B S Raghavan

A union of Indian Ocean nations

B. S. Raghavan | Updated on November 17, 2017


The Indian Ocean community can, like the EU, transform itself into a free trade zone, and can even work towards adopting a common currency. The 59 countries in the region constitute a $6 trillion powerhouse.

Caught in the stranglehold of concepts and models emanating from the West, the opinion leaders, strategic thinkers and policymakers of Asian countries have long shied away from examining boldly and with a fresh mind the new and exciting vistas of social, cultural and economic partnership that exist right at their doorstep. For instance, I have hardly found any discussion or even awareness among scholars of the Asian region of the invincible dynamics of one such compelling vision, namely, the Indian Ocean Community (IOC).

The thought occurred to me as I was talking to Dr S. Kalyanaraman who had held leadership positions in the Asian Development Bank, and been engaging himself in giving a new thrust, suited to the genius of Asian region, to new paradigms of collaboration and synergy which would put these countries on the fast track, if not ahead of so-called advanced countries. He is convinced that the combined strengths of 59 countries of the Indian Ocean Rim, which together constitute a six trillion dollar powerhouse, are capable of setting in motion hitherto undreamt of enterprises for making the most of their abundant human and natural resources .

On the lines of EU

Dr Kalyanaraman has elaborated the strategic calculus in his book bearing the unusual title Rastram which is not amenable to any precise translation. Its attributes transcend those of a state (mainly composed of institutions of governance) or a nation (which is a conglomerate of people with self-identity living in harmony). In his view, if only the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim constitute themselves into a collective entity, the tremendous financial and economic leverage that it will exercise will redress the imbalance of the present world economic order.

The idea has great appeal as well as relevance. The IOC, as expounded in Dr. Kalyanaraman's book, is predicated on the same rationale as the supra-national European Community which was initially conceived as a mechanism for joint policy making with reference to production and marketing of coal and steel but got expanded to full-fledged and integrated economic organisation with Euro as a common currency and a European Central Bank as a provider of banking services based on homogenous norms and criteria to all the members. This happened as an economic imperative despite the two world wars fought among the European nations.

Do-able proposition

Similarly, the IOC too can transform itself into a Free Trade Zone, to start with, to provide for free movement of goods and services which, at some later stage, can even work towards adopting a common currency. It is true that it will stretch from South Africa to Tasmania along the 63,000 km of the Indian Ocean Rim, but this need not in itself be regarded as an argument against it.

There are actually three predisposing factors that make the IOC a do-able proposition: The two proposed projects for the construction of a Trans-Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway from Bangkok to Vladivostok and the extension of the territorial waters of the Indian Ocean Rim states to 200 nautical miles under the amended Law of the Sea opens up unlimited economic opportunities for mutual cooperation and harnessing the riches of the ocean.


Dr. Kalyanaraman's thesis is leavened by the fact that the IOC has a thousand years of socio-cultural interaction and bonds. This has found authentic expression in the lucid and impressive account of the late French epigraphist George Coedes (who also wrote about the largest Vishnu temple of the world in Angkor Wat, Cambodia and other Hindu temples of the Farther Orient).

The words États hindouisés in the title of his work, Histoire ancienne des États hindouisés d'Extrême Orient, (translated into English by Hawaii University Press as Indianised States of Southeast Asia) essentially signifies a dharma-dhamma continuum evidenced by thousands of Hindu-Buddha temples in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and other states and the historical presence of Hindu kings in the region for over one millennium.

The IOC will be the first example of weaving the cultural bonds into socio-economic spheres of cooperation. It can be further buttressed by exchanges in the fields of higher technical education, use of satellite and IT technologies, oceanography and so on.

A beginning has been made by the setting up of Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation as a forum for the diplomats of the states of the region to meet annually to exchange views in the common interest of the IOC. Talks are also under way on the best means of giving economic content through Free Trade agreements and MOUs for bilateral and multi-lateral cooperation in infrastructure projects such as the development of the deltas of the Mekong and Irrawady Rivers.

This need not be seen as a competition or one-upmanship in realpolitik between India and China.


Since most of the social and cultural influences have had their origins in South India, it should not be surprising if the policymakers at the Centre in New Delhi take only minimal interest in the initiative advocated here. It will be well worthwhile for the academic community and persons prominent in public and political life in Southern States to go in depth into the significance of the proposition.

For instance, if the Chief Minister, Ms Jayalalithaa, can persuade herself about its feasibility and bring herself to draw the Centre's attention, she would have set India on a course that would bring about a revolutionary change in the complexion of world affairs.

Published on July 18, 2011

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