West Bengal in the Context of Thai-Indian Relations

West Bengal in the context of Thai-Indian Relations: Adapted from the script of Mr. Apirat Sugondhabhirom, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Royal Thai Embassy, New Delhi, initially for broadcasting on 15 June 2018 at Jadavpur University Community Radio Station, Kolkata)

[NOTE: This is the script prepared for radio broadcast at Jadavpur University Community Radio Station on 15 June 2018. During the actual broadcast, however, in the interest of time and format suitability, the programme was adjusted to be an interactive conversation between myself and Professor Dr. Shibashis Chatterjee, instead of a monologue delivered by me as previously planned. Some elements from the script were then used and referred to in my talk with Professor Chatterjee; others were not mentioned nor elaborated upon, due to time limit.
It is my hope that our friends in Thailand, Kolkata, West Bengal, New Delhi, and other parts of India may find the script in its entirety interesting and useful for their understanding of the history and the future dynamics of the cordial relationship between Thailand and India, especially of West Bengal’s place in such context.
Please visit the facebook page of the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Kolkata in order to listen to the actual broadcast radio programme  – Apirat Sugondhabhirom

 – My name is Apirat Sugondhabhirom, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Royal Thai Embassy in New Delhi. First I would like to convey the warm greetings from H.E. Ambassador Chutintorn Gongsakdi, Ambassador of Thailand to India, from New Delhi to all listeners in Kolkata. I would also like to thank Jadavpur University Community Radio station and the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Kolkata for their kind invitation and arrangements that have made this programme possible.

– I am pleased to be here, especially at this juncture, in the first year of the 8th decade of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Thailand and India.

Background of Thai-Indian relationship
Officially, in modern time, Thailand and India has been friends for 70 years. Last year we had celebrating activities both in India and in Thailand. This year is the first year of the 8th decade of that friendship. Thailand back then was among the first group of countries to recognized the young Republic of India, at its inception as newly independent state. Actually, the Thai government recognised and established diplomatic relations with India on 1 August 1947, while India itself gained full independence some two weeks after that, on 15 August 1947. The Thai government decided to recognise and established ties with India since it was still under the Interim Government under the leadership of Shri Pundit Nehru, that is, even before its independence! (The US also did the same, i.e. establishing diplomatic relations with India under the Interim Government before Independence).

– That means officially, at the Government- to- Government or State- to- State Level, we are old, old friends dating back to the time before the Birth of the Indian Republic itself.

– However, unofficially, and at the people- to- people level, Thai-Indian relations went back even longer than that. Deep-rooted common heritages and contacts between the peoples of what would later became Thailand and India can be traced back at least two thousand years. And in the study of International Relations, we recognise that it is indeed the people- to- people ties that is indeed the solid base of state- to- state cooperation and diplomatic relations. Thailand shares a lot of common cultural, historic, civilisational heritages with India, ranging from Buddhism and Brahmin concepts, to linguistic and literary influences of Sanskrit, Pali and other Indic languages in Thai language. The Thai people have embraced Buddhism from India for many centuries – and it has already become an integral parts of the Thai mentality itself. Nowadays relationship is going from strength to strength.

In modern era, the bilateral bonds remain ever close. The assumption of duty of H.E. Ram Nath Govind, the second Dalit President of the Republic, reminds me of India’s first Dalit Rashtrapati – H.E. K.R. Narayanan, the 10th President of India, who served as Indian Ambassador to Thailand during 1967-1969. When we lost His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016 and the then President Pranab Mukherjee sent a condolence letter to the new and current King, His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, the King replied that he still fondly remembered his three visits he made to India when he was the Crown Prince. In late 2016 Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his way to Tokyo, specifically made a brief stopover in Bangkok and paid his respects to the late King Bhumibol, which touched the hearts and souls of the Thai people. I myself have the privilege of welcoming regular visits of many members of the Thai royal family to India. H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, younger sister of the King, already visited India 18 times, to almost every state of the republic. She is a Sanskrit scholar, recipient of the Padma Bhushan and the World Sanskrit Awards, and obviously, a friend of India. Her Royal Highness the Princess is not a stranger to Kolkata either – having visited this city in 1987 and 2014.

Where is West Bengal in the context of Thai-Indian relations?
Historically there are already many contacts between the Thai people and the peoples of the Indian subcontinent, including those from Bengal. In historical Thai texts, Bengal was called “บังกล่า”/“บั้งกะหล่า” or the land of Bangkala, and sometimes – “มังค่า” meaning the same.

– During the British Raj, Calcutta was the British’s capital of India (until the British moved their capital to Delhi in 1911. As such, Calcutta played important role in the interactions of Siam and British India. In Thai historical records, during the reign of King Phutthaloetla Naphalai or King Rama II of the Chakri Dynasty (Bangkok era), an English envoy by the name of John Crawfurd went to the royal Siamese court in 1821, commissioned by “the ruler of Bangkala” (i.e. Marquis Hasting, the then Governor-General of India) to go over to promote ties with Siam.

– Later in 1872, one of the most illustrated Kings of Siam, King Chulalongkorn the Great or Rama V, – the Great-Grandfather of the present king, came to visit Calcutta (from 12 – 22 January and then from 22 – 26 February) as a young ruler early in his reign, wishing to learn about the British modern way of public administration. Calcutta was the port of his first disembarkation upon his arrival in India, and also the port of embarkation on his departure to Siam. This experience had greatly influenced him in his own reform and modernization of Siam later. King Chulalongkorn met Lord Mayo, Viceroy of India, in Calcutta, only weeks before the latter was killed in Port Blair. He stayed in the Great Eastern Hotel (now the Lalit Great Eastern) and at a rented mansion at No. 7, Wood Street (now a clubhouse). He also visited the Government House, the Indian Museum, the Asiatic Society, the Silver and Copper Mint, St. Paul Cathedral, Fort William, other military facilities at Barrackpore, the Alipore Prison, a weapon factory and foundry, a cotton and jute mill, water work facility, a hospital, and a literary association, – among others. The King also met many Indian princes and maharajas, Hindu pundits and Sanskrit scholars, leading Muslim merchants and intellectuals, as well as common Indian tradespeople. That visit to India (including the two stays in Calcutta) left a deep impression with the young Siamese King, both in term of the British modernity at the time, and of the close and ancient cultural roots Siam shared with India.

– Even later, during the reign of King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, who was the Great-Uncle of the present king, in 1927, Siam had the chance to welcome the greatest Bengali poet, and one of the greatest poets and artists of India, Asia, and humankind. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore – author of the Jana Gana Mana – went to Thailand during 8-16 October 1927, together with his party which included Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterji, who, like the Gurudev, was a Bengali linguist and educator. The young Professor Chatterji at the time acted as the Gurudev’s secretary during his trips to Southeast Asia. Long after that trip to Thailand and the passing away of the Great Poet, Dr. Chatterji became the President of the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters, in 1969.

– Tagore’s visit to Siam is one of the very important milestones in the history of Thai-Indian bond of friendship. As a sage, poet, educator, historian and humanist, Tagore intended to explore the civilisational links between India and various lands of Southeast Asia – Java and Bali, Batavia (or present-day Jakarta), Malaya, Singapore and Siam. He was received in audience by HM the King of Siam before the gathering of princes and ministers of the Royal Siamese court, on 13 October 1927 at Ambhara Throne Hall, Dusit Palace, in Bangkok.

– It seems that our country, Siam, especially our Buddhist culture that Siam shared with ancient India, had impressed the Indian Nobel laureate so much so that he wrote not only one, but two poems and dedicated them to Siam. The first one was called “To Siam”, and was read out by himself in Bengali at the audience with HM the King of Siam on 13 October. The second one was called “Farewell to Siam” and was written on the eve of his departure from Bangkok on 16 October.

Siam as depicted in the poems of Rabindranath Tagore
– Now please allow me to recite the two poems, with which the Gurudevji had everlastingly honoured our country.

The first poem – “To Siam

“When the great prayer of the Three Refuges
rang from sky to sky across deserts and hills and distant shores,
the awakened countries poured their rejoicings
in great deeds, and noble temples,
in the rapture of self-dedication
in mighty words,
in the breaking of the bond of self.

At an unheeded, unconscious moment,
that prayer, wafted by some wandering breeze,
touched thy heart, O Siam, lived in thy life
and shaded it with a branching wealth of well-being.
A centre to thy revolving centuries,
an end to thy endeavours, which is Freedom of Spirit –
it helped to bind thy people in a common bond of hope,
to strengthen them with the power of a single-pointed devotion
to one Dharma, one Sangha and one immortal Teacher.

Let these words, potent with an inexhaustible creative urge,
ever direct thee to the adventures of new ages,
light up new truths with their own radiant meaning,
and in one single garland string all the gems of knowledge newly gathered.

I come today to the living temple that is one with thee,
to the altar of united hearts
in which is seated on His lotus seat Lord Buddha,
whose silence is peace, whose voice consolation.

I come from a land where the Master’s words
lie dumb, in desultory ruins, in the desolate dust,
where oblivious ages of the pillared stones,
the records of a triumphant devotion.

I come, a pilgrim, at thy gate, O Siam,
to offer my verse to the endless glory of India
sheltered in thy home, away from her own deserted shrine,
to bathe in the living stream that flows in thy heart,
whose water descends from the snowy height of a sacred time
on which arose, from the deep of my country’s being,
the Sun of Love and Righteousness.”

The second poem -“Farewell to Siam

“The signet ring of a primaeval friendship
had secretly sealed thy name, O Siam, on my mind, in its unconscious depth.

This is why I felt I had ever known thee,
the moment I stood at thy presence,
and why my traveller’s hasty hours
were constantly filled with the golden memory of an ancient love,
and centuries’ silent music overflowed
the brink of the seven short days
that surprised me with the touch
of an immemorial kinship
in thy words, worship and aspiration,
in thy numberless offerings to Beauty’s shrine
fashioned by thy own hands,
in thy fragrant altars
with their candles lighted
and incense breathing peace.

Today at this sad time of parting
I stand at thy courtyard,
gaze at thy kind eyes,
and leave thee crowned with a garland from me
whose ever fresh flowers had blossomed ages ago.”

– Thus was how, almost a century ago, Siam or Thailand was given an everlasting accolade by the Gurudev of India, for which we are most grateful.

– An anecdote here. Some of you might know the Rabindra Sangeet or Rabindranath’s songs, especially the song Shedin Dujone Dulechinu Bone – “Together we ride on a flowery swing”. We have found that the Gurudev penned the lyrics of this song on 17 October 1927, on the southward train from Bangkok to Penang – somewhere along the Malay Peninsula, after completing his visit to Siam. Maybe it’s only me, or maybe the rhythm was intended to carry forward the sway of the swing – but to my ears, having listened to certain versions of this song, I can almost detect the faint rhythm of the railways in the background!

– Tagore and his legacies are still well remembered in Thailand. In October last year, I accompanied H.E. Ambassador Chutintorn Gongsakdi, the Thai Ambassador to India, to Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi for an event to celebrate the 90th anniversary of his visit to Siam, and the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Kolkata also held similar activity with Jorasanko Thakurbari Museum here on the same occasion. These events formed integral parts of the year-long celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries.

– I am glad to report that in the near future, the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Kolkata, in collaboration with the Rabindrabharti University and the Jorasanko Thakurbari Museum – formerly the ancestral home, place of birth and death of the Gurudev himself, will soon create a permanent exhibition in the “Thai Room” in that Museum to commemorate the trip to Siam of the Gurudev. I myself will visit Rabindrabharti University this afternoon (15 June 2018) with the team of the Consulate-General for this particular purpose. HRH Princess Sirindhorn visited the Museum in July 2014 and, being a poet and a linguist herself, disclosed to the Indian media at the time that she is also Tagore’s admirer. She said as a child she was so impressed by India’s national bard that she had decided to come to India and study arts and music under his guidance at Santiniketan. It was only as she grew up that she realised that the Nobel laureate had already passed away.

– We at the embassy and the consulate-general are happy to do what we can in the service of the Thai-Indian friendship and the memory of the Gurudev. In our endeavor to promote better understanding of Thailand for the Indian public and of India for the Thai public, we are following not only the footsteps for the Great poet himself, but also his pupils. Santiniketan, the university he founded, has quite some remarkable Thai alumni. One is the late Professor Karuna Kusalasai (กรุณา กุศลาศัย), Thailand’s leading Indologist who studied with the Gurudev and later worked tirelessly to introduce India to the modern Thai audience by way of his Thai translation of many great books about India – including Tagore’s “Gitanjali”, Mahatma Gandhi’s “The Story of My Experiment with Truth” and Pundit Nehru’s “The Discovery of India”.

This is a strong and solid historical foundation from the yesteryear for the relations between Thailand and West Bengal. But what about today and tomorrow?
– Because of its geographical location, West Bengal is and always will be important to Thailand. In the age of connectivity, and within the context of India’s “Act East Policy” and Thailand’s “Look West Policy”, the strategic position of West Bengal has become ever more important.

– India considers Thailand to be one of its “Maritime Neighbors”. Lately we have seen New Delhi’s increased interest in maritime affairs including the Blue Economy. We have seen also its renewed interest in ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and BIMSTEC – Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, as well as India’s attention to the new catchphrase – the Indo-Pacific, or the confluence of the two oceans (the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean). We can say that both the ASEAN-India framework of cooperation and the BIMSTEC are the bridges connecting South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Indian Ocean with the Pacific. So West Bengal on the shore of the Bay of Bengal is one of the perfect locations to promote further the inter-connectivity between the two regions.

– Incidentally, last year was 90th Anniversary of the visit to Siam of Rabindranath Tagore, 70th anniversary of the bilateral diplomatic relations between Thailand and India, 25th Anniversary of ASEAN-India cooperation (therefore, the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit was held in New Delhi in January this year), and 20th Anniversary of the BIMSTEC.

– The Government of India in New Delhi always promotes the North Eastern Region of India (NER) as India’s Gateway to ASEAN (by land via the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway) and there are some merits in that thinking, given the geographical proximity to Myanmar and Thailand, and its close cultural and ethnic ties with these two countries. But we can also argue that West Bengal is equally suitable as India’s “Maritime Gateway to ASEAN and to BIMSTEC” with its infrastructure projects in the area like the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project linking West Bengal with the NER, and also with members countries of ASEAN and BIMSTEC. It so happens that Thailand was, 20 years ago, a Co-founder of BIMSTEC (when it was called BISTEC) together with India and others. And from July this year onward, Thailand will be the ASEAN Coordinator with India for 3 years. In these two capacities as BIMSTEC Co-founder and ASEAN-India Coordinator, Thailand is eager and willing to cooperate with India, and with West Bengal, for the common prosperity of the South and Southeast Asians.

– There are still many areas we can work together – promoting maritime and air connectivity further between Kolkata and Bangkok, or Ranong or Phuket in the Andaman Sea, cooperating on tourism including cruises and two-way Buddhist Tourism. Various collaborations, especially between Thailand and West Bengal private sectors have grown over the years. Fifty-eight years ago Thai Airways International’s first destination in India was Kolkata. Not only its Bangkok-Kolkata route has been continued “smoothly as silk” since, but Thai Airways also has a plan to expand this route in the near future.

– Another example is how Thailand and Kolkata (Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry) are looking into digital technologies together such as Blockchain and FinTech. Thailand 4.0 policy coupled with ‘Bengal Means Business’ mentality creates a unique opportunity for cooperation in advanced industry which will in turn boost our economies and benefit the people.

– In conclusion, allow me to return to the Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, especially to his ideals of humanistic internationalism that go beyond national boundaries, a concept that he used to call “Maitri”. I am myself a career diplomat, and it has often been said that diplomacy is only about protecting one’s own national interests, which is true at one level. But then, at another, higher and deeper level, a diplomat should also work for mutual understanding between peoples. Thus, as a diplomat, a Buddhist, and a friend of India, I would like to pay tribute to the great Bengali poet who used his love, his poetry, and his artistic creativity to bridge different peoples and nations, to unify humanity into one universal family, and in particular I thank him for his “Maitri” towards Siam and her people, as well as his gifts of the poems that he had left us, in his own words – and I quote, “crowned with a garland from me, whose ever fresh flowers had blossomed ages ago”.

Thank you. Khobkhun krab and Dhonnobad.
For the actual radio programme that was aired on 15 June 2018, please visit https://www.facebook.com/thaikolkata/videos/984069471773775/