I remember in the wonderful era of childhood before TV, our parents used to deluge with questions, riddles, songs which were composite questions. One hovered around the community solving it with other children. I wish I could transfer that sense of play and excitement to the problem-solving approaches we employ as adults turning every problem mode of understanding to a dismal science.
To me, the most dismal and illiterate of such sciences is international relations and security studies. They seem like Victorian disciplines corseted by ideas of aggression and war, where peace appears like a form of unemployment. In fact, security experts project their insecurities onto the subject, turning war into a perpetually iatrogenic exercise, where the expert is often the source of the disease.
When I look at the way India and China think of their relationships, I am astonished at their belligerence and the continuity of rhetorical chorus. Let us turn the problem into an opportunity. The danger is, can India become more securitarian, more like China as we face the issues of peace and war. Should we imitate China or in facing China can we add to the survival and imagination of Indian democracy?
Secondly, can we add something to the Chinese imaginations in this process? One thing is common today as nation states pursuing development and security; both China and India have been indifferent to the cost of human life. The question is, are we still civilisations or have we been reduced to nation states with little or no value frameworks.
To put it bluntly, can we outthink China? Or are two countries as nation states growing to be the great polluters, seed beds of new authoritarian styles rooted in current megalomania of nation states.
As one sees it now, China plans to be an authoritarian America open to consumption and literacy. As a mentality, it is the last remaining empire in the world. Its ambitions make Britain, USA look modest. The question is, do we want to be like China, a threat to the idea of freedom or can we become an alternative paradigm for the future.
Right now, neither country seems equipped for the future. They have different models of change. China moves from one paradigm to another, regardless of cost or democracy. It is a totalitarian regime that can be brutal about change. My question is how do we battle this gargantuan China of the future?
The responses are not easy because we have to think about the authoritarianism within ourselves. China is an opportunity for rethinking the way we have constructed the frontier, the way we have treated the tribes and our unquestioning acceptance of violence in the name of security. The removal of AFSPA is the first step. Thinking of it incrementally only increases the China in us. By opening out to new versions of democracy, India, in fact, makes the challenge sharper, not in a confrontational sense but in terms of plural visions of decent societies.
As we introspect about our societies, our civilisations and our democracy, we need to be more open to China. China, I suggest, should be part of the general education of every Indian. I think today a cosmopolitan India must know about China, Africa and Latin America and celebrate them. We have to recreate a new UNESCO between our three continents, understand and celebrate China as a relevant other. In an anthropological and ontological sense, we have to recognise that we are not complete without China. As neighbours, we are trustees to Chinese civilisation.
While being open to China, we have to look at it for future hypothesis, examine what a dialogue of civilisations between us would mean today. We also have to be open to the varieties of China beyond China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the huge NRI Chinese population across the world. China can be a mirror to the way both our societies imitate the West. Can understanding China help us stop being a mimic edition to the West?
Third, a debate between India and China has to be a debate about how we construct our cities, how each of us has been creative or obtuse about our informal economies. Years ago, during the enquiries of the Indian Industrial Commission, Alfred Chatterton, the great engineer, complained that “by heart” was an Indian word and that Indians had by hearted the British. We by hearted the English language, adopted Shakespeare, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta. I think we should by heart China to understand what an Indian other would be like.
This project should be cast as the classic opening of the Indian mind to other possibilities. The Chinese so far have shown a better sense of the long run, the capacity of a society to think in terms of 100 or 1000 years. It changes the way you think of everything from roads to livelihoods. While China is committed to development, India must insist on a pluralistic path which keeps nomad, tribal, pastoral and other marginal ways alive.
Both societies face the major challenge around education. Is the massified Chinese model with its obsession for ranking the way or can India create a more playful, plural system which suits our genius. China and India in that sense become a comparative study in choices of how large societies look at larger issues. It is only within this wider context of perspective can security sustain a sense of literacy. Our reports on the border are too predictable, our imagination too barricaded with barbed wires. Rather than play Punch and Judy of a new genocidal system, it is time India/China think of more creative ways to live in peace.