Interview with Venu Rajamony, Ambassador of India

Chan Choenni

India is the land of the future, go there!

The current Indian ambassador to the Netherlands, Venu Rajamony, made this appeal to the Hindustani community as a result of a conversation we had recently at the Indian Embassy.  Rajamony is a good-humoured, bearded man, who has been stationed in the Netherlands since 2017.  He was born in the South Indian state of Kerala and has been a diplomat for over 33 years.  He was trained as a journalist and is also an expert in the field of international relations.

Rajamony was press chief of former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee some years ago.  He was also consul general in Dubai and served in Beijing (China), Hong Kong, Geneva (Switzerland), and Washington DC (United States).  In short: Rajamony is not only a diplomat, but has a broad expertise.  He has written several books, including one on the triangle of India, China and the United States, entitled ‘India-China-Us Triangle: a ‘soft’ Balance of Power System in the Making’.  Another one of his books is about India and Arab Emirates and is titled:  ‘India & UAE: in celebration of a Legendary Friendship’.

Ambassador Rajamony is a busy man.  In addition to his diplomatic work, he has made time in the past two years to write a new book on the relations between India and the Netherlands that has recently been published.  The book is entitled ‘India and The Netherlands: Past, Present & Future’.  It is a so-called coffee table book, richly illustrated in a large square format (approximately 30 cm x 30 cm) with a hard cover.  Such books are usually displayed on tables and desks by governments and companies as viewing copies.  But one can also read them, of course.  Such books are often given as gifts.  This book is published in a luxury version and the title and name of the author are printed in gilded letters on the cover.  The background is a beautifully painted panorama of the old coastal town of Cochin (now known as Kochi) located in southwest India.  This beautiful book of 250 pages with an illustration or print of a painting on almost every page costs only 35 euros.  The book is sponsored by Tata Consultancy Services.  Tata is one of the largest and oldest companies in India with a turnover of billions of US dollars.  Tata has taken over the Dutch blast furnaces, among other things.  It is therefore appropriate that Tata has sponsored this book.  Generally speaking, Indian companies with a turnover of billions of US dollars, the Indian billionaires, do not have the reputation of converting part of their profits into social activities and generous sponsorship.  However, Tata is a positive exception.  Chapeau for sponsorship of this beautiful book by the Indian company Tata!

Ambassador Rajamony, why did you write this book?                                                         

“I am fascinated by the Netherlands and the Dutch.  When I assumed office in the Netherlands in 2017, I noticed that very little was known about the centuries-old ties between the Netherlands and India.  Already in the 16th century there were relations between the two countries.  Especially in the 17th century the relations were intensive, namely during the so-called Golden Age.  I call this relationship the forgotten history: both on the part of the Netherlands and on the part of India.  With this book I try to update the knowledge about these relationships and to stimulate academics to do further research on this.  The Dutch seafarers were in India quite early.  There are old maps and books compiled by the Dutch and they have brought India into the limelight in Europe.  Jan Huygen van Linschoten, who was secretary of the Portuguese viceroy in Goa (West India) between 1583 and 1588, ‘took’ – so to speak – sea charts and secret information which the Portuguese kept hidden.  He spread this knowledge and also renewed it.  In 1596 he published his book ‘Itenario’, which, in addition to information about India, included information about the best sailing route to India and Indonesia.  At the time his book became the maritime Bible, as it were.  In this way Van Linschoten contributed to the maritime contacts between different European powers and India.  In fact, his book also contributed to the rise of the Golden Age in the Netherlands.

The United East India Company (VOC), which was founded in 1602, was initially more interested in India; later Indonesia became much more important. In India Great Britain, as well as France and Portugal, have become important colonisers. But the Dutch remained largely traders in India. In the Indian coastal areas and cities such as Gujarat (Surat) and Malabar (Cochin) on the west coast, the Coromandal (Madras) and Bengal on the east coast, the Dutch had trading posts. A lot of wealth was gathered and transferred to the Netherlands. We should not forget that in the so-called Mughal period India was a very rich country at that time. In addition to textiles (especially cotton), saltpetre from Bengal, which was used for the production of gunpowder, was important. One of the purposes of gunpowder was to shoot the cannonballs from the seagoing ships. The Dutch navy was therefore largely dependent on India.

Yes, the Dutch were mainly interested in trade and not so much in the colonisation of India. But they also played a role in local politics in India and used rivalry between the various maharajahs to play them off against each other. Sometimes the Dutch even managed to get these rulers to levy taxes and to benefit from them themselves. So the Netherlands has made a lot of money in India. People mistakenly think that the Netherlands only made money in Indonesia and Surinam at the time.”

Rembrandt and India

“Many people also do not know that the great painter Rembrandt was influenced by art from India. Rembrandt owned a large collection of so-called miniature paintings from the Mughal period. Rembrandt himself also painted three portraits of his contemporary Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. He painted it in the characteristic pose ‘en profile’ (i.e. the side view of the face) and in a refined style. I have included three paintings by Rembrandt in my book (they are also shown on the back cover of the book -C.C.). There are several examples of mutual influence and admiration between the two civilizations. Another example is the writer of travel stories, Jacob Haafner (1754-1809). He fell in love with India and learned Hindi, Tamil and Sanskrit. Haafner’s articles and books were widely read. Haafner fell in love with Mamia, a devdasi -a so-called temple dancer. This Mamia had saved Haafner from drowning. Haafner then spent a large part of his life in India with Mamia. Haafner was critical of the exploitation of India by Europeans, but he also disliked the inequality and the pernicious caste system in India. He was already preaching equality between people at that time.”

Historical photos and interesting facts

Ambassador Rajamony’s book also deals with the more recent history of relations between India and the Netherlands. The visits of important Indian persons to the Netherlands are reviewed. There are beautiful and revealing pictures included in the book. For example the popular writer/poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore who was very popular in the Netherlands, the humanist Swami Vivekanand who had many followers in the Netherlands, the spiritual leader Jiddu Krishnamurti who had a large centre in Ommen (province Overijssel) and the Sufi leader Hasrat Inayat Khan. In the second half of the 20th century Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and others had a great spiritual influence on the Netherlands and the Dutch. There are also beautiful historical photographs of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian politicians, as well as photographs of the visits of members of the Royal Family in India. What is striking is the friendliness and courteous attitude towards each other. Indians and India have a so-called ‘soft power’: with virtues, consultation, reasonableness and rejection of violence one can achieve more. They have that image and that is what they radiate.

There are also some interesting facts in this book. A letter from a Dutch girl to the then Prime Minister Nehru has been included. She wanted to see an elephant in real life and Nehru sent an elephant called Murugan to the Netherlands. There is a beautiful picture of Dutch children from the Spaardammerbuurt in Amsterdam watching the elephant Murugan. In short: a book to have at home as a showpiece and to read. It is worth mentioning that the book also contains a section about the Indian migration to Suriname with accompanying photos, including a photo of the recent Mai and Bap statue in Kolkata (Calcuttta).

In the conversation with the ambassador I also raised other topics.

India was popular, at universities there was a lot of enthusiasm for Indian studies. Is it true that this has not been the case lately?

“Yes, that’s right. The University of Leiden had important scholars, such as Prof. Hendrik Kern who taught Sanskrit. But there have been major cutbacks; also in the study of Indology. During Asia Year of Leiden University in 2017, the main focus was on China, Indonesia and Japan. But Asia is also India. I drew attention to India and hope that my book can contribute to more attention to India.”

How can the Netherlands and India work together and learn more from each other?

“The Netherlands is good at water management, agriculture and waste processing. The Netherlands is a world leader in these areas. The effects of climate change can be felt not only in the state of Kerala with its many waterways, but also in Mumbai. And there is, for example, a water shortage in Chennai (Madras). Water experts from the Netherlands have been sent to India and many plans have been made. For Kerala a plan was made called ‘Give Space to Water’. There is also cooperation in the field of agriculture. Good business has been done with the recent visit of the Dutch King and Queen. Dutch companies cannot afford to ignore India. We are the fastest growing large economy in the world with a young population. But more and more Indians are settling in the Netherlands, especially ICT experts. There are also many Indian students in the Netherlands. After the Poles, Indians were the largest group of immigrants last year. Their number will only increase. But the group of Indians still lives scattered and the numbers per city are not yet so large. A large group lives in Amstelveen, The Hague and Eindhoven.” (According to Statistics Netherlands, CBS, in 2019 there were 38,194 Indians of the first generation in the Netherlands. But there are also Indians of the second generation. It is estimated that there are now about 50,000 Indians in the Netherlands (C.C.).

How can the relations between Hindustani and Indians be improved?

“Yes, this is a point of attention. Of course there are differences, but both communities should visit each other’s activities much more often. I have often invited Hindustani to attend the activities of the Indian Embassy. I have also invited them to our residence in Wassenaar. On Independence Day (in August) and Republic Day (in January) everyone is welcome in Wassenaar. Unfortunately, only a small group of Hindustani show up. Hindorama could play a role in this. For example by placing a page in English on your website and including news about the Indian community in the Netherlands.”

How can more attention be paid to India and Hindustani culture in the Dutch media? We are not very visible in the mainstream.

“The Hindustani community is a wonderful community: they speak good Dutch, many are highly educated, such as doctors and civil servants. But there are few politicians among Hindustani. Hindustani need to become more politically active. You don’t have to make problems to get attention in the media, because Hindustani are not a problem group. But the Dutch press is naturally focused on problems and therefore not interested. To get media attention one could for example organize large Divali festivals or an annual Indian food festival and also promote Hindustani food over there.”

In your book you refer to Indian slaves who have been brought to Indonesia.

“True, that was in the 17th century, but the numbers were small. Especially from Bengal and Cochin (now Kochi) they were brought to South Africa. In Indonesia  Indian slaves have helped to build the city of Batavia (now Jakarta). But more research is needed. For example: to what extent they have produced offspring. What is important is that the Dutch now plead guilty and also think that slavery was inhumane. It is good that Mayor Halsema of Amsterdam has apologized for the slavery that the Netherlands has maintained and has made Dutch cities rich.”

In the Netherlands there is concern about the human rights situation in India under Prime Minister Modi.

India is a great democracy. We have a free press; everything can be criticised. Our constitution is one of the best in the world. It offers protection to minorities. People can go to court. Especially in the Netherlands, the press is critical by nature. India under Prime Minister Modi respects human rights. The visit of Queen Beatrix in 2007 was less positive in this context. But the last visit of Willem Alexander and Maxima was very positive. They were very satisfied and have seen how India is developing. The Dutch media were also positive.”

Many Hindustani would like an OCI card, but complain about the complicated procedure.

“The OCI (Overseas Citizens of India) card is a nice gift to Hindustani of Surinamese origin. You are privileged. Concerning the Surinami Hindustanis the OCI map is specially made available up to the sixth generation. In other groups we go up to the fourth generation. As far as the acquisition of the OCI card is concerned, the problem lies not so much with India, but in Suriname. Tracing their origins from India is difficult for many Hindustani. In Suriname they have to get an excerpt, which shows that one of their ancestors comes from India. That is difficult, I understand. In Suriname a lot of money is sometimes asked for and it is complicated for many people to show the link with India because of the incompleteness in the registers. We have argued for an online database in which the data is stored, but it did not succeed. Acquiring the OCI card takes a long time, but there is just a procedure to be followed. It is true that everything has to be filled in online very precisely. It is also about security and the prevention of terrorism. But once you have an OCI card, you have many advantages. There is no need for a visa anymore, it is lifetime and one can study, do business and buy houses. The € 234 one pays, one will have already ‘earned back’ after two visits to India. Also the non-Hindustani partner of an Indian or Hindustani can get an OCI card. I hope that many Hindustani take an OCI card, because India is the country of the future. And go there!”

Photo: Ambassador Rajamony hands over a copy of his book to Hindorama producer, Radjin Thakoerdin (center: prof. dr. Chan Choenni).

Photography: Ranjan Akloe

Translation: Bart J. Kortekaas  [Embassy of India]

Get your copy today India and The Netherlands: Past, Present & Future