Reaching Out Across Borders: How Citizen Diplomacy Can Work

Ambassador and Mrs. Nazareth, members of the Nazareth family, Mr. Shailesh Dobhal, Mr. Ashok Bhattacharya, Nivedita Mookerji, distinguished guests, it is an honor to be present here today at the Business Standard Seema Nazareth Awards function. In doing so, we remember a young writer and journalist, a creative and eloquent voice tragically snatched from our midst in her prime. We also honor the spirit of independent journalism, the spirit of enquiry and objectivity of representation, which are hallmarks of a democratic, plural society. My warm congratulations to Nitin Kumar the Award winner, and Akshara Srivastava who receives a Special Mention; the future of independent journalism is secure with young minds such as yours. Thank you again.

I begin my remarks with the proposition that there is no escape from geography or, the legacies of history. Our borders, these limits, are an inheritance we have no choice but to accept. In our own times, they confine rather than liberate, offering no escape because the nationalisms of our region compete, ours against theirs, with populism and xenophobia, and embedded hatreds, providing for their constant reinforcement, a militarism in popular attitudes which we accept, for denying it would bring the label of un-patriotism and national betrayal. One country’s chauvinism encounters its doppelganger in another. Hence, my view is that more and more diplomatic openings are mostly shut today. All the aspirational talk of a global, international community, of the interconnectedness of the region, of the world, seems empty, forgetting as we do that the art of statecraft is to cooperate and compete —in one behavioural set—with all countries. Instead, divisions multiply, and great power rivalries have splintered the world. Geopolitics trumps everything.

Therefore, in a post-pandemic world riven by such rivalries and now by an insensate war between Russia and Ukraine, and its fall-out on countries everywhere, with disastrous economic damage to pay for all of us, Michael Ondaatje’s words are appropriate: “I no longer guess a future. And do not know how we end or where.” Where is multilateralism headed? The post-globalization world has a definite leadership deficit. East and West are fast becoming meaningless constructs, and plurilateralism may be the new normal. The post-pandemic world is nasty and brutish, inward-looking and non-inclusive. Nations such as ours will have to hedge and look out for our best interests. It is a season of change everywhere.

The predominance of borders in our world speaks of the primacy of territorial power. In our region, unlike in Europe, borders are not regularly crossed as a routine, they have not thinned out, rather they have thickened. Security controls and surveillance technologies buttress our definitions of maximal impregnability. Connectivity is the casualty, and the borderlands between nations cease to be connector-zones. South Asia was meant to be an integer, the Grand Trunk Road, the Uttarapatha, the Silk Route of India, once connected Kabul all the way through undivided India to the borders of Burma. Kipling spoke of “all the world going and coming” along the road, a “wonderful spectacle” and that it was a “river of life” not to be seen elsewhere in the world. Another nineteenth-century traveler, Thomas Stevens called it an “unbroken highway of marvelous perfection, from Peshawar on the Afghan frontier to Calcutta.” Geetanjali Shree’s novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Tomb of Sand, speaks of all roads leading not to Rome, but of lanes and by lanes leading to the Grand Trunk Road, crossing borders ceaselessly, cutting through nationalisms, and slogans that legitimate borders, of characters that bemoan the Partition at Wagah. The Grand Trunk Road itself becomes a meeting ground for India and Pakistan, for Kurukshetra and Panipat, forging a path across scarred battlefields.

South Asia today is the least integrated region in the world, barring Antarctica perhaps. As far as India is concerned – and despite it being the largest country in the region – there is no inclination to play the role of connector and integrator. It is a failure to take the lead, in a willful embrace of history as we see it, we seem to have turned our back on South Asia, at least as it is collectively defined, as a region. Of course, you can blame it on politics, you can blame it on Pakistan, you can blame it on terrorism and militancy, but the buck must stop somewhere, and people look to the biggest country in the region to provide answers. The story of this region, its culture, its history and its civilization, apart from its geography and ethnicities, cuts across borders. The story literally cuts across the map. Why should proximity be treated as a peril?

Take the pandemic for instance, despite some early attempts at collaborating on pandemic treatment and preventive strategies, with India leading these initiatives, these efforts did not gather critical momentum that could have signaled a new chapter in intra-South Asian relations. It was a tale of promise denied. Each country exists in its own silos. Recoveries have been uneven across sectors, countries and groups of people, as a recent World Bank study showed. Many of the underprivileged share misery across borders and the war in Ukraine has not made things better for us. Supply constraints and financial sector vulnerabilities compound the problems. We share many problems, but solutions are not shared. Ergo, South Asia is not an integer, even though it was meant to be one. Where are the South Asian commons? The Grand Trunk Road has been swallowed up by the by lanes and small galis of narrow nationalisms and the failure to think big enough to go regional. From global we jump to local, and the connective tissue of the regional is bypassed. It is time to recall Sri Aurobindo who in a radio message on 15 August 1947 spoke of five dreams for India. One of those was for India to play a prominent part in ensuring ‘a unification of the human world’ and developing that ‘larger statesmanship’ of cultivating that ‘international spirit and outlook’ where nationalism would have ‘lost its militancy’ and ‘a new spirit of oneness’ would take hold of humanity. Somehow as we proceed to the coming decades of the twenty-first century, we seem to have lost those twentieth century dreams of a cooperative South Asia. Why cannot India make room for South Asia in its outward orientation? Are we airbrushing South Asia out of the picture, ignoring our natural gravitational field? Some sections of opinion speak of a ‘Greater India’ or Akhand Bharat which raises hackles in the region and may not win us friends or influence in the neighborhood, because each country in South Asia while acknowledging the links through history and religion, language, culture and civilization to India, is proud of its own unique identity, its singularity. The rest of South Asia does not exist in our shadow, rather, each of the countries who are our neighbors merit their own mention, they control their own destinies. The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, SAARC, seems to receive scant policy attention in our scheme of foreign policy priorities today. Even the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a China-Russia driven body, has less of a Cinderella treatment at our hands.

This is a situation that policy makers must address, since even civil society efforts that existed in days past, to build bridges across borders seem to have petered out. That is a pity. Which leads me to my central question, is civil society diplomacy, or citizen diplomacy an idea whose time is past? Is the militarized, goose-stepping spectacle at dusk at Wagah, all that we have to show to the world? As the then UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold noted long ago, we have undermined the bridges and poisoned the springs of our inheritance. To quote Hammarskjold again, we forget that the weakness of one is the weakness of all and the strength of one – not the military strength, but the real strength, the economic and social strength, the happiness of people, is the strength of all.

This leads me to the universe of citizen diplomacy. What is citizen diplomacy? It is the role that non-state actors can play in mitigating differences and deep-rooted conflicts. It is not a top-down state-centric effort but rather a bottom-up society-driven effort by private citizens in searching for pragmatic solutions to many global issues and challenges. Professor Joe Nye of Harvard University defines citizen diplomacy as “networked communications among civil society which take advantage of two-way communication and peer-to-peer relations to overcome cultural differences.” Citizen diplomacy helps to build trust among citizens of different nations with conflicting interests and agendas to achieve sustainable peace. (See: “What do we mean by citizen diplomacy?” by Andreas Fulda The philosophy behind this is that we as citizens can also shape diplomatic outcomes, in a modest way, “one handshake at a time.” Many votaries argue that the future of diplomacy will be people-led. Our basic reflex as human beings is to create common ground even if it means for many, never crossing the threshold of foreign ministries. This is not the normal activity we associate with ordinary citizens but increasingly, it can be. Tom Fletcher, a former British diplomat says that this is the era of the ‘naked diplomat’ in a direct, unvarnished manner. People in ordinary walks of life, out there in the trenches, can break down diplomatic baggage, to make it less “Ferrero Rocher” as Fletcher puts it, and make it more accessible to people. Reaching out in this manner, touches people, and we thus become citizen diplomats, promoting the core argument of peaceful co-existence, which is the central aim of diplomacy, expressing ideas that prevent conflict and build trust. In the digital age, it is said, everyone can be a diplomat, expressing a basic human reflex, in order to promote the survival of the species. You can do so within the media, an NGO, in schools and universities, to counter online hate and division, for instance. Sharing rather than dividing. Helping people in need. Emphasizing inclusion, and connectivity among diverse groups of people. Inspiring people to imagine a world without war and division and conflict, challenging prejudice and living lives of purpose, faith and courage, as Fletcher says it. We can help shape outcomes in favor of reconciliation and better lives, economically and socially, for our people, away from hard-wired divisiveness, and narrow nationalisms. That is our responsibility as citizens.

What is diplomacy? What skills does it demand? Curiosity and an open mind to begin with, which is what all our schools should teach. Nothing is certain, nothing is a fixed idea. Ask questions. Teach resilience and courage to our young ones. We may have no battleships at our disposal as citizens, but our instruments are words and opportunities. We must be authors and messengers redressing imbalance, and as George Kennan once observed we must be gardeners and not mechanics, have the ability to listen, be civil, and mindful of the dignity of others. We must be restrained in our reactions, and keep our passions in check, staying calm. In this world of citizen diplomacy, borders are not limiting lines, we look beyond them when we rely on persuasion. I am reminded of Khrushchev’s metaphor during the Cuban missile crisis that diplomacy must try to untie the knot while the rope is being pulled from both ends. That is what citizen diplomacy can contribute to even if it cannot find all the solutions.

Let me now divulge a little of my own experience with citizen diplomacy. Almost four years ago, in 2018, I decided to venture into the field myself. I had retired some years earlier and had stepped outside the threshold of the External Affairs Ministry into the world outside. I was out in what the ancient Greeks called an agora – an open place for meeting and assembly – and it was swarming with ideas and opinions, and to me, it appeared to be an environment ripe for practicing citizen diplomacy. As a rising power, India was the toast of the global stage, its relationships with key countries were acquiring greater and greater value and substance, it was the most favored destination for world leaders, and foreign investors were flocking to invest in our economy and industries in a manner unseen in the previous decades. It was a golden age. But the neighborhood policy continued to be riven with complexities and real connectivity and integration seemed to be stuck in a time warp. Importantly, connections between people in the region seemed to have been diluted and public diplomacy I felt needed a fillip. This was where citizen diplomacy could part the waters a little and become that voice of reason and reconciliation in the wilderness. Hyper-nationalism and chauvinism seemed to have become the coins of the realm. But the desire for peace and for building human connections had not been extinguished although these voices seemed to be increasingly submerged and scarcely heard.

The situation hardly reflected the true nature of a region proud of its ancient and enduring civilizational linkages that extended beyond borders. Traditionally, this had been a space of openness, and there was an underlying urge to coexist in harmony. Cultural activity, the use of the arts, particularly music, is a perfect instrument for citizen diplomacy. I accordingly set to work to realize what had been a long-cherished dream, to create a South Asian Symphony Orchestra that would use music as an instrumentality to bring people together, and to rise above the strife in the region. The right to music is after all a basic human right.

We created this experiment in citizen diplomacy, originating in India, because music speaks the language of peace. With India at the heart of this effort, my husband Sudhakar and I, began the labor-intensive task of starting from scratch to put together a data base of musicians from the region and the Indian/South Asian diaspora who could form this Orchestra. Our musicians have come from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka and from the larger global community of South Asians drawn from the United States, Europe, Singapore and Australasia. Some of them are as young as thirteen, and all come from different walks of life. One of our young Afghan members lists his aim in life as “to overcome the sound of war with the sound of music”. One of the pieces played at our first concert was Hamsafar- A Musical Journey through South Asia, commissioned for the occasion by the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (before the country fell to the Taliban).

Western-style symphony orchestras are not common to our region. But the musical talent is rich and outstanding. Building a world-class symphony orchestra takes years of rigorous training, and our work has only begun. We are also building a repertoire for orchestras of music from South Asia, this crucible of rich cultures. Integration within South Asia and between South Asia and the rest of the world must become stronger. Music offers one way of doing this. Cooperation and empathy can help us overcome many challenges, and music upholds the spirit of dialogue for peace. The happiest part of this whole experiment has been to witness the passion, commitment and discipline of our orchestra musicians. Strangers have become friends.

The effort is entirely citizen funded. An institution has been created, by the people, for the people and of the people. Democratic values speak through it, cooperation and the art of listening to one another are emphasized. The orchestra becomes a microcosm of the region, a living portrait that speaks of what we, as South Asians can do, if we practice the habit of cooperation. Our aspiration is to demonstrate that we as citizens can build channels of communication and exercise citizen diplomacy. We are attempting through the creation of a musical repertoire for orchestral performance that reflects the folk, classical and popular music of the region to demonstrate that South Asia is a richly composite place.

Gopinath Pillai, a retired U.N. civil servant summed it up eloquently when he said of our Orchestra that it is a “remarkable innovation in political communication. The language of music expands and purifies a regional space too often perceived as both fraught and hegemonic.” What sets an orchestra apart is that when you play in it, as Daniel Barenboim once said, everybody is constantly aware of everybody else. “In my view”, he notes, “this is a model for society.” For me, an orchestra serves as the perfect analogy for regional ties, an audible demonstration of what harmony is possible here.

Therefore, I come back to my central argument, that diplomacy is people-centered, and at the level of ordinary citizens, there is scope for each of us to be citizen-diplomats and reach out across territorial borders and limits that confine, to build bridges between peoples, especially in the field of the creative arts, music being one of them. Artificial barriers today create many degrees of separation. Insularity is more the rule than the exception. Citizen diplomacy, and our orchestra, help promote the development of a humanitarian agenda for the region, built on closer people-to-people ties and cultural linkages. As a Mumbai newspaper noted in April 2019, on the eve of our first concert, “As musicians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and India stream out (of rehearsals) for a tea break, the mirth and camaraderie that fills the room over plates of samosas and chai, is a picture of utopia. One that instantly puts out of focus the strained relationship among several of these countries, and instead, instills hope that one day, when we rise above all differences, this is what South Asia could look like.”

The experience with the South Asian Symphony Orchestra, a home-grown Indian initiative, embedded in our social space, provides a living example of what citizen diplomacy can accomplish in its own modest way, and that sweating for peace is better than bleeding in war- that we can practice generosity, compassion and forgiveness because these are qualities inherent in our civilization as South Asians and in our cultural traditions. For our musicians, who are by now, totally invested in the idea of our symphony, music unites and becomes in the words of one of them, “an incredibly important exercise in diplomacy.” They play with their fellow musicians, and as they say, “if you are in an orchestra, you don’t have time to think whose ancestors won a war against who.” You are part of a universal exchange. This is what South Asia deserves to be. We have created a contact zone, a space of peaceful encounter. In doing so, we transcend political boundaries, momentarily, and create a free flow of debate, dialogue and creative art, in an act of regional empowerment.

Thank you.