Wen Jiabao’s Formula: 99.9 per cent Good, 0.1 per cent Bad. Braving SARS and by sticking to his scheduled visit when travelling to China is being shunned, the irrepressible Mr George Fernandes has lived up to his dare- devil reputation. In the process, he has also imparted a whole new dimension to Sino-Indian ties. In his professional capacity, Mr Fernandes is head of our defence establishment that is deeply suspicious of China. In his personal capacity, he has been an ardent champion of the Tibetan cause. That such a personality could have had such a successful visit bodes well for both countries.
Actually, it is not much of a surprise, if only we care to appreciate the nuanced change in China’s stance on many issues. In December 1996, President Jiang Zemin most unexpectedly told his Pakistani hosts that India and Pakistan must set aside their differences and foster an economic relationship. During the Kargil war, the Chinese stance was a tacit acceptance of the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir as the international border.
The Chinese are great empiricists. In the early Eighties, Deng Xiaoping said that Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong. Such an honest assessment of icons in public is simply unthinkable in India. Now, the new Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has given us some new numbers to think about. On April 21, while speaking to Mr Fernandes, he noted that “during the past 2200 years, or about 99.9 per cent of the time, we have devoted to friendly cooperation between our two countries”. Indeed so.
Obviously, 1962 accounts for the overwhelming bulk of the missing 0.1 per cent in Wen Jiabao’s historical arithmetic. But it has cast a disproportionately long shadow. We cling to the idea that India was attacked. Neville Maxwell in his India’s China War held us primarily responsible for the border war. He was vilified in this country, although privately his views have considerably greater support among the Indian cognoscenti. An Indian foreign service luminary, who was liaison officer to Zhou Enlai during that Chinese premier’s ill-fated visit to New Delhi in April 1960, bemoans that India blew a great opportunity of settling the border question at a time when the Chinese were also keen to close the issue.
Sections of the Congress party along with opposition members of parliament like Atal Bihari Vajpayee sabotaged Jawaharlal Nehru. It is poetic justice that Bharatiya Janata Party MPs are doing to Vajpayee on Pakistan what Vajpayee himself did to Panditji on China by speeches that were long on emotion and eloquence but short on substance and facts.
Some scholars, however, locate the roots of the 1962 conflict in domestic Chinese upheavals. In his monumental The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Roderick Macfarquhar, the distinguished subcontinent-born Sinologist who teaches at Harvard, has called the 1962 battle Mao’s India War. Younger scholars in some Chinese universities are beginning to take a new look at that episode free of old stereotypes. The truth is complex. Sarvepalli Gopal, whose first death anniversary fell recently and who, along with Jagat Mehta, was responsible for formulating India’s case on the border issue, laughingly admitted before his death that had he been engaged by the Chinese as an independent expert, he could well have made out an equally valid and strong claim on their behalf. Three years back, two retired IFS officers and China experts, C.V. Ranganathan and Vinod Khanna, offered such a balanced perspective on the emotive border issue in their India and China: The Way Ahead that remains the most incisive and constructive work on this subject.
A small fraction of the troublesome 0.1 per cent that Wen Jiabao implied must surely be the period immediately following the May 1998 nuclear tests by India. In a most perplexing move, Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote to President Bill Clinton, pointing to China as the reason for India going nuclear. The letter became public. Soon thereafter, Mr Fernandes himself was widely quoted as having said that China is India’s enemy number one. He has, however, consistently denied ever having made such a statement. Fortunately, the damage done by both the Clinton letter and Mr Fernandes’s purported statement was contained quickly. A measure of our maturity in handling the situation is reflected in the fact that the Vajpayee government, having earned a Sinophobic image, steadfastly refused to heed the protectionist pleas of Indian industry that raised the bogey of Chinese goods swamping Indian markets. Over the past two or three years, in a remarkable turna- round, large segments of Indian industry have developed the self-confidence to compete with China both in India and elsewhere, including in China itself.
While the two countries keep meeting to resolve the boundary question on the basis of landmark agreements signed in 1993 and 1996, and while the economic relationship expands, new scholarship keeps emerging to give contemporary meaning to Wen Jiabao’s statement. The works of Chinese scholars like Xinriu Liu and Wang Bangwei have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the cultural contacts between India and China.
A little over a decade ago, Tan Chung, the well-known Indian scholar of Chinese ancestry whose father set up the Cheena Bhavan at Santiniketan, brought, for the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, a comprehensive volume called Across the Himalayan Gap which had described in detail the multi-faceted relationship between the two ancient civilizations. Then came Louise Levathes’s When China Ruled the Seas, that looked at the colourful Admiral Zheng He’s voyages to the Malabar coast in the very early 15th century. Subsequently, The Unknown Hsuan-Tsang, by the reputed historian Devahuti, author of an earlier classic on Harsha, appeared.
A couple of months back, as part of the Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture, which is directed by D.P. Chattopadhyaya, a magisterial volume, India’s Interaction with China, Central and West Asia, edited by A. Rahman was released. And just a few days back, Tansen Sen’s absolutely fascinating Buddhism, Diplomacy and Trade appeared in which he challenges conventional wisdom and meticulously explores the realignment of Sino-Indian relations during 600-1400, a period which saw the demise of Buddhism in India and its appropriation by the Chinese and other east Asians.
This was also a period in which Islamic networks supplanted earlier Buddhist networks, and a period in which regional maritime trade, which pivoted around the Cholas, expanded and led to the spread of Hinduism in east and southeast China. Incidentally, this brilliant 38-year old historian, who grew up and studied in Beijing, married a Chinese woman and now teaches in New York, is the son of N.C. Sen, himself a noted China scholar now retired in Calcutta.
Jiang Zemin, now the chairman of the central military commission, broke all protocol while greeting Mr Fernandes. He joked that he likes meeting young people and since Mr Fernandes is four years younger to him, he was very pleased to spend time with him. Jiang Zemin went on to add that since Mr Vajpayee is three or four months younger to him, he is also eagerly looking forward to the Indian prime minister’s visit.
The momentum and atmospherics generated by Mr Fernandes’s landmark trip should not be lost. One immediate offshoot should be greater support to Indian academics working on the 2,200 years of Sino-Indian interactions, which remain largely unexplored and which Wen Jiabao recalled in a Nehruvian fashion.