| Diwali in Little India
The little terracotta Ganesha that cost almost nothing at the Diwali mela in Singapore’s Little India may be more portentous for next week’s East Asia Summit than the lavish “On the Nalanda Trail” exhibition bathed in soft light and softer ecclesiastical music that Manmohan Singh and the 15 other prime ministers will visit on Wednesday.
Nalanda celebrates the Indic past. My Ganesha warns of a Sinic future. It is accurate in every minute detail and attractively coloured, but the glowing pink skin has a creamy tinge and the eyes are slightly slanted. A small oval sticker underneath reads “Made in China”. The exhibition’s centrepiece is the epochal pilgrimage of three Chinese monks, Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing, who braved the hazards of the Silk Road in the 5th and 7th centuries to travel through central Asia into India to seek enlightenment. They then took their wisdom to southeast Asia.
The pièce de résistance is not the ornate gilt throne for the Buddha’s relics but a perfectly preserved 9th century copper plate with an elaborate royal seal, like an outsize clipboard, borrowed from Delhi’s National Museum where it is hardly ever on display. My ignorant gropings suggest two varying translations of the inscription in Devanagari and Proto-Bengali. One proclaims that Balaputradeva, king of Suvarnadwipa (Sumatra), of the Sailendra dynasty of Yavabhumi (Java), transferred five villages to Devapaladeva, Bengal’s third Pala king, for the upkeep of Nalanda monks. The other is that Devapaladeva gifted five villages to the monastery that Balaputradeva built at Nalanda. Either way, the message is that faith forged a seamless Asian community that embraced China and Japan and acknowledged India’s cultural centrality.
Today, some countries that were members of this ancient Indocentric empire of heart and soul enthusiastically acclaim a Sinic destiny. Malaysia articulates many Chinese positions, especially in its grudging acquiescence in India’s participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its extensions. The velvet glove of China’s soft power, concealing the mailed fist of military might, smothers Cambodia. A Singaporean diplomat hails the Beijing Consensus (borrowing someone else’s term for an economic counter to the neoliberal Washington Consensus) as the new Asian role model. Farther afield, China’s largesse ensures that half-a-dozen African countries do its bidding in world forums.
There is no mystery about these power projections. When Hu Jintao says India and China “share broad common interests in advancing multipolarity in the world and democracy in international relations”, he means opposing American unilateralism to ensure China’s predominance, in Asia if not the world. India can do little about this global vision. It may not even need to. Pranab Mukherjee may be right to reiterate Hu’s phrase that there is room enough for both countries to grow “together”. But India can use platforms like next week’s conferences and the likely Sino-Indian bilateral meeting on its fringes to safeguard its own interests by reminding Asians of the existence of a civilizational alternative that also offers a more humane political and economic system.
We need not rake up Taiwan or Xinjiang. But occasional reminders of the extra-territorial privileges India voluntarily surrendered in Tibet in the cause of Asian goodwill would do no harm. P.V. Narasimha Rao rebutted the charge of being mealy-mouthed by retorting, “What other country has given refuge to the Dalai Lama and 80,000 Tibetans'” True, but just the fact of asylum only irritates the Chinese without yielding diplomatic dividends for us. To gain from the hospitality, India must keep alive the question of the Dalai Lama’s restoration and the rights of now 1,50,000 Tibetan refugees instead of treating Tibet like a guilty secret.
China’s reiterated demand for Arunachal Pradesh with 1.09 million people despite Article VII of the April 2005 agreement on not claiming regions with “settled populations” should be on India’s agenda. So should foot-dragging over the river management agreement signed during Hu’s last visit, which justifies concern about tampering with the Sutlej and Brahmaputra flows. Despite agreement on the “political parameters and guiding principles” of the territorial dispute, we are no closer to a solution of the 5,000 square kilometres of Kashmir that Pakistan gifted to China, the 38,000 sq km Aksai Chin plateau through which National Highway 219 links Tibet and Xinjiang, or the 90,000 sq km China claims in the Northeast.
More immediately relevant, no Indian ambassador in Beijing dare proclaim our right to Aksai Chin as stridently as China’s ambassador to New Delhi asserts his claim to Arunachal Pradesh. Instead, India shrinks with horror from the very idea of any strategy to contain China. But there is no whisper of the far more obvious and ominous encirclement of India through missiles in Tibet, the Lhasa railway, northern Myanmar’s virtual absorption into Yunnan province (where Chinese money is acceptable currency), surveillance from the Coco island and China’s “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean, Gwadar port, and Chinese political influence in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for MultiSectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation might have helped to neutralize moves to link five southwestern Chinese provinces with Myanmar, Thailand and Indochina. But, alas, BIMSTEC is virtually moribund.
Scope for greater assertiveness is not limited to bilateral exchanges. India is not New Zealand, gratified just to be in the ASEAN orbit. As the Nalanda exhibition demonstrates, it has a historic regional role. That can be lost by default. China cannot but notice India’s silence over the plight of two million ethnic Indians in Malaysia where hundreds of Hindu temples (admittedly, many of them illegal structures) have been destroyed. Article 121(1A) of Malaysia’s constitution subordinating the judiciary to Islamic courts encourages mullahs to break up Hindu families by claiming a husband’s or wife’s deathbed conversion. There is no redress against their ex parte verdict as highlighted by the forced burial as a Muslim of a 36-year-old Hindu Tamil soldier and mountaineer, M. Moorthy, ignoring his wife’s protests. The judge, Mohamed Raus Sharif, ruled that the civil courts had no jurisdiction to hear her appeal once the Sharia court unilaterally declared Moorthy a Muslim.
No one expects gunboat diplomacy. But there are ways of sending messages. Bill Clinton’s telephone call reduced Michael Fay’s punishment by two lashes. China left the world in no doubt about its displeasure with India’s talks and naval exercises with other powers. Malaysia’s six million Chinese would have been worse off without a supportive Chinese-majority Singapore whose Lee Kuan Yew periodically speaks up for them. Indians enjoy no such protection, and a recent episode showed that even a mild expression of prime ministerial displeasure suffices to silence their frightened leader, Samy Vellu, whom India honoured with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman.
Trade, investment and similar positions on climate change may justify Sonia Gandhi’s hope of “a catalytic partnership that is relevant for the 21st century”. Ideally, we should look forward to a repetition of the epic fusion (illustrated by the Nalanda exhibition) that produced the world’s oldest surviving complete dated printed book. An Indian monk, Kumarajiva, the guru of the 5th century Qin emperor, wrote the Diamond Sutra (Prajnaparamita) in Chinese and the Chinese printed it in 868. But partnership implies equality. That is not something that can be thrust upon India. It is something India must seize with the confidence of high growth, a narrowing economic gap, and the assurance of nuclear status. Now, every Indian move and statement seems to imply a desperate determination not to provoke a repetition of 1962. Asians see India not only as a country that was defeated but which, despite burgeoning prosperity, lives in the haunting fear of another defeat.
If that phobia persists, we will be overrun by Chinese Ganeshas. Not Ganeshas alone. Little India’s pavement stalls are stacked with China-made gods and goddesses galore, all for throwaway prices. There is surely food for thought when your gods are mass produced by your godless global challenger and dumped on you.