From Abe’s perspective, India’s closeness would help him realize his vision for Asia's “strategic diamond”, which consisted of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. This later on would be transformed into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad. But Modi, of course, was all about Bodh Gaya. On September 3, 2015, at the opening of the First Samvad Conclave, he declared before our assembled Buddhist delegates that India was “taking the lead in promoting the Buddhist heritage across Asia.” Two days later, we were ushered to Bodh Gaya and led into the grounds of Maha Bodhi Temple – I had never seen it under such tight and ferocious security. There, for his Indian and Buddhist audiences, Modi sat down under the Bo Tree and meditated (briefly) while Buddhist representatives of the three vehicles chanted their respective liturgies. He was a new Dharma king, a Hindutva Ashoka, equally comfortable with plugging India’s Buddhist connection domestically and internationally, while having a foot in his real populist base: Hindu nationalism. The first conclave was, notably, styled as a Hindu-Buddhist dialogue on conflict avoidance and environmental consciousness.
Nepal in the middle
In a recent article about China and India’s tussle over Nepal (an aspect that I will return to below) in ThePrint, Binoj Basnyat, a retired Nepali Army major general and a security analyst, noted that China’s objective was to “create internal cohesion through Buddhist correlation.” This can be applied in a different sense to Modi’s unique ideal of Indic civilization. Modi, as a Hindu nationalist, wants internal cohesion. It does not matter that he is not defined as, nor does he see himself as, a Buddhist nationalist. In fact, the Hindu nationalism is the point – for Buddhism to be part of this grand unifying ideology that transcends religious boundaries. The Buddhist diplomacy of China is similar: China’s Communist Party is officially atheist, and arguably, Confucianism has guided Chinese statecraft and society more than Buddhism. Yet Buddhism, if not at the core of ruling ideology, is not at the periphery either but, being somewhat in the middle, informs it.
The success of this approach is mixed, especially with India. Too often, it has also been swept up in broader geopolitical considerations that deprive it of its unique rationale, which was in theory relatively original in the first year of Samvad.
Consider Nepal as one example. Basnyat notes that “Buddhist diplomacy was perceptible between Nepal and China from 2011 onwards, with the infrastructure projects that connect the Chinese mainland to the birthplace of Buddhism, which then was enforced during President Xi’s October 2019 Nepal visit.” China had vociferously supported Nepal’s own push to be recognized as a rival center of Buddhism – notably, despite being part of the “Indic” culture complex and both countries having active Buddhist communities, Nepal’s modern borders are drawn so that Lumbini, the birthplace of the Blessed One, is in its sovereign territory. New Delhi chafed at this claim and was further angered by Beijing’s encouragement of Kathmandu to push this narrative.
In December 2015, I had attended a Samvad-related seminar hosted by the IBC. It was in an Indian state that few foreigners are familiar with – Tripura, with its equally little-known capital, Argatala. Yet like many Indian border states such as Sikkim, Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura is geostrategically critical. A glance on the map will reveal that it is close to Myanmar, a country with its own proud Theravada heritage and with its own balancing act to play between China and the West’s Asian allies. But bizarrely, at this seminar, the chief guest was none other than Nepal’s minister of tourism and aviation at the time, Ananda Prasad Pokharel. I have no doubt that this was an attempt, or tentative overture, to repair relations between Nepal and India. They were at their frostiest in decades, especially after what amounted to a New Delhi-sanctioned blockade of Nepal’s border with India by Madhesi protestors, resulting in staple goods and supplies such as fuel, food, clothing, and medicine being prevented from reaching Nepal. This was particularly devastating after the great earthquake in April of that year.
This overture was unsuccessful, it seemed to me. In 2016, the Nepal Culture Ministry had hosted a Vesak celebration with the theme, “Preservation and Development of Buddhist Heritage of Nepal,” with Lumbini variously titled as “Birthplace of Buddha” and “Fountainhead of Buddhism”. India boycotted the conference. Then, as 2017 dawned, and the newly elected administration of Donald Trump intensified the adversarial stance of the United States towards China, Samvad also began to change. As I noted at one point, it was increasingly framed as a democratic alliance in direct opposition to Beijing’s BRI, with India and Japan targeting countries around China’s periphery. Conclaves and smaller meetings invoking the Samvad name were held in Myanmar, Thailand and Japan – all American allies.
Sino-Indian relations spiraled further, and the correlation with occurrences at IBC’s events is eerie. In fact, one can pick almost any year since 2017 a spat between China and India, whether it was the Doklam standoff in Bhutan from June to August 2017, or the dispute over Sowa-Rigpa medicine in 2020. The latter, being a relatively obscure dispute about its origins, was particularly bitter, because at its heart was a core obsession in geostrategic relations and diplomacy: national pride and ownership of heritage. Buddhism finds itself in a similar situation, with both China and India, as highlighted above, sparring over who has “custodianship” over its legacy in Asia: its place of official origin, or the country that did more to spread it as a classical religion of Asia’s courts and kingdoms?
The Mongolian connection
In 2019, India scored a major diplomatic victory in Mongolia that was led by a vanguard of Buddhist representatives from both countries. From September 6-7, I was in Ulaanbaatar reporting on the Third Samvad Conclave, which was followed up a fortnight later by a state visit to India by Mongolian president Khaltmaagiin Battulga from the 19th to 23rd. This trip (which included a visit to Bodh Gaya) was a long time in the making and, compared to India’s fortunes with Nepal, was quite successful.
In May 2015, the same year of Samvad’s launch, Indo-Mongolian ties were elevated to the level of “strategic partnership”. I am convinced that the Buddhist voice lent further weight to strengthening Indo-Mongolian relations. As the titular head of state, Ram Nath Kovind, India’s president said to Battulga in a meeting on the 20th: “We are not just strategic partners but also spiritual neighbors connected by our shared Buddhist heritage. Centuries-old people-to-people exchanges have been the bedrock of our ties. Buddhist monks and traders from India travelled to Mongolia with the message of peace, harmony and friendship. Similarly, over the ages, Mongolian scholars and pilgrims came to India in pursuit of Buddhist studies and spiritual blessings. This ageless tradition continues.”