The civilizational links between India and Southeast Asia established through its engagements and interactions with the region, has a long history. All the three major religions of Southeast Asia, namely, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, went either from or through India, leaving a profound influence on the culture, religious practices and even on the concept of state in the form of the Divine King. Historically, India’s relations with Southeast Asia started around the beginning of the first century AD, according to the earliest stone inscriptions found in West Java. The Kingdom of Champa with its vibrant Sanskrit culture as can be visualized in the elaborate metres of her inscriptions, with its rich holdings of Sanskrit texts, its advanced technology of navigation, controlled the shipping route from Kanchi to Canton. Champa or Tsiompa was a collection of independent Cham polities that extended across the coast of what is today central and southern Vietnam from approximately the 2nd century AD before being absorbed and annexed by Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang in AD 1832. The kingdom was known variously as Nagara Campa in the Chamic and Cambodian inscriptions. Maritime trade was the hallmark of India’s economic and other engagements governing the development of these interactions. India’s script, statecraft, language, literature and other soft powers like textiles, dance, music, etc., had a profound effect on the evolution of the state system and its cultural pattern in Southeast Asia. This was followed by the establishment of well-known Hindu kingdoms in South Sumatra and West Java between the 2nd and 6th centuries AD, and later on by the establishment of the Kingdom of Sriwijaya, a maritime and commercial kingdom that flourished between the 7th and the 13th century. It was a centre for trade as well as a teaching centre for Hinduism and Buddhism.
From there Hinduism and later, Buddhism entered mainland Southeast Asia, creating the Khmer Kingdom in the 8th century that lasted until the 12th century. Islam also entered Indonesia through India, namely through Gujarat, Southwest India. It happened peacefully, that is, through trade. Islam in India also had to acculturate with a high culture of Hinduism and Buddhism as its basis, and therefore had to compromise and become syncretic. The same happened with Islam in Indonesia, where it had to face, adjust and adapt to centuries of Hindu and Buddhist cultures, values and customs, making it more acculturated and pluralist in nature.
In the more contemporary period, the nationalist movements in Myanmar, Malaya and Indonesia were deeply influenced by India’s nonviolent political thinking and strategy. The freedom struggle in Indonesia was not only influenced by India’s national movement, but also received concrete support in the form of goods, services and diplomatic support at the United Nations in its most difficult phase of the struggle against the Dutch. To quote an Indonesian scholar: ‘In January 1948, India and Burma gave support to Indonesia’s independence struggle by holding a conference in New Delhi to support it, and for the first time the world became aware of Indonesia’s struggle for independence.’1 Rabindranath Tagore was the first Asian to talk about Asian solidarity based on intellectual and cultural cross-fertilization between the people of Asia that found expression in his writings as well as in his efforts to bring together some of the best minds and scholars from China, Japan, Indonesia and other parts of Asia. Tagore’s Shantiniketan had deeply influenced Indonesia’s leading thinker, Ki Hadjar Dewantoro and helped him to establish his Taman Siswa at Jogjakarta in Tagore’s vision.In the post-Independence period, India promoted the idea of Asian solidarity through the principles of nonalignment, anti-colonialism and anti-racialism and was able to influence foreign policy-making of many Southeast Asian countries, laying the foundations of the nonalingned movement that passed through many vicissitudes reflecting the turns and tides of the world strategic environment and changing alignments in the region. This first NAM Conference resulted in a cooling of the relationship between Nehru and Sukarno because of their differing worldview, and some attributed it to their personal rivalry. Whereas Nehru accepted the existing world order as something given and wanted to reform it through cooperation and intricate balance between the two superpowers, Sukarno’s worldview was guided by his belief that there cannot be any cooperation between the so-called ‘New Emerging Forces’ and the ‘Old Established Forces’, placing his country in the former and India in the latter. India’s defeat at the hands of China in 1962 further eroded India’s image and influence in the region. In the subsequent period until the early 1990s, even while India made sincere attempts to engage the region, it did not yield any major success due to serious differences between India and the ASEAN on the Kampuchean issue and Vietnamese intervention in that country.