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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Kowtowing to China

With friends at home scoring 'own goals', India doesn't need enemies abroad

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

For hundreds of years up to 1801 the kings of England also styled themselves kings of France. In short, England claimed France. But did French maps during those centuries show France as “disputed” territory? That would have been an “own goal” in soccer parlance. The French wouldn’t have tolerated it.

Yet, an “own goal” loomed large in Kolkata’s Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) Auditorium last Monday with “DISPUTED” printed boldly under Arunachal Pradesh in a large map of India’s Northeast. General Shankar Roy Choudhury twirled his impressive moustache centre stage, Lt-Gen Johnny Mukherjee looked relaxed on the left, Maj-Gen Arun Roye strutted at the podium. The director-general of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), “Ambassador” Rajesh Bhatia, said little but said it in the ponderous tones of an elder statesman. An unassuming “Ambassador” Aloke Sen dispensed pragmatic wisdom. An even more retiring scholar, Sanjay Pulipaka of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute for Asian Studies, dispensed little-known information on internal developments in Myanmar. (“Ambassador” is in inverted commas because this handle is both pretentious and irregular but that’s another story.)

None of this is to fault the seminar on “Indo-Myanmar Relations and Development of India’s North-East” organised by the Centre for Eastern and North-Eastern Regional Studies (Ceners) and the ICWA with other organisations, including the Union home ministry, participating. But the map proclaimed loud and clear that India accepts China has a case in demanding Arunachal Pradesh, refusing visas to people from there and objecting to dignitaries visiting the state!

The Chinese wouldn’t similarly shoot themselves in the foot (or should it be the head?). Their maps don’t admit any dispute over Aksai Chin or the strip of Kashmir acquired from Pakistan. On the contrary, K P S Menon, a seasoned diplomat who was, if anything, soft on China and the Soviets, thought China’s attitude was “cunning”. He recalled seeing a map in the Military Academy in Chengtu showing large portions of Kashmir and to the south of the McMahon Line as Chinese.

Even our maps don’t show the Rann of Kutch, Sir Creek or the Siachen Glacier as disputed. Several maps in the two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary were blacked out, and its pages stamped, “The maps in this volume are neither correct nor accurate” before sale in India was allowed. I am sure we wouldn’t write “disputed” on Bay of Bengal maps if Indonesia claimed the Nicobar islands. Yet, here was a galaxy of brass hats, mandarins and scholars committing a bloomer that any schoolboy would avoid.

I don’t suspect a Chinese mole in Ceners. But Indians frequently lapse into slovenliness. Witness the foreign office famously confusing Chinese “suzerainty” over Tibet with “sovereignty”, and letting China get away with changing India’s “special” relations with the Himalayan kingdoms to “proper” relations. Ceners’ cartographical blunder doesn’t suggest Shyam Saran’s warning in his K Subrahmanyam Memorial lecture that “a clear awareness that deception is, after all, an integral element of Chinese strategic culture, may have spared us much angst in the past” has had much effect.

What is worse is that it seems to be second nature with South Block to clutch at straws and scramble for crumbs where China is concerned. First, agreement on a trade mart at Nathu-la was seized upon as final and formal recognition of Sikkim’s Indian status. It was nothing of the kind. Though insisting that India should explicitly state it recognises Tibet as part of China, the Chinese cunningly avoid making a corresponding statement regarding Sikkim.

Now, New Delhi is jumping with joy and boasting to whoever will listen that the communiqué issued at the end of General Liang Guanglie’s visit recognised India has a role in the strategically important Asia-Pacific region. Of course, the agreement that India and China will “work together to maintain peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region” is welcome, but surely India doesn’t need China’s permission to participate in activities in the vast expanse of water from the shores of Japan to California? Does the US? Did China seek New Delhi’s clearance before sending its ships into the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay at the Ceners seminar as long as I wanted to. But what I heard seemed eminently designed to stimulate interest in a region and a concept that are vital to India’s Asian aspirations. Both are now neglected. It’s a pity then that the stage props of an important semi-official event played right into China’s hands. One might almost say that with friends at home scoring “own goals”, India doesn’t need enemies abroad.  

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First Published: Sat, September 22 2012. 00:34 IST