From India To Indonesia

The ties that bind the two countries are unbreakable, says India’s recent envoy in Jakarta

6/30/2017 2:38:03 PM
written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

Manipur is famous in India and beyond for its independent and high-achieving women, some of whom, like the iconic Olympian boxer Mary Kom, have become household names.

In the field of international diplomacy, too, they are punching far above their weight, represented by career diplomats such as Nengcha Lhouvum Mukhopadhaya, India’s ambassador to Indonesia who played a key role in pushing India’s two-decades old Look East Policy. 

Hailing from the same state and the same Kuki tribe as Mary Kom, Nengcha Luovhum is also from Churachandpur, the same town as the famed boxer, and built in the same lithe but wiry mould. The resemblance is uncanny and yet powerfully symbolic of the resilience of both women. In the one-and-a-half years that she has been India’s envoy in Indonesia, Nengcha has achieved several highly signifcant bilateral tie-ups not least being the first official visit of President Joko Widodo’s to India and the strengthening of trade and strategic ties.

But it is as India’s envoy in Lebanon in 2006 during the bloody Israeli-Hezbollah war that she showed her true mettel. With no let-up in the Israeli pounding and thousands of Indian civilians desperate to get out of Beirut, Nengcha Lhouvum rose to the occasion with the aplomb typical of her tribal Manipuri background. Despite her small team – there were only nine, including the embassy’s security guards – she worked valiantly to evacuate more than 12,000 people.

Some of those evacuated under her stewardship included a large group of Sri Lankans who had come to her for help. Unhesitatingly, she offered them the same help that she offered her countrymen - evacuation to Damascus by road and the safe haven of Cypress on Indian warships from where they were flown home on Indian planes. She also reached out to the Bangladeshis stranded there but they declined.

Typically, she prefers to play down her role, despite it being worthy of a Bollywood blockbuster. “Anybody in my place would have done the same,” says Lhouvum who refused to leave until every single employee and civilian was evacuated despite orders to evacuate immediately. Her batchmate and husband Gautam Mukhopadhaya was in Damascus, the Indian envoy to Syria at the time. Husband and wife coordinated the evacuation of the first lot of Indians by road to Damascus.

Lhouvum who was educated in Shillong and joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1980, is an alumnus of India’s National Defence College. The training shows. “It wasn’t an ordinary situation. We used to hear bombs falling just near us and planes flying overhead right over our roof, but we had to carry on, it was my duty” she says in an obvious understatement. “It was team work,” she adds, omitting to add that she received the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration because of her exemplary work there.

Not surprisingly she was considered the right choice as India’s ambassador to Indonesia, where her experience in crafting India’s Look East policy, now beefed up as India’s Act East Policy, stands her in good stead. 

Lhouvum, who is often mistaken for an Indonesian native, has worked in various capacities from Cuba to Dhaka and as deputy consul general in New York. She also led the New Delhi-based Foreign Service Institute as its dean. But Indonesia has always been her favourite. “This is a place we’ve been waiting to come to since the early days of our diplomatic service,” laughs Lhouvum as my family and I dine on a delicious array of kebabs, samosas and luscious rasagollas in her beautiful, spacious home in Jakarta’s diplomatic enclave. “When we first asked to be posted here, we were sent to Cuba. So it’s taken us a long time to finally get here, and it’s great to be here. Bilaterally, we share so much with Indonesia, so much history. It’s one of the oldest relationships.”  

Looking strikingly elegant in a gossamer Chanderi saree, Luovhum and her husband Gautam, until recently India’s ambassador in Myanmar, have glowing praise for Indonesia, a place they feel at home.

Here are some extracts of a wide-ranging conversation I had with the Mukhopadhayas.

India Se: There are strong cultural and historical links between Indonesia and India going back a millenium. 

Nengcha Luovhum Mukhopadhaya: You see the footprint of India - Indian history and culture, wherever you look - you just cannot escape it. And people are very well disposed towards India and we share so much and the fact is that even though it’s an Islamic country today, they have (India) in their DNA. Hinduism, Buddhism and even Islam came from India, so, this is very much part of their emotional and intellectual make-up. It comes up in every conversation - how much they share with India.

India Se: Most of them haven’t even changed their names, they haven’t Arabised their original names.

Nengcha Luovhum Mukhopadhaya: And you don’t see any contradiction. Being a Muslim country, they adopt Hindu deities and Hindu epics, the Ramayana etc. they live with that everyday. Did you know, President Jokowi’s grandson who born last year, was named Narendra? And he mentioned this in his banquet speech when we went to India in December. 

Gautam Mukhopadhaya: You know, yesterday was Vesak and it was celebrated as a complete holiday. 

Nengcha Luovhum Mukhopadhaya: Yes it was a national holiday, a Buddhist festival. So they have not discarded anything, they’ve just added on and this is what makes Indonesia so interesting. It’s a huge economy, a country with deep economic potential, which is why so many investors are also lining up. During our freedom struggle, there was extraordinarily close collaboration between our national leaderships - Nehru, Sukarno…Nehru really helped raise the Indonesia question in the UN and in world forums. He also hosted the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi to spread awareness about the Indonesian cause. So, we have a really  strong relationship that goes to the core.

Gautam Mukhopadhaya: Even their Pancacila, (the official, foundational philosophical theory of the Indonesian state) is derived from Sanskrit.

Nengcha Luovhum Mukhopadhaya: There are so many lovely stories of that period. The other story is how the first batch of 20 pilots of Garuda were trained in India - their training academy was bombed out, so they requested Nehru for help. Their journey itself was full of adventure. First they got arrested by British authorities in Singapore and were in detention, then they came back and finally left by some pirate boat. They came in through Myanmar, walking part of the way to India. They underwent training but unfortunately one died in an accident, so only 19 came back. By the time they arrived, the Dutch pilots had left and so they took over. They were the first batch of Garuda pilots. One of them became air chief. Those are the kind of stories that are the stuff of legends.

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