Friday, January 22, 2010

Meeting the Chinese challenge

Although the Indian Minister of Defence has denied it, the local officials in Ladakh, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), have arrived at the conclusion that during the last 20 to 25 years the country has lost a “big chunk” of land to the Chinese along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the line that separates India with the illegally occupied Indian territory by the Chinese. It was a finding of the Ladakh district administration, in association with the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the organisations which man the LAC. They concluded “We are withdrawing from the LAC and our area has shrunk over a period of time”. Stating that the “The Chinese are pushing us back from our own territory” the note suggested that the boundary question “should be settled once for all”.

Obviously, the survey was carried out as a sequel to several instances of Chinese aggressive posturing on the LAC last year. Two Chinese choppers violated the Indian airspace and buzzed the village of Demchok in Ladakh. The Chinese even objected to construction of a road up to the village which is well within the LAC. The J&K Government, apparently, feeling a little unsure of the entailing consequences, promptly stopped the work.

Then again, Chinese troops breached the unmanned border and intruded 1.5 kilometres deep into Indian territory in the Chumar sector east of Leh, and painted “China” on stray rocks and boulders. The Indian border patrol discovered the signs of Chinese intrusions last July. Sniffing a story to catch the Government on the wrong foot, the media went on an overdrive, with the electronic media telecasting pictures of the boulders with “China” writ large on them in Cantonese. Keen to bring down the temperature, the India’s defence establishment played down the reports of incursions.

Similar reports had earlier emanated from the eastern sector of the India-China border. However, in October 2009 it was a different ball game on display. Indian Prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh happened to visit Arunachal Pradesh, a state that borders Tibet the status of which the latter holds in dispute. His visit, essentially for canvassing for elections to the state legislative assembly, brought forth a virtual torrent of undiplomatic verbiage. Expressing its “strong dissatisfaction” over Dr. Singh’s visit to the state, China demanded India to address its “serious concerns and not trigger disturbances in the disputed region so as to facilitate the healthy development of China-India relations”. The whole thing was quite inexplicable as Dr. Singh was not the first Prime Minister of India to have visited the state.

This was not all. Even the visit of Dalai Lama to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh early in November 2009 came in for adverse notice of the Chinese. Their Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement expressing dissatisfaction over the permission given by the Indian Government to the Tibetan leader to visit Tawang and its spokesperson branded Dalai Lama as “anti China” merely because he visited the monastery located therein. The more than three centuries old monastery is one of the biggest outside Lhasa. Dr. Singh clarified that the Tibetan spiritual leader was an honoured guest in India and was free to travel anywhere within the country. Latter’s visit to Tawang, however, sent the mercury soaring in China.

Mild-mannered as he is, Dr. Manmohan Singh, made a mention of the recent Chinese belligerence during his state visit to Washington in November 2009 with his characteristic mildness. While addressing a US think tank, he pointed out that India had taken note of a “certain amount of assertiveness” on the part of China lately. He went on to say that he did not “fully understand” the reasons for the recent Chinese actions.

Some Indian China-watchers say that the Chinese cussedness in so far as India is concerned is Dalai Lama-centric, that is, they are annoyed with India for having given asylum to the Tibetan spiritual leader. It seems, during his Delhi visit in 1956 Zhou Enlai, the then premier of the People’s Republic of China, gave a very broad hint to his Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru, that any Indian assistance to the Tibetan leader would be treated as an unfriendly act. The continued rebellion in Tibet in the early 1950s perhaps gave the Chinese a hunch that Dalai Lama would eventually seek assistance from India. And, when India played host to Dalai Lama in 1959, Mao is reported to have ticked off India as an enemy. That, perhaps, explains the Chinese policy of keeping the Indo-Chinese border on the boil even after China resolved its land border disputes with 12 of its neighbours, including Russia, North Korea and Vietnam despite brief skirmishes with each.

That apart, one has to reckon with the Chinese irredentism. According to Michael Richardson, a former editor of International Herald Tribune, China is the leading proponent of irredentism and it lays claims on vast territories – both land and maritime – on grounds of vague ethnicity. Claims against India, substantial as they seem to be, are perhaps receiving special treatment.

Bill Powell, writing in Time magazine (August 10, 2009) said that with its growing economic importance China has increasingly “started throwing its weight around”... and “push other governments to see things China’s way”. From India’s viewpoint, that, perhaps, is a more accurate assessment of China. While it has been objecting to developmental activities within the LAC in Ladakh calling it disputed, China has merrily been carrying out infrastructural development on its side of the LAC as if that is not disputed. Worse, having gobbled up Aksai Chin in 1950s, China has occupied large swathes of land in Ladakh. One doesn’t know whether it is Chinese irredentism or Chinese expansionism?

Even if he does not understand the new Chinese “assertiveness”, Dr. Singh has to appreciate the fact that he is up against a bully. Playing down the Chinese aggressive posturing only betrays the softness of the Indian State. Dr. Singh, therefore, would do well to prepare the country to meet any eventuality vis-a-vis China. Its military unpreparedness, as was splashed all over recently, to meet the threats from its northern and western neighbours had alarmed the nation. The country needs to shore up its defences. True, it may not be possible to match the military might that the Chinese have built up over the last couple of decades but India can surely manage to develop enough deterrent capability to dissuade anyone from treating it as a push-over. There are enough resources available within the country. Dr. Singh only has to evolve a political consensus to clamp down on large-scale waste and rampant corruption, both at the Centre and in the states. The attitude towards corruption, particularly in the high places, has to change. Besides, decisive steps, as promised, to recover the billions of dollars illegally stashed away in tax havens abroad are urgently needed.

If the country is economically and militarily strong none would ever think of messing with it.


(Published by Indian News & Features Alliance, New Delhi, on 22nd January 2010 under the title "Halt Chinese push-over"

Monday, January 4, 2010

Muharram of my childhood

As one grows old one tends to look back into the past. Any event or festival or ceremony takes the mind years back and associated memories come flooding back before the mind’s eyes in the shape of lifelike moving images, almost like the present-day videos. As one views them one gets enthralled, losing all sense of time in watching something that actually takes place only in the cerebrum.

Something like that happened to me the other day. It was Muharram, the day of mourning for Muslims for the martyrdom of Husain ibn Ali, who is revered by all Shia for fighting tyranny. My mind effortlessly travelled back in time and started retrieving images from early 1940s of Muharram of my childhood in Gwalior, a princely Indian State in Central India, ruled by the then young, barely-in-his-twenties, Jiwajirao Scindia, grandfather of Jyotiraditya Scindia, currently a Minister in the Government of India.

Truly secular, Gwalior State, now at this distance of time, seems to have been the epitome of the famed Indian “composite culture”. Life mostly revolved around the Maharaja, a benign feudal, who used to actively participate in most of the religious festivals. A major festival, whether of Hindus, Muslims or any other community, was nothing unless he was a part of it. Every year on the occasion of Muharram he would come out in procession to the local Karbala. Perched on a black and white horse dressed in his ceremonial richly worked-on angarkha, laden with assorted jewels and with his trademark Maratha pagri placed on his head with just a hint of a tilt to its left he would ride down the city roads. His numerous ministers (locally known as sardars) and important officials dressed likewise would be in tow on horses more or less of similar kind.

Like on Dussehra, it was carnival time of sorts – of those innocent days. Roads would be blocked for hours – more for ensuring a clear passage than for security – as the Maharaja would come out among his people. None would mind the inconvenience. Those were unhurried times. People would go about their businesses through the mass of humanity consisting of rural folk assembled on the pavements. Villagers in large numbers from the hinterland visiting for the occasion would camp overnight on the footpaths. For them witnessing the procession was incidental; they would mostly come to see their loved and revered Maharaja during one of his rare public appearances. Gwalior, seemingly, bursting at its seams, would see frenetic activity. I remember my siblings and I would thread our way with my parents through the milling crowds to reach the house an acquaintance of my father that had a veranda that offered a ringside view of the proceedings.

As the hour of the procession approached the villagers would change into their best in honour of the Maharaja. Generally, the fresh whites of their dresses would be topped by huge colourful turbans with flowing tails. Their women, veiling their faces with their flamboyant saris, would remain in their men’s shadows. As soon as the Maharaja came into view the crowd would burst into a huge roar and the people on the pavements would jostle to get a better view of him. Some would be up on their legs, others would crane their necks from behind, holding their children high above them on their shoulders or climb on trees or any vantage point just to see the Maharaja. As their revered one passed by, they would shout in unison “Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia ki jai ” .

The crowds used to be thickest near Kampoo, which once used to be the camp of the Scindias and where the Imambara was located. It was also the point of origin of the procession. The Imambara, now much more than a century old, was truly impressive. Of Islamic architectural design, its what seemed to be frightfully high ceiling and mammoth dimensions accommodated the several-storied tazia of the Scindias as it was assembled bit by bit. A decade or so later, I recall, the Imambara became the venue of the national badminton championships in 1952. It had enough space for stands on all sides of the courts for spectators. It was in this Imambara that Nandu Natekar dethroned TN Seth, the then reigning national badminton champion.

I still remember the huge shiny golden multi-storied tazia made on behalf of the Maharaja (the like of which I am yet to see again) leading numerous other smaller shiny and richly-coloured ones of lesser dignitaries, Muslim organisations and individuals along with several tall bright and colourful alams in a seemingly unending stream. They would slowly wend their way down the streets followed by hundreds of mourners, a few with blood on their backs from the iron chains that they lashed themselves with uttering the anguished “ya Husain, hum na hue”.

In Bhopal, too, Muharram is observed with ritualised fervour. It is, however, gradually acquiring a celebratory character. Living as I do, close to Bhopal’s Karbala, I find the place lit up and illuminated with myriad lamps. A Ferris wheel is installed near it and numerous temporary food stalls are erected selling mouth-watering meat preparations and sweets, including the inevitable jalebies. Though loud-speakers broadcast wailing music there is, generally, an air of festivity around the place, giving it the ambience of an amusement park. Processions with numerous tazias and alams come from various parts of the city and converge around Karbala in a huge mass blocking all traffic. One cannot negotiate even the recently constructed VIP Road, the main artery between the north and the south of the town.

But for me, somehow, it is not the same thing. There is a general air of disorder and boisterousness with ear-splitting noise; the tazias are far smaller and the alams pale and pedestrian. Besides, the gilt, the pomp and pageantry seem to be missing.

Or is it that I am deluded by my nostalgia for those good old bygone days?