Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


An India-China nightmare

December 13, 2012


I ENJOYED Pankaj Mishra’s well-researched episodes from Asia’s intellectual history that string together his thesis on how the East had had enough of the West’s political bullying and cultural domineering.

While he doesn’t pretend to strive for Frantz Fanon’s biting survey of the sociology of colonialism, Mishra’s assembly of historical vignettes from Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru in India; Liang Qichao and Sun Yatsen in China; Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim at the waning of the Ottoman Empire, among the intellectuals who shaped Asia’s liberation from colonialism, make up for the unintended lapse.

From the ruins of the empire, the revolt against the West and the remaking of Asia would have made for a more solid argument, however, had India’s current search for an apparently comprador role in the regional and global power play not let down the team, particularly so in the face of a virulent neocolonial onslaught.

Take an example from last week when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s point man for China was at pains to play down his navy chief’s remarks about protecting Delhi’s national interests in the choppy seas surrounding a cluster of islands off the Chinese mainland.

The Chinese hissed a terse response at the prospect of India searching for oil in what Beijing considers its domain. The misconceived fracas flagged the question: does India have a genuine stake in the faraway region, and enough for it to be prepared to poke China in the eye?

Or is it yet another case of Indian history repeating itself — being ready to dispatch troops to fight someone else’s battles as the country did in the colonial era?

Indian troops fought in Europe and Africa. And they fought in Afghanistan for the British only to be trounced on one occasion by Malala of Maiwand, whose name the current young heroine from the Swat Valley has taken. They fought the Chinese in China.

Given the pattern of India’s comprador drift in several self-evident ways, its thinly veiled craving to be aligned with America’s naval build-up in the Pacific region may have prompted the naval chief’s comments.

One should have thought though that a surefooted option for India was to talk out the differences with China as it is in any case doing.

Moreover, the greater good lies in accepting a debate on contentions made by Neville Maxwell among others on what really transpired in the build-up to the 1962 military stand-off, rather than frowning on a keen discussion or keeping his book banned for decades.

The present Indian stance is rooted in a similar past, which is what may have partly prompted many Chinese in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to see India as the prototypical ‘lost’ country, as Mishra observes, “one whose internal weakness, exploited by invaders, had forced it into a state of subjugation that was morally and psychologically shameful, as well as politically and economically catastrophic”.

While some of the author’s examples may not be new or revealing they do come together to explain the psychologies at work today.

“For ordinary Chinese, there were visible symbols of this Indian self-degradation in their own midst: Parsi businessmen from Bombay who acted as middlemen in the British opium trade with China; and Sikh policemen in treaty ports like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hankou, whom their British masters periodically unleashed on Chinese crowds. Indian soldiers had done the bulk of the fighting in British wars in China for nearly a century after the first opium war in 1841. Indian soldiers from the 37th Madras Native Infantry feature in one of China’s most famous patriotic legends, the so-called Sanyuanli episode, in which the Chinese defeated British troops.”

For the better-equipped Indians winning for their colonial paymasters was a routine affair. Mishra tells us of how 3,000 Indian soldiers assisted the British annexation of Hong Kong in 1841. More men were brought in from among the Muslims of the Punjab to man British garrisons in Hong Kong and Singapore. “Indian clashes with local Chinese, which usually ended with the brutal suppression of the latter, were frequent. The biggest of these occurred in 1899 as the British moved to occupy the New Territories on Mainland China.”

Naturally, Indians were regarded with suspicion, even contempt. In 1886, recalls Mishra, one Chinese writer described the Sikhs as “red-headed flies”, an allusion to their red turbans.

There were less flattering descriptions. He quotes a popular Tokyo-based Chinese journal Jiangsu which published a short story in 1904 describing a dreamlike journey into the future by “a feckless Chinese literati” named Huang Shibiao (literally, ‘representative of yellow elites’) and a mythical old man. Walking down the streets of Shanghai, they see a group of marching people led by a white man. The description in Mishra’s book goes thus:

“Shibiao looked closely at these people, and they all had faces black as coal. They were wearing a piece of red cloth around their heads like a tall hat; around their waists, they wore a belt holding wood clubs. Shibiao asked the old man: ‘Are these Indians?’ The old man said, ‘Yes, the English use them as police.’ Shibiao asked, ‘Why do they not use an Indian as the chief of police?’ The old man answered: “Who ever heard of that! Indians are people of a lost country; they are no more than slaves.”

Can India help Shibiao wake up from his dream to a more agreeable reality, bereft of his recourse to easy conclusions rooted in inverted racialism, a Chinese hallmark? It could start by remembering that the India-China border, trigger of their more recent misgivings is not located in the South China Sea.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.