Two ancient civilisations, India and China, came out of their cocoons into the modern world in 1947 and 1949 respectively in very different ways: is a conflictual equation therefore their destiny?
Indifference to the British Parliament’s debates prior to the Indian Independence Act 1947 may lead to faulty conclusions.
Clement Atlee’s was an elaborate exposition, on why independence was being bestowed on India. The June 3 plan was, after all, known as the Mountbatten plan. At the request of Indian leaders, he stayed on as the first governor-general of independent India.
It was all very chummy. The friendship with Lord Mountbatten was so deep that the Nehrus, particularly Vijayalakshmi Pandit, were regular visitors to Broadlands, his family estate in Hampshire. India’s first PM nurtured the friendship with great care: he was even averse to observing 1857 centenary as “Dickie” was still alive.
Mao Zedong, meanwhile, was going through the rigours of the Long March across China, recorded in Red Star over China by Edgar Snow. In 1942, when Chiang Kai-shek visited India as supreme commander of the Allies in China during World War II, Mao Zedong’s Communist army was planning to chase him to Taiwan.
China had come through the purgatory of a revolution. Friends have helped refresh my mind on their respective beginnings by furnishing classic movies on India’s and China’s first decade.
Let’s begin with Breaking with Old Ideas on China during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. The CCP’s regional committee picks one of its energetic non-academic cadres, with experience of land, as principal of an agricultural college.
Traditional teachers, most of them veterans of one of the many Long March stretches, resent the new principal’s mobilisation of students and peasants to shift the college from an urban to a rural location.
The principal believes it would provide greater synergy between knowledge and its application in agriculture. The new college is actually built by students and peasants.
There is a delicious exchange between the principal and faculty: should a chapter on Mongolian horses be replaced by a study of buffaloes who were falling ill.
Buffaloes win the day. We would be justified in screwing up our noses at frequent references to “Mao’s thoughts” if they had been in the way of a $10 trillion edifice, which is what China is today. I would invent gods to bow before if our economy were even a fraction of that sum, with one proviso: can we honestly claim we have shown fidelity to our Constitution, to Justice, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity?
Reverting to the movies: transition from Chetan Anand’s debut movie with haunting melodies by Ravi Shankar, Neecha Nagar in 1946, to Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen in 1953, only amplifies rural distress, aggravated by exploitation.
The ruling classes dispossess the peasants of their meagre holdings, with promises of an elusive housing project here and an industrial unit there, forcing rural folk (as in Do Bigha Zameen) to turn to cities to eke out an existence.
Not only is the dream of hope in Neecha Nagar, at Independence’s cusp, shattered but it leads to disappointments as post-Independence decades pass.
Raj Kapoor, of course, deserves salutations: in Awara and Shree 420 he inaugurates a trend in popular cinema to look at “inequality” straight in the eye. In this, he is 50 years ahead of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
A popular song dwells on all the houses cornered by the rich while “we sleep on footpaths”. It is graphically summed up by Sahir Ludhianvi in Phir Subah Hogi.
Cheen o Arab hamara/ Hindostaan hamara/ Rehne ko ghar naheen hai/ Saara Jahaan hamara.
The song taunts Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Hindi Chini bhai bhai”, non-alignment, Afro-Asian solidarity as much as it does “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”.
Summon a procession of these images in the mind’s eye and note the stunning continuity in the march of the dispossessed millions beginning with the lockdown of March 24 till, say, mid-May, when a sort of fatigue set in -- humankind cannot take too much tragedy.
The country has, in the meantime, accumulated 138 billionaires and millions upon millions below the poverty line -- in the 73 years of independence.
Confronting us is a neighbour, China, with a comparable population and depth of civilisation, but which built itself into a great power status on “atma nirbharta”, or self-sufficiency, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi dreams for India. Give me an egalitarian system guaranteed by the rule of law, and my comparisons stand withdrawn.
The hawkishness which informs out current chorus, that “India of 2021 is not the India of 1962”, ignores the accompanying truth: China of 2021 is not the China of 1962. It is challenging the United States. The author of the much-discussed Destined for War, Graham Allison, professor of government at Harvard
University, has used “Thucydides Trap” to describe the Sino-US jockeying. The truth to be distilled from the great Greek historian’s analysis and record of the 30 years’ war between Sparta and Athens (Peloponnesian wars) yields an abiding truth when an established power is challenged by a rising power, conflict occurs.
Supposing the established power is preoccupied and is craftily inclined to downgrade the game and shift it notionally to another ballpark? It projects the Thucydides logic to operate on the two Asian giants.
This would give the United States an elevation, a notional perch above the Asian combatants. But it takes two to clap -- so where is the rising challenger?