With both Nepal and China on the offensive, India seems to be losing the battle for its neighbours’ hearts and minds. The assumption that formal agreements, conventions and the logic of history will ensure a benign neighbourhood has been upended.
As India reels from these setbacks, it is beginning to rethink its “minds and hearts” policy and retrieve initiatives it has relegated to the back-burner. The Mausam Initiative, for one, seems to have been reinvigorated, with recent conversations emerging on its potential as a flag-bearer of Indian cultural influence in the Indian Ocean littoral.
The Mausam Initiative, announced in 2014, seems so far to have had nowhere to go. The initial energy displayed in an effort to list the Indian Ocean with UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site remained what it was, an initial effort. A well-meaning decision to list 39 countries around the Indian Ocean littoral as probable partners in the initiative was never realised, and support in the region does not yet exist.
The nodal agency for the initiative, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, has been inhibited in creating knowledge around the initiative that would have made it more dynamic and exciting. But more importantly, the Mausam Initiative has not met the expectations it created when announced, because its programmatic framework remains unclear. There is little clarity on how the ancient, medieval and premodern pluralist histories of the Indian Ocean may resonate with our times and concerns.
A rocky start
The initiative was mired in contradictions from the start. For one, when it was announced, it resonated with India’s foreign policy of reaching out to near and distant neighbours. When it was launched, however, it morphed into the Mausam Project. As a project, it remains limited to listing the Indian Ocean as a UNESCO world heritage site and has become narrowly conceived and time bound.
The initiative has floundered on its definition as a project, and today is remembered more as Project Mausam than as the Mausam Initiative. This has prevented a discussion of what the initiative could achieve while retaining the objectives of the project as one important part of its implementation.
Secondly, projecting the cultures that emerged around the trade and movements controlled by the monsoon (mawsim/mausam) winds as ‘Indian heritage’ did not find support around the Indian Ocean region. In the contemporary context of prickly nationalism and criticism of cultural appropriation, it is not surprising that of the 39 countries listed by India as probable partners in the UNESCO listing, not one has formally come on board.
What India has offered them is a limited partnership in a transnational nomination for the Indian Ocean as a world heritage site with UNESCO, not a deeper and more significant partnership in the revival of an Indian Ocean culture, a much larger and more political endeavour. Parsimony in reaching out to stakeholders in the history and heritage of an Indian Ocean world offsets the good intentions of the initiative.
Thirdly, there has been little sensitivity to how the Indian Ocean is viewed by states around the littoral, and how the Indian claim to it is seen by them. Already, revisionist histories and literature is being written around the Indian Ocean intellectual and scholarly circuit, questioning notions of dominance, sovereignty and statecraft in the making of this world. New debates on diaspora, slavery, race and cultural diffusion and consumption are revealing that communities and centres that we thought were marginal and peripheral were really at the heart of significant changes in this maritime region.
A complicated history
This raises the issue of whether the Mausam Initiative as conceived is nimble enough to engage with a dynamic view of the India Ocean world that includes the cultural and political concerns of other Indian Ocean communities. Most policy missteps occur when common historical pasts are misread and misinterpreted, and contemporary research informs us that many accepted categories of understanding our worlds are being rethought in the countries to which India will be directing its initiative.
For the moment, the initiative seems not to have addressed its intended audience, the Indian Ocean community. It lacks the element of inclusion essential to persuade its audience of the merits of reframing the Indian Ocean world. What is sorely needed is an awareness that transnational conceptions of common spaces are necessarily cosmopolitan, with a complicated interpretation of the past. Recorded history tells us that ownership of the Indian Ocean has been complicated. Even its naming has been unstable. The Greeks called it the Erythrean Sea (60 CE), at the height of the Persian empire it was called the Sea of Fars (Persia) and the Arabs termed it the Sea of China, with India and China being shown as one land mass. In India as well, the conceptions of sea, ocean and river remained fluid until very late.
New research on trade in the region also points to the simultaneous importance of Indian, Egyptian, Eritrean and Yemeni ports. Thus, trade was rarely dominated by one port or region in the Indian Ocean.
A proper history of the Indian Ocean also reveals that there was no singular ownership of scientific and philosophical knowledge. Translation projects across the Arab world focused on translating texts from the Greek, Chinese and Sanskrit, and knowledge circulated in great centres of learning across the Indian Ocean littoral.
The imposition of a nation-state architecture on the Indian Ocean past just does not hold. The ownership issue is significant in the context of the backlash Beijing faced when it announced the Belt and Road Initiative as a unilateral venture, forcing it subsequently to speak the language of ‘partnerships’.
The way forward
The initiative also suffers from other operational contradictions. First, while the state funds it, its success depends on people outside the state. Here, while the production of knowledge is essential to rethink the connections and the understanding of the maritime region, the Mausam Initiative has found little resonance across likely constituencies in India and state-scholar partnerships are largely absent.
Second, to think of the Mausam Initiative as a limited and time-bound project sells the initiative short. The Indian Ocean world was many centuries in the making, and any effort to re-establish habits of communication across the region needs commitment to the creation of institutions and informal structures which can meet this end.
While it is not necessary to think in terms of centuries given the technologies at our command, the objectives of the initiative would be considerably enabled by a longer-term investment in time and resources, both human and material. Indian diplomacy must take a “whole of the nation” view of its task to revive and build on the goodwill of historical memory.
If the Mausam Initiative is to take off, its protagonists must be clear about its direction and evolve equal partnerships with states which have a stake in the history and culture of the Indian Ocean world. The history of cosmopolitanism in the Indian Ocean world must resonate with contemporary concerns about the region. For the advantages in goodwill alone, it is a conception worth reviving by keeping its core strengths in mind. It remains for policy makers to nuance the Mausam Initiative and make it an actually effective arm of policy.
Madhu Bhalla was a professor at Delhi University.