In Conversation : H.E.Alphonsus Stoelinga, Ambassador of Netherlands in India
at the historic Jinnah House
By Neelima Agrawal
It was special; this meeting with the gracious and charming His Excellency Stoelinga, the Ambassador of Netherlands in India, at his residence at Jinnah House. Firstly, because I got a guided tour of the Jinnah House’ famous library preserved in pristine condition, the wooden fan, book shelves, paneling et al, and secondly, I got to find out what makes Netherlands what it is – the second largest exporter of agricultural produce despite being as densely populated as India, that too with half its land mass one meter below sea level; the socially liberal country with a multi-racial profile of citizenry where same-sex marriages, abortion, prostitution and euthanasia is legalized. With its advanced scientific and industrial technologies, the country is also host to five international courts.
We got it all on record; H.E.Stoelinga’s detailed answers about the famous spice route, cleaning of a river like Ganga, how to keep our coastal cities from flooding, river management and more. The text has been edited for want of space, but the entire answer is for all to hear on the video alongside.
Next – we will bring you the travel trails around Netherlands, with a special focus on specific niche areas. Read on
When I arrived here, I had no idea I would be living in the Jinnah house, a monument. People are very interested in the building because a historical person has lived here who had enormous influence on the history of India and on the history of the subcontinent. One says that back in those days in the library of the house meetings took place between Nehru, Jinnah and Patel. These were secret meetings, so nobody knows exactly how and when they took place, but they orally agreed on the partition here. In 1951 the Dutch Government bought the Jinnah house from a private person in India and since then it has been the residence of the Dutch Ambassador. Sometimes the Pakistani ministers, when visiting Delhi, ask us whether they can see the Jinnah house. It is a very historic place, well located and a good residence for the Dutch Ambassador.
400 years ago Dutch traders came to the shores of Gujarat, Kerala, Coromandal Coast and Bengal. They did not only set up trade between India and the Netherlands, but also between Asia and Europe. They bought Indian textiles which they were trading to the far corners of Asia and Europe. With the capital they amassed, they bought spices which they traded back to Europe. That is how spice route started.Our trade with India is now very diverse; it is not only goods but also services. The spice route has historical connotations; you could actually say the spice route has economic aspects, political aspects and historical aspects.The economic aspect today is like the economic aspect in the 17th century; also today the Netherlands and India are very important trade and investment partners. The political symbolism is like in the 17th century as well; not only for India, but also for the Netherlands, it is crucial to have free open sea lanes in the oceans that separate us. The historical connotation is that both India and the Netherlands share the buildings, the artifacts, and the documents that are witnesses of that important period and they contain information valuable for the present generation as well as the future generations.For example, most of the Dutch archives in Kochi and Chennai have been digitalized and are accessible on the internet. It is very interesting to see which ships arrived in India from the Netherlands, on which date, with which captain and what he was transporting. There are still Dutch spice companies in India; one is a company in Kerala, NedSpice (Netherland-Spice) which is trading in spices. The other company is called Synthite, an Indian company that does not only influence the taste but also the fragrance and color of food by using spices. Because the spice route is a symbol that binds the Netherlands with India, it is a good name to use. Like the Chinese use the name “Silk Route”, we use the Spice Route.
The Dutch were mainly in South India in the 18th century for training. There are still buildings,artifacts, archives and documents that reveal the Dutch presence during that time. Together with the Indian authorities we try to preserve them as a witness of that era and also to get all the information accessible. Like I said, all the documents have been digitalized, which is a very difficult procedure. Everybody can find them on the internet. What does heritage otherwise mean if the people who are living around it, cannot access it. I think these buildings should have a function in daily life. Otherwise the people will not be attached to it. It will be just a building that belongs to the past that they are not connected with. But it is part of your past and also of our past, somewhere we were connected, so it is very interesting for the Dutch and also for the people of India.
Many Indians are travelling to the Netherlands, but it is not all tourists; we also have students, and business people coming. The number of visa granted last year increased by 20% and since March Jet Airways flies directly from Mumbai and Delhi every day to Amsterdam, which also has a huge impact on the number of visa requested. So instead of one flight from Amsterdam to India, we now have three daily flights. That means three times more passengers, three times more students, three times more business people, and three times more tourists.In the era of the Spice Route, the Netherlands was like a hub for India in Europe. Today, I use the term Spice Route in the hope that the Netherlands can become again India’s hub in Europe.
Nowadays many people travel to Europe and to America. Why not go through the Netherlands? You can experience the Netherlands even on the airport. We are trying our best to attract Indian tourists to the Netherlands.
Yes India is a very attractive destination for Dutch people. The problem was that until one year ago it was very difficult to get a visa. Luckily we now have the E-Visa, which makes it much easier to visit India. Of course now with the Jet Airways flights there is three times more capacity and I am sure that you will see an enormous increase in the number of visa. If we had 20% growth in travel to India last year, this year may be the same or even more. I think India is so diverse and so colorful. And there is no travel loving country like the Netherlands. The Dutch like to go everywhere; to Malaysia, to Indonesia, young people, old people, even people of 65 years, 70 years, they all still travel. The moment they have discovered, ‘ Ah! The road is open to India,’ they will come in large numbers.
For me luxury is not so much the idea of being in a very beautiful or expensive room, or owning an expensive car. For me luxury is adventure, the adventure of meeting people, meeting people of other cultures, see the different functioning of a society and people living in different ways. I always love to see this around the world. For me – travel is luxury.I always say that a diplomat is actually a very luxurious gypsy, a very luxurious tourist. We are very fortunate, because we don’t come to India and pass a week or two, go home and then forget all about it and only have some nice pictures left to show to the family. We are living it from the inside. We experience everyday what you are talking about, what the discussions are in Delhi and in the country. You meet actors and you meet the politicians. This is fantastic. I have been to so many different countries in my career, and with all those experiences I think luxury for me is having seen all those countries from the inside.
The first time I came to India, in 2005, my son was studying in Lucknow. He was in the Indian Institute of Management for one year. He had organized a train trip for us, not a luxurious train, just a normal train. First we went from Delhi to Lucknow where he studied, and then we went to Agra, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, back to Jaipur, and then to Delhi. That was a fantastic experience. Athens in Europe has the Acropolis, but you have all these big forts in Jaipur and Jodhpur, it is really fantastic. And I am very happy that you call it the Golden Triangle Tour of the cities. This is a very good entry point for tourists coming to India and you learn a lot about the history of India.Many people don’t know how India fared over the last 1000 years. Not much is known in Europe about your history. Starting here, they will see everything, from the Mongols to the Rajahs, the British, and India today.
I mentioned before this Indian Railways train we were travelling in from Agra to Jaipur. My son had bought the tickets. When we arrived at the station, he said that the train has been completely hired by a company outing so wecould not go in the train. I said I don’t mind being in a company outing, it is nice, we can see how it works here in India. They found a place for us. We were only three people, my wife, my son and I, in a train with maybe 500 people from the company. There were these soothsayers who entered the train who were reading the palm. I also gave my hand, and she said to me: ‘You will come back to India.” That was in 2005, and I came back in 2012.
I was in India for tourism earlier, and now I am here for work and it is completely different, especially because I know India so well now. It is a very interesting moment for India, because in 2016 the Indian economy is doing reasonably well, while the rest of the world is stagnant. I really think 2016 is India’s window. We will hear a lot about India in the future.
To watch full video click here.
Video Recording : Gaurav Mahendru, Video Editing : Rohit Dhikyavar, Still Photography : Nitin Sadanah