Culture diplomat who eyes Ashoka’s reach

Culture diplomat who eyes Ashoka’s reach

By: || Updated: 31 Oct 2014 02:52 AM
New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government has appointed as head of its cultural diplomacy arm an 87-year-old scholar on Tibetan identity with admitted RSS leanings and a belief that the Prime Minister will restore the Indian state’s cultural reach to what it enjoyed under emperor Ashoka.




Academic and former Rajya Sabha MP Lokesh Chandra’s views on cultural diplomacy, articulated by the new president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in an interview to The Telegraph today, mirror some of the RSS’s pet themes — with a dose of pragmatism.


But his appointment also represents a not-so-subtle jab at China, and could revive latent fears among some of India’s neighbours over New Delhi attempting to assert cultural hegemony over the entire region Ashoka ruled.


“After Ashoka, we never had an all-India political state,” Chandra, whose appointment was declared this evening, said over the telephone. “After 2,300 years, this government will be the first to create that once again.”


Ashoka’s kingdom at its peak stretched from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh, and spanned almost the whole of the Indian sub-continent — including Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan — barring only parts of current Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in the middle of the 3rd century BC.


The RSS has long argued for Akhand Bharat including all of Ashoka’s empire, the rest of India’s southern states and even Tibet. Chandra said he attended RSS events — including its Dussehra celebrations in Nagpur last year — though he isn’t formally a member of the organisation.


A geographic Akhand Bharat, Chandra acknowledged, was no longer possible.


“I’m talking in terms of the cultural reach and unification that Ashoka was able to bring to his all-India state,” Chandra said. “As for a geographic Akhand Bharat, it doesn’t matter if I want it, that won’t happen. We have to respect the sovereignty of all nations.”


Chandra takes over from veteran Congress leader Karan Singh at a time the ICCR is facing a battle for survival, unable to muster resources to expand at the same pace as India’s formal diplomatic forays with parts of the world long ignored.


The ICCR runs 40 Indian cultural centres in about 35 nations, but is struggling to set up 10 more that it has planned for over six years. The Indian institutes, attached to the country’s embassy in these nations, are New Delhi’s answer to similar hubs that the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy have long used as critical elements of their cultural diplomacy.


In recent years, the ICCR — which set up its first cultural centre in Fiji in 1972 — has faced a new challenge from China. Beginning only in 2004, China has already set up 480 Confucius Institutes.


New Delhi stalled Beijing’s proposals to set up Confucius Institutes in India till July 2013, when a centre was launched at Mumbai University.


But Chandra’s appointment itself, in some ways, represents a riposte to Beijing, even if it won’t help India challenge China’s fast-growing cultural diplomacy initiatives.


The veteran professor, a two-term Rajya Sabha MP from 1974-1986, has worked on the ancient historical ties between India and China.


But the 2006 Padma Bhushan awardee is best known for his work on Tibet’s independent culture, history and language — a focus China is uncomfortable with. And on Thursday, Chandra indicated he supported an assertive foreign policy with China.


“India is finally today taking stands, by reinforcing its positions along the Indo-Tibet border,” Chandra said. China opposes the characterisation of its border with India as “Indo-Tibetan” because of the implicit recognition of Tibet’s independent identity.


“I hope to contribute to the policies being pursued by the Prime Minister, the policies that are making Vietnam, Japan, Korea and others approach us more than ever before,” he said.


But a Chinese diplomat posted here independently questioned Chandra. “Who India appoints is its business, but our position on Tibet is clear and any reference to China’s territory or border with India in a manner other than what the two nations have agreed on, is objectionable for us,” the Chinese diplomat said.


- The Telegraph, Calcutta

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