Alica Kizekova — Senior researcher at Institute of International Relations, Prague
As India expands its reach globally, it is increasingly starting to interact with countries in the heart of Europe. To some, these geographically distant locations within the European Union, such as the Czech Republic or Slovakia, seem unlikely allies in India’s quest to fulfill its global objectives. Yet, on closer look, a contrary picture is revealed. Despite the vast distance and differences, the two countries share historical links that are deep and inspiring — as revealed by the archives of Czechoslovakia. Their separate struggles for independence to overturn foreign rule or influences took place through powerful nonviolent mass resistance movements. Today, they aspire to commemorate and spread the ideals behind these historical events. Practically, they support the reform of global bodies to provide a more balanced representation for countries. All these examples contribute to fostering meaningful ties, not just between India and Central Europe, but also broadly, between Europe and Asia — as well as globally.
Some of the most memorable historical visits paid to Czechoslovakia were by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose language encouraged the Czech composer Leoš Janáček to put a story from Tagore’s book The Gardener to music in his Wandering Madman in the 1920s. On Christmas Eve of 1937, the Czech writer Karel Čapek sent a message to Tagore, whom he called “the harmonious voice of the East,” and he expressed his concern about the “anxious Europe in the Western world, where even the most highly developed nations are unable to shake each other’s hands as brothers would.” Čapek’s message was to stretch our hands to Tagore, to India, to Asia — also experiencing roaring cannons at that time. In response, Tagore sent a goodwill telegram to “friends in Czechoslovakia” as “an old idealist who clings to his faith in the common destiny of East and West and all people on the Earth.” There was a shared sentiment of hope for the world to be of equal and free people.
Shared values and global objectives
In 1957, at a time when India was already independent but Czechoslovakia still under totalitarian rule under the Soviet sphere of influence, the countries signed an extensive trade agreement, listing 44 goods for export from India to Czechoslovakia and 106 goods for export from Czechoslovakia to India. For India, Czechoslovakia was one of the largest trading partners in Central Europe. India’s freedom struggle for a sovereign republic — under the philosophy of nonviolent mass resistance by Mahatma Gandhi — inspired many. However, it was not until the late 1980s for Central Europe to experience nonviolent resistance against Communist rule. Our Velvet Revolution of 1989 promoted democracy, fairness, freedom, humaneness and nonviolence. Subsequently, a nonviolent division of Czechoslovakia through the so-called Velvet Divorce took place in 1993.
India’s freedom struggle for a sovereign republic — under the philosophy of nonviolent mass resistance by Mahatma Gandhi — inspired many.
Modern-day India deals with the independent Czech and Slovak republics, where bilateral relations are friendly, genuine and positive. The leaders built these bilateral ties on historical experiences and interactions as well as shared values. The countries aim for peace, stability, democracy, freedom and rule of law. They object to terrorism in all its forms, call for the disruption of safe havens for terrorists, their infrastructure, network and finances. These are transnational goals and require complex reforms of global institutions, such as the United Nations, for responses to various challenges to be more effective under current complex geopolitical environment.
Gateways to markets but lacking adequate promotion
Our recent work on the Czech Foreign Policy 2017: Analysis, which includes a brief evaluation of relations with India, states that various ministries — of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry — considered India increasingly important, not just bilaterally, but also as a vital regional player in South Asia. However, it concludes that the Indian side might not have shared the same sentiment when it came to engaging more proactively with the Czech Republic. There was a clear imbalance of high profile exchanges in this case. Czech companies have been interested in having more presence in India.
Nevertheless, a constructive change might be taking place in the near future. During his recent visit of the Czech Republic on 6-9 September 2018, President Ram Nath Kovind and the Czech president Miloš Zeman signed a joint statement which encouraged more concrete collaboration, not just in economy, education, science and tourism, but also in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the fight against the trade protectionism and counterterrorism. There is a plan to complete a strategic partnership agreement soon.
There was a clear imbalance of high profile exchanges in this case. Czech companies have been interested in having more presence in India.
Slovakia and India deepened political and economic cooperation this year by having a successful visit of Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Mr. M.J. Akbar to Bratislava in May and they launched a Jaguar Land Rover plant, part of the Indian Tata Group, in October. It is anticipated that this investment will make the Slovak market more attractive to other potential Indian investors. Diplomatic relations with the independent Slovakia are still fairly recent, with embassies established in their respective capitals in 1995. The first India Festival in Bratislava took place on 23 September 2018. This is a positive step forward to introduce Indian food, handicrafts, garments and cultural performances to the local people.
The official representation of India recognises that Central Europe, through the Czech Republic or Slovakia, is a viable getaway to the European (European Union) market, while India offers a market of one billion potential customers to Czech and Slovak products. These countries continuously support each others‘ candidacies in multilateral fora. They promote the shared values of democracy, freedom and nonviolence. The solid foundation established through historical interactions needs to be better utilised. This can be done through a greater degree of commitment to current developments that would bridge these nations and help overcome the existing cultural or geographical distances.