Ram Madhav
March 22, 2018

International Conference on Ganga-Mekong Region

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Text of the Keynote Address delivered at an International Conference on Ganga-Mekong Region hosted jointly by Thammasat University and ICPR at Bangkok on March 22-23, 2018

I am honoured to be here at the Thammasat University today to inaugurate the conference on ‘Ganga – Mekong region’, jointly hosted by the university and the ICPR, India. Some scholars in India describe Mekong as a distorted pronunciation of Ma Ganga, Mother Ganges, thus implying that the two rivers, flowing at a distance from each other and enriching large parts of the region, are actually connected with each other through history.

Historian William McNeill described history as, “The story of ingestion of weaker societies by stronger ones and of rivalries among the strong”. History is witness to the colonisation by superior military powers of large parts of the world. Many times this colonisation happened in the name of civilising efforts of the West. Military and economic superiority was used to not only colonise parts of the non-Western world, but also impose western cultural beliefs and practises in the name of bringing modern values to those lands.

West’s quest for imposing its values on the rest of the world gave birth to new theories like Joseph Nye’s Soft Power and Hard Power. Using non-military and non-political tools to impose one’s cultural practises on other societies is described as ‘Soft Power’. Here, culture is also a ‘power’, like the military and economic power, which are the ‘Hard Power’; and it is to be ‘imposed’ on other societies. It is fashionable these days to flash this ‘Soft Power’ concept rather casually. We need to seriously revisit this concept before flamboyantly using it liberally.

West’s unending efforts to create a ‘uniform’ universal culture based on western cultural and social values have led to a serious debate on a fundamental question as to whether modernisation means only westernisation or there can be non-western models of cultural and civilisational engagement that would lead to enriching human existence.

History of India and its neighbourhood is replete with examples of how cultural influence had led to prospering and flowering of native cultures in the region around India. Here it was not the soft power at play trying to impose certain alien value system on the natives; rather it was a communion of cultures benefitting both sides.

Ganga – Mekong region had witnessed this interplay of cultures at the advent of the first millennium of the Christian Era. Ptolemy was one of the first to record this engagement besides some Chinese scholars in 2nd and 3rd Century AD. First recorded engagement was at Funan in 1st Century AD itself. It was recorded that an Indian traveller by name Kaundinya had arrived in the kingdom of Funan, married the princess and established first ever Indian empire in the region. Funan is identified as the present day lower Mekong delta also encompassing southern Vietnam, central Mekong and the Malay Peninsula.

Successive waves of migrations had happened originating from kingdoms like Kalinga in Orissa to Chola in southern Tamilnadu. What is remarkable is that while these migrations had led to establishment of Indian kingdoms in the South East Asian region, from Cambodia to Bali, they are hardly seen as colonisations. In fact the competing influence of the Chinese rulers was less charitably viewed by the host communities than the Indian influence.

Contrary to the general perception, the populations in the Mekong region didn’t belong to the Chinese race. They belonged to very diverse races. In his monumental work “The Indianised States of Southeast Asia”, French scholar of Southeast Asian history and archaeology George Coedes argues that some of them belong to the Negritos and Veddas; others to the Australoids and the Papuan-Melanesians; and still others to the Indonesians. “This fact leads to a clear conclusion: that the earliest inhabitants of Farther India are related to those who inhabit the islands of the Pacific today, and that the Mongolian element in Farther India is of very recent origin”, he further argues.

Historians have called the area that went under Indian influence as ‘Greater India’ or ‘Farther India’. This description is not fully apt for the important reason that the Indian migrants – royals, sailors, traders, monks – didn’t encounter any uncivilised savages in the lands that they had visited. On the contrary, they were organised societies endowed with a value system that had many similarities with that of the visitors. Thus the so-called Indianisation of Farther India is an exaggeration because what actually happened was the communion of the Indian and native cultures.

Both Ganga and Mekong regions have been inhabited since prehistoric times in organised settlements not only foraging but also pastoral and agricultural. New archaeological evidence is being unearthed continually now that indigenous scholars are working on it. Historically people have migrated and merged, intermingled and exchanged. Neither culture has any pristine reality.

A very important distinction needs to be underscored here. Although several of these countries are in close proximity with China, the Chinese/Mongol influence over these territories has been insignificant compared to that of India. The reason lies in the way China and India employed methods to influence the populations there. The Chinese civilisation was sought to be spread through military conquests followed by the spread of Chinese civilisation through official means. Eminent historian K A Nilakantha Sastry, in his address to the 9th session of the Indian History Congress in 1946, highlights that the Indian penetration or infiltration seems almost always to have been peaceful; nowhere was it accompanied by destruction.

Elaborating on this point, Coedes writes: “Far from being destroyed by the conquerors, the native peoples of Southeast Asia found in Indian society a framework within which their own society could be integrated and developed. The Indians nowhere engaged in military conquest and annexation in the name of a state or mother country. The countries conquered militarily by China had to adopt or copy her institutions, her customs, her religions, her language, and her writing. By contrast, those which India conquered peacefully preserved the essentials of their individual cultures and developed them, each according to its own genius. It is this that explains the differentiation, and in a certain measure the originality, of the Khmer, Cham and Javanese civilisations, in spite of their common Indian origin”.

All this calls for a lot of research and study. Sadly, the Indian scholars have simply forgotten that they had vast regions in their extended neighbourhood that had a living civilisation and culture partially, if not fully, ingested from India. It was left to the French and other European academics in the last century to explore this dimension of India. It is time the scholars in the region take more interest in this subject.

Out of the goodwill that is generated by this cultural communion shall emerge a strong bonding between the regions of Ganga and Mekong for greater engagement and cooperation in the years to come.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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