Towards a better future

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's visit is an excellent opportunity for serious engagement between Indonesia and India to take relations to a higher level.

Published - January 25, 2011 11:42 pm IST

CLOSE TIES: India was exceptionally close to Indonesia at its birth. Indonesian President Sukarno and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at Bandung in 1955.

CLOSE TIES: India was exceptionally close to Indonesia at its birth. Indonesian President Sukarno and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at Bandung in 1955.

On January 26, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will be chief guest at India's Republic Day. The guest in 1950, India's first Republic Day, was Indonesia's President Soekarno [Sukarno], who came to thank Nehru for supporting Indonesia's “Revolution” against the Netherlands (1945-49). Over time, vested interests downplayed, even ignored, this history, but Asia's rising profile (and the return of democracy to Indonesia after 40 years) encourages us to correct our perspectives on the past even as we mutually engage for a better future.

In August 1946, after Japan's surrender in the War, Dutch mercantile interests desired to return to their rubber, sugar and tobacco plantations in Indonesia but the fledgling Republic stood in their way. The Dutch, strongly supported by western public opinion, still considered Indonesia to be an “internal question,” overlooking her political maturing during four years of Japanese occupation. So began the Revolution, in which India's role was important and sometimes, critical.

While Dutch forces filtered into Indonesia slowly (and surreptitiously) from Europe, British-Indian troops from Asian theatres were rushed in, inter alia to suppress the Republic's aspirations. Nehru's tireless calls to withdraw them from Indonesia rattled the British, who supported Dutch ambitions but could not afford at the same time, to oppose important Indian leaders with whom Britain herself was engaged in delicate negotiations over the future of her “Jewel in the Crown.” Immediately after the War, the world was still Eurocentric and Britain's advice guided U.S. decisions on colonial matters, especially “East of Suez.” This was Nehru's advantage which he pressed fully, with one eye to Asia's “collective destiny.”

Conference in New Delhi

Congratulating the Republic on its first anniversary (August 17, 1946), Nehru boldly announced a plan to hold an Asian Relations Conference (ARC) in New Delhi. Thrilled with this morale booster, Soekarno ordered India's tricolour to be flown with the merah putih (Indonesia's flag, Red and White) at anniversary celebrations in Jogyakarta. To Nehru, he wrote: “ Your country and your people are linked to us by ties of blood and culture which date back to the very beginning of history. The word ‘India' must necessarily be a part of our life for it forms the first two syllables of the name we have chosen for our land and race …”

The ARC was held in April 1947. Prime Minister Syahrir came directly from signing the historic Linggadjati Agreement which recognised the Republic's de facto authority over Indonesia, in an aircraft flown by Biju Patnaik, later Chief Minister of Orissa .

Honour for The Hindu

But three months later, Dutch force strength had grown sufficiently to embolden them to attack the Republic. Under strong expressions of outrage, Nehru took Indonesia's case to the U.N., where a Committee of Good Offices, comprising one representative each from the U.S., Belgium and Australia, was in due course announced. The Hindu's staffer in Djakarta, T.G. Narayanan, was appointed its Secretary.

Another Nehruvian initiative was to convene the “New Delhi Conference” on Indonesia on January 20, 1949, after a second Dutch attack. The Cold War had by now settled in, the U.S. was in total strategic command and the Republic's importance to the West (after it had suppressed a Communist revolt) had increased manifold. Independence appeared closer, but the Dutch were incredibly stubborn and the U.S. slow to act. At this tense juncture, the Delhi Conference greatly boosted the Republic's morale.

The Revolution taught Indonesia's friendly islanders to suspect all big powers of coveting her extraordinary natural resources. Bitter experience with Soeharto's “crony capitalism and Asia's Financial Crisis (1997/8), re-ignited these suspicions but by then, Indonesians had become smarter. After growth plunged by -13 per cent in one year, Indonesia's economic planners switched from a raw material export-based strategy, which had fuelled the earlier seven per cent growth, to a manufacturing cum domestic consumption-based strategy which drives GDP at a more viable six per cent today. In the late 1990s, Indonesia faced political crises too, with communal and ethnic violence and multiple insurgencies across its 17,000-odd islands. But 12 years later, it has evolved from the world's longest military backed dictatorship to a functioning democracy. How many Indians know of these peaceful transformations only 90 nautical miles from our doorstep?

Indonesia today

Indonesia, until recently the world's “sleeping giant” or “most under-rated country,” has today become a “golden child” who can help arrest its economic slowdown. Its burnished image, based on a well thought out “National Resilience” strategy, combines religious inclusiveness (not majoritarianism), democracy and decentralisation (concepts familiar to us), with HDI indicators of literacy, health and gender which are uniformly higher than ours. It is seriously addressing deficiencies in higher education, management and the sciences.

India was exceptionally close to Indonesia at its birth, but differences during Soekarno's later years followed by a long dictatorship, have made us strangers. We have been content with a back-to-back existence, instead of active engagement to draw inspiration (and lessons) from one another's models. Trade and investment is growing but lacks balance; tourism and academic exchanges are negligible. A trust deficit bedevils defence cooperation despite enabling agreements. The presence of many successful Indian businessmen in Indonesia is insufficiently leveraged for broader purposes.

Two large, maritime, neighbours with surging middle classes, having similar plurality of religions and ethnicities, should have more to say to one another in their own development and security interest. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's visit is an excellent opportunity for serious engagement to take relations to the higher level which both our peoples deserve.

( Navrekha Sharma was former

Ambassador in Indonesia .)

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