Keynote Address by the Director, VIF during Fourth International Interdisciplinary Conference on the theme “India and Southeast Asia: One Indic Belt” | (6 may 2023)

Dear Prof Kondapalli, Prof Gautam Kumar Jha, Distinguished scholars,

I would like to thank the Centre for Chinese and Southeast Studies, the knowledge partners and the Indic Belt Society for organising the international conference on “India and Southeast Asia: One Indic Belt”. Thank you very much for inviting me to this conference.

It is indeed a topical subject which needs more in-depth study at a time when the global situation is in a flux. The Indo-Pacific region is experiencing, on one hand great economic resurgence, and on the other, enhanced geopolitical tensions. China’s rise and it assertiveness is being felt across the region. China’s brazen assertion in the South China Sea has shaken up the ASEAN and the region. Taiwan is a flashpoint which can impact the region on a very negative way. Due to the deepening US-China competition, the region is likely to become more unstable.

The countries of the Southeast Asia are critical for India’s security and prosperity. India’s Look-East Policy, launched in the 90s after the end of the cold war and its enhanced version, the Act-East Policy, is the key framework to develop strategic partnerships with the countries of the region. In the backdrop of the recent changes in geopolitical situation, the strategic importance of Southeast Asia for India has increased manifolds. India now has the task of renewing and deepening its Act-East Policy in the backdrop of the emergence of a new cold war. We need a fill the Act East Policy with strategic intent and content.

As the very thoughtful concept note of the conference points out correctly, Southeast Asia has been an integral part of Indic civilisation until the late 1400 A.D when the colonisation of the region began. Hermann Kulke & Dietmar Rothermund in their book A History of India (4th edition 2004, p.15). note; “The transmission of Indian culture to distant parts of Central Asia, China, Japan, and especially Southeast Asia is one of the greatest achievements of Indian history or even of the history of mankind”. The influence of Hindu-Buddhist culture can be seen across the region including in Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and many other countries. The cultural connect between the two regions provides a durable foundation for the deepening and sustaining India’s Act East Policy.

It should be noted that in the early part of 20th Century, Indian historians and scholars paid a great deal of attention to India’s civilisational and historical connection with South East Asia. Regrettably, in post-independence, until the 1990s, South East Asia was neglected in India’s policies. This cost India dearly as its two millennia long engagement with the strategically important region got disrupted. Commenting on this neglect, Prof RC Majumdar, who is known for his work on Indian history, including the South East Asia, in his book Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East (1938) wrote,

“It is unfortunate the government, the university and the people of India take hardly interest in what may justly be describe at one of the most glorious episodes in the history of Indian culture, abandoned traces of which still remain in remote widely scattered regions all over Southeast Asia”.

The Dutch and French archaeologists, historians and scholars wrote extensively on Indonesia and Indo-China. In their research, they found the extensive cultural footprint of India in South East Asia. Scholars in India, driven by nationalism and Pan-Asianism, set up a “Greater India Society” in 1927 to research the Indian cultural influence across Asia. Historian such as RC Majumdar, Kalidas Nag, Neelkantha Shastri, UN Ghoshal, Nalinaksha Dutt, Prabodha Bagchi, Himansu Bhusan Sarkar explored the civilisation and historical engagement between India and the East through the activities of the ‘Greater India Society’ and the Journal of the Greater India Society. Rabindra Nath Tagore also provided guidance to the society. The remains of temples in Angkor Wat and Borobudur, the discovery of inscriptions in Sanskrit and other Indian languages in several parts of the region pointed to unmistakable Indian cultural influence in these regions. The ‘Greater India Society’ not only specialised in Southeast Asia but also dwelt upon India’s connection with Central Asia and Afghanistan, Tibet and China. They based their arguments and conclusions on a variety of sources including the archaeological reports written in French and Dutch languages. The journal of the Society stopped publication in 1957. We need to revive the tradition of researching Indian historical and civilisational connections with South East Asia and other parts of the world.

The enthusiastic scholars described Indian influence in South East Asia as “Hindu Colonies”. This term has been debated extensively. Did India actually colonise South East Asia? It may, however, be stated that Hindu colonisation is very different from the ‘colonisation’ done by the West. RC Majumdar clarified that“The Hindus did not regard their colonies mainly as outlet of their excessive population and at excessive market for their growing trade… they were not the dominant notes of the colonial policy of ancient India”.

Indian connection with South East Asia is ancient. The Periplus of Erythrean Sea (70 AD) notes the presence of Indian merchants and ships in South East Asia ports. The inscriptions found in Vo Cahn (South Vietnam, 3rd Century AD) refers to South Indian merchants Mannigraman which was a merchant guild in Tamil Nadu. Indian religion and culture influenced South East Asia for more than a thousand years. RC Majumdar notes that for nearly 1500 years Hindu kings were ruling over Indo-China and Islands of Indonesian Archipalago from Sumatra to New Delhi. In Malay Peninsula, the Hindu Shailendra dynasty rose in 8th Century. Its writ extended to Sumatra, Java, Bali and Borneo.

According to scholar Kalidas Nag, there was mass migration of Indians to Malaysia and Indonesia in the closing centuries of BC and early centuries of Christian era. Migrations to South East Asia happened in several phases: Amravati (2-3 Century AD), Guptas (4-5 Century AD), Pallawas (550-730) and Palas (8th Century). The place names in Sumatra, Java, Champa, Cambuja, Suwarana Bhoomi were in Sanskrit language. In time, isolated centres of trade and commerce founded by the Indian merchants and mariners developed into big cultural zones, the ‘Hindu Colonies,’ and ‘empires,’ like that of Shri Vijay in Indonesia and of the Hinduised kingdom of Champa and Combuja in Indo-China. Local influences blended with Hindu civilisational imprints. Impressive architectural marvels like Borobudur and Parambanans of Java and the Bayon and Angkor Wat of Indo-China point to the strength and power of these empires. We need to do deeper research into the interaction of India with these empires.

The Cholas of Tamil Nadu developed intense contacts with Southeast Asia. The Chola King Rajendra I (11th Century) had a large navy, the largest in Asia. The Chola influence reached far into Southeast Asia,up to the Philippines. Two powerful kingdoms, Champa and Combuja achieved great heights. The Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia is devoted to Hindu God Vishnu. The Kingdom of Combuja covered Cambodia, Cochin, China, Laos, Siam and parts of Burma and Malaya Peninsula. In the 13 century, King Vijaya founded a kingdom in Java with capital at Majapahit. In the 15th century, Hindu King of Java founded the kingdom of Malaka.

In post independent India, the fact of Indian cultural diffussion in Southeast Asia was not integrated in the Indian policy towards the region. India was embroiled in wars with Pakistan and China. In the cold war era, India followed a policy of non-alignment. There were wars, conflicts and insurgencies in the South East Asian countries. They were also not looking towards India. Some of them became members of US led SEATO military alliance. Further, the notion of ‘secularism’ that informed India’s policies constrained it from projecting India’s cultural linkages in Indian foreign policy. Now is the time to overcome these constraints.


India began to refashion its policies after the end of the cold war. It opened up its economy in 1991. India began to engage with ASEAN under its Look East Policy. Gradually, the notion of Indo-Pacific began to take shape.

Prime Minister Abe is credited with the idea of the Indo-Pacific in 2007. Speaking in the Indian parliament, he talked about the coupling of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans and the emergence of ‘broader Asia’. But in Indian thinking, India and Pacific Oceans have long been interconnected. The Indian maritime doctrine articulated by Ministry of Defence in 2004 noted “the shift in global maritime focus from the Atlantic Pacific to the Pacific Indian Ocean region”. Several Indian scholars began propounding the concept of Indo-Pacific around 2007. Much earlier, Kalidas Nag, who wrote a book India and the Pacific World in 1941, talked about the expansion of Indian culture into the Pacific Ocean world. PM Abe had even referred to the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh’s work ‘Confluence of Two Seas’ in 1615. Nehru had even predicted the rise of the Indo-Pacific. He wrote; “The Pacific is likely to take the place of the Atlantic in future as a nerve centre of the world. Though not directly a Pacific state, India will inevitably exercise and important influence there. India will also develop as a centre of economic and political activities in the Indian Ocean, in south East Asia and right up to the Middle East”. The point here is that the geopolitics of the Indo Pacific has been a part of India’s historical, cultural and civilisational state.

The concept of Indo-Pacific, which is now gaining currency, gives India a unique opportunity to make culture an effective instrument of its diplomacy. PM Modi has emphasised the importance of culture based soft power in India’s policy. The Act East Policy should integrate India’s civilisational and cultural links into its strategic and foreign policy prospects.

Bay of Bengal

Let us not forget the importance of the Bay of Bengal, which connects India and South East Asia. Author Sunil S Amrith, in his book, Crossing the Bay of Bengal notes that the Bay of Bengal region was at the heart of global history. The line between the South Asia and South East Asia ran right through the middle of the Bay. It was a ‘maritime highway’ between India and China. The English, Dutch and the French were present all around the Bay. There were constant migration, and trade between India and the “spice Island” of Indonesia. People were crossing the way in large numbers in the 19th and early 20th Century. In the second half of the 19th century, the Bay of Bengal was at the heart of Indian economy. But after the second world war, the Bay of Bengal economy and interconnections collapsed suddenly. This situation may be changing once again. As a result of the Act East Policy, the Bay of Bengal is once again set to regain its importance as the concept of Indo-Pacific take shape.


The salience of the diaspora in India’s foreign policy has increased. There is about 30 million strong Indian diaspora in various countries. Historically, Indian have been present in Southeast Asia for centuries. LM Singhvi’s report on Indian diaspora led to the formation of the ministry of Overseas Indians and the Overseas Citizens of India and the Annual Pravasi Bhartiya Diwas meetings. Diasporic issues have a major impact on India’s relations with Southeast Asian countries. The Act-East Policy, Free Trade Agreements, impulses of globalisation have created conditions for extensive people-to-people contacts. We are seeing a new wave of migration from India to South East Asian countries. A large number of Indian professionals, workers, and corporates have begun to do business and other work in Southeast Asia like Singapore. The contribution of Indians in the making of Singapore has been recognised and written about. The inauguration of the India Heritage Centre in Singapore in 2015 at the initiative of former Singaporean President SR Nathan highlights the contribution of Indians in the making of Singapore. We need to encourage such initiatives in different countries.

This conference should mark the beginning of the revival of the studies devoted to the delineation of the Indic-Belt and its relevance to the contemporary world. We need new ideas, fresh policy initiatives to deepen India’s engagement with Southeast Asia. Hopefully, this conference will generate these ideas. In 2015, the Ministry of Culture launched “Project Mausam” with Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Art as the nodal agency. The project is aimed at fostering linkages with Indian Ocean countries where the Monsoon facilitated trade and migration. The project has yet to gather critical mass. But it could provide an ideal platform for connecting with the regions and South East Asia through the medium of culture. Scholars, scientists, museums, archaeologist, experts can be brought together on this platform. An annual conference on Indic-Belt, India’s soft power is suggested. We may also consider bringing out a high quality journal on India’s cultural footprint observed, including in South East Asia.

Thank you.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
1 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us