September 26, 2017

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India’s Cultural Diplomacy

By Paramjit S. Sahai, Former Indian ambassador; DiploFoundation & University of Malta.

India’s Cultural Diplomacy in a Globalised World.

Cultural Diplomacy is recognised as an important instrument of foreign policy in promoting international links among peoples and countries.  In the past, there was an intrinsic link between culture and commerce.  In some cases, culture preceded commerce; while in other cases, it was the other way round. Did this cultural connectivity lead to strengthening of political, commercial and economic ties among countries?

Independent India recognised the importance of cultural diplomacy, as an instrument for people to people connectivity. Ministries of External Affairs and Culture share the responsibility for promoting cultural diplomacy. India has signed 126 bilateral cultural agreements and is currently implementing 58 Cultural Exchange Programmes with other countries. Bilateral Agreements, however, are not  prerequisite for the conduct of cultural diplomacy.

To achieve this objective, India set up a nodal body, called  the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in 1950.  Since its creation, ICCR has used a number of instrumentalities, like Cultural Centres, Festivals of India, Chairs of Indian Studies, etc. in promoting not only cultural but broader linkages with countries across the world. There is an expansion of Cultural Centres and Chairs of Indian Studies. The Centres are now treated as ‘cultural hubs’ and not as ‘IndianIslands’.

In the 21st century, which is categorized as an Asian century, there is a spurt in India’s economic and commercial linkages?  How much is this due to cultural connectivity?  Do we see a new dynamism being imparted to age old cultural ties, leading to emergence of cooperation in new areas, like education, information technology, which also fall under the broader definition of culture?

Do we need to evolve a new approach on Cultural Diplomacy?  How do we give a push to our cultural activities, as the same are not restricted to the governmental channels only?  The role of Bollywood, Yoga and Indian diaspora becomes important in this regard.  Finally, it would also beg the question, whether there is a new thrust.  If so, then what is the nature and the direction of the same and its impact on overall ties?

Any discussion on cultural diplomacy would necessitate our understanding how it is placed in this globalised world.  We would also have to take a fresh look at the concept itself, whether it has undergone any transformation in the process.  Has cultural diplomacy appeared in its new incarnation, as soft diplomacy?  It also raises certain questions, as to whether we are now better connected in a globalised world, which has bridged the communication gap.  If so, then do we still need cultural diplomacy to connect people?  On the other hand, has the world of cultural diplomacy been subsumed into other catchy frameworks, like ‘soft power, ‘public diplomacy’, which are in vogue these days.

Are the above terms synonymous with ‘Cultural Diplomacy’?  If not, how do these relate to one another?  Does ‘Cultural Diplomacy’ remain in the governmental domain?  If not, whether other players have emerged and how do these connect with the governmental apparatus.  Has this diluted or circumscribed the role of the government?  All these and more questions would need to be answered, as we move forward.

The heart of cultural diplomacy is to promote understanding among people, who come from different backgrounds and hold different values, through the medium of culture. Dr. Karan Singh, President, ICCR states, ‘Culture has no boundaries and using it as a way to interact with the masses has been the most effective way to win hearts in the era of globalization’.  Culture in the context of cultural diplomacy looks at a broader spectrum and is not limited to performing arts only.  It embraces both ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture’ activities.

Cultural diplomacy has to primarily grapple with the issue of identity, per se.  It is both at the level of individuals and nations, as even the latter have also acquired their own identities.  At global level, we all are connected and differences tend to disappear, as we watch the same programmes and wear similar dresses.  In fact, the jean has become the biggest leveller, not only among the genders, but also among people across the world.  At the national level, we tend to equate our identities, with the home or the host state, to suit our convenience.  at the local level, we opt for our distinct identity, as we are nurtured by similar values and traditions, which result in our acquiring certain social and cultural traits.  It is, here that we start identifying with the group as ‘we’;  thus seeing ourselves as different from another group, called ‘they’.

It is, here that the role of cultural diplomacy triggers in, as a connecting bridge, to understand and respect individuals and nations, as they are. From the above, it should be clearly understood that cultural diplomacy cannot be equated with ‘soft diplomacy’, as coined by Joseph Nye. It has to be remembered that the primary focus of soft ‘diplomacy’ is to influence through means other than military. In the case of cultural diplomacy, it is about ‘dialogue’ and through dialogue to promote understanding. Furthermore, cultural diplomacy also cannot be equated with public diplomacy; even though in practice it is used interchangeably with ‘public diplomacy’, which is the most ‘in-thing’ these days.  Public Diplomacy is definitely about influence; it is about conversion of others into our view point.  Its focus, therefore, is on opinion makers, be it the academia, think tanks, pressure groups, businessmen and other influential elite, which have a say in the formulation of foreign policy and conduct of international relations.  Public Diplomacy is a direct onslaught on the brain (intellect), while cultural diplomacy softly plays on the heart.

There is a greater need to make cultural diplomacy more visible in this globalised village, where we need to understand the centrality of the message of Swami Vivekanand that he delivered in 1871 at an International Conference on World Religions at Chicago. He spoke of ‘understanding and not conversion’ across the globe and of ‘acceptance and not protection’ of other religions.  We have to imbibe this message, when civilisational divide separates us more. Universal Man of the dream of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore is still missing from this global village, as differences are getting accentuated among peoples and nations.  The so called ‘clash of civilizations’ has not receded into the distant past, as mistrust is growing among followers of major faiths. Therefore, a new thrust needs to be imparted to cultural diplomacy, as it assumes its role of a bridge builder among nations and peoples.

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