Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai

The meteoric rise of India and China—two great, geographically and historically connected nations—in the last two decades or so has rekindled the interest of other nations in these two countries. All nations (or their bottom-line minding corporations) want to do business with India and China.

Well and good.

But what about India and China themselves? Are they interested in each other? And how much?

In terms of doing business with each other, they are definitely talking to each other. Coming back from a recent trip to China, Indian journalist Saeed Naqvi noted that India’s bilateral trade with China, only $5 billion in ’03, will have touched $34 billion next year.

Interestingly, contrary to what China’s giant size and manufacturing scale would suggest, China’s trade balance against India is only $4 billion. It means that between the two neighbours, the game, at least in trade terms, is not that much skewed.

But is that enough?

Can’t there be more than mere trade between India and China, the two giant nations who are fulfilling the prophecy that the 21st century will be the century of Asia?

Looking back, centuries ago, India and China were the world’s leading civilizations. This was much before the flourishing of the Christian and the Islamic worlds. In those centuries, there were great exchanges taking place between India and China. Descriptions of China’s famous silk are found in classical Sanskrit literature. Buddhism traveled to China and became a widely followed religion. Chinese scholars traveled to India (especially to the University in Nalanda, present day Bihar in India) in search of knowledge and enlightenment. Indian scholars and mathematicians were invited to china by the Chinese emperors. Some of them occupied the highest positions in China’s scientific institutions.

Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen has written extensively on this subject. In his seminal book, The Argumentative Indian, he has thrown great light on this shared past of India and China, and how time has come full circle to enable these nations to once again live up to their past cultural and scientific glory.

Professor Sen was in Singapore last week (July 13) to chair the inaugural meeting of the Nalanda Mentor Group. This group, established by India and Singapore governments, wants to revive the famed Nalanda University as a centre for learning and inter-faith dialogue.

Speaking to a group of Indians in a talk organized by Singapore’s India Club (July 13), Professor Sen said that India and China should learn a few things from each other. “I want India to learn from China’s health and hygiene policies and I want China to learn democracy and public reasoning from India,” he said. (I’m quoting from memory as I did not take notes during the talk)

If the two nations were so close together, in culture and business, for centuries, why haven’t they tried in the last half a century to revive their relationship in a way that would befit these two civilizations?

Even I don’t have an answer to that question, said Professor Sen. Tracing back the relationship between India and China after India’s independence, he said that the problems started during the time of Nehru itself. He also mentioned that foreign powers might also have been involved in “poisoning” the relationship between the two countries. Professor Sen mentioned that case of the Indian airplane (Indian Princess) that was hired to transport the Chinese delegation to the Bandung Summit which had crashed killing all the Chinese members of the delegation and the only survivors were the pilots and crew members who were Indians.

I did not know about this incident as it was before my time. So, I googled about it and found out. The Time magazine reported on April 25, 1955 (Crash Report) that the Chinese side blamed the American secret service and Chiang Kai-shek (Taiwan?) for this disaster.

Commenting on the Indian government, while Professor Sen appreciated its policies, he also expressed his disappointment with regard to India’s foreign policy. He cited the case of Burma. India had a moral stand on Burma but due to trade with China, he said, India had sacrificed its moral stand and succumbed to the Chinese pressure.

I hope, on the whole, a revived Nalanda University will emerge as the symbol of India and China’s renewed and reinvigorated relationship. I am sure that under Professor Sen’s enlightened guidance, it will not be reduced to just a token of the past memories.

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