G Parthasarathy

Spiritual dimension of ‘Act East’ policy

G Parthasarathy | Updated on July 11, 2018 Published on July 11, 2018

Attract pilgrims: It’s time to draw up Buddhist tourism circuit   -  PTI

Boosting Buddhist tourism will strengthen India’s diplomatic and economic relationships with its eastern neighbours

India’s eastern neighbourhood unfortunately received relatively little bilateral diplomatic attention in the years immediately following Independence. India had then focussed attention on moves for freedom from British/European colonial rule, with a somewhat exaggerated belief that it played a significant global role in the ‘Cold War’.

Moreover, with New Delhi choosing to adopt a path of “self-reliance” and “import substitution”, the prospects of playing any meaningful role in foreign investments and trade, were sharply limited. There was a relatively limited Indian contribution, in security and economic development, across its eastern shores.

Things changed significantly in the 1990s after the end of the ‘Cold War’. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao set India on a path of renewing ancient trade and economic links with countries across its eastern shores, with a new “Look East” policy.

This was in close consultation with countries like Singapore, which we had virtually ignored, for decades.

Interestingly, Narasimha Rao was India’s first Prime Minister hailing from an eastern coastal State, who was not, therefore, so exclusively focussed on security threats, from across our land borders.

He realised that our eastern neighbourhood, extending beyond Malacca to Vietnam, Japan, China and South Korea, was becoming the economically fastest growing region globally.

Increasing integration

Over the last three decades, our economy has been increasingly integrated with economies across our entire eastern neighbourhood, including the 10 members of ASEAN, apart from South Korea and Japan. Trade and investment ties and regional connectivity are expanding. Three partners in South Asia — Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh — are an integral part of this process, through the BIMSTEC.

These developments are only natural, as trade with India’s eastern neighbours from Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand to Srivijaya (Indonesia) and beyond, had flourished for centuries, before colonial rule. But, these ties can and should be made enduring, by reinforcing trade and investment, with a spiritual dimension, arising from the huge influence in our eastern neighbourhood, of the teachings and message of Lord Gautama Buddha.

The message of Lord Buddha spread beyond India’s borders, particularly eastwards, through Sri Lanka to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. It followed the abhorrence and renunciation of war, by Emperor Ashoka, after the bloodletting in the Kalinga conflict.

The abiding impact of the message of Lord Buddha is evident from the fact that the estimated population of Buddhists worldwide in 2010 was around 480 million. The present Buddhist population could be estimated at around 540 million. Out of the 480 million Buddhists worldwide in 2010, 244 million were in China, 45.8 million in Japan, 64.4 million in Thailand, 38.4 million in Myanmar, 14.3 million Vietnam, 11.05 million in South Korea and 14.2 million in Sri Lanka. Laos, Mongolia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have Buddhist populations of well over one million, while the US is home to nearly four million Buddhists.

India has never seriously considered how to leverage the abiding spiritual ties it has with the people of neighbouring Buddhist countries. India ignored how imaginatively building tourist facilities in areas of Buddhist pilgrimage would benefit it, boosting tourism revenues, by facilitating the quest of Buddhists worldwide for salvation, in the Land of the Buddha. It also appeared to ignore the fact that such tourism would enable it to develop abiding relationships, across its eastern shores. We also appear to forget that tourists from our East are now considered bigger spenders than their western counterparts.

An unpleasant task

Tourists from Buddhist countries often find visiting India a difficult, if not unpleasant, experience. I was saddened when Sri Lankan ladies spoke to me about the absence of adequate toilet facilities in Bodh Gaya. Foreign visitors to Bodh Gaya and other Buddhist sites face other shortcomings too, such as rip-offs by taxis, absence of expressways to major tourist destinations, absence of suitable hotel accommodation, and harassment by beggars.

Given the wide range of tourists who could visit the pilgrimage centres, all major destinations for potential Buddhist tourism should have a wide variety of hotels/hospitals available. Tourist sites are not well connected by road, rail and air. Bhubaneswar does not have the necessary air connectivity with Sarnath and Bodh Gaya.

Given the immense long term diplomatic and economic benefits of building up viable Buddhist tourism circuits in India, it’s necessary to integrate our domestic efforts with a diplomatic drive to seek the participation, involvement and investment of Buddhist countries in a cooperative effort for building integrated Buddhist circuits for domestic and foreign tourism in India. Most notably, the involvement of China, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN and South Asian neighbours — Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal — is imperative. Governments of States like UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Odisha would also have to participate actively in this effort. Any Buddhist tourism circuit would necessarily involve emphasis on a link to Lumbini in Nepal, where Lord Buddha was born.

Moreover, Buddhist countries should be welcomed to make their architectural and aesthetic contributions, including exhibitions, for displaying their own cultural and spiritual heritage, in Buddhist tourism destinations in India.

Strengthening the connect

Having visited, lived in and worked with Buddhist countries one can assert that India is respected there primarily, because it is home of Gautama Buddha and Emperor Ashoka, who spread the Sakya Muni’s message of renunciation and peace across the world. But, for people to connect with the country that gave birth to that message, it is imperative that we not only welcome them for worship, but also make them feel that we are inviting them to join us in showcasing their own contributions to spreading the message of Lord Buddha, which emanated from the soil of India. Exhibitions and exhibits of how Buddhist teachings are observed across these countries, together with their investments for development of the infrastructure for promoting Buddhist tourism, should be welcomed and adorn the landscape of Buddhist centres in India. The message should be that India wishes to welcome more pilgrims from them.

The Department of Tourism has imaginatively drawn up three distinct tourism circuits (“Dharma Yatra” or the “Sacred Circuit”) for visits to Buddhist pilgrimage places. With around 500 million Buddhists living beyond our borders, primarily to our east, it is imperative that, as the focal point of Buddhist heritage and spirituality, our “Act East” interactions with our eastern neighbours, are imaginative and sensitive.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.

Published on July 11, 2018
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