Event ReportsPublished on Sep 16, 2019
Understanding China: Voices from India’s North-east

Dr Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, ORF Kolkata in his opening remarks informed the house that this discussion marks a geographical departure from the Indian Ocean region towards the Himalayan neighbour - China. Dr Ghosh informed that this research was a part of the ongoing project at ORF, Kolkata on India-China connectivity. Understanding the perception of north-east India about China is important, as this region connects India with China. Dr Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Visiting Distinguished Fellow, ORF Kolkata, while chairing the session mentioned that there was a large scale information asymmetry in understanding China on the Indian side as compared to India’s knowledge about the prominent western nations such as the US. Dr Bandyopadhayay highlighted that it was essential to bolster our understanding of  China from political, economic, civilizational and strategic point of view.

Professor Rakhahari Chatterji, Advisor, ORF Kolkata, who discussed the quantitative findings of the research, began the presentation by citing Li Xin’s article in World Policy - one that mentioned the lack of knowledge and awareness of the Chinese  regarding India and a popular public perception in China that was shaped by the same. This provided the impetus for undertaking the investigation regarding the perception of Indians living along India’s north-eastern border and assessing it against the backdrop of India’s evolving foreign policy discourse vis-à-vis China.

Briefing the findings from the study, Prof. Chatterji mentioned that the overwhelming section of respondents perceived China to be a ‘strong’ country as against ‘rich’ and ‘expansionist’ one. An interesting finding was that people from Sikkim mostly had a ‘friendly’ opinion of China whereas the popular perception in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam was mixed. Prof. Chatterji also emphasized that even though the mainstream populace in rest of India was of the opinion that China's support to Pakistan was a major issue, the present study hardly found  it as a prominent issue. Moreover, contrary to the conventional wisdom, respondents from Arunachal Pradesh mostly believed that territorial aggression by China was not much of a possibility . The study also reveals that negotiation and cooperation with China were largely favoured by the young respondents as well as by those who were better placed in  society.

Dr. Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, who dealt with the qualitative part of the report, explained that understanding the qualitative aspect was  essential for unraveling the multi-layered nuances of the respondents' expressions  which might sometimes escape the quantitative study. She delved into the points of divergences between the quantitative and qualitative study and attempted to explain the apparent “contradictions.” Dr Basu Ray Chaudhury highlighted that some of the key observations were that the perceptions varied from one state to another; from place to place in the same state, and also between generations in a particular place. Despite some subtle apprehension in Arunachal Pradesh regarding China’s  territorial claims,  memories of 1962 in Tawang, especially, are not necessarily negative. Dr Basu Ray Chaudhury also mentioned that this perception, however, varies from Itanagar to Tawang, with Itanagar following the overall narrative of the state. She further pointed out that in Assam; too, memories of 1962 played an important role, especially in Tezpur. But since Assam also faces issues related to building of dams, river disputes also feature in the general perception of the people with respect to China. In Sikkim, however, due to lack of major border disputes, responses look at border issues from a distance. The perception in Sikkim, therefore, is more focused on the economic issues rather than questions on territoriality. The overall perception can be viewed as a gradual shift from subtle yet comprehensible apprehensions to a nature of benign cooperative engagement between India and China.

Mr Ambar Kumar Ghosh, Research Assistant, ORF Kolkata, dealt with the frequently used words and expressions of the respondents that came out in the course of the survey. He highlighted that the respondents of Arunachal Pradesh on the one hand showed some implicit as well as explicit discomfort regarding Chinese territorial claims, on the other,  they also expressed  an overarching desire for peace and healthy relations with China. For the respondents of Assam, the war memory of 1962 and river dispute with China finds considerable mention but here also expressions of reconciliation can be traced. Finally, respondents of Sikkim take a relaxed view with more interest in bolstering cultural and economic relations with China.

Mr.Ashish Chakraverti, senior journalist, while commenting on the presentation, drew the attention of the house to the fact that perception of China in northeastern parts of India is supposed to be different from other parts of India due to northeast’s geographical proximity with China. Hence, history of their cultural and economic co-dependency is also special and unique. Mr Chakraverti highlighted that moving from the suspicious demeanor towards India in the past, now China has become far more interested in proliferating trade relationship with India, especially through northeastern States. He concluded with the suggestion that a general understanding of present economic situation and past trade and cultural ties should be kept in mind while constructing the picture of perception of China in the northeastern India.

The second discussant, Dr. Anindya Jyoti Majumder, Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University suggested that as the presentation was  based on the data that was collected in 2015,  it will be interesting to further conduct a post Doklam survey as views are likely to have been impacted by those developments. Dr Majumder observed that the presentation has reaffirmed that people who live close to the theatre of conflict are more in favour of negotiations as compared to those who live further away and who therefore find it easier to clamour for war. And, as the respondents for this survey are young, educated and mostly professionals, more support for integration and cooperation is expected rather than a show of arms. He further cautioned that perceptions are often manufactured and the notions about the nation or regional identity that are consequently created are, many a times, artificial constructs. It is thus very difficult to actually come to any broad conclusion with regard to the actual nature of perceptions of the people. He concluded that since there has been very little effort to understand India’s public perception of China, this project is an immensely crucial starting point.

The Chair concluded the session by highlighting that it was an imperative on India’s part to engage with China, not only diplomatically but also academically,  more importantly,  in the cyber space in order to have a more comprehensive understanding about its largest neighbor.

* The report was compiled by Ambar Kumar Ghosh with inputs from Soumya Bhowmick, Roshan Saha, Sohini Bose, Sayanangshu Modak and Jaya Thakur.

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