Sunday, October 11, 2009

Tango with the Dragon

India is in a tough neighbourhood - from the very moment of independence, it has been locked in a definitional struggle with Pakistan, has fought and lost a border war with China, and has to contend with Nepal and Sri Lanka snuggling up to their (India's) one-time conquerors, the Chinese. In addition, Chinese military aid - not only in terms of small arms and armour but also technology transfers of missile systems and nuclear weapons - to Pakistan has effectively created a cordon in the North. China has, in the past, threatened India with the possibility of opening a second front during India's conflicts with Pakistan in 1965, 1971, and during Kargil in 1999. Furthermore, the flow of increasingly sophisticated weapons to the Maoist Naxals spread over 180 districts and ten states has kept India preoccupied with their internal problems. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 weakened India's position further, but the recent overthrow of the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan has given India renewed hope to salvage the geopolitics of South Asia in its favour. Nonetheless, South Asia remains one of the most dangerous places in the world - in 2008 alone, there were 280 violations of the Indian border by Chinese troops, and in the small and mountainous terrain of Kashmir, Islam, unresolved border issues, and three nuclear powers with four wars between them come together.

India's problems with China stem from the Chinese invasion of India in 1962 and the resulting annexation of Aksai Chin (38,000 sq. kms). Since then, India has had an inferiority complex regarding the Chinese, which feeds well into the great Han chauvinism. India's economic and military weakness coupled with the utter lack of resolve to address that has left India kow-towing to Beijing (In an utter disregard for etiquette, Beijing summoned the Indian Ambassador at 02 00 to protest against Tibetan demonstrations in India ahead of the Olympic Games). That India needs to strengthen its border defences, its deterrent capability (nuclear as well as conventional), and its economy (which would buy it influence in the world) is obvious, and Indian leaders should be mindful that soft power is meaningless unless backed by hard power. However, beyond the sabre-rattling and hard power, what options are open to India?


One of the most contentious issues between India and China has been the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his people on the Indian soil. The Chinese see in the Dalai Lama not a venerable saintly figure but a dangerous politician. They perceive the Dalai Lama as the figurehead for future Western interference in Tibet, and suspect that the trouble in Tibet just before the Olympic Games in 2008 was inspired by the Dalai Lama. India on its part tries to mollycoddle China by assuring it that its soil wouldn't be allowed to be used for any anti-China activities. Yet the suspicions remain. China is unnerved by the tremendous popularity the Dalai Lama enjoys in Tibet even to this day despite his exile for half-a-century. In the 1980s, when his representatives were allowed by the Chinese authorities to visit Tibet, the hearty welcome they received rattled the Chinese leadership. The Chinese attitude towards the Dalai Lama and his people hardened quite a bit after that. No effort is spared by China to browbeat countries that extend an invitation to the Dalai Lama to revoke it. Very recently it pressurised Sri Lanka into withdrawing its invitation to him, and Barack Obama of the United States and Kevin Rudd of Australia have refused to meet him when he visits their respective countries.

The reality of the matter is that this is a lost cause. Within Tibet, any hint of opposition is met with skull-crushing force (as was witnessed in March 1959 and March 2008 just before the Olympics). Outside Tibet, Tibetans are largely a forgotten community except by the occasional celebrity (Richard Gere, for instance) who is probably in the twilight of his/her own career too. It was heartening to see protests worldwide on the eve of the Olympic Games, and equally disappointing to see how the Indian Government, upon receiving a strong protest from the Chinese, moved to disallow public demonstrations and denied Tibetans media space. In any case, even supporting the Tibetan cause with weapons and other war-making materiel is unrealistic against the ruthless Chinese state machinery - if aid of such sort is given to the Tibetans by any country, it must be in a completely dissociated manner and only at the request of a majority of Tibet's Government in exile as the consequences could be severe for the Tibetans.

India has a choice - it can keep playing the Tibet card, which would keep the sores in Indo-Chinese relations fresh and would invite Chinese retaliation elsewhere: the United Nations Security Council, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, trans-regional groupings, Pakistan. On the other hand, it can take a realpolitik view of its own interests and abandon Tibet in exchange for Chinese cooperation on the diplomatic front and the recognition of Sikkim as an integral part of India. China would also have to stop supplying arms to the Naxals (this in itself will not solve the problem - arms will flow from elsewhere but the supply will most definitely be reduced. If cooperation on this issue is not forthcoming, India can strongly consider providing arms and training to the Uighur tribes; Ronald Reagan has already stirred the hornet's nest by arming the Taliban, and a few more Uighur will not add to the instability in the world, but it will add to China's woes). Both, Indian aloofness from the Tibetan cause and China's new-found desire to cooperate with India are easily verifiable. Although not much in itself, this would be a good confidence-building measure.


Another reality Indians need to face is that short of war, Aksai Chin is lost forever. The Chinese will not suddenly give it up out of the goodness of their heart, nor will they succumb to pressure. Nearly 50 years after the war, it would take a brave government to come forward and admit to its double mistake - one of taking it, and another stubbornly insisting that it rightfully belongs to them. In any case, China actually believes that they have a right to Aksai Chin. Besides, the loss of face would be tremendous if China were seen to be yielding to Indian diplomatic pressure, which they have no need to do owing to their military, economic, and diplomatic strength anyway.

It would be equally hard for India to give up its claims to what they have strenuously argued as their territory. Furthermore, the publication of the White Papers detailing the talks between the Indians and the Chinese in the late 1950s and early 1960s has made the discussions public knowledge. It may be easy in a country like China to suppress information, but in India, the land of loose lips, it is almost a certainty that news about fresh negotiations and either side's bargaining chips will get out. For reasons of prestige if nothing else, neither side can be seen to give in. In addition, it is unlikely the Chinese will ever give up their claim to Aksai Chin - for them the region serves as the strategic link between Tibet and Sinkiang. The Indian discovery of illegal Chinese presence in the area in 1957 was due to road-building activity. In fact, Chou Enlai offered to make a quiet exchange during his negotiations: give up Aksai Chin and China would give up its claims on Arunachal Pradesh. For India, naturally, this sounded a little disingenuous as both pieces of land belonged to them. However, the price of military weakness, since the Indians did not learn in 712, 1192, 1757, or 1962, is loss of territory. Today, India can only offer to give China what it already has - Aksai Chin in exchange for dropping claims on Arunachal Pradesh and remaining neutral on Kashmir in exchange for recognition of the transfer of the trans-Karakoram tract from Pakistan to China in 1963. It is not sure if the Chinese would even bite: they refuse to talk about Aksai Chin any more. For them it is a settled fact. Typical Indian cravenness has meant that even their own leadership stopped talking about it. Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988, Narasimha Rao in 1993 and Vajpayee in 2003. No clear official position has been heard from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on Aksai Chin after the meetings despite the fact that there is a unanimous Parliament resolution of 1962 on getting that territory back. In the never-ending game of brinkmanship, India might, for its part, consider shelling parts of the Sinkiang-Tibet highway every once in a while with mortar fire, making its use uncertain.


The key issue between India and China is really Pakistan. Chinese support for Pakistan has already done tremendous damage not only to India but to the world. In the most heinous of terrorist acts, China transferred missile technology and blueprints of a nuclear device (China's fourth test) to AQ Khan and Pakistan. Apart from this, Pakistan has received other strategic aid from China. If Pakistan is a threat to India (or Israel), it is in large part due to China (while the US looked on - refer to my post, Lessons in Hegemony, of August 30, 2009). Although the damage has already been done, India must try to do some damage control - with nuclear weapons in unstable countries, the world hardly has a choice. India needs to raise an international ruckus on the AQ Khan network and use all guile, startegy, and bargaining chips available (which may not be much) to raise the profile of the AQ Khan network. Obama claims to want to reduce the threat of nculear weapons; he even won a Nobel Prize for this "call to action." India needs to call him to action on AQ Khan. This cannot be done without the cooperation of China, the 900-pound gorilla in the United Nations Security Council. If India can play its cards right for once (to be fair, Indira Gandhi's world tour to raise support for action in East Pakistan was masterful), the cost of sticking by Pakistan can be raised significantly. And if India and China can have meaningful dialogue with each other on Aksai Chin and Tibet, China's need to play big brother to Pakistan will be considerably reduced - after all, China cosied up to Pakistan as India cosied up to the Soviet Union as the Cold War moved into the Third World. China has no intrinsic interest in being friendly to Pakistan.

The counter to this, if China refuses to, as the Americans say, play ball, is to focus determinedly on a Look East Policy (refer to my post, India's (Don't) Look East Policy, of March 13, 2009). Closer relations with Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and Australia would be a start - just as the Chinese have moved to encircle India with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal, India must adopt what Israel calls a "Periphery + 1" policy (go beyond the ring of enemy states encircling you to find allies behind enemy lines). In the 1950s, this was a real opportunity but was squandered away by Indian foreign policy obtuseness. To borrow a sentence the Chinese themselves like to use often, Beijing must be made to under stand that India will no longer “stand idly by” if China continues to counter and encircle India with impunity.

There are many other avenues for cooperation between India and China - trade will be an enormous factor, particularly as the world economy shifts its centre of gravity back towards the East. China is already India's largest trading partner, surpassing the US this year. India exports some important raw materials to China, such as steel. It is only in the interest of both countries, which still have a long way to go in terms of standards of living of their citizens, to work towards cooperation and let half-century old animosities die. Development of relations with China is a reality. The same goes for China where India is concerned. It is high time, however, India came off its schizophrenic stubbornness-obsequiousness behaviour and demonstrate that it is a strong state that won't be pushed around, but is at the same time willing to look for 21st century solutions in the 21st century.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

That "I" Word...

The world is living in multiple centuries. I do not mean that Africa is forty years behind South Asia which is fifteen years behind Southeast Asia which is ten years behind Europe materially. Nor do I mean that different people use different calendars - for Christians, it is 2009 AD, while for Muslims, it is 1420 AH. Hindus have multiple calendars, depending on too many things to consider for the sake of our sanity. What I mean is, that in many ways, many parts of the world are living in the Age of the French Revolution. Populism, autocracy, nationalism, religion, and a sense of Romanticism, of purpose, and of destiny mark this developmental stage in the history of nations. Two regions that seem particularly inflicted with this fever are the Middle East and South Asia (my rather circumscribed understanding of the planet includes only Asia, Europe, and North Africa, with North America being the alien presence - hence, apologies if you feel your region has been left out of my equation). Whether it be an inferiority complex stemming from colonial subjugation or from an incomplete nationalist project, that dreaded "I" word, identity, is still a matter of public discourse and politics.

[DIVERSION 1: Essentialising is usually used in a pejorative sense, at least in the West. Although the dictionary definition of the word merely states that it is the expression of core properties of a subject, critics have argued that it reduces the subject to those core properties alone (although Indian Marxists don't think this applies to their more 'nuanced' categorisations of the Right). Well, yes, if the actor is an imbecile who cannot recognise individual characteristics which may go against the collective image. To reject an essentialising statement is, however, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Science is based on educated generalisation - statistics depends on it. And yet scientists and their research survive. Similarly, there is no denying that Europe has a Christian identity, even if it is secular by law today. The Middle East, barring Israel, has a strong Islamic flavour, no matter what the differences between Shia and Sunni are. Africans are usually dark-skinned. This in no way negates the African-ness of white settlers who have been in Africa for two or three centuries, but they are in the minority. Essentialising does not mean that, because the average height of the Dutch is 179 cms, a Dutch midget would be in danger of having his/her citizenship revoked. It is time that scholars quit their immature hostility to the idea of essentials.]

There can be no denying that India has a strong Hindu component to its identity. In every history ever written, be it by Muslims or by Christian missionaries, no one claims that Islam, Christianity, or Judaism are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. No scholar has ever claimed that Moses parted the Saraswati, or that Jesus gave a sermon under a banyan tree or that Muhammad received the angel Gabriel in the Udaygiri caves. Despite this essentialising of Indians, no one in their right mind would deny that there are Muslims or Christians in India, nor would any sane person claim that APJ Abdul Kalam, Mansoor Ali Khan, Zakir Hussain, Irfan Khan, Irfan Pathan, or for that matter, Leander Paes, Diana Hayden, or Amartya Sen are not Indian. Oddly enough, today, claiming a Hindu identity is not only seen as backward but also immediately marks one as part of the Saffron Brigade. As former Managing Director of Procter & Gamble Gurcharan Das revealed in his latest book, "The Difficulty of Being Good," his desire to read the Mahabharata prompted one of his friends, a favoured civil servant of Indira Gandhi's, to ask him if he had gone saffron. Das wondered why no eyebrows were raised when he had read Western epics like the Iliad or the Divine Comedy. In part, this is due to a highly successful public relations campaign mounted by the Communists and the Congress. Another ingredient to this mix is a latent Macaulayism that exists till date among Indian elites - the language of elitism is unabashedly English to this day in India. Of course, it would be asinine to legislate against this and only a Party desperately grabbing at straws (like the BJP in Haryana promising to ban Western pop music in defence of Indian culture) would try to do so. Only a free market of ideas and commerce should dictate the rise and fall of languages and culture. Thus, although there is nothing inherently lamentable about the domination of the English language in India, particularly among the intelligentsia, the Indian fetish for all things foreign creates an implicit bias in thinking - Chaucer is more familiar to this class than Kalidasa and Shakespeare, rather than Vishakhadatta, Shudraka, or Bhasa provides the framework for future literary endeavours, and not because of literary merit. Das quotes V S Sukthankarand I feel the need to as well: “The Mahabharata is the content of our collective unconscious .... We must therefore grasp this great book with both hands and face it squarely. Then we shall recognize that it is our past which has prolonged itself into the present. We are it."

I am really not a good Indian. I have never been a pucca Hindu either. I had abandoned these categories as I had abandoned the memories of the Great War and I was equally happy with the Aeneid, the Mahabharata, or the Hezar-o-yek Shab. In the backdrop of the Shah Bano case, the temple controversies in Uttar Pradesh and Kerala, and the Mandal Commission, however, I was made keenly aware of not only of my Hindu identity but my brahmin identity. Congress and its allies seemed to say, "Look, we don't care what you are. You qualify as a Hindu brahmin by birth and on that basis we are going to deny you many things other have easy and even free access to." Thus began my exploration of the tenets of Hinduism, my investigation into the caste system, Hindu law, and philosophy. What it meant to be a Hindu (in modern India), practically, was made abundantly clear to me by the sychophantic and obsequious Congress regime. A nation-state fraught with as many difficulties as India cannot afford so many divisions and categories of people. There are already too many visible differences in language without compounding them with religious and caste considerations. By advocating sectionalisation, the Congress is pushing the country to the brink of disintegration. Today, as Das found out, it has become a mindset - read the Divine Comedy and you are secular; read the Mudrarakshasa and you are clearly a saffron fascist, never mind that the Divine Comedy (or the Iliad for that matter) also involved divine creatures and locations. Gurcharan Das, and probably millions of others, myself included, probably do not want to choose between religions. We celebrate Eid as easily as Ganesh Chaturthi. We enjoy Abu Muslih bin Abdallah Shirazi as much as Nakkirar, and we are as interested in the Sharia as we are in shruti, smriti, and aachaar. Yet unless one is willing to exorcise one's Hindu self, one is forced into a saffron strait-jacket.

National interest is another strange thing - the ridiculously facile political scene in India has made the choices highly reductive. One the one hand, you have an ineffectual foreign policy (wedded stubbornly to a pro-Arab sentiment in the hopes that it will protect oil supplies and put pressure on Pakistan) and a system and level of taxation even highway robbers would be hesitant to apply (59% of the tax revenue is from indirect taxes such as excise, customs, cess, sales tax, VAT, entry tax, etc.), and a focus on rural money sinks (giving massive subsidies - no tax, free electricity and water, etc. - and loans and writing them off just before elections, with no outlay for education, irrigation, pollution control, or land reform). On the other hand, again, if you are a saffron-tinged fascist, you can opt for a cogent foreign policy based on realpolitik and logical defence outlays, lower and lesser taxes to encourage business, huge private-public partnerships in sorely needed infrastructural projects, and more privatisation of Public Sector Units. The latter set of policies, which most people with any faith in market capitalism would choose, were those of the BJP Government 1998-2004. The common wisdom would have one believe that voting for defence (only an alpha fool would argue it is not required given 26/11, the Naxal terror, and almost daily Chinese incursions into Indian territory), infrastructure, and an incetive-based economy makes you a Hindu fundamentalist. In effect, according to the (pseudo)secular Front, every choice one makes can and must be boiled down to religion.

Personally, I am rather lukewarm on nationalism. It does not seem necessary to repeat the European experience (though, strictly
speaking, if modified from its European form, it ceases to be nationalism unless we allow for more valencies) and I am yet to find any state that deserves my undying devotion. I am a 'nationalist' of many states - India, Israel, Italy, France, Russia, Denmark, Egypt, Iran - because I find something wonderful about each of them. They are better than some states, worse than others. Being an Indian (or any other nationality) is like being on a team. Michael Ballack loved Bayern Munich and played to the best of his ability for them. Today, however, he belongs to Chelsea and he will play hard for them. That, though, is irrelavant. Civilisational glory, whatever that means, is not something we participate in. Not one nationalist (alive) contributed to the building of Persepolis or the writing of the Ainkurunooru. It is highly unlikely that anyone remembers compiling the Pirkei Avot or designing the Pyramids. Admittedly, some civilisations have much to boast of but what of it? Would it not be a better use of time to read up on these achievements than boast of them as signs of one's personal superiority? More critically, are the Pyramids really any less or more of a wonder than Angkor Wat? National glory is a simpler beast to tackle - it is more tangible, for one. It is the collective public relations boost a state experiences if many of its citizens win international laurels. Even in this, unless one is part of the football team that won the Championship or the person who won the Nobel Prize, one is only deluding oneself, aggrandising oneself, and living vicarious through others to forget any shortcomings in the immediate proximity.

The political climate, however, forces me to be an Indian nationalist and a Hindu brahmin. I have to be Hindu because I like the ancient Indian philosophy and the epics, and I have to be an Indian nationalist because Hindus vote for the BJP which is a nationalist party. I am unwilling to relinquish either identity, even if I don't invest in them as much as some might. Perception may be dictated by others, but identity is an individual choice and naturally, the two are intertwined. It is in manipulating this link that there seems to be an effort to subvert an apathetic (to insular and parochial arguments) individual through guilt and horror of association with brutes and beasts (inevitably, all Right-wing movements share a lineage with German National Socialism - Godwin's Law is true! Ironically, Leftist movements have nothing in common with Josef Stalin or Mao Tse-tung). Although I believe in collective identity, I also believe that it is only a part of me, and not necessarily the most important part. Is it any wonder then, that more and more people seem drawn towards "tough love" against minorities? That the smallest demand (not so small nowadays after years of being pandered to) results in a violent backlash? It is, after all, on their behalf, for the sake of their vote banks, that the Third Front and Congress so abasedly engage in this propaganda war. If anything is wrong with India's public religious sphere, it is solely the Hand and the Elephant that are to blame. Goebbels is supposed to have said that if you repeat a lie a thousand times, it becomes the truth. In India, the results bear him out.