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Asia

Indo-German ties and India's independence

Although diplomatic relations between Germany and independent India were established in 1951, links between their two peoples can be traced back centuries, says Joachim Oesterheld, a German Indologist.

After India gained its freedom from British rule 70 years ago, bilateral relations with Germany began to be shaped for the first time by an independent Indian government. The establishment of diplomatic relations in 1951 is often perceived as the beginning of bilateral links.  

But the past decades are in fact a continuation of centuries-old personal ties between Germans and Indians. They date back over 500 years to a time when immediately after Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India, South German merchants joined the spice trade of the Portuguese. In 1509 appeared a travelogue in German detailing the sea voyage to the Malabar Coast of one of their agents.

It has to be kept in mind that contrary to other European countries starting East India companies from 1600 onwards, Germany failed to do likewise due to the then existing economic weaknesses and political disruptions. Germany as a nation did not join in the colonization of the subcontinent.

Long history

Germans came to India first in the service of the Portuguese and the Dutch as merchants, sailors and missionaries during the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the German Jesuits compiled a Sanskrit grammar book, the first one produced by a European.

Protestant missionaries in the service of the Danish King arrived in 1706 at Tranquebar, a trading post on the Coromandel Coast. Bartolomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau were Germans with close links to the city of Halle, the only place not only in Germany but in the whole of Europe where books in Dravidian languages were published during the 18th century.

The missionaries authored dictionaries and grammar books in southern Indian languages like Tamil and Telugu. They wrote about religion, customs, flora, fauna and the climate in this part of the world, established a girls school and an orphanage.

It is a sheer coincidence that a month before the day India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, a small museum was opened in Tranquebar to remember their work, characterized above all by their unbiased perception of the "Damuls" (Tamils) as they called them. 

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Ziegenbalg considered their philosophy and religion as equal in rank to that of Europe, a view which was neither unheard of nor shared by many of his contemporaries. Both missionaries were free from entanglements of racist arrogance and at home suspected of neglecting their missionary instruction.

Far-reaching consequences were triggered by the German edition of Kalidasa's "Shakuntala" in 1791. It marked the beginning of a systematic and scholarly involvement with primarily ancient India by German scholars. The study and teaching of Sanskrit, comparative linguistics and comparative religions became the hallmark of classical German Indology inseparably linked to the name of Max Mueller.

He and his contemporaries revealed that Indian culture could be thought to be at par with the Greco-Roman one and that Indian and European languages had common origins. This knowledge shattered the "semi-civilized" colonial image of India and was welcomed by the nascent anticolonial movement.

Mutually advantageous partnership

The last decades of the 19th century witnessed the high point in the German encounter with India encompassing the fields of science, industry, trade, politics and the beginning of tourism. But the numerically largest German presence in India came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War I. Links started anew from the middle of the 1920's without reaching again a momentum and they came to a decline and standstill from 1939 onwards.

Until the turn from the 19th to the 20th centuries the personal encounter of Germans and Indians had more or less exclusively taken place over centuries only on Indian soil.

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During the first half of the 20th century, however, Germany was for various reasons "discovered" by Indians: students, leading representatives of the freedom movement with varying political convictions, scientists, educationists and artists visited the country and some stayed even for years. Some famous names include: Dr. Zakir Hussain, who later became president of India, socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia and founder of India's oldest pharmaceutical company, CIPLA, Khwaja Abdul Hamied. Like many other episodes this is a yet unwritten chapter in our mutual encounter.

Under the changed international political circumstances after World War II, India maintained links with both West and East Germany. After their reunification in 1990, the bilateral links intensified in the political, economic, technological and cultural-scientific fields. 70 years after India's independence, they are not only resting on a broad institutional base and on agreements at government and social levels, but rely on a centuries-old peaceful and mutually advantageous relationship between the people of both countries.

Joachim Oesterheld is a German Indologist and retired professor of contemporary South Asian history.

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