Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Cultural Diplomacy as the pillar of India's foreign policy and Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Suresh Kumar Goel
    Venue: Calicut University
    Date: June 25, 2019

Mr Vice Chancellor, Dr Sebastaian,

I am delighted to be in this historic city of Kozhikode which has been dubbed the City of Spices for its role as the major trading point of Indian spices.

The capital of an independent kingdom ruled by the Samoothiris (Zamorins) in the Middle Ages and later of the erstwhile Malabar District under British rule has been at the centre of Indian Marine trade and travel which have taken with them the rich cultural influences and treasures of India to South East Asia, The Gulf surrounded by Arabs and Persians, and Europe. Arab merchants traded with the region as early as 7th century, and Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed at Kozhikode on 20 May 1498, thus opening a trade route between Europe and Malabar. The English landed in 1615 followed by the French in 1698 and the Dutch in 1752.

Ibn Battuta (1342–1347), who visited Kozhikode six times described Kozhikode as "one of the great ports of the district of Malabar" where "merchants of all parts of the world are found. The greater part of the Muslim merchants of this place are so wealthy that one of them can purchase the whole freightage of such vessels put here and fit out others like them".

Ma Huan (1403 AD), the Chinese sailor part of the Imperial Chinese fleet under Zheng He lauds the city as a great emporium of trade frequented by merchants from around the world.

Kozhikode is truly the epitome of cultural confluence which is the hallmark of Indian civilization.

The cultural diversity of Kozhikode is also reflected in its rich music traditions which combine the Tyagaraja tradition, and Ghazal and Hindustani music appreciation. The late film director and play back singer M. S. Baburaj from Kozhikode was influenced by Ghazal and Hindustani music.

The University of Calicut is particularly a vibrant example of this cultural confluence.

Many famous Hindu scholars like Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri who composed the Narayaneeyam in Sanskrit, Poonthanam Namboodiri and Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan came from Malappuram. The ancient Kerala school of astronomy and mathematics though mainly centred in Thrissur also had namboodiri and nair scholars coming from Malappuram. Today the district includes Thirunavaya, the classic medieval centre of Vedic learning; Kottakkal, home of Ayurveda medicine.

During the 1970s Persian Gulf oil reserves were opened to commercial extraction, and thousands of unskilled workers migrated to the Gulf. They sent money home, supporting the rural economy, and today the region has First World health standards and near-universal literacy.[2]

3. Hitopadesha, 1.3.71:
‘ayam nijah paroveti ganana laghuchetasam
udaracharitanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbhakam’ |


’This is my own and that a stranger’ – is the calculation of the narrow-minded For the magnanimous-hearts however, the entire earth is but a family’

Aham Brahmosmi, Brihadaronyaka Upnishad
Tat Tvam Asi. Chandogya Upnishad

Ekam Satya Vipra Bahudha Vadanti

Sarvesham Svasti Bhavatu, Sarvesham Shanti Bhavatu
Sarvesham Purnam Bhavatu, Sarvesham Mangalam Bhavatu


Mahavakyas like these are the source of traditional and ancient Indian wisdom, inspiration and the civilizational system and explain the foundation of Indian ethos governing not just our individual beliefs but our interactions within and without the ecological systems.

When Upanishads gave the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam to India and to the world; Swami Vivekananda announced the message of "ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti” at the World Conference of Religions in Chicago in 1893, the message of global cultural space or a unity of the world away from discord of political divergences was clearly reflected in the message of peace and unity from India.

Clearly the cultural diplomacy is not new to India, in fact the better term for it would be a civilizational dialogue where faith in the commonality of human sentiments overpowers political and economic divergences.

Cultural Diplomacy is a space for co-opting national interests without the pitfalls of illusions of national popularity or sub-national divisive forces acting against the Indian community populating other nations. Attacks against Indian cinema halls by religiously motivated movements in societies where fanaticism had deep penetration in people’s psyche or the problems faced by Indian community in Fiji or Uganda were caused by the political influence of the Indian masses there as well as their economic success. The soft power of the Indian influences failed in those cases to protect the Indian people making us painfully aware of the need for need for cultural dialogue among various communities. The argument should therefore be to advocate the use of soft power to promote understanding and dialogue for cultural integration and avoid narrower projection of ethnic identities.

The cultural diplomacy in the spirit of Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, contextualises WE in the global goods context. Aham Bramosmi Tat Tvam Asi teaches us to think of me as I would think of you, quintessentially the same brahman thus obliterating distinctions which create competition and consequently friction. It advocates harmonious co existence and not contentious contests. Sarvesham Svasti Bhavatu calls for good of everyone.

I would describe therefore Cultural Diplomacy as the civilizational gift of India to the world much like zero or the concept of infinity. Nothing defines zero or infinity more beautifully than the shloka " Purnamidam Purnamada, Purnatpurnam Udachyate, Purnasya Purnamadaya, Putprnameva Vashishyate."

In recent times, the cultural diplomacy has become an important pillar of the indian Foreign policy because of our cultural values.

India with its more than five millennia of civilization is fortunate to have both developed culture of strategizing its civilizational behavior as well as developing the use of culture to overcome the effects of differentiation within the societies and amongst societies. Mahabharata is a bright example of the culture of strategy in which the single minded pursuit for power and territory led to the construction of a society in which every action of every individual needed to be explained on the basis of objectives as set by individuals for themselves. Some individuals were criticized because their objectives were seen to focus on limited selfish gains while others like Pandavas put their objectives in the larger framework of the good of the society. The whole Mahabharata including Geeta is the bright example of defining of the ideal of progress of a group or growth of individuals. Bhagavatgeeta, my source of inspiration is not a book of devotion to God but incisive and clinical description of the role of individuals in the society, bereft of all sentiments or emotions for the good of either the individual or a society. .

The strategy of culture on the other hand has been the guiding element of Indian philosophy throughout its early Vedic literature and has been used to advantage through at least three millennia of Indian history as is evident in Greek incursions into India about 2500 years ago, the assimilation of Islamic architecture and ideas not only in the visible forms of Indian culture but also its national conscience, or before that the spread of religions, architectural and cultural influences between India and Southeast Asia. Silk route along which traversed not only goods and people but which became the artery for flow of civilizational ideas including Buddhism between Central Asia, India and China is a bright example of the use of strategy of culture to bring together vastly divergent societies into one vibrantly growing people. In fact, the ancient Silk Route was a triumph of the Indian Cultural Diplomacy in achieving a peaceful, stable and harmonious region to our north and West which was deeply influenced by indian cultural values and ethics and reinforced Indian presence in the region. With its traditions of inclusiveness and capacity to absorb a variety of identities even co-opting at different times, the Indian culture has distinguished itself into a civilizational distinction which is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic and yet is distinctly Indian. Our cultural complexion today is neither Vedic nor Islamic nor Christian. It is not Aryan or this or that. Everything or anything that has ever been brought to India, again the vaguely defined landmass of the sub-continent, has become part of the Indianness without losing its original identity.

It is a result of our own cultural flexibility and inclusiveness that all that is Indian can retain its original identity and submerge at the same time into the vast Indian behemoth. The modern Westiphilian boundaries which divide societies are not part of Indian traditional thinking. Therefore our notion of civilizational dialogue becomes a useful instrument to soften the disruption created by the different identities on the basis that cultural identities alone do not define the civilizational identity. The concept of the cultural diplomacy is that the cultural inclusiveness should become central to the global dialogue so that different identities do not disturb the international order but interact with each other and aggregate into a common idea to encourage a dialogue in a non-intrusive and non-competitive manner to ensure transformation of the current chaotic order into an actively connected global world in which human interests and the idea of a world as family drive the global forces. It is only then that dialogue will conquer over conflicts and nations will cooperate by adjusting to each other rather than confronting each other. Understanding, accommodation and tolerance for different identities rather than questionings and manoeuvring for separate distinct spaces will become the foundation of such a world.

The idea of organising performances and festivals abroad such as those by ICCR, is not to just project Indian culture but to encourage interaction between the Indian cultural ideas and the local cultures. Similarly, the Indian Cultural Centres abroad are not just the repositories of Indian culture but they are spaces where Indian cultural elements and the creative minds of the host countries will come together in an interaction truly leading to an energetic dialogue between the non-political and non-competitive sections of the societies of India and the host country. In an ideal Cultural Centre, the space would be available for the local people to come, organize lectures, seminars and workshops not just on Indian themes but on themes of their interest. The space would host interactions between Indian and the local creative minds. It would host painting exhibitions from not just India but the local painters.

One of the ideal ways in which such a dialogue can be sustained is not just through performing arts but even more effectively through encouragement to academics and scholars. An Indian Chair in the universities abroad is not just an Indian professor teaching on India related programme to a foreign student community. More importantly, it is the nucleus of India related interactions and research collaboration between the Indian scholars and the foreign academic community.

Conferences are yet another way of promoting a dialogue between different cultures. The subject chosen is one which historically connects India and that country; the scholars chosen are not only from the host country and India but also the neighboring countries of the host to expand the dialogue from the bilateral to the regional. For example, when I was DG ICCR, we found globalization and culture as the most attractive theme for the conference to commemorate the 60th anniversary of ICCR in 2010. We have held conferences on Buddhism and Tagore in Southeast Asia. We have held conferences on Sufism in the USA and Central Asia and the conference on Cultural Liberalism with France.

Joint research programmes are yet another platform to promote common understandings at a much deeper academic and cultural level. An example is the IIC-Asia project directed by eminent scholar Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan.

Some of the triumphs of the Indian Cultural Diplomacy have been the International Jazz Festival which I created in 2011, the Indian Sufi festival in Delhi and the Qawwali festival. The performance of the all women Iranian Sufi group immediately after the fatwa against the Kashmiri all girl group became the most widely covered event by media to challenge the phenomenon of religious fanaticism. The Qawwali performance brought together Qawwali groups from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan with Dervishes from Turkey dancing in the middle. Listening to all these groups singing together Allahu was the unique success of cultural diplomacy. The Swan Lake Revisited produced by Mitul Sen Gupta brought together Kathak, Flamenco, tap dance and classical Jazz with Indian classical music and Tchaikovsky in a unique choreography where the dance forms and music did not remain in the confines of their own spaces but entered into a dialogue with each other to illustrate that different spaces can merge together and maintain their own identity at the same time in the cultural world. Questionings by Rukmini Chatterjee showed the fantastic conversation between the Raudra of Odissi and the growling sounds of the Norwegian black metal. These choreographies indeed managed to overcome the boundaries between the different societies.

The essential idea motivating these festivals is that the cultural dialogue requires not only the language of Indian culture but also the language of the other cultures.

Some of the most notable successes of Indian cultural diplomacy have been in the context of the India-ASEAN summit in 2012. The seminar on civilizational links between India and Southeast Asia at Patna built on the historical connections which could now probably lead to a long term project to not only map these connections in a comprehensive and holistic manner but also trace where these connection could lead in future. The exhibition on archival links between India and Southeast Asia displayed the wealth of documentation which brought together India and Southeast Asia over the last 200 years. The MGC Textile museum at Siem Reap would not be just an Indian exhibition but would again highlight the commonalities which exist between textile traditions from India and Southeast Asian countries. The choreography which built on the similarities of performing art traditions between India and Southeast Asia was a huge hit not only because it truly created a dialogue between Indian and Southeast Asian cultures but also removed the boundaries between the cultures of India in these countries. Comparisons were made immediately with another country which gives prominence to its own culture.

We must not at the same time commit the mistake of rooting Cultural Diplomacy in exclusive traditional forms. Human civilization is not static. With the evolution of human race and rapid technological revolution, new ideas and new structures take shape. Robotics, AI, Cyber are all as much a reality today as they were part of mythological imaginations yesterday. They need to find expression in the cultural dialogue today. Youth is not just participant in today's conversations. He is the initiator and creator of this phenomenon. He like popular culture must also be an integral part of this eternal and constantly transforming Cultural Dialogue. Our ambassadors today are not only foreign service officers. But all those who have come to be the Indian global face as financial and management professionals, scientists, technocrats and creators in various fields. Yoga is the new flavour of the west and Bollywood drives the Indianness globally.

The advantage of cultural diplomacy or the civilizational dialogue is not only that it creates another space where dialogue can be conducted between different nations in a non contentious and non-intrusive manner but that it also creates effective public opinion which has become an increasingly important component of foreign policy making.

I have projected Cultural Diplomacy as the dialogue among civilizations or amalgamation of diverse values. Brand recognition plays an important part in this dialogue in the modern context.

It has become therefore overwhelming important to build a vibrant, positive and powerful India brand as a party to this dialogue. There are several important factors which have contributed to this India brand and I would describe that as another triumph of the Indian Cultural Diplomacy to reinforce our strengths in other areas such as strategic, political, economic etc.

Following are some of these factors:

Yoga: The world Yoga Day celebrations on the 21st of June amply demonstrated the strength Yoga has gained to project India as the major spiritual and cultural influence globally to address the pressures of modern lifestyle and thus provide a uniques resource for mental, physical and psychological wellness of the people. This build India as the powerful spiritual guru in the world. Prime Minister Modi on the World Yoga Day describe Yoga as the mantra for world harmony, peace and happiness.

Youth: The Indian youth has gained global recognition as tech savvy, problem solver, hardworking and thus an asset to any economic system in the world. Indian youth has thus become another integral part of strong India Brand.

Indian Films and Glamour: They have become part of international landscape by providing social values based entertainment and excitement through contests such as Miss World, Miss Universe, Oscars etc.

Cricket: popularity of IPL and the World Cricket Cup is evidence of its brand value.

Weddings: I don't need to give examples but the press coverage on prominent Indian weddings over the last few months illustrates my point.

We need to build on these brand strengths so that they can support our endeavours for India to become one of the top economic and political power in the coming years.

In conclusion, it is good to remember that soft power can support the civilizational dialogue and that the civilizational dialogue or cultural diplomacy can create a huge platform for the success of our traditional diplomacy. At the same time, caution needs to be exercised since it does not substitute the hard core negotiations for competitive national interests.