India’s ambassador to the Czech Republic: We appreciate your commitment to Mahatma’s ideals

Narinder Chauhan, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

The past two years have seen a revitalization in Czech-Indian ties, with intensified cooperation in the academic and business spheres as well as people to people contacts. The driving force behind this effort is the Indian ambassador to the Czech Republic Narinder Chauhan. When the ambassador visited Radio Prague International this week we spoke about the strong bonds between the two nations, the growing Indian community in this country and her life in Prague. I began by asking her how far back Czech-Indian relations actually go.

Narinder Chauhan, photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“We recently celebrated 70 years since the adoption of the Constitution of India which makes India the largest democracy in the world and our constitution the most comprehensive and largest in the world. These 70 years have also seen a great vibrancy in our relations with first Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. This relationship has endured since the Medieval Ages when the Kingdom of Bohemia used to trade with India in precious goods and spices.

“So India knows Czechoslovakia very well. We also had relations with your country since the days when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We love your history and your culture. We have admired your country as it progressed over the years, your industrial progress and your heavy machinery is very much valued in India.”

What first comes to mind when you say the Czech Republic – or Czechoslovakia – in India? Any brand trademarks?

“Czech glass is very, very famous in India. You will find it in our palaces, in our hotels, in our hospitality industry, in my house in India. Czech glass is very, very famous. Apart from that not many people in India are aware that the Bata Works that were set up in India in the 1930s, well before we established diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia, when we were still part of British India, the Bata works were actually set up by your country. And we all grew up in India thinking that Bata is India! The Bata Works are famous all over the country. The common man knows Bata.

"And apart from that, as I said, in post-independent India, Czechoslovakia which was part of the Soviet bloc emerged as the second biggest defense supplier to India, after the USSR. So that was a major take-away in the relationship. And in the civilian industry –in the heavy engineering corporations of India- we have your heavy industry which is very much valued up to the present day.”

You have served as ambassador in this country for close to two years now. What do Czechs know about India?

Photo: knife18 / freeimages
“The Czechs know yoga! Every second Czech is doing yoga. So that is a very big soft part of India that you find in the Czech Republic. When I celebrated International Yoga Day on June 21st at Střelecký ostrov in Prague I had 250 yoga practitioners who came at 7 am to do the early morning yoga exercises. Because it was in the middle of June and I did not want people to faint I called the event at 7 in the morning and they all came! So we celebrated International Yoga Day in very large numbers and in very picturesque surroundings. There are yoga studios just about everywhere in the Czech Republic.

“Also, what we very much appreciate is that your textbooks tell you about colonial India and the contribution of Mahatma Gandhi to the world philosophical thought. In the Czech Republic India is associated with Mahatma Gandhi. India is Mahatma Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi is India. This is a major asset for any Indian ambassador who works in the Czech Republic. Recently, when we celebrated 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, the Czech Republic was one of the few European Union countries that brought out a special commemorative stamp to mark the occasion.

"And it meant a very great deal to us that your own prime minister came to a village in the Czech Republic to plant 150 trees to commemorate Mahatma who was also a great environmentalist – apart from his philosophy of non-violence. So your commitment to the Mahatma, to his ideals, to his philosophy is something that is very rare and it is something that we treasure a lot. We are very grateful to the Czech Republic and to your government for this very noble and very rare gesture.”

So it does point to strong historic ties. There are more and more Indian restaurants here. What about culture, there’s the Bollywood film festival.

Mahatma Gandhi, photo: Public Domain
“But, unfortunately, your theatres do not show Bollywood films. Recently, I was having a discussion with some of my fellow colleagues in the diplomatic corps and they said that when they go to various film festivals the films they see are rather depressing. And they said that Bollywood films are very uplifting, they are very optimistic and look towards the future. And that is a message we would like to bring to the people of the Czech Republic. So I wish your theatres would show more and more Bollywood films. There is a local organization that does the Bollywood film festival once a year –but that is not enough.”

Do you think it is difficult for us to overcome the cultural barrier, to understand each other’s books and films?

“You know, when we go to Indian restaurants here – and there are more than 75 Indian restaurants in Prague alone – we do not find Indians there, because we cook at home, but they are full of Czechs. I am surprised how Czechs have taken to Indian food which is spicy and has a very different flavor from the local cuisine. And there are Indian shops in Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic selling spices and Indian food ingredients. Indian food is very popular in the Czech Republic, as in the rest of Europe. And if you like Indian food, you will like Indian culture, you will want to visit India, trade with India –so food is the way to a man’s heart.”

And is this happening?

“This is happening. The Czechs are going to India. You know India, because of its colonial history, missed the industrial revolution, but we have the kind of institutions that allowed us to make a jump-start to the digital revolution. India is a major IT leader today. We have introduced electronic mobility. We provide electronic visas and are probably the only country in the world to do so. All you have to do is open your laptop, go online, apply online, submit your documents online, pay online, download – you do not even have to go to the Indian embassy – and enter the country through one of its 25 or 26 international airports. And you’re in. So this digital mobility is something we are providing. In the reverse direction, Indians are visiting Prague every year and the two governments are now discussing how we can introduce direct flights.”

Let us turn now to the Indian community in Prague. How big is it and how close-knit?

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“There are nearly 5,000 Indians in the Czech Republic now. Out of these about 1,500 are students –studying in Prague, Pardubice, Brno and Ostrava. This is one take-away from the Czech Republic, because you have world-class universities with quality education in English at a fraction of the cost you pay in Western Europe or the US. This is something that suits the Indian pocket, it is a big asset that you have, to attract Indian students and researchers to add to your economy. You are suffering from a supply site constraint and India has an educated highly qualified population so your government has created a special window to fast-track the movement of highly qualified Indian professionals and your foreign minister recently announced that he would be expanding this project.”

So what kind of Indian specialists are we seeing here?

“Mostly IT professionals. Indian IT professionals, Indian students and then the long-term residents who are here in the hospitality business, in the restaurant business, who have shops, who have real estate and so on.”

Mixed marriages as well?

“There are mixed marriages as well, yes.”

And how close-knit is the community?

“The community in Prague is about 2,500 and there is an Indian community association here which celebrates Indian festivals throughout the year. So we have regular events.”

You have been in active service for 32 years, and served in many countries of the world? How do you like the Czech Republic, the culture, the food?

“I would say I like the culture more. I make it a point to go to your concert halls, your opera houses. And it is so beautiful; the buildings themselves are so beautiful. We are very awestruck by the architecture in Prague; we are awestruck by your riverfront. India is a developing country and so we have pollution issues there, but we do not find any pollution issues here, so we really like the walks, the runs and the cycling in Prague and we just love your waterfront. We love the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. We have an Indian conductor here, Debashish Chaudhuri, who has introduced us to many of your philharmonic orchestras and we are now planning a visit by your philharmonic orchestra to India. So we love going to your concert halls and listening to your classical music, which you also love so much.”

Debashish Chaudhuri, photo: archive of Debashish Chaudhuri
I suppose the language is difficult?

“Oh yes, the language is difficult.”

What do you see most important in your role as ambassador? Are there any particular goals you would like to fulfill during your time here?

“I am very happy to say that I have achieved all my targets. My main target was to build bridges and to bring the two countries closer in the political field, in the strategy field, in the defense field, in the economic field and also in the cultural field. And we have expanded. We have upgraded our relations. I came here to prepare a state visit by our president, which came after a gap of 22 years and we also prepared a visit by your prime minister to India, which took place after a gap of 12 years, we had a visit here by our trade minister who came for the 11th Joint Economic Commission Meeting, a visit by your defense minister to India for the Aero India show and most recently a visit by your foreign minister to India and are now preparing for a return visit by our foreign minister here.

"So this has been a very top heavy engagement and over that time we also had an exchange of more than 20 business missions. So we have really laid out the groundwork, we have provided the framework, given a bounce to the relationship and now it is for the different stake-holders to add flesh to it.”

What are the main Czech exports to India these days?

“It is heavy machinery, mainly and also your Czech glass.”

Have you made friends in this country? Are you able to break through the protocol and speak to people freely?

“Actually, your country is rather free in that way. You give a lot of freedom to diplomats. We are free to go wherever we want, we are free to meet whoever we want, your government has provided me fullest access to your president, your prime minister, your foreign minister, all the government departments, all the private institutions, all the stake-holders, all the cultural institutions, I am free to engage with them in upgrading the relationship to the highest levels.”

What are the main qualities that a good diplomat needs?

Photo: Pogaface, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
“You should be more informal, more accessible, talk more, reach out to people more. People like that. Because when people see an embassy or ambassador they feel hesitant. But if an ambassador takes a pro-active approach, then that ambassador is successful.”

Are there any memories that you cherish, that you will take back to your country?

“The manner in which your country remembered the legacy of the Mahatma, the manner in which you came forward and became part of our Festival of India, the manner in which your president received my president, the manner in which your prime minister took the trouble to visit India, the entire political engagement at the highest levels –these are some of the memories that I will take back with me. ”