Imperialism today has new exemplars. The old bully boy attitude of the Trumps and the Americans is not necessary. Today’s bullies act as if it is they who have rights. The bully boys of today’s world will not allow any dissent, any thought pattern which differs from their official view of the world.
The earlier adage went Joseph Stalin coughed and the entire communist world caught cold. Today China throws a tantrum, mutters a threat and it expects all of Asia to fall in line. Today China is a world power but it has none of the idealism, the humanism, the little crisis of conscience the West had.
The West, at least, tried to practise hegemony with a heart. China promises a heartless hegemony.
China is a country that refuses to tolerate even the rumour of dissent.
China is a country that refuses to tolerate even the rumour of dissent. It often treats the countries around the way the Chinese empire treated its vassals.
I am emphasising this bully boy attitude because many of our elite wish that India would be like China. We want to be as assertive, decisive, display the arrogance and machismo of China. I always feel that the love the middle class feels for Narendra Modi is partly because of his promise to turn India into a power with a similar behavioural syndrome.
The recent controversy around the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang has to be seen with this context. The Dalai Lama is one of the world’s truly global figures. Along with Pope Francis, he is one of the few ethical figures left. Their ethics is based on care and compassion; a sense of conviction that right has to battle might.
One is reminded of Stalin’s cynical question. “How many battalions does the Pope have?” But the power and example of some of the Popes might outlast Stalin.
The Dalai Lama is a critical ethical figure who has made Tibet as a refugee nation, a symbol of refuge for many dissenting ideas. The work he has done on a critical idea of science should be an eye opener to the Indian elite which is almost slavish about science.
The Dalai Lama has added to India’s moral imagination.
His translator and associate, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, has produced a substantial critique of economics. But more powerfully, the Dalai Lama is the ethical litmus test for both India and China. One of the great acts of hospitality that Jawaharlal Nehru’s India performed was to give his holiness refuge.
In reciprocity, the Dalai Lama has added to India’s moral imagination. He has played the long staying refugee with grace, gratitude and creative dignity.
China is today waxing hysterical over the 81-year-old monk’s visit to Tawang, legendary home of the sixth Dalai Lama. The population is excited and almost euphoric. The very symbolic presence of the Dalai Lama threatens the regime. It has physical power but lacks the moral imagination of the monk. As he moves around Arunachal Pradesh, one realises how popular he is and all the Chinese dragon does is huff and puff.
Usually it should be enough, even to an India which quakes before China. But something of the magic of the monk has crept into Delhi and even India shrugs of the Chinese tantrums. The Chinese outrage and its language are worth witnessing. Its contempt for India and its unease about the mystique of the Dalai Lama are obvious.
The official China Daily replied that Beijing “would not hesitate to answer blows with blows.” The New York Times quotes another state-sponsored mouthpiece as asking “Can India afford the consequences?…With a GDP several times higher than India, with military capabilities reaching into the Indian Ocean, will Beijing lose to Delhi?”
The Dalai Lama visit is portrayed as subversive.
Meanwhile the laughing monk renews his compact with his people. The Chinese retaliate by promising to appoint the next Dalai Lama as if he is another Chinese vassal. The monk retains his composure saying that India has never misused him and also that it is up to the people to elect the next Dalai Lama.
It is a moment of simple ethics shrewdly finessing power. The chief minister of Arunachal pugnaciously adds that an independent Tibet, not China, is India’s true neighbour. Even the mandarins of Delhi must be a bit nervous. There is a truth in it. The Dalai Lama stands happy as an elf delighted to be a few metres from Chinese territory, as the Chinese watch helplessly and futilely.
True, they will not forgive the Dalai Lama or India. Yet, it is equally true that the monk, his teachings, his example, his presence remind China of its conscience outside, unafraid of the empire. A beautiful moment.
India, usually gross or crass in its foreign policy, for once is showing a maturity — a Chinese dragon playing a slapstick imperial power and Indian democracy seeing in the drama, the beauty of a free society.
No nonsense about security, boundary, realist politics. A fable fit for our time.