Event ReportsPublished on Aug 02, 2014
The use of past to pitch present-day India-China interaction is not a very helpful strategy because the situations, political entities were different and the role of Buddhism was more complex than acknowledged, according to Dr. Tansen Sen of the City University New York.
India-China Connectivity: Past and Present
The use of past to pitch present-day India-China interaction is not a very helpful strategy because the situations, political entities were different and the role of Buddhism was more complex than acknowledged. This point was highlighted by Dr. Tansen Sen, Associate Professor of History, Baruch College, City University New York, in his lecture, ’India-China Connectivity: Past and Present’ delivered at ORF Kolkata on August 2.

Dr. Sen supported this argument by highlighting the misconceptions surrounding ancient and contemporary relations between the two regions. He outlined the various problems in using the model of nation states for historical interactions. He also noted that direct contact and communications between "Indians" and "Chinese" may have been limited, especially when compared to imperial China’s interactions with other neighbouring peoples and polities.

Dr. Sen pointed out that the oft-repeated statement by politicians and diplomats about India and China having 2,000 years of "friendly interactions" distorts several historical facts and processes. According to Dr. Sen, this notion of 2000 years of India-China relations began in the early 20th century, when the notion of Pan-Asianism was being formulated by intellectuals in Japan, China, and India as response to European colonialism. The notion that intra-Asian relations were always peaceful and harmonious, especially before the arrival of European colonialists, was propagated by figures such as Rabindranath Tagore and Liang Qichao.

This notion of two-millennia long India-China friendship became a political necessity again after the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The narrative was used, Dr. Sen argued, not only as a diversion from the acrimonious debate over the war and the border dispute, but also to offer an alternative to the scholarly and journalistic discourse about the war. Thus the rhetoric of peaceful coexistence was used as a rhetoric during diplomatic exchanges and in the publications sponsored by the governments in the two countries.

Even during the 1950s, Dr. Sen contended, the governments in the two countries promoted the rhetoric of "Bhai-Bhai" despite significant mutual distrust with regard the border issue and the status of Tibet.In fact, the seeds of distrust, specifically about Jawaharlal Nehru, started with the Asian Relations Conference held in Delhi in 1947. The invitation to Tibet to the Conference as a separate country and the subsequent ambiguity over the status of Tibet on the part of the Indian government was blamed on Nehru by both the Guomindang and the Communist leaders. Dr. Sen provided an example of how the last Guomindang ambassador to India warned his country about Nehru’s intention to use Tibet as a buffer between India and China.

Similarly, Sardar Patel’s letter to Nehru, cautioning him about a possible military conflict with the Chinese is also indicative of the complex relations between India and China behind the "Bhai-Bhai" façade of the 1950s. Dr. Sen also argued that the Panchasheel Agreement was a compromise, which did not lead to a political accord, but rather created more misunderstanding.With the defection of Dalai Lama to India in 1959, the relations between India and China deteriorated rapidly.The distrust of the Chinese quickly manifested in India as several hundred Chinese immigrants in the country were interned and thousands were deported. This distrust of the Chinese, in Dr.Sen’s opinion, continues even today and is one of the main reasons for the failure to establish friendly relations between the two countries beyond the rhetoric.

Surveys done in China by PEW and other organizations indicate a lack of awareness and low favourable ratings regarding India and Indians among the Chinese people. Postings on social media sites also suggest that there is significant cynicism about India in China. For Dr. Sen,such mutual distrust and lack of awareness are most alarming problems in India-China relations today. The rhetoric of ancient relations and the government-sponsored cultural activities have clearly shown to be poorly conceived and planned, with no real impact. Still the two governments seem to be content with such ineffective aspects of "cultural diplomacy," which they think does not even merit a thorough assessment.

Dr. Sen concluded his talk by arguing that connectivity did not automatically result in mutual trust and awareness.The fact that the growth in bilateral trade during the past two decades has failed to have significant impact on resolving the India-China border dispute or promote mutual understanding suggests that the two governments must rethink how they would henceforth want to engage each other and encourage people-to-people exchanges. This should perhaps best be done by first discarding the rhetoric used to describe the past relations, then acknowledging the problems that exist at present, and subsequently coming up with ways to candidly addressing them.

Acting as a discussant on the presentation Dr. Suchandra Ghosh, Associate Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Calcutta University, said that first and foremost we have to remember that different regions of India were interacting with different regions of China. So when we study such interactions the geographical factors are also important. Usually when we refer to Buddhism in eastern India we mean the Buddhism practiced in Bengal and Bihar, but we often forget that Buddhism was present in Kumilla region, Mainamati and Chittagong in South-Eastern Bengal which are in present day Bangladesh. This region played a very crucial role in the Bay of Bengal network of interactions.

Agreeing with Dr. Sen that there were intermittent breaks in the process of interaction, Dr. Ghosh pointed out, one has to remember that some ritual practices of Mahayana Buddhism continued like offering of clay sealings/votive tablets.

Dr. Ghosh said that the clay tablets were also used by sea-farers as amulets. Avalokitesvara and Tara were the most common form of depiction in the said tablets. If we look at the collection of tablets from the regions of China, South East Asia and India, we find a common link.

Dr. Ghosh suggested, though the larger connectivity was gone, connections, linkages continued in many small ways. The presentations were followed by a lively discussion in which senior journalists, academics and members of the diplomatic community participated.

(The report is prepared by Mihir Bhonsale, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata).

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