A t the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2017, Prime Minister Modi referred to the deeper dimension and resilience of the relations between India and Russia and their civilisations. He said how “India-Russia ties are not utilitarian. There is an underlying trust in our ties, and our ties have grown stronger and deeper over the years.”
While he spoke of how the relations spanned from culture to security (sanskriti se suraksha), PM Modi also emphasised how these ties had been immune to ‘external influences’. It was this wide and multi-dimensional relationship, this non-utilitarian dimension that has, in a sense, ensured that the relations between India and Russia remain immune to the pressures and exigencies of external influences despite the rapidly changing global equations.
It was to re-state and re-discover this non-utilitarian dimension that a group of Indian scholars from both the countries gathered at the St Petersburg State University between April 26 and 28 this year. The conference was organised and supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, co-hosted by the university, and was supported and facilitated by the energetic and dedicated team of the Indian Embassy in Moscow. The idea was to inject the sanskriti evam sabhyata (culture and civilisation) dimension of the relations with a new dose of energy, direction and diversification.
One of the most well-known and historic universities in Russia, the St Petersburg State University was a well-selected venue. It has a long history of the studying India, of encouraging India studies, the study of Indian languages, literature, philosophy and philology. The university’s Bengali language department, its Tamil and Telugu sections had made great contribution to the understanding of India.
It was the third international conference of Indologists, and the theme was India-Russia relations, its past, present and future in the context of Indological studies. But the objective was not confined to an exploration within the Indological trope or framework, it had a much wider connotation. It was an attempt to reinforce the non-utilitarian dimension, to bring about and initiate a certain dialogue—samvad—in the present context, an attempt to try and exchange ideas on the India of today and the Russia of the present.
Spread over eight sessions in which 33 papers were presented from both sides, the conference saw the participation of veteran Russia experts from India and Russia, and also the convergence of a large number of young scholars and intellectuals. It aimed to evolve, articulate and delineate a civilisational roadmap for the future—a roadmap on which India-Russia relations can move ahead. The effort was to contemporanise our understanding of each others’ uniqueness and exceptionalities. Both India and Russia are unique and exceptional civilisations. In this spirit of exploration and inter-civilisational quest, the objective was to gradually break through many stereotypes, many disjointed portrayals, many half-readings and imposed narratives that have often become the order of the day insofar as India, Hinduism, Bharatiya traditions and essence are concerned.
Russian indologists have approached India with a distinct spirit of sympathy; neither with the superior mentality of the colonisers, nor with a patronising sense of the mission civilisatrice, which has invariably churned out false stereotypes and imposed narratives with an objective of trying to control the discourse. Legions of Russian Indophiles have always displayed a greater sense of identity with Indian traditions and have approached India in the spirit of a deep spiritual quest—not utilitarian, not the exploitative. Listening to the deliberations, one could sense newness in approach between two proud and authentic civilisations.
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Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee