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THE OTHER SIDE OF FEAR
- India’s thinking and actions on China have to be more nuanced

The recent spate of visits by Japanese dignitaries paid flattering tribute to India’s international consequence. But there’s always a pattern and a purpose to such gestures. Both were outlined by a key member of the American strategic establishment four years before Thailand and its neighbours convinced themselves they had invented the Association of South-east Asian Nations. Not only did Russell H. Fifield’s Southeast Asia in United States Policy propose Asean (even the acronym) but he wanted India, Japan and Asean to cooperate as a counterweight to China.

That was in 1963. Barack Obama’s state-of-the-union message boast on Wednesday “that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is” proclaimed that the competition Fifield had in mind continues. That suits Japan whose foreign ministry describes the American alliance as “the linchpin of Japan’s diplomacy”. But India’s more nuanced approach must focus on its own geopolitical realities. A 1,500-mile border, several territorial disputes, bilateral trade of about $66 billion with a $31 billion deficit, and a stake in the security and stability of Asian lands and waters argue against rash antagonism. Increased exports to China could help economic revival and create jobs to lift more people out of poverty. China would also benefit from investing in India and from greater access to India’s burgeoning consumer market. Given these fundamentals, India and Japan can’t have identical priorities.

Of course, India needs Japanese investment in infrastructure development. Of course, India must not neglect security or the implications of the latest tunnel and highway in Tibet’s Metok county bordering Arunachal Pradesh or China’s Air Defense Identification Zone. But rankling resentment must not obstruct efforts to ensure that developing economic ties benefit India. How grimly China looms in the Indian psyche was again evident at the recent Delhi launch of my revised book Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim when someone in the audience claimed that if India hadn’t acted “China would have walked in”. Sikkim was annexed 39 years ago. The border war was 52 years ago. Both events must seem almost as remote to the young as the Tebhaga Movement. Yet, wounds fester. So does Sinophobia.

Plans to restore Calcutta’s Tiretta Bazar recall the fear and suspicion that have resulted in a Chinatown without Chinese. Older readers may remember Japanese residents pasting “JAPAN” stickers on car windscreens in 1962 to avoid attack. But few knew of the horrendous evictions, refugee trains, incarceration camps and police surveillance. I found it impossible to persuade any Chinese hairdresser to be interviewed for an All India Radio feature on Chinatown until AIR’s station director gave me a time and a place where I would find one waiting. So she was — in Nalini Ranjan Sarkar’s old house on Lower Circular Road over whose gateway arches the Foreigners Registration Office signboard. She had been pressured into cooperating.

I learnt from her — later corroborated by others — of the Calcutta Improvement Trust bulldozing Chinatown under guise of redevelopment. The once famous and fashionable Nanking restaurant escaped demolition only because its owner had shrewdly registered it as a shrine. When the Chinese owners of Chung Wah restaurant wanted to emigrate, policemen charged with clearing their application took to eating heartily there. Chinese who did not emigrate voluntarily or were not deported were relocated to smelly and insanitary Tangra. They had to report regularly at the thana and needed police permission even to do their shopping. Although people like Dominic Lee, with his grocery shop off Chittaranjan Avenue, turned down the opportunity to live in Canada because Calcutta is home for him, as it is for Paul Chung, president of the Indian Chinese Association, Chinatown’s dereliction highlights the community’s tragedy. Closing consulates, banks and restaurants and purging Kalimpong (Jawaharlal Nehru’s “nest of spies”) of foreigners indicated a panic reaction.

A paranoiac ambivalence still marks the attitude to Chinese technical workers. If we want them, the least we can do is receive them graciously. If we believe all Chinese are spies and saboteurs, we shouldn’t have them at all. The present carping exposes Indian insecurity and generates ill-will. When he was China’s consul-general here, Mao Siwei wrote pained letters to the external affairs ministry pointing out the anomaly of forbidding Chinese workers to travel on the business visas they had always used and insisting on employment visas that were never granted. Power generation and steel production suffered when 25,000 Chinese technicians with business visas had to go back. Special project visas for the iron and steel and power sectors was one complication. Linking the number of Chinese workers to the tonnes of steel produced or megawatts of power generated was another. Mao feared these tactics would delay projects and involve Chinese companies in protracted litigation and huge compensation demands.

The massive military and intelligence operation to annex tiny defenceless Sikkim — “killing a fly with a bullet,” Nehru had warned — was the ultimate example of an absurd paranoia that could also strain relations with Bhutan. N.N. Jha, a former lieutenant-governor of Pondicherry, believes the last straw was the Chogyal of Sikkim meeting the Chinese ambassador at King Birendra of Nepal’s coronation. “I was there and I had to report it to New Delhi,” he says. It wasn’t a mere ambassador that cooked the Chogyal’s goose, according to P.N. Dhar, Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary. His Indira Gandhi, the “Emergency” and Indian Democracy blames the Chogyal’s meeting in Kathmandu with China’s vice- premier, Chin-hsi Liu.

This neurosis manifested itself in December, 1963, when Nehru angrily and wordily rebuked China’s head of state, Liu Shao-chi, for daring to condole directly with the Chogyal on his father’s death. Liu, who is quoted as saying “China was a great power and had to punish India once”, was totally unabashed by this petulant explosion. Sixteen months later, he again sent a direct message of congratulations for the Chogyal’s coronation. New Delhi was furious. Gangtok thought Nehru’s outbursts over courtesy gestures petty. Beijing was probably amused at the storm in a teacup.

A conversation with Karma Topden in Delhi’s Apollo Hospital on the morning that Smash and Grab was launched highlighted the paradox of annexing Sikkim. Having been the Chogyal’s deputy secretary, chef de protocol and intelligence chief, as well as Rajya Sabha member for two terms and India’s ambassador to Mongolia, Karma is familiar with both sides of the fence. “Did I want merger with India?” he asked and answered himself, “Most certainly not!” “Do I want to go back to the old kingdom?” Again, the reply was “Most certainly not!” Karma explained this seeming contradiction. As a Sikkimese, he welcomes the abundance of money, opportunity and empowerment that Indian statehood has brought. But, as an Indian citizen, he feels India bought only a pack of troubles. Previously, one joint secretary in the external affairs ministry controlled Sikkim. Now, Sikkimese chief ministers can defy the Centre.

George Fernandes’s volte face illustrated another aspect of the complex. Calling China “enemy number one” he would regale friends with tales of inciting supporters in Bombay to pelt Mao Zedong’s portrait with rotten tomatoes. One visit to China in 2003 cured all that. Spending an evening at our home in Singapore on his way back, George said he was planning to mobilize Indians with a new slogan “Chase China!” If it didn’t catch on, one reason may have been the nationalist blinkers worn by Indians like a former Indian Administrative Service officer who retired as principal secretary to a state government. He rejected a chance to visit Shanghai saying, “What’s the point of seeing another Bombay?” Affected contempt is the other side of fear. Neither serves India’s interests in this Year of the Horse which, says Wang Xuefeng, China’s new consul-general in Calcutta, “represents the spirit of marching fearlessly.”