Indonesia and India have been connected for centuries, and their connectivity has only strengthened bonds between the two big nations. Their geographical proximity is represented by two groups of islands, Weh Island and its surrounding isles in Indonesia and the Andaman-Nicobar Islands, which are under India’s sovereignty. The waters around the islands have become the most crowded shipping lanes in the world connecting east and west.
Prior to 2018, however, this reality did not receive much attention from leaders of the two countries, leaving lots of potential untapped for too long.
This sort of negligence, if not dereliction, contradicted the fact that past leaders of our countries had helped each other in claiming independence in the 1940s and 1950s, even beyond. During that period, the old saying "A friend in need is a friend indeed" characterized relations between the leaders and the two nations.
Just to illustrate the mutual assistance, the brave Indian pilot Biju Patnaik defied the Dutch blockade of Yogyakarta to fly then-Indonesian prime minister Sjahrir out to New Delhi in 1947. In fact, Patnaik several times flew Indonesian leaders out to safety: India (Sharma and Ghoshal, 2014).
At the state level, then-Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru exercised his power to keep Indonesia's decolonization cause alive on the international stage. Nehru’s decision to provide a plane and pilot to Indonesian leaders contributed a great deal to diplomatic maneuvers of the young republic against the Dutch efforts to restore its colonization.
The close relations between India and Indonesia and their manifestation have been well documented and taught to new generations of the two nations. Those historical realities should remain in the memory of the nations for generations to come, which is why new initiatives toward strengthening the already well-nourished diplomatic relations are imperative.
One of the initiatives took form in an international conference on India’s Look East Policy held by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, in September 2015, at which delegates from Almuslim University were present. It was during the conference that efforts to make use of the proximity of India's Andaman-Nicobar Islands and Indonesia's Weh-Sabang Islands to promote people’s welfare of the two countries were discussed.
To follow up the discussions, we approached high-ranking officials at the Foreign Ministry and the Embassy of India to Indonesia in Jakarta and finally organized the international seminar at our campus in the Aceh city of Bireuen. In fact, Almuslim University lecturer and former Bireuen regent Nurdin Abdurrahman was one of the initiators of the Aceh-ANI cooperation. Nurdin passed away on June 8, 2020.
The conference, titled “Prospects and Promotion of Trade, Intercommunication and Historical Ties: Andaman-Nicobar Island (ANI) and Weh Island/Sabang, Aceh, Indonesia”, took place on April 23-24, 2016 at Almuslim University, inviting speakers from Indonesia, India, Taiwan and Singapore.
Marking the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Jakarta in May 2018, governments of the two countries signed 15 MoUs, including on defense and security cooperation. Both Modi and President Joko Widodo also welcomed the plan to build connectivity between Andaman-Nicobar and Aceh to unleash the economic potential of both areas and for this purpose the Joint Task Force for Indonesia-India on Aceh-ANI Connectivity was later formed.
The conference concluded with several recommendations, including the proposal to establish an Honorary Counselor of India in Aceh (HCIA). The HCIA is a body chaired by an Acehnese that will play a role in facilitating the strengthening of cooperation between Aceh and ANI, as an extension of the Indian Consulate in Medan.
Among other roles the body will play is to assist Indonesian and Indian businesspeople to develop necessary trade relationships and partnerships. It will also act as a mediator between the government of Aceh and Indian companies that are interested in investing in Aceh.
In the economic sector, the HCIA, along with the Aceh government, can study the prospect of creating new tourism routes making use of the proximity of Aceh-ANI, such as the Chennai–ANI-Aceh and Phuket-ANI-Aceh-Medan routes. In addition, an agreement may be made by the two countries on establishing processing industries in Indonesia/Aceh and in Nicobar/Andaman in the future.
The HCIA will materialize upon the consent of the two countries. While Indonesia and India have agreed on collaboration for Aceh and the Andaman-Nicobar region as part of efforts to promote cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the maritime and connectivity sector, the HCIA will make the initiatives come true for the benefit of the two nations.
The writer is a lecturer at Almuslim University and a member of the Indonesian Task Force for Aceh-Andaman and Nicobar Islands Cooperation.