Saturday, February 3, 2018

Rajiv Gandhi had the master-key of Indo-China treasure

Amidst the news stories about the satellite imagery suggesting China has established military establishments in Doklam near Indian borders posing serious threat to India’s security and strategic interests, certain pertinent questions come to mind. One, why China unnecessarily indulging in creating tension with India when there are other important areas that need attention? Two, why India sees China as an enemy? And, three, who in international arena are trying to widen the gap of understanding between India and China?  

Satellite pictures taken three-and-a-half months after India and China agreed to end their stand-off showed new helipads, trenches and construction work at the Doklam plateau. Common people in China, as well as in India, must realise that any aggression by Chinese army on Indian borders provides required fuel to the fanatic groups present in both the countries that misuse the very concept of nationalism for their own political gains. Therefore the political leaderships of China and India are duty-bound to ensure an atmosphere of mutual understanding and cooperation in the larger interest of the more than 2.6 billion population living in our two countries, which despite the economic growth, shining cities and armed capabilities have its own struggle against poverty.

India and China are both nuclear powers and have the world’s largest border dispute on their hands. We have over 100,000 square kilometers of borders between us. China tussles over sea routes in the Indian Ocean. It wants to have more and more influence in India’s neighbouring countries and has practically adopted Pakistan. But isn’t there more need to know each other better than indulging in uncalled for situations?

This is the time when China and India must give the fact a serious thought that why we did not engage satisfactorily in normal people-to-people interaction? Only little less than 200,000 Chinese tourists visit India in a year whereas 2.4 million Chinese go to its arch-rival Japan. China’s investments in India are only around US$ 4 billion, even less than its investments in countries such as Poland. India’s investments in China are even smaller. Diplomatic exchange also has much scope of improvement. India’s embassy in China has little more than two dozen diplomats. The number of India students studying in China is around 10,000 with even fewer Chinese students in India.

In seminars India and China miss no opportunity to boast about their greatest civilisations and centuries’ old relations. But the unsatisfactory state of affairs between the two countries speaks about the reality. Unless China and India release the vitality of improving people to people relations, developing stronger ties in governmental levels would be a far reaching dream.

The 1962 armed conflict between India and China lasted only a month, but it has a strong after effect till now. Territorial claims and contentions, a trust deficit and broader geopolitical concerns have provided enough fuel to radical nationalism on both sides that is contrary to the idea of normalising bilateral relations. There is certainly a need to establish cordial and friendly relations. It is unfortunate that the two countries cannot think beyond the constraints and selfish yearnings of nation states. Only ornate official declarations after every state level visit are not going to solve basic problems. If China and India will have ultra-control on their visa regimes, will have strong restrictions on the circulation of information and will not refrain from the tendency to manipulate academic and cultural collaborations, the road to reach the destination will be unending. To create an environment of understanding and awareness between the peoples of the two countries is the only solution.

I recall the visit of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China when I was working as a Special Correspondent with Navbharat Times, the Hindi Daily form The Times of India Group. The plan agreed on during this landmark visit in 1988 is the still the key to Indo-China relations. Rajiv wanted to concentrate on promoting commercial exchanges while making incremental progress on border negotiations. In fact, the nation-state interventions and counter-productive policies from both sides the commercial exchanges have created their own complications. It is thus now time to think beyond the nation-state framework to allow connections, exchanges, and understanding to grow at the grassroots level.

West Heavens events on Indian classical music in Shanghai drew enormous crowed recently. Innovative mix of Chinese and Indian traditions was so fascinating that Chinese people were full of admiration for Indian culture and society. There is a need to promote similar niche groups among Chinese lay Buddhists, academics, artists, tourists and reporters. I can tell you with my experience that the general perception and understanding of India among common Chinese is dramatically different from those who troll on social media and those who are projected in Pew Research surveys.

The fondness for India among Chinese youth does not waver with each border flare-up. The publication of caustic Global Times op-eds does not matter to them. We have to think in the direction of a visa regime that recognises these niche groups and individuals who could be important proponents of Indian society and ideas in China.

The Chinese government is one step ahead in placing barriers on the potential contribution by such niche groups. Restrictions on civil society organisations and the control of publication channels by China prevent interactions among Indians and Chinese who want to have dialogue and discourse beyond territorial and geopolitical obsessions of nation-states.

More and more seasoned people as well as emerging scholars need to involve themselves in doing research on China and India with regard to the environment, urban sustainability and media cooperation. The connections established through these exercises would be more productive, far-reaching, secure and committed. The nation-state sponsored think tanks also can play a significant role to achieve the goals. The role of dialogues, the exchange of youth delegations and joint publications can also play positive roles. Both India and China must recognise that the crises between the two countries are not limited to the border dispute or the predicament with Tibet. They are, in fact, much deeper.  What existed 55 years ago was perhaps not that deeper. Today, mutual perceptions, domestic concerns and the patriotic feelings of the people have made the whole thing more complicated.

It is time for China and India to ease restrictions on interactions and exchanges at the grassroots level. Both the countries must learn to withdraw from managing and overseeing people-to-people exchanges. This is where the niche groups and organisations, even those based outside the two countries, can play a crucial role. There is a need to create platforms for establishing a much broader, stronger and lasting relationship between the two countries which can only be achieved through people to people contact. Nations must not become the greatest evil for the nations.

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