was such a move. Such moves will result in strong reactions internationally (may be also internally) and India's public diplomacy strategists are likely to have their hands full.
The New York Times in an editorial - "Secretary Clinton goes to India" ( July 17, 2009) - on US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's visit to India said, "India wants to be seen as a major world power. For that to happen, it will have to drop its pretensions to nonalignment and stake out strong and constructive positions." The US wants India to take clear stands on international issues especially with a strong government in power now. The same newspaper in an earlier editorial - India's challenges - (May 18, 2009) had called for India to "use its considerable trade clout with Iran, Sudan and Myanmar to curb Tehran’s nuclear program, end the genocide in Darfur and press Myanmar’s junta to expand human rights."
With power comes responsibility. India's public diplomacy will have to be geared towards serving country's strategic interests and not just present a "fluffed up" image of the country. The US has done it very successfully by "owning" the "themes" of freedom and democracy and using these in all their communications to advance national interests.
-- Madhur
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