Interview with H.E. Gaitri Issar Kumar

Ambassador of India to Belgium, Luxemburg and the European Union

Are we right to see and define India in terms of youth, innovation and culture? These strong points are also present in other countries but India has these on a much larger scale.

You have picked the right subjects about India which make it unique. We have a unique cultural heritage. We have over the centuries absorbed the influences from all over the world. But before that, we have also shared with the rest of the world our culture, our interests and our heritage because of our trade contacts. With the trade contacts in South East Asia various elements of our culture went towards South East Asia and the Middle East, whether it was related to our spice trade or silks, jewelry, gems and art. That is the reason we have civilizational ties with these countries, and excellent political, cultural and economic relations. But it all starts with the movement of people, movement of trade and exchange of scholars.

We not only spread our culture but we also absorb the things that came into our country, for example with Islam. On the other hand Buddhism has its origin in our country, like Jainism, and Zoroastrianism came into our country. When they were prosecuted they came to our King in Gujarat and said: ‘We will be part of your country, we will be part of your people as you mix sugar in milk. The king welcomed them with open arms.

Afterwards Christianity came to India, first to South India and from there it spread and became part of our country. Sikhism was created as part of a movement, modernizing religions in India around the 15th Century. These influences created diversity but still our country has unity.

It is comparable to the diversity of the 28 Member States of the European Union. We have 29 states and 7 union territories where we have complete diversity in our culture, our dress, our food, our religion, our language (there are different dialects) and the way we look (because we are from different races, like in Russia people are also from different races).

Everyone has the freedom to practice his own religion, propagate his own culture, and live in the way he or she  wants. The one thing that unites everybody is the fact that they are Indian. Religions may be different, language may be different; dresses, food, education are part of their freedom.

But the one thing that unites us is that we are Indian and we are proud to be, and tolerant of each other: that is why democracy has succeeded in India. That is also a part of our culture: we are tolerant, we try to pick out the best in the different peoples’ thoughts — what are they saying, what are their beliefs — and see what we can learn from other people. That is why today you have people who live in India from Nepal, from Sri Lanka, from Afghanistan: they come and they live here. We never make them feel like they are aliens and not welcome. They live here for generations and become part of our 1.3 billion population. Each region has its own art and diversity.

We bring in our Embassy dance or music or art, cultural presentations from all over India to show to the people of Belgium and the European community. We also encourage Belgians and Europeans to go to India and learn and come and enjoy our art and culture.

Every year we make a plan and we have an officer in charge. With this plan we know what we are going to do in order to bring Indian culture to the European Union, to Brussels. One event we are doing since 2015 is the international Yoga Day: through this we connect with all the people over the world and this is coming from the people themselves, from normal people in foreign countries. They themselves have realized the importance of the ancient Indian science of Yoga which is about having balance between mind, body and soul. The fact that you balance your physical self and your consciousness, is so important in Yoga. It gives well-being all over the world and it is appreciated. So the International Yoga Day is another initiative of us.

2019 is the 150th birth anniversary of the Father of our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. It is also an important part of the Indian culture to practice non-violence and to consider the whole world as one family. We are celebrating his 150th birth anniversary, but also his principles, that he taught and practiced himself. This is a kind of broad brush overview of what is known as Indian culture.

About youth. The statistics show that today the population in India which is 25 to 35 years old, embodies 60% of the Indian population. There is a huge demographic dividend and section of youth in our country. It is an asset, but it is also a challenge. It is a challenge for us to provide them jobs and to meet their aspirations and to build a future. But this is also India’s strength. As an economy, one of the reasons we are growing so fast is because of our youth which is clever, intelligent, has good, strong, cultural, religious moorings: they are ready to contribute to the economy.

Innovation is driving our youth, full of ideas with a strong education: they are coming up with the most amazing innovation and innovative ideas, using their knowledge to make practically things better for people around them and their own generation.

I was working in the team of the former President of India and his main project was to buil a momentum for innovation. So he started a conference of innovation in his first year in office with a small participation and then by his 5th year in office it was a huge international event.

But the point is that he strongly believed that every university should innovate to work with the people around the university, the rural communities around the university and the villages, to see how that university can bring technology to the people. For Indians innovation comes naturally because we don’t like to waste: with everything that we use, we try to think about what we can do with it instead of destroying this.

We are now reviving the ancient system of medicine because we realized that this medicine has less side effects. It goes to the root of the problem if a person is sick: this ancient medicine system tries to find why this person is sick and then tries to fix that with normal herbs and natural medicine. Of course, the Western system of science is also very advanced: we respect that. But there is a lot of interest now in reviving the ancient Indian system of medicine, which is also a part of our culture.

You gave us a rich and interesting overview of Indian culture and the present strong points related to youth and innovation. A last, short but meaningful question to conclude this enriching meeting: how do you see and would you define the city of Antwerp?

Antwerp is a very mixed cosmopolitan community with the Belgians, Dutch, Indians, Jewish, living in harmony and peace together. The World Diamond Center present in Antwerp has a very unique system of working, of trust, of security. Everything is very confidential and discreet. But they are doing business globally. 80% plus of the rough diamonds in the world are traded via Antwerp, being indeed the major city of diamond.

This interview was taken by Barbara Dietrich and Maarten Vermeir and transcribed by Maarten Vermeir.