Deergayu India-Indonesia Relations
Prof. G V C Naidu

An unsuspecting visitor to Indonesia in the month of August could be forgiven when greeted with huge banners all across with bold letters Deergayu Republik Indonesia for easily mistaking them as one of the state-led campaigns, but for an Indian it is stark reminder of age-old links between India and Indonesia. Even the Indian government does not use such a chaste Sanskrit word: Deergayu, meaning ‘long live’ to commemorate its independence. Even as the stern looking Indonesian President Susilo Bamabang Yudhoyono watched the Indian military might roll by on Rajpath on 61st Republic Day as the chief guest, one cannot but reminisce more than two millennia of relations between the two nations. The current rendezvous could not have come at a more propitious time when both seem to be at a crossroads of history poised once again to emerge as major players on the global stage.

Perhaps not many realise that the oldest and most important links India has had was with Indonesia. These connections spanned culture and civilisation, language and script (Brahmi before switching to Roman script under colonial rule), art and architecture, and spirituality and religion, besides thriving trade and commerce. Several golden ages in Indonesian history- from the early Tarumanagara that established itself in the fourth century to Majapahit that reigned between 13th and 16th centuries, including the famous Srivijaya, Sailendra, Mataram, Kediri, Singasari that rose on different occasions in different parts—were Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms that have left deep and enduring impressions that could be seen till date. Indian traders also played a major role in the spread of Islam, the dominant religion today. The Indian influence could be seen deeply engrained not merely in most Indonesian names, but virtually in most walks of life—from classical dances to the elaborate and traditionally the most sought after form of entertainment (and a medium to convey social messages and political sarcasm), the Wayang Kulit or shadow puppet show. These are based on stories from Indian epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Yet, it is important not to overstate the Indian influence. It only supplemented the already rich Indonesian heritage in all the above fields.

Indonesia, astride the Malacca and other straits that linked India in the west and China in east, was well known as a centre of learning for philosophy and spirituality and for exchange of ideas for scholars drawn from all over Asia. For Chinese scholars who came to India to learn Buddhist teachings, Indonesia invariably constituted a place for further interactions. Probably the only instance when a threat emanated from India was when the Chola kings of south India launched a major attack on Srivijayas to subdue their growing hold over trade in the region.

The onset of colonialism snapped booming interactions between India and Indonesia, which could only be re-discovered during the struggles for independence. Hence, it is hardly surprising that no country figured as prominently as Indonesia in the writings of nationalist historians such as R.C. Majumdar and Nilakanta Sastry to remind fellow Indians of their glorious past. That is the reason why India had been at the forefront strongly supporting the struggle for independence when the Dutch recaptured Indonesia after the Japanese rout in World War II, a struggle that lasted till 1950. New Delhi not only convened a special Conference on Indonesia in January 1949, which was attended by 19 nations, but relentlessly championed the independence cause at global fora such as the UN.

Perhaps it is equally important to remind ourselves that nationalist movement in particular that of Indonesia was instrumental in shaping post-independent India’s nascent foreign policy centred on ‘anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism’. In the aftermath of Indonesia’s independence, the Indian military was involved in training the armed forces of Indonesia, and, interestingly, the Indonesian Navy was the only navy that the Indian Navy conducted joint exercises outside the Commonwealth member nations in the 1950s. Little wonder Sukarno was the natural choice to be accorded the rare honour to be the chief guest at the first Republic Day celebrations of India in 1950.

The bonhomie and shared world views along with strong empathy towards each other was such that Nehru and Sukarno convened the famous Bandung Conference of Asian and African nations in 1955 and became the founders of non-aligned movement at a time when the world was engulfed in the bitter cold war rivalry. Yet, amazingly one could discern signs of clash of two strong and charismatic personalities in a way both vying to emerge as the principal leader of newly emerging Asian nations starting from the Bandung Conference. Nehru had anticipated being cynosure of the Conference and an undeclared voice of the newly liberated countries of Asia, but felt slighted the way Chou En-lai stole the show, backed by Sukarno who was trying to checkmate Nehru with Chou En-lai.

President Sukarno used this unique trait at the domestic level too when the contest for political dominance began intensifying with the rapid rise of the Communist Party of Indonesia, which was supported by China, much to the disquiet of the military that was getting highly politicised whereas hardcore nationalists rallied behind the president. When he failed to balance interests of these diverse centres of power, he introduced the Guided Democracy. While Indonesia was going through severe bouts of political turmoil and instability, the economy was in doldrums with runaway inflation. Even while Sukarno began populist measures such as resorting nationalisation of certain crucial sectors and adopting an increasingly radicalised political posture with a view to garner communist (by extension China’s) support, the military was making its own plans. The upshot was the 1965 coup and takeover of power by Gen. Suharto followed by a massacre of hundreds of thousands of those considered leftist or their sympathisers, basically extermination of military’s political opponents.

The tinge of difference between Nehru and Sukarno in the late 1950s snowballed into a major confrontation and rivalry by the early 1960s. The bitterness and animosity had reached such a crescendo that mobs attacked the Indian embassy in Jakarta and set it on fire. Not only Sukarno supported China’s 1962 aggression on India, he demanded that the Indian Ocean be renamed as the Indonesian Ocean, staked claims for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, supplied arms to Pakistan and he reportedly even offered to open a naval front in the Bay of Bengal in support of Islamabad during the 1965 war although he was never carried out the threat.

Whereas Suharto was engrossed in consolidating his position, and to establish political stability and get the economy back on track, India was trying to recover from the shocks of successive military campaigns by China and Pakistan. Since both were preoccupied with their domestic issues and since there was very little common ground to reinvigorate their relations, diplomatic links though continued clearly lacked the enthusiasm of the early 1950s. That Suharto was less than keen on India was obvious when he cold-shouldered the Indian interest to take part when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was being created in 1967 but found merit in extending the membership to Sri Lanka (which it refused). By the 1970s, the political gulf further intensified with India and Indonesia drifting towards the Soviet Union and the U.S. respectively as a result there was neither a political meeting point nor economic compatibility. Moreover, Suharto had been apprehensive about getting overshadowed in Southeast Asia if India were to be involved in a big way.

The Vietnam-China rift and the Cambodian crisis that arose consequent to the Vietnamese military action was the only occasion when it appeared that there was congruence of security interests between India and Indonesia. Both expressed strong political solidarity with Vietnam. However, soon Indonesia had to fall in line with the dominant view of fellow ASEAN member states who took a hard line stance and India became the only non-communist country to extend diplomatic recognition to the Hanoi-installed Heng Samrin government in Cambodia much to the annoyance of ASEAN.

India-Indonesia relations though started looking up in the aftermath of the Cold War but still weighed down by the past baggage unlike other countries of Southeast Asia - Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. The 1997-98 devastating financial crisis that soon magnified into serious economic, social and political crisis resulted in major turmoil that led to the ouster of Suharto who by then had personified corruption, nepotism, and crony capitalism besides being highly authoritarian. These events opened a new chapter in Indonesian history which helped to bring about major political reforms and to put its economic house in order. The brief transition was painful but it helped Indonesia to emerge as a vibrant democracy with a thriving economy.

Notwithstanding bouts of stability and turbulence that Indonesia witnessed since its independence in 1949, it never gave up its unique pluralistic, multi-cultural and multi-religious character. Although nearly 88 percent of 220 million people are Muslim, yet that has never come in the way of a constitutionally guaranteed secular character of the state despite occasional pressure exerted by a small band of religious extremists. In fact, the most liberal form of Islam that Indonesia practices is held out as beacon to be emulated in the rest of the world.

It is this transformed Indonesia that seeks to engage India in a big way. On one hand, it has embarked on an ambitious plan to become as one of the major economies of the world in the coming years. After basing ASEAN as the focus of its foreign policy for several decades, Indonesia is now looking beyond the narrow confines of Southeast Asia towards the larger Asia-Pacific canvass to expand its role clearly indicating that interests and concerns too are increasing.

The shared vision had brought India and Indonesia closer in the 1950s and half a century later they are once again drawn together because of convergence of interests on a range of issues such as regional security architecture, the dangers of non-traditional security issues, in particular terrorism, role of regional multilateral frameworks, the implications of a rapidly ascending China, etc. Contrary to the past, now conscious efforts are being made to broad base the relationship. The result has been the 2005 landmark ‘strategic partnership’ agreement wherein security cooperation is just one dimension.

Since the maritime boundary between the countries has been delineated and agreement signed, they are fortunate not to get embroiled in territorial disputes which are emerging as the biggest security concerns in the region. There is a growing awareness in Indonesia that close defence links with India are useful both in the management of its armed forces and to build defence infrastructure in training and manufacturing. The simple passage bilateral naval exercises in the early 1990s have witnessed a spurt in the recent past. The annual India-Indonesia Coordinated Patrols (INDINDOCORPAT) in the Six Degree Channel in the Andaman Sea by the Indonesian and Indian Navies since September 2002 are significant because this channel is the main conduit for international shipping that passes through the Malacca Strait. Indonesia has also been sending its forces to India for training purposes. Now that Indonesia is acquiring Russian Su-27 and Su-30 aircraft and has not given up plans to procure Kilo-class submarines, it should offer an opportunity for greater cooperation in training and maintenance.

The 2001 Joint Defence Cooperation Committee (JDCC) provided for defence secretary-level consultations and other activities including exchange of naval officers for training. Under the 2005 strategic partnership both ‘agreed to further increase contacts and exchanges of visits between their respective defence officials and intensify joint education and training of these officials...’ and ‘... also hold an annual India-Indonesia Strategic Dialogue at the senior officials level’. The defence cooperation will continue to be a major focus with the commencement of a biennial dialogue of defence ministers.

As part of its soft power projection activities India was among the first countries to provide assistance to Indonesia following the Tsunami disaster in 2004. India also provided assistance following the major earthquake in Northern Sumatra in March 2005. Relief assistance to Indonesia was repeated once again after the earthquake in Java in May 2006. A medical team from the Indian Navy also engaged in relief work in the affected areas after these disasters.

The economic relations too have made remarkable progress. From a meagre US $4 bn. in 2005, the bilateral trade has zoomed to 12 bn. by 2010. According to the 2011 bilateral Statement the target is 25 bn. by 2015, which if achieved would constitute nearly one-fourth of India’s expected trade with entire Southeast Asia. Equally impressive, during President Yudhoyono’s 2011 visit, Indonesia managed to sign business deals worth $16.8 bn., which were the largest compared to any of the P-5 countries. The agreement to finalise an Indonesia-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (I-I CECA) will help in further consolidation of economic relations.

The initiative to prepare a ‘Vision Statement for 2025 for Indonesia-India Strategic Partnership’, the Action Plan on Implementing the New Strategic Partnership drawn up during the 2007 Indonesia- India Joint Commission Meeting and a number of institutional mechanisms created will ensure that political relations remain strong and enduring.

Despite considerable progress in recent past, India and Indonesia still seem to be distant neighbours. Agreements notwithstanding, people-to-people contacts are minimal, defence links are still tentative, educational exchanges barely exist, and India figures pretty low in Indonesia’s political priorities. Indonesia’s trade with India is about one-third of its trade with China. The historical baggage that impeded the natural growth of relations is behind us, it is time to take concerted action to consolidate the strategic partnership between India and Indonesia. What needs to be remembered is that Indonesia wields enormous power within ASEAN and it is the Chairman of the Association for 2011, a year the region is likely to witness tectonic changes in terms of its engagement of great powers. Thus, it is a golden opportunity for New Delhi to closely work with Jakarta in addressing a variety of issues of East Asia.

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Published Date : 31 January, 2011

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