Brunei-India ties on firm footing

Izah Azahari

India continues its active partnership with ASEAN in numerous areas, inter alia, business, defence, science and technology, ICT, youth exchanges, culture and sports, and the likes. Keeping up with this and making sure the relationship between Brunei Darussalam and India remains intact is one of the roles of High Commissioner of India to Brunei Darussalam Ajaneesh Kumar.

Taking time out of his busy schedule, the High Commissioner sat down with the Bulletin to share insights and share some of the things he enjoys while on his mission in the Sultanate, as well as plans to further strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries.

The High Commissioner began his diplomatic service in 1996 as a desk officer for the Technical Cooperation Division, and thereafter was sent on his first assignment to their embassy in Mexico as third secretary, and other places like Argentina, Delhi, the United Nations Political Division, Switzerland and Ghana in Africa.

He returned to India in July 2015 and became the Deputy Director General of the National Think Tank of India up until mid-December 2018 before coming to the Sultanate.

“With that as a background, I got the good news that I was being appointed as the High Commissioner of India to Brunei Darussalam,” he said.

High Commissioner of India to Brunei Darussalam Ajaneesh Kumar. PHOTO: IZAH AZAHARI

“I wanted to have a posting in Asia and ASEAN was my preference, primarily because of India’s connection with the region, as well as our practice policy where India is trying to concretise the relationship with ASEAN member countries and the Far-East countries.”

Ajaneesh Kumar arrived in Brunei Darussalam on December 27, 2018, and was accorded the High Commissioner of India to Brunei Darussalam position by mid-January 2019.

He said, coming from Delhi after three-and-a-half years, he found Brunei to be “slightly quiet,” noting that there were “not many people on the road.”

“Life was slightly slow-paced, but as you start living in this beautiful country, three things come straight and appear. Number one is the beautiful weather, number two is the clean air and green surrounding, and perhaps the most important is the warmth of the people in this country,” shared the High Commissioner.

“The way I was accepted, though new, in the fold of the society here was remarkable. Once you start making friends, there is no turning back and today, if you ask me, I’ve been living for most of the time alone because my family’s still in India. I don’t miss anyone. I think I’m very comfortable in this country with many friends. To be very honest, I hardly find time for myself. I’m always occupied with some activity.”

The High Commissioner enjoys trekking places from Tasek Lama to Subok, going to the gym, playing golf when he finds the time to, as well as walking along the riverside to appreciate the lovely breeze.

As a diplomat, Ajaneesh Kumar said it is common for them to go to a university in the country they are sent to and learn the language. After a four-month course learning the Malay Language, the High Commissioner passed with a C+ grade on his test.

“The beauty of it is that I can now pick up a newspaper to read it. I’m trying to increase my vocabulary, learn names of animals. You pick up all these in a language, and I’ve always believed that language opens the hearts and minds of people. When you speak to them in their own language, it’s much easier to make friends.”

After being in the Sultanate for over a year and two months now, the High Commissioner said he enjoys the Hari Raya celebration here.

Even though India has the second highest number of Muslims in the world, he said Brunei has something he has not seen before, noting that here he is introduced to family members in an informal setting and is accepted as part of the family.

The High Commissioner also noted events such as His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam’s birthday celebration and the regatta, as well as India’s Independence Day reception where they brought in the Bhangra Punjabi Dance Troupe.

“It was fun to see Bruneians dancing to the tunes of Bhangra, and I look forward to contributing more by way of culture. What helps me in my work is also the cultural programmes put up by the Indian Associations both in Bandar Seri Begawan and Kuala Belait as they celebrate many Indian festivities and it is very heartening to see the participation of people.”

In terms of further strengthening the bilateral ties between the two countries, the High Commissioner noted the joint working group meeting focussing on “health” which will be held in April.

“We are all aware that there are many Indian doctors and technical staff working in various hospitals in this country. There is ample opportunity to do more. India is one of the global centres for supply of generic medicines, and there is also an immense potential for indulging in some kind of training or teaching mechanism to see how Brunei and India can benefit.”

On top of that, India has had a telemetry tracking and command station in the Sultanate since the ‘90s located in the DST campus, which is fundamental to India as it helps the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) when they launch a satellite to help them track it.

As we have reached 2020, the High Commissioner explained that needs and satellites are different today and there is a need for bigger and newer equipment, which means they will be moving to a bigger site in Berakas.

“I’m looking forward to moving to that site, moving to this building coming up because among other things, yes, it will have the station, antennas and such, but I also plan to have a small platform where our Bruneian friends can see for themselves whenever the launch is going to take place, what the parametres are, and how it is done,” he said.

The High Commissioner added that his ultimate objective is to see Brunei and India launch a small satellite on one of the launch vehicles of India, and so far, two Bruneians have already attended a two-month course at ISRO to experience first-hand how a satellite is made, assembled, put into a rocket and then launched.

Moreover, India’s engagement with ASEAN is very strong at many levels, and during the entire course of November 2020 until 2021, the High Commission will be very busy receiving delegations once Brunei assumes chairmanship of ASEAN in November. He also touched on Brunei Vision 2035, noting its focus on diversification and seeing how best the country can do in other areas outside of oil and gas to ensure that all able-bodied people are employed, to have various other sources of income.

He highlighted that as agriculture has been identified as a very prominent area, a Memorandum of Understanding is in the works where the two countries will be able to find a platform to collaborate, as India is one of the biggest producers of most of the crops in the world.

With over 70-odd years of experience in the field, India would like to share that with Brunei to ensure that the Sultanate’s National Vision of self-sufficiency and export potential of certain agricultural products will be further achievable.

“These are the broader areas where I think there is immense potential for the country to interact and contribute towards the betterment of our bilateral relationship. The relationship has been historically very friendly and warm, and I can only see it strengthening for times to come.”

The High Commissioner aims to set up a number of mechanisms as a way to contribute on a more concrete level such as internships for Bruneians at Indian companies in India as well as in the region with the help of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

Moreover, he said that as Bruneian students have been going everywhere around the world, the Government of India has offered 1,000 fellowships to students from ASEAN member countries to do their PhD and above in any of the foremost 23 Indian Institutes of Technologies (IITs).

He added that the choice of the subject and institute they wish to go to are chosen by the student, and everything is funded by the government of India.

“Today, many of the people who are driving the global platforms are alumni of these IITs. So this is an area where something concrete can be done.”