Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to China has raised a whole array of anticipations and anxieties. As metaphor and presence, China for the last few decades has been problematic for India and, some would add, the idea of India. The subject has been reduced to a foreign policy problem and is analysed by security experts and foreign policy analysts; rarely do ordinary citizens respond to the issue. The question is, can an ordinary citizen bring a different perspective to it?
Let us begin with the current folklore. We are two large nations, two large landmasses, two of the oldest civilisations confronting each other. Today we are seen as the two largest markets in the world and futurists claim that this century belongs to India and China.
Our elite is less confident. It feels the world respects China more because it is more decisive, more demanding and more masculine. Every time we confront eye to eye, it is India that seems to blink and then go hysterical. The last time we felt superior was when Jawaharlal Nehru pretended to be the head of the non-aligned world, and the Chinese watched him with amusement.
For China, India was always mentally colonised. The Chinese do not forget that Indian troops, especially Sikhs, were used by Britain to suppress Chinese rebellions. Deep down the Chinese leadership had a bit of contempt for our subservience to England. Even their attitude to leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore was ambivalent. Tagore’s Santiniketan did not produce an active dialogue between the two civilisations. Worse, the Chinese attack in 1962 broke India’s confidence as a nation and left Nehru’s reputation in tatters. The Henderson Report on the Indian Army is still treated as a secret, as if it is a report of India’s lost virginity. For decades our relations have been asymmetrical. China’s one gift to India is the Maoist idea of revolution promoted through Naxalbari and it still haunts our security forces. India’s attitude to Chinese living in India after 1962 is a clear violation of human rights.
As an ordinary citizen with a bit of social science training, I wonder why we feel inferior to China. Our recent fixation on smart cities is in many ways a Chinese idea. Someone has to tell the Modi government that imitation-Shanghai cities is the last thing we need. One realises also that the West for all its trumpeting of freedom, rights and democracy, prefers to do business with the Chinese. In turn, the Chinese elite sees in the American universities the one thing its future needs, a reservoir of ideas, and has created an epidemic of scholarships for its citizens.
Ties between overseas Chinese and the regime is much more systematic, especially in terms of investment and networks. China seems to have infiltrated Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan and has set itself as rival of Indian efforts in Africa. So what we have is an opponent, a possible enemy either indifferent, contemptuous or keen to browbeat us. Yet, how can India as a society, as a civilisation, as a nation and a civil society respond to China?
The challenge is simple, yet profound. China looks formidable and does raise security issues, but as an Indian with a sense of India, I am not impressed. I know our elite today wants to be more masculine, technocratic and suffers from China envy as it lacks a seat in the Security Council.
As a nation we are looking for physical and economic parity and hypothecating our future to technology and totalitarianism. Play-fully, in fact, reciprocally, I think we can outthink China and the West by exploring alternatives, creating diversities, inventing new margins in a way the Chinese elite and America cannot dream of. These countries are caught in their own image as empires, as “continuities” of the Roman imperium as an idea. India as an also-ran has the freedom to invent, to redefine the rules of the game, to even preserve what was best in Chinese and American ideals. Our model is the original goal of our national movement, which was to rescue England.
It is time to rescue the Indian reading of China from defence analysts, security experts and technocrats. Let us make the Chinese society, civilisation and thought part of our curriculum. India was always a crisscross of religions — Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism… Let us now create a civilisation encounter. Let us “by heart” the Chinese in the way we read the West. China need not be the alien other.
Our media goes gaga over Chinese scholars singing Raj Kapoor’s Awara Hoon. Let us stop orientalising each other and look at Chinese architecture, philosophy, science and compare notes. If China is a neighbour and it is time to create a neighbourhood, break the grimness of China watchers and celebrate China. It is every Indian’s neighbour from today. This also demands that we stop sequestering China into trade, security, technology and look at it holistically to explore common philosophies, the logic of difference and the need for alternative pathways.
By watching China, we understand India’s options clearly. Let us do a comparative sociology not as a zero-sum game but as a jugalbandi and ask how do Indian and Chinese films, cities and education differ. This will make our elite both less hysterical and provincial and make India more cosmopolitan. I remember what novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy once said. He noted that an illiterate Indian speaks five languages and a convent-educated student speaks one. It was Ananthamurthy who suggested that Indians should look at things in terms of front yard and backyard not centre-periphery. The front yard is official, ideological and formal, the backyard about gossip, storytelling. Let us create conviviality about China. It will make us more Indian and confidently Indian.
I am suggesting just one exercise as an illustrative example. Let us propose a Himalayan project. Himalayas is a subject of trusteeship which Nepal, Bhutan, India, China and others share. Let us study it together rather than measure the length of border roads. A conversation like this goes further than any contract and memo-randum of understanding. It will add to the power of our universities. (In fact, why not make Nalanda the new centre for Chinese, Buddhist thought?) It will give us an opportunity to say in Chinese what the Chinese may not be able to articulate themselves.
All this shows that security kills the imagination and democracy and diversity opens it up. It is time to invite every Indian to be Chinese so that he can be more Indian.