The bilateral ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’, held on 22 January 2020, was inspired by the ecology and cultural heritage surrounding two great rivers – the Ganga (Ganges) and the Volga. The Dialogue marked 20 years of a strategic partnership between India and Russia. With the partnership, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi aim to revive the old and strong relationship between the two states, beyond the political and economic realms, by anchoring it in geography and history since both nations are the bearers of large autonomous civilisations. In that sense, the bond between the two countries is stronger than those based only on mutual strategic and economic interests.
This perspective was outlined at the beginning of the meeting by India’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Shri V. Muraleedharan, who recalled that even under Marxist ideological hegemony, many of the Soviet Union’s scholars and professors were deeply interested in India’s spiritual and philosophical legacy and taught it to their students. The Minister also pointed out the importance of languages as a vector of civilisational and national identity, even in multilingual, multiethnic countries such as India and the Russian Federation. He made reference to the ‘Grand Cross of Saint Andrew the First-Called’, Russia’s highest award, bestowed by President Putin on Prime Minister Modi in 2019. Modi is only the third Indian citizen to receive this distinction.
Russia’s ambassador to India, Nikolay Kudashev, spoke of the southeastward flow of the Ganga and the Volga, which he noted have endured attempts by certain Western powers to metaphorically ‘reverse’ the course of the rivers. These external powers tried to create new divisions between countries by forging aggressive pacts and imposing unlawful arbitrary sanctions in order to ‘fence in’ and contain potential rivals and force compliance with diktats. The ambassador noted that India, like Russia, does not accept illegal unilateral decisions that affect the independence and sovereignty of other countries and prevent the emergence of a multipolar global order. He concluded that the security of the Eurasian continent can and should be ensured by Eurasians and not by military coalitions led by distant powers. He called for a Greater Eurasian partnership from Lisbon to Jakarta and said he hoped that India might eventually sign a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union.
Ambassador Kudashev suggested that the model of the Ganga-Volga Dialogue could be replicated for similar fora, named after the great rivers of BRICS and other countries. One of the Indian speakers commented favourably on the ambassador’s remarks by noting that India wished to see a multipolar world as well as a multipolar Asia, which Russia and India could help build.
Shri Mahesh Poddar, a member of the Rajya Sabha (India’s upper house of parliament) spoke of the importance of the North-South Corridor being planned between India and Russia through Iran and Central Asia. He expressed his hope for even closer cooperation in the realisation of the Corridor and other similar projects. Dr. Anirban Ganguly – Director of the Syama Prasasd Mookerjee Research Foundation, a think tank of the BJP (India’s ruling party) and the co-sponsor of the seminar – underlined that India seeks to create a synergy between two great prospects, the Sino-Russian led Eurasian partnership and the US-Japanese inspired Indo-Pacific initiative. In India’s view, these partnerships are not directed against any country, although creating a synthesis that accomodates rival influences may not be so easy.
Dr. Tatyana Shaumyan, head of the Centre for Indian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, recapitulated the long history of Indian studies in Russia since the 18th century. She talked about upcoming projects, such as an international conference on the philosophy of Russian artists and mystics Nicholas and Helena Roerich and their sons, to be held in December 2020, as an example of syncretistic Indo-Russian thought. The Roerich’s were involved in many projects in Central and South Asia. Shaumyan emphasised the need to promote not only shared intellectual pursuits between the two countries, but also the study of the Russian language in India, which has sharply declined since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and has only been modestly revived in recent years despite efforts made by the Russian state.
Other participants of the Dialogue reported on converging and joint initiatives between India and Russia in science and technology, such as India’s Atal Tinkering Lab and the SIRIUS programme for students in Russia. The SIRIUS programme is the inspiration for the Dhruv initiative, launched by Prime Minister Modi, which now brings together teenagers from both countries to work together in the sciences, performing arts, creative writing, etc. Dr. Evgeny Kozhokin highlighted the importance of cinema and television in contemporary culture and pointed out that a conference of Indian and Russian producers (not directors or actors as is usually the case) is being organised in order to provide opportunities for cooperation and joint funding between the countries’ respective entertainment industries.
Current realities and perspectives for collaboration in agriculture, trade, and industry were also discussed, going beyond the traditional areas of defence, space research, and energy generation, which still provide the basis for interaction between the two nations. A ‘dialogue of civilisations’ implies the removal of misunderstandings and cultural barriers by moving beyond strictly shared economic or technological interests and developing collaboration (and dissemination) in the arts, literature, science, and specific disciplines such as traditional medicine, yoga, psychology, ethnography, and so on. But in order to achieve the successful implementation of the many proposals and projects that have been discussed in the last several years on a large scale, much work needs to be done.
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