Religious Tourism as Soft Power: Reinforcing India’s Act East Policy (AEP) in Southeast Asia (SEA) Through India’s Northeast (NE) Region

 By Anuradha Oinam
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‘Soft Power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment’ [[i]]

Religious tourism as soft power is emerging as an essential element to bolster India’s Act East Policy (AEP) and further strengthen India’s relations with Southeast Asia (SEA) and beyond. Since time immemorial, because of India’s cultural and spiritual heritage sites of Hinduism and Buddhism, many believers from across the globe have been influenced and attracted to the country. India’s Northeast region has diverse populations, who pursue different religions that are commonly followed in India. Because of its richness in terms of pilgrimages, this region can provide a platform to improve a hub of religious tourism to attract tourists from across India, its immediate neighbours, and Southeast Asia (SEA). The region can attract Christian pilgrims to visit the Sumi Baptist Church Zunhebeto (Asia’s largest Church) in Nagaland and the Cathedral of Mary’s Help of Christians, Shillong. Likewise, temples in NE states such as the Kamakhya Temple (one of the oldest and most revered centres of Tantric practices) and Bhubaneswari temple in Assam; and Iskcon Temple (known for its Bhagavad Gita Animatronics, Mahabharata Light, and Sound show and Ramayana Art Gallery) and Shree Govindajee Temple in Manipur attract Hindu pilgrims. In addition, the Hajo Powa Mecca (believed that the Mosque was constructed with the soil from Mecca) in Assam is considered to be a holy place for Muslims. Lastly, Sri Surya Pahar in Assam is famous since it is worshipped by Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus. This will enable to connect the region emotionally and spiritually with the people from the rest of the country and India’s immediate neighbours.

Not only this, the NE region can facilitate to connect with SEA through Buddhism and similar cultural affinity with the people of the NE region. Though Buddhism originated in India, 97 percent of the world’s Buddhists reside in East and SEA alone [[ii]]. SEA nations such as Indonesia and Thailand receive more Buddhism-related tourists than India [[iii]]. Therefore, attempts have been made to reach out to connect people from East and Southeast Asia to promote Buddhist pilgrims in India. This is where the importance of the Northeast (NE) region is crucial as a pivot to India’s AEP and it is the interface of the NE India and SEA. This article explains how religious tourism as soft power could strengthen and reaffirm India’s AEP.

Role of Northeast (NE) Region in India’s AEP

The NE region is strategically important because of its border with China and its spatial international geopolitical location. Its international border is shared with South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan and Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar. The region shares an international border of 5,182 km long with these countries. Interestingly, the region shares several cultural resemblances with the people of SEA in terms of similar food habits (sticky rice, sticky brown rice, and ingredients of fermented nature) [[iv]] and resemblance in languages (Tai community in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam speaks similar language spoken in Thailand and Lao) [[v]]. Thereby, people of NE India have distinct ethnic and cultural identities, which are comparable with people of Southeast Asia [[vi]]. In addition, the region has strong ties in terms of its history and culture with the same. Many communities are trans-border in nature and live across the borders. These trans-Himalayan communities, which have similar racial kinship, are also prominent in various parts of South and SEA. This gradually helps in attributing the cultural assimilation in terms of food habits, culture, languages, features, and lifestyles, which further strengthens the cultural bonding between these communities beyond their political borders [[vii]]. This practice is quite common to those who live across the border. People-to-people connectivity, one of the main goals of India’s AEP, is as crucial as physical connectivity can be reinforced by strengthening the bonding between NE people and the people of SEA. Given their similarity, the Deputy Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, in an event while celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ASEAN-India Dialogue Partnership in Laos’s capital Vientiane in 2017, stated, “Cultural similarity between the people of ASEAN countries and northeast India should become the fulcrum of our friendship and the bedrock of all our policies both – diplomatic and economic” [[viii]].

Gradually, India has put its large efforts to build its strategic partners, improving its economic ties at bilateral or multilateral platforms with countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, Singapore, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)[[ix]]. It also strives to boost its economy, and cultural ties by engaging constantly at regional forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)[[x]]. Therefore, the development of the NE region is essential in terms of building connectivity, accessible market, and utilising the tourism potential including Buddhist pilgrims would buttress India’s ties with SEA and beyond.

Northeast India as a Hotspot for Buddhist Pilgrims from SEA and beyond   

In addition to cultural similarities with the people of SEA, India’s NE region is adorned with its rich flora and fauna, scenic beauties with attractive tourist hotspots, myriad cultural diversity belonging to different ethnic groups, and most importantly, the potential for religious tourism, especially to attract Buddhist pilgrims from East and SEA. The presence of the Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, the second-largest monastery after Lhasa Monastery, Tibet, in the world, could be one of the main reasons. This Monastery is called ‘the Famous Godden Namgyal Lhatse’, which means ‘the Peak of the heavenly abode of joyfulness and complete victory’. Besides, the place is also the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama, Sangyang Gyatso. In addition, the location is strategically crucial for India because Tawang was the first region China bombed in Arunachal Pradesh in 1962, and the region remained under Chinese control for one month. Since then, China has been keeping an eye on taking over the same by considering Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet, not part of India. Therefore, it is much needed for the region to be well-connected with the rest of the country to stop Chinese aggression on the Indian side and occupying Indian territories.

Another famous monastery in Arunachal Pradesh is the Bomdila Monastery, also known as ‘Gentse Gaden Rangyel Monastery’, a duplication of the Tibetan Monastery, ‘Tsona Gontse’. Next to Arunachal Pradesh, religious tourism can be promoted in the state of Sikkim. Several monasteries, the historical accounts of Buddhism, and its footprints are embedded in the state. Therefore, Buddhist pilgrims visiting the ‘Buddhist Circuit’ (Bodh Gaya, Vaishali, Rajgir in Bihar, Sarnath in Varanasi, and Shravasti and Kushinagar in U.P) can further explore monasteries in NE states such as Arunachal Pradesh (Tawang and Bomdila ) and Sikkim. This could be a great initiative to revive the cultures of both the NE region and SEA, which further strengthens India’s relationship with SEA. For instance, festivals such as Sangkem in Arunachal Pradesh, Pi Mia In Lao PDR, and Songkran are New Year festivals celebrated simultaneously in April.  This festival is celebrated by throwing water at each other, followed by worshipping Lord Buddha [[xi]]. This exemplifies common religious practices in both India’s NE region and SEA. Hence, religious tourism is one of the critical elements to strengthen India’s AEP with SEA.

In an interview with members of various Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) at Moreh in October 2021, one of the members stated that ‘people from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia want to visit Tawang Monastery, Sikkim and then to Bodh Gaya via Myanmar. This route will be convenient for them in terms of costs and duration. However, it is inconvenient for them to travel due to visa restrictions and poor connectivity. Once the government has implemented some flexible visa policy, especially for religious tourists, the number of pilgrims influx in NE will increase gradually’ [[xii]]. Therefore, religious tourism can be used as a tool to not only improve India’s AEP but also strengthen its relations with SEA and beyond.

Way Ahead

Improving good relations with SEA is critical for India because SEA nations are leading players in Indo-Pacific, where China overrides its hegemonic power in the region. Hence, India needs support and strategic partners with SEA nations to balance China’s meticulous expansionist policy. Countries like Japan have shown their interest and commitment to enhancing connectivity in India’s NE region and opening more economic corridors across India and SEA [[xiii]]. Through India’s AEP and Japan’s ‘Open and Free Indo-Pacific Strategy’ [[xiv]], the two countries can extend their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region to balance China.

In addition, to solidify India’s relations with East and SEA, India must promote religious tourism, especially Buddhism, as one of the main pillars of the soft power of India’s AEP. It will open more avenues, mainly trade between India and SEA. Next is by improving India’s relationship with Myanmar by having a particular policy and strategy in the NE region by taking into account people’s perspectives. In addition, Northeast states such as Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim should be granted some flexibility regarding Inner Line Permits (ILP) or visas for religious tourists traveling from other parts of India and SEA. Lastly, connecting the NE region with the rest of India and the world by developing infrastructure, connectivity (physical and emotional), and other related parameters in the region is necessary to encourage religious tourism to connect across the globe.

End Notes:

[i] Jr., Joseph Nye (2004), “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics” New York: Public Affairs

[ii]  Azadi Ki Amrit Mahotsav, Ministry of tourism Oct 2021 https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1761801

[iii]Divya A (2021), “Centre Plans major Infrastructure push for Buddhist Circuit”, Indian Express, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/centre-plans-a-major-infrastructure-push-for-the-buddhist-circuit-7557762/

[iv] “Brothers beyond borders: Similarities between NorthEast India And South-East Asia”21 April 2019, https://www.insidene.com/brothers-beyond-borders-similarities-between-northeast-india-and-south-east-asia/#:~:text=There%20are%20many%20common%20physical,connection%20that%20dates%20back%20centuries.

[v] ibid

[vi] Bipul Kr Rabha, :Connecting South East Asian Nations through North East India: Opportunities and Challenges (https://deliverypdf.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=786008073006113122011113103070084026007020070051029034123123016108089

[vii] “Act East Policy and Northeast: The Road Ahead” North East Today, April 25, 2020, https://www.northeasttoday.in/2020/04/25/act-east-policy-and northeast-the-road-ahead/

[viii]  “Northeast can be fulcrum of India-Asean ties: Arunachal Minister (2017)”, The Business Standard https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/northeast-can-be-fulcrum-of-india-asean-ties-arunachal-minister-117080701349_1.html

[ix]  “Press Information Bureau, Government of India Ministry of External Affairs”, 23 December 2015, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=133837

[x]  ibid

[xi] “Brothers beyond borders: Similarities between NorthEast India And South-East Asia” 21 April 2019, https://www.insidene.com/brothers-beyond-borders-similarities-between-northeast-india-and-south-east-asia/#:~:text=There%20are%20many%20common%20physical,connection%20that%20dates%20back%20centuries.

[xii]Author interviewed with different CSOs in Moreh, Manipur in October 2021 during her Field Visit

[xiii]ibid

[xiv]   K.V Kesavan (2020), “India’s Act East Policy and Regional Cooperation”, ORF, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/indias-act-east-policy-and-regional-cooperation-61375/