Is a Sino-Indian confrontation really inevitable?
In modern times, the golden years of solidarity between Chinese and Indian societies were the first half of the 20th century, after the fall of the Qing dynasty before World War I. The first leader of the Chinese Republic, the well-travelled Sun Yat Sen (Sun Zhong Shan) recalled a Pan-Asian ethos. He looked forward to a future Asia, based on benevolence and virtue, to be built around the axis of Asia; the historical and demographic heavyweights -- China and the Indian sub-continent.
Sun Yat Sen’s clarion call inspired Rabindranath Tagore, leading to his historic trip to China in 1924 and then to the Chinese diaspora in Yangon and Bangkok. From Kolkata, Tagore launched the intellectual basis for common cause against colonialism, for independence, and for liberation.
Brimming with philosophy, with a sense of history in the making, and a search for harmony, Cheena Bhobon was established, financed primarily by the non-Communist Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomingdang). Nehru was thrilled, but Indian millionaires like Birla only tossed a few thousand rupees towards it.
In 1938, Kolkata’s Subhas Chandra Bose, the then leader of the Indian National Congress, named June 18 as India-China day. Bose’s writing, speeches, and actions reflected his continent-wide vision of an independent and cooperative Asia.
Sylhet-born journalist Ramnath Biswas, traversing China during civil wars, wrote three hugely popular books on the country and numerous pieces in the magazine, Desh. He rooted for unity between an independent India and a communist China.
A charismatic Maulana Bhashani battled in a different age of the 1950s and 60s. His was a more fateful, complicated, but cordial relationship with Maoist China. And, of course, the “Bhodrolok” communists of West Bengal had their own path to Beijing for half a century, usually with a gap of two decades between theory and reality.
Let the good (and bad times) roll
India was one of the first countries to recognize communist China. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (having visited Cheena Bhobon and Shanti Niketon) had suggested compromise over the colonial MacMahon line in the 1950s. It was not taken up.
Nevertheless, by the mid-1950s, relations reached their pinnacle with the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Bandung, Indonesia. By 1958, it started to go wrong as Nehru revealed the armoured fist in the Seven Sisters and moved to a “forward policy” northwards. The 1962 war marked the nadir.
Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi flew to China in 1988. It was a brave bold step for the ex-pilot as he sought to steer a new course for two poor Asian giants. There was no meaningful follow through by a permanently suspicious Indian establishment.
The Intelligence Bureau in Kolkata, since British times, had always been suspicious of friendlier ties between the two Asian giants. The spooks kept tabs on Cheena Bhobon and usually non-Communist Chinese in India well into the 1960s. Hindi-Chini-bhai-bhai (bon) didn’t work for them then. Nor it seems now.
So here we are in the 2020s. Hand-to-hand combat, hypothermia, and a few dozen mortalities on both sides. Delhi launches “digital strikes,” banning Chinese mobile phone apps. It commits hara-kiri to its industrial technological base, yanking out Chinese components. Self-harm on an epic scale. Accompanied by tremors and rumbling, currently involving troop movements.
In the long view then, we had four decades of friendship and common purpose (before independence) followed by around three decades of outright hostility, war, and an Ice Age. Then, three decades of thawing and a ramp up of two-way trade. Now, suddenly, we are back to the dark days of de-linking, mistrust, and manoeuvres. And idiocies like an American-led Asian NATO on the horizon.
Who is being played?
The Delhi elite privately recognize that they are about 25 years behind China. They could aspire to copy China, as the latter did with South Korea and Japan. Instead, they hope that, as America’s “partner,” they can pull down China a peg or two, to reduce the gap.
There is no inevitability to India and China becoming permanent enemies. Except that it suits the US and a privileged sliver of Indian society. Division delays Asia’s ascent, and America’s descent. It does nothing for one and a half billion South Asians, desperate for a dignifiied life. Especially as the sub-continent faces economic ruin on the back of the botched response to the pandemic, a pointless religious “civil war,” and a severe agrarian crisis.
Is the delineation of a few square kilometres of Himalayan wasteland worth the candle? Has it ever been? It smells like Delhi is being played by Washington in the latter’s interest in corralling China.
On the one hand, Beijing proposes commerce and cooperation, naturally in its interests. It can do without a distraction in its southwest. It has enough problems on its eastern front. On the other, Delhi seems to prefer a stand-off and regional connectivity without China. On the cheap. Which option is better for the region east of the Rajmahal hills?
As we turn full circle in this tempestuous relationship, the genius and vision of Cheena Bhobon is ever more relevant. Rising above the pettiness and noise. Where are today’s silent Pan-Asian Bengalis?
Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst.