Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) completes 70 years today. Set up by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in 1950 to foster cultural relations with other countries, the organisation has evolved over the decades and become a channel for soft diplomacy. ICCR President Dr Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, also a Rajya Sabha MP, says the essential message to the world is about values and moorings. In an interview to Bhavna Vij-Aurora, he talks about how the Indian society has evolved into perhaps a perfect model of balancing individuality and socialisation. Which is why, in these days of isolation and loneliness, our inter-personal emotional bondings will greatly help the global community rescue itself, he says.
Q: ICCR is completing 70 years. Has the mandate of the organization changed over the years?
A: Yes and no! The articulation of mandate has perhaps changed. When ICCR was established the concept of soft power was not evolved. Today when the world has realised that winning over hearts and minds is more important than conquering geographical regions, I think our mandate today is far more pronounced. And especially in the context of India’s soft power promotion, our mission is very specific. We have to convert the huge amount of Goodwill that India enjoys world over, into a deep understanding about the idea of India.
Q: One of the mandates of ICCR is soft diplomacy – to foster and strengthen cultural relations between India and other countries. What kind of programmes and events does the ICCR plan to organize in this regard?
A: Soft Diplomacy, as per my understanding is majorly about occupying mind space and influencing thinking. Generally speaking, as many sociologists think that some kind of Americanisation of the world is happening. Countries will lose their cultural identities and world will become flat if this continues. Indian view is to keep your national identity intact and even with that become a part of the entire global community. Our philosophy has this essential message. Through promotion of understanding of Indology, Sanskrit language, our epics and literature as also our art forms including classical dances and music, we do give impetus to this greater understanding of Indian culture. We have been doing this all along during the last 70 years and now this is being more emphasised. As I said, we have a cut job. We are working at it untiringly.
Q: Which are the countries with whom India has a strong cultural bond? And how is it going to be strengthened?
A: Well, India is a country that is universally welcomed. We have cultural bonds with every country for that matter, because looking for commonalities and stressing on eternally relevant values —which are at the core of Indian philosophy— has been our approach. We easily connect with all countries also because of our ‘spiritual democracy’. We have never subscribed to hegemonic or monopolistic thinking in spirituality. So, all spiritual approaches are welcome to us and therefore we are welcomed everywhere.
Q: We have seen yoga been accepted the world-over and June 21 declared as International Day of Yoga by the UN at India’s behest. Does ICCR plan to promote yoga through its events in other countries?
A: Yes, we have been working in this direction in collaboration with the AYUSH Ministry. IYD is both, India’s significant knowledge and cultural footprint in the recent past, which is welcomed globally.
Q: Do you see other Indian art forms of dance and music gaining popularity in the world?
A: Yes. Bharat Natyam is perhaps the most popular and of course due to growing universal popularity of Bollywood films, many other varieties are also becoming more and more popular.
Q: Are there any plans to promote Indian values and social moorings at the international level?
A: Well, through cultural programmes, the essential message is only about values and moorings. Indian society has evolved perhaps a perfect model of balancing individuality and socialisation. Which is why, in these days of isolation and loneliness, our inter-personal emotional bondings will greatly help the global community rescue itself.
Q: ICCR used to organize high-profile Festivals of India abroad and vice versa, will we see a return of such festivals?
A: During the last several years, this assignment is being handled by Ministry of Culture but we help them, breaking silos and going out of way, at times.
Q: What are the focus areas for ICCR in the coming years?
A: As I said, our focus will be on scholarships and courses on Traditional Indian Knowledge Systems, cultural exchanges with focus on young artistes and academics as well as converting Chairs in various Universities into full fledged India Study Centres.
Q: Finally, a Covid-19 related question. I believe the ICCR has organized online courses in Indian art, music and dance. How has been the response to them?
A: Response is very encouraging. In fact, our assessment is that perhaps online tutorials provide you an opportunity to evolve a better blend of personalised attention, group activity and peer learning.
Q: Also, ICCR is believed to be looking out for foreign students who are stranded in India due to the lockdown. Can you share some details?
A: Yes, we have been taking care primarily of those who are under our scholarship schemes. But in general also, considering the fact that alumni of Indian institutions are our great asset; we attach extra ordinary importance to this. As everybody knows, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to Fiji, there are many countries where alumni of Indian institutions are today either Presidents or Prime Ministers of their countries. And all of them cherish their memories of studying in India.