| Vajpayee (centre) is assisted as he shovels dirt for a tree planting ceremony at the Peking University Exchange Center in Beijing on Monday. (AFP)
Beijing, June 23: Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave back to China a measure of what Rabindranath Tagore got from China in the early decades of the 20th Century.
Peking University gave Tagore Professor Tan Yun Shan for Santiniketan in the 1930s. That, in turn, inspired Tagore to set up Cheena Bhavan in Santiniketan — India’s first centre of Chinese studies.
After laying the foundation for a Centre of Indian Studies on the premises of Peking University here this evening, Vajpayee said: “Today we repay in some measure by pledging our support for a Centre for Indian Studies in this university.”
But the opening of the Centre for Indian Studies is not quite the academic exchange that inspired Tagore and Professor Tan. Today, a Centre of Indian Studies in China is much more than an academic exchange. Its diplomatic and political significance outweighs the academic message.
Vajpayee said as much in his speech in an auditorium of Peking University this evening. “There were periods in history when our civilisations went into an introspective phase and lost regular touch with each other,” he said.
But the opening of the Indian centre was symbolic of a new beginning. In Vajpayee’s own words: “We have emerged decisively from the dead-end of mistrust... We have vigorously set about recovering our mutual understanding.”
Referring to the late Deng Xiaoping’s remark that the 21st Century could be an Asian century if India and China combined to make it so, Vajpayee wanted the two countries to stress their complementary strengths and resist “contradictory pulls”. What is important is to “clearly understand the difference between healthy competition and divisive rivalry”.
Vajpayee’s comments were greeted with long applauses from the Chinese audience. And the duration of an applause means much in Chinese political and diplomatic parlance. It may not be unfair to say that Vajpayee earned applauses that the Chinese usually reserve for very special occasions.
A postscript: After many decades, banners hailing the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai mantra were on display at the university campus. But the Chinese are great ones for ceremonies, which is not the same thing as reality bites.