THE GENTLE STRATEGIST - A.K. Damodaran and India's relations with China

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By Diplomacy: K.P. Nayar
  • Published 15.02.12
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Ambady Krishnan Damodaran, a guiding light for an entire generation of diplomats, died two weeks ago at a time when his wisdom was needed most. Such a statement about someone who was ninety years old is apt to be received with scepticism even in a country where prime ministers are in their late seventies and governors are appointed after they cross into their eighties. But this columnist became convinced that Damodaran’s guidance would even now have served the nation after re-reading last fortnight his writings and the transcripts of his speeches delivered not very long ago.

The most pressing reason why India needs people like Damodaran can be found now in a speech — to cite one example — he delivered at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in the 1990s. “I have watched India-China relations from near and from afar, from all over the world,” Damodaran told the IGNCA audience, “the fact that this troubled border between the two countries had only three incidents in 30 years suggests that this is one of the quieter borders in the world.”

How prophetic! Last year, China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, told his Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna, that for 40 years not a shot has been fired across the border between the two countries. Periodically, in recent years, those with an agenda of worsening India-China relations have manufactured tales of trouble on the disputed border, at times even concocting the death of Indian border personnel, as part of an attempt to whip up war hysteria. From time to time, sections of the Indian media have been complicit in this conspiracy.

Damodaran’s observations about the border, born out of his extended engagement with Beijing, long predated Yang’s conversation with Krishna. It ought to be a sensible reminder to Indians that very little has changed on the ground along the India-China border in four decades.

Damodaran added that “although India-China bilateral obsession is very interesting but the world is not interested”. True to his gentle demeanour and inoffensive nature, Damodaran was being charitable to the conspiracy theorists, some of whom draw their inspiration from abroad, when he merely said that the “obsession is very interesting”. Most serious books about Chinese foreign policy do not take into account the India-China border dispute at all, he pointed out. As for the future, Damodaran said: “I personally would not hurry.” He recommended “the famous formula of 1961 July [which] R.K. Nehru and Zhang Wenjin evolved in their talks… ‘Either solve the problem immediately by official talks or leave it to the politicians to discuss, if that is not enough, leave it to the shelf and let destiny decide’. That I think is a sort of attitude which we can take. We are two large nations, made not to worry about one momentary episode in our long histories,” he philosophized.

Zhang Wenjin was the chief Chinese representative to the first round of the Sino-Indian meeting of government officials on their boundary questions. He was later ambassador to Pakistan. R.K. Nehru was the foreign secretary and, later, ambassador to China.

Beyond Autonomy: Roots of India’s Foreign Policy, which Damodaran published in 2000, is a collection of his papers written mostly after the end of the Cold War. It includes one perceptive speech he delivered at New Delhi’s India International Centre slightly earlier.

Damodaran brought out Jawaharlal Nehru: A Communicator and Democratic Leader in 1997 when Nehru was rapidly becoming unfashionable and criticism was mounting against his policies in a nation that ought to be grateful even today for what he gave its people — a strong backbone to stand erect at home as well as abroad.

Damodaran edited with his diplomat colleague, Uma Shankar Bajpai, who could be described as the architect of today’s IIC, India’s Foreign Policy: The Indira Gandhi Years and edited with E.S. Reddy four volumes of V.K. Krishna Menon’s speeches at the United Nations. Reddy worked for the UN secretariat for 35 years: for 21 of those years he was the UN’s principal officer in charge of global action against apartheid.

Maybe a decade or two from now, after the proverbial whirlwind is harvested by those who have sown the wind in our time in Iraq, Iran and the region of the Arab Spring — not to speak of Europe hit by its current crisis — these four volumes of Krishna Menon’s speeches may turn out to be illuminating for another generation that no longer remembers the feisty Indian minister in Nehru’s cabinet.

Last year, Kishore Mahbubani, who was Singapore’s equivalent of South Block’s foreign secretary from 1993-98, now Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, spoke at a largely attended gathering in New Delhi on the subject, “Will India and China grow together or grow apart?”

Answering a question at the end of his lecture, Mahbubani said that he was struck during frequent visits to China by a complete lack of animosity towards India and Indians. While on Indian television pundits hold forth about the danger that China poses for India, it was a wholly contrary experience that he encounters during interviews he does in China. The Chinese rarely say anything unfavourable about India.

Also speaking in New Delhi, but almost two decades earlier, Damodaran reminisced about his time as a diplomat in Beijing from August 1963 to November 1965. It was the most difficult time in India-China relations, when wounds from the border conflict were still open: “Looking back 30 years later, what one can recapture is the ease and comfort with which we used to go about Beijing in those politically difficult days. The ordinary people of China, the merchants, the shopkeepers, the servants, the Chinese staff in the embassy were not hostile to us in spite of the enormous political resentment on both sides. India meant to most of them a distant but friendly western country and Indians were never made to feel unwelcome. This is the reason why so many of us, who were posted in Beijing, look back to our days there with nostalgia.”

Damodaran’s accounts are not unlike those by Brajesh Mishra, Kishan S. Rana and others who served with great distinction in Beijing during very difficult periods in India-China relations. Those Indians in public life, the media and the strategic community who are constantly trying to match their country against China, and instill an inferiority complex among Indians in the process, ought to think hard about identical comments by Damodaran and Mahbubani although they are separated by some 20 years.

In Beyond Autonomy: Roots of India’s Foreign Policy, Damodaran, who went to jail during the Quit India Movement, recalls an article by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942 in Harijan that traces the roots of independent India’s foreign policy. “Gandhiji said that there was no alternative to total autonomy in decision-making,” Damodaran writes. “This is the underlying principle which led to compulsive movement of Jawaharlal Nehru towards non- alignment… Nehru refused to accept easier options and chose a complex policy in which Moscow, Washington and London would all be a part of our diplomatic activity… Non-alignment thus became a negation of a negation of sovereignty.”

This book has very many light tales as well. These days when Union ministers, chief ministers, members of Parliament and officials are jet-setting the globe in complete disregard of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s pleas for austerity in travel, Damodaran recalls a time which ought to make today’s Indian diplomats wistful of the past. “The real advantage about a Peking posting for an Indian in those days was the total freedom from visitors, official and non-official: no protocol work, no liaising with hotels and travel agencies, no expeditions to antique shops.” In other cities like Dubai, London or New York, “antique shops” would be substituted by VIP shopping for electronic goods or clothing.