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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Trust, but verify

Published on :-26 May 2008

Sometimes to make a headline hit, we tend to break the bridge.

The passionate offensive that we saw in news reports about China changing the dates of the Kailas Mansarovar pilgrimage tells the same sad story about us –dependence on secondary sources to make news that is music to the hawks and TRP retailers but bad in intent and wrong in content.

The pilgrimage was not cancelled, it continues after a certain period. The facilities and infrastructure provided by China is good, our Ministry of External Affairs is painstakingly organising the yatra to the satisfaction of most pilgrims, bilateral trade has shown an extraordinary rise even during the Tibet imbroglio and both nations are signing new agreements signalling warmth and mutual understanding. Yet, news items appearing on Indian television channels and print media reflect lack of objectivity, often toeing the blind anti-China attitude of the embedded US journalists.

Have we become addicted to a negatively nuanced fixation with China?

I have never read any news about Hindu pilgrims in New York Times, a paper that loves to publish Delhi's secular Taliban practicing academic shamanism and looking at Hindu right from a fundamentalist mindset of Marthas and Witzels. So, I was surprised to find its interest in reporting the 'plight' of Hindu pilgrims, awaiting a call for a Kailas Mansarovar sojourn through the Tibet region. The report doesn't quote either Indian or Chinese foreign ministry sources but draws its conclusion in a way that would target the Chinese and give them a negative image in the western world, and of course transfer that to Indian readers too.

Unfortunately we don't have enough reporters in Beijing and depend on just two people to present China with an Indian perspective. I wonder why we are allowing ourselves to be a playground of American games against China. Our bilateral issues should be seen and tackled from Delhi's eyes and not through the western media known for its coloured blinkers. There are a number of Indians, who like any other copycat, blindly follow Capitol Hill’s perspectives and should be left at their place. But why does the mainline Indian media, which prides itself on being “objective, transparent and ethical”, fall into the western trap of illogical China bashing? The way a section of the media has projected the postponement of first two batches of the Kailas Mansarovar Yatra has conveyed wrong perceptions, based on wrong presumptions and added to the woes of the yatris and the agencies handling the yatra. The fact is that the yatra has not been cancelled nor is the Ministry of External Affairs insensitive to the feelings of the yatris. The Chinese were told the sensitivities of the Hindu pilgrims and finally agreed that the yatra must be continued, albeit a little delayed, so as to avoid the period when the Olympic torch is journeying inside Tibet.

Break the old mould

Our External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is visiting China in the first week of June and he will hold formal talks with the Chinese government as a follow-up to Dr Manmohan Singh's visit last year. Fortunately India's foreign policy has been showing remarkable consistency in rising above party lines and changes in the colour of South Block. Though the Vajpayee era shines brightest of them all on the Delhi-Beijing route even as per the Chinese admission, we can easily say that the significant achievements of Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao were further consolidated and taken forward by successive governments.

In times of such “crisis reporting” the latest trade figures show we have touched the 18 billion dollar mark in the first quarter of the year – a neat 60 per cent growth over the first quarter of the last year. This means bilateral trade may safely cross the 45 to 50 billion-dollar mark by year-end. And the caravan moves on. During Mukherjee's China visit an agreement to relax the visa regime will be signed and while Beijing has allowed Jet Airways to fly on the Delhi-Shanghai-Los Angeles sector, Delhi has agreed to allow a fourth Chinese airline to fly between Mumbai and Shanghai. The other Chinese airlines operating on this route are Air China, China Eastern and China Southern. During Jaswant Singh's period as External Affairs Minister, a significant agreement was signed to exchange data on hydrology on Brahmaputra during the flood season. It lapsed in 2007 but has been revived recently.

It is noteworthy that the help India provided the earthquake-hit Chengdu region was among the largest China received from anywhere. Indian cargo planes carrying five million dollars worth of relief material, especially tents for the quake-hit area that was lashed by heavy rain, were among the first relief carriers to make it to the region. The relief material sent by India, which included tents, sleeping bags, ready to use food items and medicines, was received with great appreciation by the Chinese. The last Indian cargo relief plane will land in Chengdu this Sunday.

China needs more Indian attention

Having visited different regions of China in various seasons, I can say there is an enormous amount of goodwill for India among the common Chinese. They respect India for being the land of Buddha and call all Indians “Indu” (pronounced as “Indoo (Hindu)”. There is no bitterness for anything Indian and Indian songs, music and even yoga are becoming very popular. I saw students at Sichuan University returning after a midnight study session, gleefully listening to Bollywood music. In Chengdu, Shanghai, and many other metros, yoga centres bearing names like the one I saw – Rishikesh Yoga Chamber – are growing in numbers and popularity. Indian handicraft, sarees, salwar kameez, kurta pyjama,and bindis are new fashion statements in many areas. In Sichuan province such shops have beautifully carved names in Devnagari script – like Bharatiya Kala Kendra. And it works. Indian restaurants with vegetarian dishes, served by Chinese girls in pucca Punjabi dress with two long parandas (stylish hair tails) and chunni around their necks are no more a matter of curiosity but a usual occurrence.

Such a situation demands a closer and serious look at our relationship with our neighbour who is often described as the biggest challenge and threat to us by security pundits. This challenge is thought to be not just military and economic but even relates to global influence. Even in that case, we need to know our immediate neighbour and civilisational icon since a thousand years with a little more attention and focus. Learn Chinese, visit China should be our new slogan for Track Two travellers.

If we have a thousand milestones of close relations and respect for each other's past that shows a unique continuity of civilisational traits, the other side of the coin shows deep differences on certain vital issues too. We must learn to address them firmly but calmly. China has never supported us on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, Kashmir and UN Security Council membership. When we say: look jihadi terrorists are the main mischief-makers in the valley and they are being financed and trained in the jihadi art of murders by Pakistan, China looks the other way and says in Confucian mode – well you both have to sit and settle the issue amicably. If you have your side of the story, there is another side too. China has not accepted Kashmir as an integral part of India.

But when the same situation arises for China, they are very adamant and use the harshest possible words. Just one line was uttered by a Tibetan Youth Congress leader in Delhi implying that when all non-violent methods are exhausted without bringing any positive result, violent methods will be in vogue. Immediately the Chinese picked it up and termed the Dalai Lama a terrorist and refused to engage the Buddhist leader in a dialogue. The way they describe the Dalai Lama with hate and disdain should be noted.

But then who said diplomacy is charity? To negotiate the impossible and be firm on your commitments alone wins respect from the rival.

Are the Chinese afraid of Hindu pilgrims?

Still, courtesy demands we say thanks to Beijing that it didn't cancel this year's Indian yatra. The tours from Kathmandu have been cancelled for this year completely and no foreigner is being allowed into Tibet till the Olympic games conclude. Though from an Indian perspective, the rescheduling of the Kailas yatra certainly revealed a nervous Beijing and shows that in spite of rising high in the power stakes, China remains vulnerable to small threats and gets shaky easily. After all, why should the Chinese be afraid of Hindu pilgrims visiting Tibet to pray to Lord Shiva? Hindus have been doing it since ages without any hindrance. The most famous pilgrims to Kailas have been the Jain Tirthankar Rishabh Dev, Adi Sankara, Guru Nanak and Sri Neelkanth (Swaminarayan Bhagwan). It is the place of our Lord Shiva and the source of four great rivers that Indians adore and worship – namely Indus, Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Karnali. According to the great scientist monk Swami Pranavananda, the Kailas region has also the hidden source of Ganga. The centuries-old unhindered access to Kailas and Manasarovar was stopped in the wake of 1962 war with China by the then Communist regime. It was restarted in 1981 thanks to the efforts of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had signed an agreement with Beijing in 1979 as the then foreign minister.

As the news is reaching Delhi, Chinese had a three day programme to take out the Olympic torch through Lhasa but has been reduced to just one day now – on 19th June to be exact and it has to be a grand show of one China, one people. Obviously, as a source said, they do not want to take a risk of having it coloured by any adventurous Hindu pilgrim with a pro-Dalai Lama slogan or any gesture that would make big news about repression in this sensitive zone.

An overkill, a shaken Beijing

This is certainly overkill, a step that is bound to attract more attention onto the Tibet issue and shows an utter lack of diplomatic skill on the part of an overanxious and nervous Beijing.

But then, it's their country and the decision has to be theirs. If at all we have to protest, do so, but to achieve what? Our naïve bravado betrays a lack of proper understanding about China. I am of the view that even if we have to oppose China, fire at them or make them pay for offending our sentiments and claiming our land, it has to be done from Delhi's point of view and strength and not on borrowed and useless paper missiles routed through foreign wire agencies that present a different China to us. Trust your neighbour, but verify (to borrow Ronald Reagan's famous words).

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