Swiss ambassador Ralf Heckner speaks to The Sunday Guardian on the nature of the cultural ties between India and Switzerland, among other things.
Swiss Ambassador to India, Dr Ralf Heckner, was a research assistant at the University of Fribourg, where he earned a Ph.D in Contemporary History, before embarking on a career in the Swiss Foreign Service in 1997. From 2003 to 2007, he was First Secretary, then Counselor for Political Affairs at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington DC. From 2010 to 2012, Dr. Heckner was Deputy Head of the United Nations and other International Organizations Division. From 2013 to 2015, he was Head of the Crisis Management Center where he reported directly to the State Secretary. From September 2015 to 2020, he served as the Ambassador to Kenya, with concurrent accreditations to Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, and Uganda.
In this interview, Dr Ralf Heckner talks about the nature of the cultural ties between India and Switzerland, scholarships on offer for Indian students, MOUs signed between India and Switzerland, among other things.
Q. How do you look at the nature of the cultural ties between India and Switzerland? How have they evolved over the years?
A. Cultural ties between Switzerland and India are deep-rooted and at the same time extremely dynamic. Indian artists and filmmakers know Switzerland well and have had exchanges in my country for decades. It is well-known that popular Hindi cinema has served as a window to Switzerland. In fact, former Indian President Ram Nath Kovind once remarked that “Bollywood has taken Switzerland to every nook and corner of India.” India is extremely important for Switzerland when it comes to cultural exchanges. Swiss artists seek to work and get inspired in India. The fact that the regional office of Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, is in India shows that cultural collaboration and exchange are a key element in our bilateral relations.
Q. Given that considerable time has been lost due to the pandemic, what are your key areas of focus for the promotion of arts and culture between India and Switzerland?
A. I do believe that art and culture continued to inspire hope even while humanity was faced with one of its gravest challenges in recent times during the pandemic. The Swiss network in India continued to reach out to our Indian friends through cultural projects. Swiss light artist Gerry Hofstetter warmed the hearts of millions through his projections of the Indian flag and the word ‘Sadbhavna’ on the Matterhorn in Zermatt. Also, a lot of our cultural engagements shifted from physical space to the online realm. The Swiss network organised digital music collaborations, illustrations workshops with children, and digital book readings during the period.
Since last year, we have been able to return to organising events in the physical space. Switzerland and India are celebrating 75 years of friendship this year. The two countries signed a Friendship Treaty on August 14, 1948. The occasion is a moment to look at past, present, and upcoming success stories. In order to mark this historic occasion, the Swiss network is organising 75 events across India over the course of the next two years. The focus areas of our cultural initiatives are architecture, cartooning, flower art, music, and our recurring work with literature exchanges and movies. We have also created a dedicated website https://switzerlandindia75.com/ to mark this landmark event. It carries 75 success stories of Swiss-Indian friendship.
Q. Switzerland is known for its excellence in education. Can you tell us about the scholarships on offer to Indian students who wish to study in Switzerland?
A. Switzerland regularly ranks number one on the innovation index. This has been possible due to the enabling conditions for innovation, which include excellence in education. Switzerland has several ‘MITs,’ such as the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, and the Paul Scherrer Institute for natural and engineering sciences. There are successful joint research projects between Swiss and Indian universities. For instance, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Indian Institute of Technology – Delhi, and Indian Institute of Technology – Madras, have jointly developed Limestone Calcined Clay Cement (LC3). This cement produces 30-40% less CO2, is resource efficient, energy efficient, and cost efficient. The standards for LC3 have just been adopted in India, and LC3 was presented at the India pavilion at COP27. As you can see, the scientific exchanges and collaboration between Switzerland and India are of the highest-quality and among the best in both countries.
The Swiss Government aims to promote international exchange and research cooperation with all countries. India is a priority country for the scholarships for young researchers who have completed a master’s degree or PhD. Each year 10 to 25 Indian researchers receive these scholarships. In addition, all Swiss universities have their own scholarship programme, to which prospective students from India can apply. Switzerland is gaining popularity amongst Indian students who wish to pursue higher education abroad. In 2022, with 1434 students, Indian students made up the eighth largest cohort of foreign students in the Swiss public university system. Most of the countries ranked above India are from neighbouring European countries.
Q. Please tell us about some of the MOUs signed between India and Switzerland such as in the field of education and other related areas?
A. An inter-governmental agreement for cooperation in the fields of science and technology between Switzerland and India was signed in 2003. This was later extended to the social sciences. Under this agreement activities have been co-funded in the areas of information and communication technologies, the life sciences, biotechnology, materials science and nanotechnologies, human health sciences and medical sciences, sustainable urban development, renewable energy sources, climate science and the social sciences. We are currently working with the Indian government to establish a Swiss-Indian Innovation Platform to further strengthen scientific cooperation by bringing together the best universities in both countries and the very innovative Swiss and Indian enterprises.
Furthermore, several Swiss universities have cooperation agreements for faculty exchange and student mobility with Indian universities and research institutions. For example, the Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, has an agreement with the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. The University of Lausanne has faculty and student exchange programmes with the Indian Institutes of Management Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Kolkata, as well as with the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Gujarat National Law University, TCG Centres for Research and Education in Science and Technology and the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. In all there are about 100 cooperation agreements between Swiss and Indian universities and research institutions.
Swiss and Indian institutes have a history of successful collaborations. For example, the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and HSLU Lucerne School of Art and Design have shared close ties since 2011 through exchange of knowledge in practice-based research and sustainable innovation. Also, there is an agreement of collaboration between HSLU Lucerne School of Applied Science and Arts and National Institute of Design, Andhra Pradesh. This agreement was signed in 2020 for a period of five years. The World Trade Institute at the University of Bern has a long standing MoU with the Centre for WTO Studies at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi. The principal activity under this MoU is the organisation of an annual Joint Academy on International Trade Law and Policy. The 9th edition of the Academy will take place June 2023 in New Delhi. Some 60 Indian nationals have graduated from the Master of Advanced Studies in International Law and Economics (MILE), the flagship programme of the World Trade Institute.
Q. How does Switzerland view India’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and how does it seek to collaborate with India in preserving and promoting it?
A. Swiss travellers have been visiting India to experience its rich diversity and cultural heritage. Palaces in Rajasthan, the abandoned city in Hampi, the caves in Ajanta, Jain temples in Palitana, Humayun’s tomb in New Delhi, and, of course, the world-famous Taj Mahal. Just this and last year, the Embassy supported the Swiss Museum Rietberg in bringing 20 loans connected to Jainism to Switzerland for a specially curated exhibition. This year, we intend to have an exhibition and event in Chandigarh, where Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was given the opportunity to help design and shape an entire city – this is a very visible legacy and success story. The Alice Boner Institute in Varanasi is another example where a Swiss artist came to India and contributed substantially in the field of the arts.
Q. What kind of collaboration can we expect between India and Switzerland in the field of arts and culture in the coming months?
A. We have had a quite eventful year already with exhibitions, workshops, a film premiere et cetera. On the outlook we have: The Long Night of Literature in New Delhi in September together with European Cultural Centres. We are exploring the topic of Architecture as well and have supported the publication of a magazine focusing on Indian-Swiss architectural links.
More exchanges on this topic are planned. We will bring a number of movies to Film Festivals across the country as well. In mid-October, we plan our traditional Swiss Art Night in Delhi. There will be collaboration between Indian and Swiss flower artists to create and innovate in the field of flower art. I encourage the readers to follow our social media channels for regular updates on our events.