Shared history

Print edition : September 18, 2015

April 1955: Prime Minister Nehru and Indonesian President Sukarno during the Bandung Conference, which gave birth to the Non-Aligned Movement. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

April 2005: Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (centre) with Chinese President Hu Jintao (left), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Asian and African leaders during a historic walk that was part of the golden jubilee of the Bandung Conference. Photo: ADEK BERRY/AFP

President Suharto and his wife being recieved at the Delhi airport on November 17, 1985, by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and others. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The book presents a panoramic view of the evolution of the India-Indonesia relationship from ancient times.

IN an age when East Asia has become a central theatre for geopolitical competition and changing power dynamics, there is one country, China, that deservedly commands the maximum attention and there is another, Indonesia, that undeservedly gets little notice. From the Indian perspective, there is merit in Indonesia being a subject of serious research because its civilisational bonds, similarities in developmental experience and shared interests make it an important partner. Its significance stands enhanced when one considers that Indonesia as the largest member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world, and a potent factor in United States-China relations is a power to be reckoned with.

India’s Relations with Indonesia is the fruit of collaboration between Navrekha Sharma, a former Indian ambassador to Indonesia, and Baladas Ghoshal, a well-known expert on the region. It presents a panoramic view of the evolution of the India-Indonesia relationship from ancient times, with a special focus on the period from Indonesia’s freedom struggle to the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-14).

It offers an interesting narrative and insightful analysis at places, especially when it comes to the Sukarno and Suharto eras in Indonesian politics. The book tells us as much about the Indonesian polity as it does about the country’s complex relationship with India, which, according to the authors, carries with it “a heavy baggage of mistakes, miscalculations and misunderstandings”. They argue that the relationship can grow in a healthy manner in the future only if its past is understood properly and right conclusions are drawn by both nations.

Of the book’s eight chapters, Sharma wrote five, Ghoshal two, and they authored the last chapter jointly. The former brings to the table years of diplomatic experience, having worked in Indonesia (twice: first as deputy chief of mission, or DCM, and later as ambassador), in the Philippines (as ambassador) and in the Ministry of External Affairs as the head of the relevant division, whereas the latter acquired expertise in regional affairs through a lifetime of teaching, research and writing. As a result, this work strives to offer a definitive picture of an important subject that has many dimensions.

Having served in the Indian embassy in Jakarta, this reviewer is personally aware of the deep impact of Indian influences on Indonesian society. Looking beneath the surface, observers are compelled to concede that Indonesia is a unique nation, marked by immense diversity, a mind-boggling geographical spread, intense nationalism, and an impressive record of economic development.

For Indians, it is a country “so near and yet so far”. Despite the bonds of a common Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic heritage, there is “still a big information gap that separates the world’s second and fourth populous nations”. Once, while interacting with a group of university students, one of the authors was asked whether any Muslims lived in India. The author, duly shocked, explained that India was home to the world’s second largest Muslim community, after Indonesia. It was then the turn of the Indonesian questioner to be overwhelmed by surprise.

The embedding of stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the Indonesian psyche and the world-famous monuments such as Borobudur and Prambanan and other chendis (temples) on the Dieng Plateau in central Java and the picturesque island of Bali bear testimony to the ancient links between the two countries. Experts believe that Indian culture was “transmitted to Indonesia through centuries of contact with Indian traders”. A dissenting view suggests that “the initiative for cultural borrowing” came from the Indonesians themselves. This book avers that through the regular flow of peaceful and non-intrusive trade, early Indians clearly enjoyed “trust, affection and respect” without which their ideas and beliefs “would not have been accepted”. They did not demand tribute as the Chinese did. They did not wage war as the Europeans did. Islam too reached Indonesia from India, at least partially, and in due course of time, it became, as Robert Kaplan argued, “merely the top layer of a richly intricate culture”. President Sukarno told The Hindu in January 1946: “In the veins of everyone of my people flows the blood of the Indian ancestors and the culture we possess is steeped through and through with Indian influences.”

Together with Mohammad Hatta (who served as the Vice President) and Sutan Syahrir (who became the Prime Minister), Sukarno formed “the early triumvirate of leaders” that worked closely with Jawaharlal Nehru’s India. Their collaboration, both before and after Indonesia’s independence, ensured that the period from 1945-55 truly became the golden period for India-Indonesia relations. Not only the young generation of today but also many scholars and politicians in both countries, apparently afflicted with a touch of amnesia, need to be reminded of the moral, material, diplomatic and political support India extended under Nehru’s leadership to the cause of Indonesia’s freedom. The book narrates this story of Indonesian revolusi (revolution) with all its twists and turns, highlighting the role of India, including the two international conferences of considerable importance the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) organised in 1947 and 1949. Prime Minister Nehru played a critical role in exerting relentless pressure on Britain (and through it on the U.S.) in order to push Indonesia’s case for independence with the Netherlands, the colonial power. “That despite serious and vexing problems in India,” says the book, “Nehru spent so much time urging Indonesia’s case upon the British obviously meant a great deal to the Indonesians: they both realised it and counted upon it.” Unlike other scholars, Evelyn Colbert noted Nehru’s contribution by pointing out: “India’s role was of very great influence indeed at a time when Nehru’s principles stood pure and untested.” Indonesia agreed fully, for on the 50th anniversary of its revolusi, it bestowed its highest award upon Nehru and three other Indians (namely, Biju Patnaik, Mohammad Yunus and P.R.S. Mani) in recognition of their valuable contribution.

Cordiality and cooperation linked New Delhi and Jakarta together for a few years in the post-independence era. How this relationship soured in 1954-55 and degenerated into bitterness is the tale this book relates in a gripping and convincing manner. By drawing upon new archival material, it enriches the debate and answers the basic question: what went wrong so early and so fast? Digging below the conventional narrative on the Bandung Conference (1955), the authors apportion responsibility for strains to Western machinations, Indonesia’s dismay with “Nehru’s brand of diplomacy”, and Sukarno’s style of leadership. They have been quite critical of the performance of Indian role-players in this sad “saga of faux pas and missed opportunities”.

Bandung was hailed as a triumph of Asian-African unity, but India-Indonesia relations, though still smooth on the surface, had become “seriously disturbed underneath”. From then on to the end of the Sukarno innings in the mid-1960s, it was a journey on “a downward spiral”, marked by a widening gulf between Asia’s two giants.

During Suharto’s presidency, which lasted for over three decades, Indonesia’s focus shifted from politics to the economy at home, and this was duly reflected in the subsequent development of bilateral relations. He diversified Indonesia’s economic partnerships beyond the West and Japan, thereby opening doors to Indian industry and investment. This created a new dimension, lending weight to the notion of natural complementarity between the economic needs and capabilities of the two countries.

Suharto’s authoritarianism sat ill with India’s commitment to democracy. Besides, while being members of the Non-Aligned Movement, the two nations were in reality on opposing sides in the Cold War. Yet, these differences were kept in check in order to ensure that bilateral relations remained friendly and cooperative, though still below their potential.

The transitional phase, the reformasi (reform), witnessed three presidencies: of B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri. Gradually, convergences with a new India, driven by faster economic growth and its “Look East Policy”, began to gain strength. This cleared the decks for the establishment of a “Strategic Partnership” under the stewardship of President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The volume is rather thin on these later phases of the theme.

On the technical side, the book is weak, demonstrating how an inefficient copy editor and proofreader can damage the value of a sound manuscript. Often, citations are not in accordance with international format. The absence of a bibliography or index is a glaring omission. Nevertheless, where this work scores is in triggering a serious discussion on “what next?” in its last chapter, which is entitled “India and Indonesia: Looking Back to Look Ahead”. The authors have come up with a number of useful recommendations for the consideration of policymakers. I would suggest that senior officials of the governments of Narendra Modi and Joko Widodo pay attention to their advice. Young scholars in both countries too could profit much from the advice.

Rajiv Bhatia was a former ambassador to several countries and had served earlier as the DCM in the Indian Embassy in Jakarta. He was the director general of the national think tank the ICWA from 2012 to 2015.

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