India’s Presence in Indonesia Continues to Stand Out

Cultural Crossroad: Against the backdrop of Modi and Jokowi rising to power, ethnic Indians reflect on life in Indonesia

By Mansi Sharma on 12:05 am Aug 25, 2014

Several veiled Muslim women watch Hindus praying in Palani Andaware temple during the inauguration of the new Hindu temple in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on April 22, 2012. Hinduism was brought to Indonesia from India more than a thousand years ago. (EPA Photo/Hotli Simanjuntak)

Jakarta. When 19-year-old Alisha Mahtani isn’t listening to the latest Bollywood hit by Shah Rukh Khan, she is vigorously hunting for places to eat the best nasi campur in Jakarta.

“I have an incredible fondness for Indonesian food and cuisine, which I cannot go too long without. I also have a very laid-back attitude when it comes to my life, which is the most Indonesian aspect of me,” she says.

Alisha is part of a growing community of ethnic Indians who call Indonesia home.

Her grandparents emigrated from a region of Sindh in India that was later declared Pakistani territory during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

They sought refuge in Indonesia and have been here since.

Alisha and her parents have grown up in both Indian and Indonesian cultures as have many second- and third-generation Sindhi Indians.

From similar cultures and value systems to elections this year, the parallels between the two economic superpowers — India and Indonesia — seem only to be strengthening.

The strong social and cultural ties between India and Indonesia are reflected in the way thousands of Indians living in Indonesia have integrated the two nations into their daily lives. Both countries have elected leaders who have no legacy ties or support of political parties that have held power since the days of independence almost 70 years ago.

Political overlap

Even through a political lens, as 1.7 billion Indians worldwide reflect upon the newly created state budget by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesians look on expectantly at what President-elect Joko Widodo has in store for them in his new budget. Both men pledge to deal with the widening gap between rich and poor.

The two leaders bring their own sense of leadership at the start of their administrations this year. For his part, Joko, who is also known as Jokowi, plans to bring in a cabinet that is not beholden to political party obligations.

“Both Modi and Jokowi represent a new start, since they come from humble beginnings and are committed to improving and developing their countries,” says Dr. Vivek Bammi, a social studies teacher at the Jakarta International School who has lived in Indonesia for more than two decades.

“Modi has the advantage of a clear majority in parliament, which may make it easier for him to push for major reforms. Jokowi, on the other hand, will have to work with a coalition, which is never easy.”

While Modi is compelled to rid himself of an image as a communal leader, Joko is committed to diversity.

“Both could emerge as statesmen because of the force of their personalities and the support of the common people,” Bammi said.

While state budgets are being reviewed in both India and Indonesia, they both carry the baggage of poorly formed policies and misplaced priorities of the past, making reform more difficult for both nations. Yet both nations could serve as examples for other countries to follow, Bammi said.

“India should further strengthen its ‘Look East’ policy and form a common bond with Indonesia and Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. They could emerge as models of peaceful, democratic societies for the developing world,” he said.

Still, major issues need to be addressed including how to improve infrastructure that could further boost development and help economic growth.

Societal ties

Influenced by language and culture, Indians have been migrating to Indonesia for centuries — whether it was during the India-Pakistan partition that brought a large proportion of the Sindhi population here, or the historic Sriwijaya and Majapahit empires.

Evidence of India’s influence remains to this day. Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex in Central Java, was built in the ninth century and has become a famous tourist attraction.

Hinduism was brought to the island of Bali after going through several periods of transformation in Java in the 16th century by Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms. Less than 2 percent of Indonesia’s population is Hindu, most of whom reside in Bali.

India’s culture also plays a big influence on the youth of Indonesia.

Language barriers have never gotten in the way of Hindi films (more commonly known as Bollywood films) becoming a national phenomenon all over Indonesia.

The first form of recognition Indians get from Indonesians is a recital from superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s famous song from the popular film “ Kuch Kuch Hota Hai .” Whether it’s walking on the streets or in weddings, talking about Bollywood is an ice breaker for any local speaking to Indians.

While teenager Alisha claims to have a strong Indonesian foundation in her identity, her mother, Karishma Mahtani, a second-generation Indian-Indonesian, says that maintaining one’s heritage still plays a significant role.

“Indians residing here are actually quite ‘Hindustani.’ They like to follow Indian traditions,” she says. “We may live here, but we are very Indian at heart. We observe all the Hindu festivals, enjoy Hindi movies, Indian cuisine and the glamorous fashion.”

When asked about the facets of Indonesia she has learned having been born here, Karishma says: “Indonesians are known to be most hospitable and humble. We learn these qualities from them and implement them in our daily lives.”

Being an Indonesian citizen and having an Indonesian passport also have its advantages, she says.

“By holding a Indonesian passport, it does make visa applications in most countries very smooth and easy,” Karishma said.

While second-generation Indians combine the two cultures into their lives without effort, their children tend to question more their cultural identities.

Second-generation Indians are bound by familial ties to have an Indian mind-set in terms of values, culture and language to an extent.

Yet for thousands of young Indians residing in Indonesia, the question is where home really is.

“Patriotism is quite problematic for me, as I often find myself wondering where I truly am from,” Alisha says. “Am I Indian, because I look like I am — I celebrate Hindu festivals and watch Bollywood films … or am I Indonesian because I have an Indonesian passport, can speak the language and sang songs like ‘Padamu Negeri’ and ‘Maju Tak Gentar’ as a kid?”

  • Jagdish Hiroo Bharwani

    India’s Presence in Indonesia Continues to Stand Out

  • VinJkt

    This is such a dumb article! Although I agree that Indonesia and India share many similarities good AND BAD, this article sounds more like diplomacy than a sincere look at the countries’ similarities. I want to make a two points here.
    First, the reporter should have selected someone more indicative of India i.e. someone who had emigrated from India. Alisha is more an example of an Indonesian of Indian ethnicity than an Indian from India who has adopted Indonesia as their home.

    Second, BOLLYWOOD only represents a certain segment of India’s POP-culture – mostly north Indian. It does NOT represent Indian culture since there are many Indians, who have lived their whole life in India, who do not watch Bollywood movies!
    In my opinion, the fact that the first thing Indonesians think of, when talking about India or Indians, is Bollywood, and that too Shahrukh Khan, shows how little they actually know about India. In that respect, Indonesia is similar to India, since most people outside Indonesia are more familiar with Bali than they are of Jakarta!