Cultural Issues

Renaming ICCR centres abroad after Vivekananda shows lack of awareness

Print edition : May 20, 2022

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with his Japanese counterpart, Nobusuke Kishi, who was the Premier from 1957-1960. Nehru gifted him the life-size image of Rabindranath Tagore seen in this photograph. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Chinese artistes performing a traditional dance to represent the Spring Festival of China at Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral home at Jorasanko in Kolkata in February 2013. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhruy

Subhas Bose was a powerful presence in South-East Asia.

Renaming ICCR centres in other countries after Vivekananda shows a lack of awareness of the fact that Tagore and Subhas Bose were the true ambassadors of India in Asia.

CELEBRATING the 75th year of Independence, in the context of Asia, India will also celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations and friendship with friends in the East and as part of its soft diplomacy. Historically from pre-Independence times, soft diplomacy has played an important role in the people-to-people relations that India has built and the strong foundations that it has laid in its ties with nations in the region. India’s is a long history of relation-building, facilitated by some great men and women, that many countries try to emulate in today’s world. China, for example, spends large amounts of funds and attempts, through the Confucius Institutes in Asia, to have its footrprint in Asia as part of its soft diplomacy.

Historically, India’s soft diplomacy has been done through Indian communities abroad, and most importantly through the intellectual, creative and artistic contributions of not only the galaxy of leaders of the freedom struggle and those involved in India’s cultural renaissance under colonial rule, but also scholars of contemporaty India, both at home and abroad. Officially, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), founded in April 1950, is the institutional arrangement for soft diplomacy. The ICCR and its Indian cultural centres in different countries are seen as the major hubs for promoting people-to-people ties, knowledge of India, one of the world’s most culturally diverse nations, and its cultural wealth.

The Indian cultural centres in the past were simply known as that, except when countries in which they were situated wanted them named after some Indian personality. Now, in 2022, the 75th year of our Independence, of the 38 Indian cultural centres abroad listed on the ICCR website, 22 are named as Vivekenanda cultural centres. Two are named after Mahatma Gandhi, four after Jawaharlal Nehru, two after Indira Gandhi, one after Subhas Chandra Bose (in Malaysia), two after Tagore (in Mexico and Germany, significantly none in Asia) and one after Lal Bahadur Shastri (appropriately in Tashkent, where he died in 1966 after signing a peace agreement with Pakistan following the 1965 war). The ICCs in Tel Aviv and in Male, Maldives, are not named after any person. The centre in Hungary is named after Amrita Sher Gil, the painter. Fortunately, the centre in Cairo is named after Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India’s first Education Minister and the founder of the ICCR.

In Asia, almost all the ICCR centres have been renamed after 2014 as Vivekenanda cultural centres. Vivekenanda, though, visited only Hong Kong, China, Japan and Sri Lanka. It is not known if he visited any other country in Asia apart from his travel in the West to the United States and Canada. Tagore is believed to have visited 37 countries. Beginning with his first visit to Japan in 1916, and subsequent visits in 1924 and 1929, Tagore took months off from his busy schedule in Santiniketan and Kolkata to make significant journeys to Asian countries and cultures: China (1924), Burma (1916, 1924 and 1927), Singapore (1916, 1924 and 1927), Java and Bali (1927).

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India’s real intellectual and cultural ambassador, who celebrated Asia and made India and her riches known in Asia was Rabindranath Tagore. For him, looking outwards to Asia was important in the exercise of looking inwards to our own society. He was an internationalist who had admiration for the West from his perspective of science and modernity; yet, his fascination for Asia made it possible for him to cast a critical eye on the West and its excesses. He is deliberately portrayed as an apologist of the West, which he never was, by those who want to resurrect a reactionary and imperialist form of nationalism. Tagore is seen as a formidable challenge by those wishing to suppress the creative urges and cultural flowering of our society, which is so full of diversity. This diversity cannot be strait-jacketed in the guise of a nationalism that fears this diversity. Tagore opposed such oppressive nationalism and made it a mission to speak against it in his travels in Asia. It is no wonder that Tagore’s writings have been extensively translated in Asian languages and in Thailand, a fairly recent and popular translation being his work on “Nationalism”.

Tagore always emphasised the underlying humanity among peoples even if they belonged to different races or religions. He echoed this in his response in 1927 to the welcome and honours and respects he was given by the Singapore Indian Association. Referring to similar honours and respects he had received in the West, he said, “I can assure you that the honour which had been heaped upon me was not owing to the fact that I have emphasised my nationalism as an Indian or a Bengali, but my emphasis was upon humanity where I could meet them on common ground.”

Writing in the Singapore Centenary Birthday Celebrations Volume in 1961, the late Lee Kuan Yew, Asia’s grand old leader and the first Prime Minister of Singapore, quoted Tagore: “The growth and decay of civilisation is not the gain or loss of external possession but of internal wealth. That civilisation is more advanced which has more accentuated the greatness and responsibility of human life and it may be said without fear of challenge that in the absence of such accentuation, civilisation loses its glory.”

Lee Kuan Yew then went on to say, “Great men bequeath their treasures not just to their own nation, but to the whole world. Tagore is a great man by any standard. We in Singapore join with pleasure in this year’s worldwide centenary celebration of Rabindranath Tagore. We would also do well to take the opportunity to remind ourselves of Tagore’s message that the quality of our lives and of our civilisation depends more on the internal wealth that we can accumulate than on external possessions. Let us not forget in our day-to-day lives and mundane preoccupations that man in his habitation of this earth has accumulated a wealth of deep and abiding beauty. These are the things which make civilisation worth preserving, and world peace worth achieving.”

While touring South-East Asia, Tagore spent a week in Thailand (then Siam). In addition to his mission of cultural outreach, he hoped to raise funds for a chair of Buddhism in Visva-Bharati. As one of our most seasoned diplomats, Ambassador Navtej Sarna, notes, “The Thai Royal family and government went out of their way to treat him as a distinguished visitor, the Siamese foreign minister consistently introducing him as a world poet.” At the request of the King, Tagore sent Prafulla Chandra Sen as the first Sanskrit teacher to Thailand and even today, 100 years and more later, Sanskrit is taught in Chulalongkorn University, with other universities following suit. Prafulla Chandra Sen, who arrived in 1932, later came to be known as Swami Satyananda Puri and founded the Thai-Bharat Cultural Lodge in 1942. He also founded the Indian National Council, which aligned itself closely with the Indian National Congress regarding ties with imperial Japan and had differences with the Indian Independence League in gaining freedom from the British in allying with another imperialist power in the East, namely, Japan.

Though Subhas Chandra Bose aligned with the Japanese, his was an important and powerful presence in South-East Asia. Thailand was more or less his launching pad before he and the soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA) marched off on foot to fight the British in Burma. In his struggle for India’s freedom and his building of the INA, he addressed Indians and other South-East Asians on the campus of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. The wounded soldiers of the INA would be treated at the Chulalongkorn hospital set up by King Rama VI. Subhas Chandra Bose donated the money he collected for the freedom struggle to the Chulalongkorn hospital.

Thailand in many ways was the fulcrum of India’s struggle for independence against the British, with Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose at the centre. Thailand established diplomatic relations in 1947, the very year India gained independence; so this year marks 75 years of diplomatic ties with Thailand. Though India’s historical connections with Thailand go way back to early history, long before India became a nation state under the auspices of colonial rule. King Asoka in the third century BCE contributed to the propagation of Buddhism in what we now know as Thailand. India’s relations with Thailand, built on the basis of relations that the country’s great historical figures, important to its nation-building, like Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose, have made Thailand an all-weather friend. At the heart of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University stands the majestic Maha Chulalongkorn building, where Tagore delivered a talk on child education on October 13, 1917.

Tagore’s presence in South-East Asia, in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines, is legendary. He continues to be held by many thinkers and creative people in these countries with deep fascination and admiration for him and his India. On the occasion of the 150the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, the celebrated theatre ensemble of the Philippines, PETA, staged a Philippines adaptation of Tagore’s play, The Post Office, which won huge acclaim. The announcement of the play referred to, “Amal, a 10-year-old ailing child in Indian poet and dramatist Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s (1861-1941) symbolic play ‘Dak Ghar’ or ‘The Post Office’”. Amal was named Abel in Philippine Educational Theater Association’s (PETA) contextualised adaptation “Ang Post Office”. The play featured the Filipino child actor Martin delos Santos and stage luminaries Bembol Roco and Bodjie Pascua, with live vocal score from award-winning children’s choirs—the Kilyawan Choir and the Loboc Children’s Choir. Such is the way in which India is celebrated and contextualised through Tagore and tributes are paid to India’s cultural and intellectual presence in Asia.

South Korea, which Tagore never visited, has an abiding interest in Tagore. Tagore programmes continue to be held in prestigious women’s universities like Ehwa and other universities. Tagore has deeply influenced Korean literature. The poet Kim Yang-Shik from Korea translated many of Tagore’s works from English to Korean and founded the Tagore Society in 1981. The poem Lamp of the East, which Tagore wrote on Korea after learning of the Japanese invasion of Korea and meeting Korean students in Japan, remains a great favourite even today among ordinary Koreans andis part of school curriculum.

“In the golden age of Asia, Korea was one of its lamp bearers,

And that lamp is waiting

To be lighted once again

For the illumination of the East.”

— Rabindranath Tagore (1929)

In countries like China and Mongolia, many young scholars work on and show a deep and abiding interest in Tagore, quietly and away from the limelight. In Indonesia there is continuing fascination with Tagore among writers, publishers and scholars in leading universities. In Malaysia, especially Penang, which was not only visited by Tagore but also Sun Yat Sen, there is great interest in Tagore and India.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, had written, “The greatness of Tagore is not confined to India; he belongs to Asia and the world. The wide range of his thought, his emphasis on the dignity and soul of man, his understanding of human frailty had an influence which has reached far beyond the boundaries of his own lifetime, and is still an enriching source of inspiration to mankind.”

Japan’s interest in him will never wane. Prestigious universities like Waseda have continued the tradition of keeping the links with Tagore and India alive. The much-respected scholar of international relations, Mikio Kato, a former student of Waseda and one of the key figures associated with the International House of Japan (IHJ) as its former Executive Director, has written a beautiful volume on the IHJ where he highlights the India-Japan relations; he calls it “Trailblazing Indo-Japanese Exchange”.

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Writing about Japan’s relationship with India and the role of the IHJ in establishing the India International Centre in New Delhi, he says, “No account of the India-related activities of the International House of Japan would be complete without mentioning its vigorous participation in a series of events to celebrate the centennial of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore. The first Asian Nobel Laureate for literature, Tagore had visited Japan several times in the early twentieth century, leaving a lasting influence on Japanese intellectuals and artists, such as Okakura Tenshin, the author of Awakening Asia and The Book of Tea, and the prominent painter Yokoyama Taikan.”

Okakura Tenshin ha sent Yokama Taikan and Hishida Shunso to Calcutta (now Kolkata). Tenshin had come to India in 1902 to meet Vivekenanda, whom he had met during Vivekenanda’s halt in Japan in 1893 on his way to the Parliament of Religions. Tagore met Okakura for the first time then. They become close friends but had a problematic relationship. Okakura defended the imperialism of Japan, which had colonised Korea, and for which Tagore admonished him and Japan. What Tagore said to Okakura is relevant even today. “Never think for a moment that the hurt you inflict upon other races will not infect you or that the enemities you sow around your homes will be a wall of protection to you for all time to come.” Vivekenanda died a few months after Okakura Tenshin met him in July 1902 at the early age of 39. The triangle between Vivekenanda, Okakura Tenshin and the Irish woman who became Sister Nivedita and who wrote the preface for Okakura’s Ideals of the East is fascinating stuff for movies.

Other than this connection of Tagore and Vivekenanda, through Okakura Tenshin and Sister Nivedita, the question remains: did the two meet? Vivekenanda in his pre-monk days as Narendra Nath Datta was part of the Brahmo Samaj. Tagore respected Vivekenanda, though their philosophies and perspectives were diametrically opposed. Tagore believed in the equality of women, opposed the caste system and blind idol worship. Vivekenanda, a non-Brahmin, meat-eating Kayastha, was transformed into an almost-Brahmin figure and many people even today think he was a Brahmin. Tagore, a Brahmin, stood against the caste system and was even prohibited from entering a temple for having shared a stage with Namasudras. Such prohibition was a practice upheld by the British and banned by our Constitution after Independence. Particularly in the context of people-to-people relations with countries in Asia, India’s friends abroad and young people in India interested in Asia ask: has India, by suddenly naming our cultural centres as Vivekenanda cultural centres, abandoned the rich history of the country’s relations with Asia through Tagore and also Subhas Chandra Bose. More importantly, has India chosen to jettison the goodwill and admiration built up through more than a century of travel and work by Tagore and his contemporaries and sacrifice the wealth of soft diplomatic relations, especially with Asian countries? The message that is now being conveyed is perceived by Asia as one of a new imperial India, projecting a proselytising image like Western imperialists and Christianity of times past.

In the perception of many of India’s Asian friends, the country is seen as promoting Yoga and Indian gurus spouting banalities in nations of rich culture and philosophy, on the lines of U.S. multlinationals promoting Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola and hamburgers. India now stands diminished in their eyes by depreciating its own great personalities in history and elevating one person as if he represents India.

The sudden renaming of the ICCR centres after Vivekananda, and that too in countries that are Buddhist, Islamic and Christian, has provoked in Asia the question, “Why Vivekenanda? Why not Tagore?” It is quietly taken as a sign of the Foreign Service establishment’s short-sightedness and exhibition of a superior cultural attitude to others in Asia.

An attitude that Indians have often been perceived as having by ordinary Asians, reinforced now by India’s actions.

Lawrence Surendra is an environmental economist and Asia specialist. He has travelled extensively in the Asia and Pacific region for over four decades. He has taught in universities and worked with prestigious institutions, including the United Nations in East and South-East Asia.