Europeans With An Indian Touch

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jun 13 2002, 05:30am hrs
A visit to Croatia confirms that India isn’t the only country with a fractured past. Here, history is a sort of work-in-progress tied intimately to the elite’s self-perception and foreign policy. As in India, people have been ruled by great empires: Romans, Ottoman Sultans and the Hapsburgs. Then, as part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, only to be absorbed in another multiethnic entity of Yugoslavia for five decades. And the Catholic Church remains powerful in society and politics.

According to Antun Masle, the chief political and foreign correspondent of Globus, the largest newspaper on the Dalmatian coast, the “church has destroyed much in Croatia that was liberal or European.” Whether or not his thesis is true, Croatia’s prolonged absence of self-rule is a historical fact. Combined with the country’s easy capitulation to Nazi Germany, it has left locals defensive and handicapped in the task of nation-building. Slavs till yesterday, they now call themselves ‘Central Europeans.’ Which they are in both lifestyle and linkages. And perhaps with a wee bit of Indian blood.

A plausible theory on the roots of early Croatians is that they came from India. The local name of the country is Hrvatska, uncannily similar to Haravati, an emigre tribe mentioned in the Vedas. I learn this from Slvija-Luks, one-time Croatian diplomat to India who has now returned to TV journalism. She is the Prannoy Roy of Croatia, a media star and an influential voice. Many words are amazingly similar too: socks are mozza, soap is sabun, and their Parliament is called Sabor (pronounced somewhat like our Sabha).

But the two countries couldn’t be more indifferent to each other: India tends to regard Serbia as the residuary power to Yugoslavia, forgetting that the Non Aligned Movement was born in the Croatian island of Brijoni, or that almost 70 per cent of India-Yugoslav trade was with Croat companies and shipyards. Two way trade is about $100 million. The Croatian embassy in New Delhi issued less than 250 visas in 2001, and a similar number of Croatians travelled to India in the year. These figures reflect how weak real links are. In fact, Zagreb displays little or none of Indian beads, rugs, and faux ethnic kitsch so commonplace across Europe.

But there are some surprising bits of India here. An ardent devotee of Sai Baba is the country’s economics minister, Goranko Fizulic. In fact, he was in India earlier this year on a private visit to the ashram outside Bangalore. Unemployment is more than 25 per cent, the country is in debt and International Monetary Fund teams are negotiating new loans. But the economics minister takes two weeks off to undertake kar seva under his Indian guru. It gets better. The most chic art gallery in Dubrovnik sells Mirano-made glassware with Sai Baba etchings. I even spot CDs of ‘Sai Baba Blues’.

More robust a link is Kishore Mandhyan, a senior UN diplomat, who has served in the region for over nine years as political advisor to Lord Owens and other international demi-gods. He now heads the UN office in Zagreb. His office building is next to the Presidential office — a reminder of the UN’s influence in this part of the world — and against his desk is a huge “Wanted” poster of Milosevic and Karadic. Kishore and his wife love Croatia and, given a choice, would love to settle here.

While us outsiders fawn over the country’s beauty, Croatia’s own young and educated have pretty much decided not to settle here. During the war years, between 91-95, 10 per cent of its population emigrated, or so I am told. I do notice the absence of student life on the streets, a routine part of the landscape in Paris or Berlin. But economic policy and overall political leadership appears indifferent to this unfolding demographic crisis.

Further, their visa regime dissuades entry of foreign talent, especially from Asian and Third World countries. Visitors from outside of Europe or other advanced countries are rudely accosted at border crossings. Which is a pity, since Croatian and Indian industry can make much money from each other. This country is dotted with enchanting islands, valleys, mountains and has a mesmerising coastline — Bollywood, please note. There is an abundance of timber, granite and fruits, but few manufacturing or processing plants. Beautiful villas wait for a committed hotelier to refurbish interiors. In the end, this is a country caught up in both post-Socialism transition and a quest for historical ‘closure.’ I know I’ll be back here. Wonder how many visitors to India feel similarly.

(The writer is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors)