One of the novel manifestations of India’s soft power initiatives is sustainable cultural diplomacy and Buddhism is a crucial component of it due to its historical significance. India is applying the principles of Sanskriti evam Sabhyata (cultural and civilisational links), desiring to leverage its age-old rich cultural links with other countries as a part of its non-coercive soft power strategy. The Buddhist faith, due to its emphasis on peaceful co-existence and its wide pan-Asian presence, lends itself well to soft-power diplomacy.
In Buddhism, there is a prominence of all the places that are associated with Lord Buddha. Buddhists seek the fragrance of Buddha’s teachings and quest for inner bliss. India has most of the Buddhist sites of immense importance such as Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, Rajgir, Vaishali, Sarnath Varanasi, Shravastiand Kushinagar etc. Further, India has nurtured its image of being a protector of the persecuted because of the presence of the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala following the brutal suppression of Tibetan Buddhists by China.
Above all, India is trying her best to further relations with other Buddhist countries and create conversation between multiple streams of this faith.
We should remember that in 2011, India hosted the Global Buddhist Congregation to mark the 2,600th anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment. India in collaboration with Nepal, identified a number of tourist circuits that transgress national borders e.g. the identification of a Buddhist tourist circuit such as Lumbini and Kapilavastu, Sarnath, Bodh Gaya etc. Also, the joint statement released following the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat in 2016 underlined the organisation of a Buddhist circuit within the region.
In October 2016, the ‘5th International Buddhist Conclave’ was held in Varanasi, Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance in Bodh Gaya. India also organised international conferences that facilitated interaction between members across sectarian and national boundaries such as ‘Buddhism in the 21st Century’ conference at Rajgir in 2017.
The opening of the Nalanda University is another example of India’s commitment for reconstructing Asian values and ethos for the long-term benefit of Asia, and indeed the world.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Lumbini (Nepal) on May 16, 2022 which is Lord Buddha’s birthplace recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. The Indian PM is expected to pay his reverence at the Mayadevi temple, which marks the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, born more than 2,600 years ago. Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is also expected to join PM Modi to mark the occasion of Buddha Purnima.
This would be the second Summit level interaction between the two Prime Ministers in less than two months after PM Deuba travelled to India for a bilateral visit in April 2022. This would also mark PM Modi’s first visit to Nepal since he was re-elected in 2019. In his previous term, he visited Nepal on four occasions, including twice in 2014 and twice in 2018. In May 2018, PM Modi had undertaken similar religious and cultural visits when he visited Janakpur and Muktinath.
It should be noted that Buddhism is one of the largest religions in the world. It is estimated that as many as 506 million people around the world practice Buddhism as their religion, which would represent roughly 6.6 per cent of the world’s total population. Half of the world’s Buddhists live in China, according to 2010 Pew Research Center estimates. Still, they make up only 18 per cent of the country’s population. Most of the rest of the world’s Buddhists live in East Asia, South East Asia and South Asia, including 13 per cent in Thailand (where 93 per cent of the population is Buddhist) and 9 per cent in Japan (35 per cent Buddhist), 10 per cent in Nepal, and 1 per cent in India. Today, 97 per cent of the world’s Buddhist population lives in the Asian continent, and a number of countries such as Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia and Japan etc. conceive of Buddhism as intrinsic to their national values, history, cultural heritage and identity.
Keeping the importance of Buddist massage of peace and harmony, India is continuously disseminating the teachings of Buddha. PM Modi’s visit to Lumbini would follow a revitalisation of ties after Deuba’s visit to Delhi in early-April 2022, when four agreements and a number of infrastructure projects were launched. The four agreements are Nepal officially joining the international solar alliance, Indian technical assistance to Nepal’s railway sector, cooperation in the field of petroleum sector and exchange of expertise between Nepal Oil Corporation and Indian Oil Corporation.
During Nepal’s PM visit to India in April 2022, India’s PM Narendra Modi and his Nepalese counterpart Sher Bahadur Deuba inaugurated passenger rail services between Jaynagar in India and Kurtha in Nepal. The Hindu pilgrimage centre of Janakpur Dham, considered to be the birthplace of epic Ramayan’s Mother Sita, that would be one of the main attractions of the Jaynagar-Kurtha section rail link between the two special neighbours.
This rail link will be the first broad gauge passenger rail service in Nepal. The establishment of the Jayanagar-Kurtha rail line is also a part of priority to trade and cross-border connectivity initiatives for a smooth, hassle-free exchange of people between the two countries.
The rail link between the two neighbouring countries is part of an overall strategy for improved border management, planned and integrated development of border areas and infrastructure in a selective and phased manner.
Another important issue for Nepal is air connectivity. Nepal requested India to provide three additional entry routes from Mahendranagar, Nepalgunj and Janakpur,and also finalised another agreement on near-border operation for the Gautam Buddha International Airport, Bhairahawa, Nepal.
The airport, located less than 10 kilometres from the Indo-Nepali border, will start operations from May 20, 2022. The use of Indian RuPay card in Nepal was jointly launched by India and Nepal last month. This would open new vista for cooperation in financial connectivity, and is expected to facilitate bilateral tourist flows as well as further strengthen people-to-people linkages between India and Himalayan state.
Interestingly, China has proposed to link Lumbini by road and railway to Tibetan town of Kyirong on the Chinese-Nepali border, which would effectively connect it to the BRI network. China’s Buddhist soft power initiative has focused on strengthening its relationship with other Buddhist countries, which of course includes those involved in BRI negotiations, such as Sri Lanka also. Actually, the use of Buddhism to promote the BRI programme was explicitly listed on the agenda at the 2018 World Buddhist Forum, which China hosts every three years.
In contrast to the true spirit of Buddhist principles, since past several decades, China has also been using its inhuman oppressive state apparatus for destroying Buddhism, their original literature, indigenous identity, including the destruction of the Dalai Lama’s palace, a huge number of monasteries and Buddha statues of historical, spiritual and religious values and the systematic reduction of the Tibetans to a state of destitution in their own land. It is widely known that out of thousands of monasteries only five are in existence, they too are Chinese created, and the rest having been completed wiped out by the Chinese.
Also, hundreds of thousands of Tibetan peasants, and other civilians have not only been gunned down but also starved to death in prisons, concentration camps, workplaces and their own homes. Tibetan identity is Buddhism and their culture too is Buddhism and the Chinese are destroying Buddhism in order to destroy the identity of the Tibetans.
Nepalese PM Deuba’s visit to India and Indian PM Modi’s visit to Nepal would produce mixed results but at the least, it has resumed high-level political engagement between the two countries. It has also brought normalcy to Nepal’s geo-strategic debate by bringing India back into the fold. It gives a strong message that India is not only promoting the spiritualism and Buddhism in its own land but also in Nepal.
Deepening ties with Asian nations on the basis of Buddhism could potentially feed into larger policy objectives of the government of India, namely, the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, and the ‘Act East’ policy.
Conclusively, Buddhist diplomacy shall help India reinforcing its relations with Asian countries that clearly reflects India’s vision of the peaceful co-existence and happy world.