27/12/2016 4:25 PM IST | Updated 28/12/2016 4:22 PM IST

Why The Hyderabad Lit Fest 2017 Is A Giant Leap For India-Philippines Relations

It’s hopefully the start of a new chapter…

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The India-Philippines bilateral relationship can be best described historically as unrealised and stagnant. With shared democratic values, the widespread use of English and a way of life that incorporates the arts, literature and music, India and Philippines should have been natural and close partners, working together to enhance mutual interests and charting the choppy waters of international affairs. However, this has not been the case. And the result is that there are no two other countries in contemporary Asia that have so much in common with each other but know so little about each other than India and Philippines today.

There are no two other countries in contemporary Asia that have so much in common with each other but know so little about each other...

Yet, it must be stated that this sorry state of affairs had not always been the case. Those who have a love for history will recall that the India-Philippines friendship can be dated to the 10th century through the Srivajaya and Majapahit empires. It was around that time that Sanskrit was introduced in Philippines—in fact, Sanskrit words are evident in various languages in Philippines even today. The Maharadia Lawana, a popular folk narrative, is based on the Ramayana. And in important places like Mindanao, names such as Krishna, Jawaharlal and Rabindranath are still given today.

Why the disconnect?

While ancient and old India is very much alive in Philippines, contemporary India is more or less absent. This of course begs the question why this is the case.

There are many valid reasons but the more important ones are:

  1. Though India and Philippines signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1952, bilateral relations stagnated due to India and Philippines being on different sides of the bipolar Cold War alliances,
  2. The lack of foresight by Indian policy makers to see Philippines as a natural partner. This was no doubt also a result of the relative decline of Philippines over time since the 1950s and India herself content at not acting and responding to the East until very recently,
  3. Despite the signing of an agreement to establish of a Joint Commission on Bilateral Relations in 2007, it was not until 2011 that the first session of the Commission was held. This has led to sporadic intensification of co-operation in political, security, economic and people-to-people interactions. However, accelerated impetus in bilateral relations is lacking and very little thought has been given by both Indian and Philippines policymakers on how to change the status quo beyond mere cordiality,
  4. Few Indian academics and opinion makers specialise in Philippines as a discipline and even less are fluent in Tagalog or regional languages like Cebuano. So, naturally awareness of the warmth of Filipino people and the strengths of Philippines as a nation is lacking in India. No doubt the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the Indian government, universities and think-tanks for not giving impetus.

Given the slow pace of policy development in India it is safe to point out that it will be a while before the Indian government wakes up and realises that the India-Philippines relationship is one of upmost strategic importance. And even if the realisation takes place it will be a miracle if enough initiatives are developed and implemented to fully realise the relationship in a timely and fruitful manner.

Indian literary festivals must play their part in promoting India's strategic interests as well as those of her natural allies.

The question which then arises is: in the absence of full government support, how can Indians on their own strengthen relations with countries which are natural friends (and bring about awareness and pressure on the Centre to lift its game)?

How literary festivals can strengthen bilateral relations

One way to deepen bilateral relations, especially in the area of cultural matters, is through the platform of literary festivals in India. In recent times, literary festivals have sprouted all over India and the cause of writing has been promoted by the interaction between writers and the public and through the exchange of ideas and, mostly, liberal values. However, a significant number of literary festivals in India do not understand India's strategic interests in a rapidly changing international political order and hence continue to be stuck in the past in terms of their speakers, themes and pitch.

It can be said that the Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF) is one exception in that it is aware that the international order maintained by the United States since 1945 has more or less collapsed and new rules are being written by other aspirants for the throne so to speak. It is keyed in to the fact that Indian literary festivals must play their part in promoting India's strategic interests as well as those of her natural allies.

Philippines as "guest nation" at HLF 2017

The HLF has the concept of a 'guest nation" and for the next edition during 27-29 January, 2017, representatives of the Philippines will be hosted at the iconic Hyderabad Public School. The delegation will be of the highest profile culturally that has ever come to India from Philippines. It comprises writers and artists who double up as professors at the most important universities in Philippines and are also influential personalities in Filipino society. Notable delegates include Vim Nadera, performance poet and director of the Philippines School of Arts; Jun Cruz Reyes, the award-winning Filipino writer, sculptor, painter and filmmaker; Christine Gordinaz-Ortega, poet, fiction writer, educationist and winner of the CMO Asia Award; Steven Fernandez, whose works span over four decades and his transcreation of the Ramayana at the ASEAN Festival is one of over 50 productions he has performed in over a hundred cities worldwide; the award-winning poet Victor Sugbo; and Luna Cleto, the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award winning novelist.

For the Indian public, the Filipino delegation presents a wonderful opportunity to learn, collaborate and develop bonds at the highest level. And for other Indian literary festivals, there are important lessons to learn from Hyderabad as to how the national interest can be promoted literally, metaphorically and strategically.