This post first appeared in the Times of India.
Indians travelling abroad are constantly struck by the tremendous goodwill extended by people in neighboring countries, a goodwill born of shared heritage -- linguistic, religious, cultural and historic or some combination thereof. A goodwill which, unfortunately, doesn't extend to India the nation. In fact in the neighborhood, India the nation has a completely different, rather less positive, reputation. While foreign-born "natives" imagine an India with grand religious tradition or Bollywood songs, to people in places like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, India is a neighborhood bully -- an interfering sibling at best and a manipulative oppressor at worst. But why? Why should a country that could so easily be a leader be instead viewed with such suspicion?
Take Sri Lanka: at least three communities, a number of permutations, a complicated and brutal civil war. What role has India played there? Underhand interference, plots to topple one regime, to subjugate one group, then another, sides changed, military deployment and finally a failed military occupation. The movie Madras Café is a riveting film which captures moments of great heroism and selflessness. But it is also a reflection of one of India's tragic foreign policy failures and a military debacle, in which much blood and treasure was wasted.
All of which made matters worse for the inhabitants of that island and destroyed India's standing in the eyes of virtually the entire population.
There is an alternative. What if India were to look at itself? See the mistakes it has made but also see the heritage the countries share. India is, after all, the birthplace of Buddhism; the chakra is in its flag. Some seven million Buddhists still live in India. It is, of course, also the home of the Tamil identity, language and culture. Tamils in India and Sri Lanka not only share a history and genetics, but also view each other with great warmth and camaraderie. In fact, while Indian Tamils have protested for decades on behalf of their Sri Lankan fellows and raised money and awareness for their welfare, Buddhists from Sri Lanka have been making pilgrimages too, being received where the Buddha once lived and preached.
What if India turned to this heritage, as with the Nalanda University project, and launched an initiative for peace and reconciliation? Coming to the table not just as a facilitator but, as the Buddha himself might have approved (Ashoka certainly would have), bringing an admission of its own failings and errors in the past, thus helping to move the still tense parties towards a lasting peace. After all, it is in no one's interest that tensions within the communities of Sri Lanka continue and fester, nor is it anyone's that India loom over the region like a dark shadow. India could do better than to pretend to being a distant and disinterested party -- which it has not been -- and instead become a partner in peace.
Doing so would require introspection first. Admitting that India has played a role more than that of an observer, more than that of a concerned neighbor: It has been an active and largely incompetent meddler in the affairs of Sri Lanka. As much as it would like to point the finger at the parties on the island, the fact of the matter is that India has made matters worse. Both by being involved and by, convincingly if unintentionally, making itself the bogeyman. That India has to be acknowledged by the other India, the India that is liked and even respected.
Across the world there have been other historic initiatives to bridge differences through programs that celebrate and further cultural ties. An option, which Nalanda offers, is to build scientific and educational institutes where scholars and experts from various countries could collaborate to work on issues that regional communities face in common. Other steps forward could also involve people-to-people exchange along the lines of cultural missions to promote understanding, with pilgrimages to Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist sites that India is renowned for, such as Bodh Gaya, India's temples, mosques, shrines and churches.
Sri Lanka, a nation that has wronged itself woefully and that India has wronged too, offers a starting point to begin a step change in the region. Peace and reconciliation on the basis of shared heritage and humanity presents a new beginning with ramifications: a neighborhood of genuine co-operation, not of shifting and unstable dominance.
Lao Tse, in his treatise of Tao Tai Shang Kan Ying P'ien, said, "Regard you neighbor's gain as your own gain and your neighbor's loss as your own loss." Meaning that, in a neighborhood, true greatness cannot be achieved at the expense of others when those around are failing.
Being in just such a situation, India can -- and should -- transform itself from a grudgingly tolerated neighborhood bully into a genuine friend and partner for peace and reconciliation. Using, in other words, the tremendous might of India's soft power to generate good will, respect and prosperity.
This is also where India's real security lies.
These are entirely personal views of the authors.
Siddharth Chatterjee is a former Indian Army (Special Forces) officer. He presently works at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Colombo-born Amal Chatterjee, has Indian and Sri Lankan parents and grew up in India. An author of fiction and history, he teaches creative writing at the University of Oxford.