The Chinese may well read considerable political significance in the report that 18,171 young Indians are studying in China against 18,015 in the United Kingdom. Informal interaction at this level might help to bridge the gulf in understanding that today separates Asia’s two major nations, aggravating memories of the territorial dispute that led to the 1962 war leaving behind a legacy of bitterness.
China has always emphasised the importance of returning nationals. In fact, Soong Ching-ling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew the Manchu dynasty and founded the Chinese Republic, and died in 1981, wrote her university thesis in the United States on the impact that returning Chinese students would have on China’s modernisation. Japan and France helped to shape Zhou Enlai’s revolutionary thinking. Hongkong was territorially adjacent, but hundreds of young Chinese Singaporeans were sufficiently fired by Mao Zedong’s call to arms to take a boat to China. Deng Xiaoming looked to the Chinese not only returning from the US but still resident there to support his revolution to usher in socialism with Chinese characteristics. It should surprise no one if the Indians studying in China are expected to fulfil a similar transitional role once they return to India.
This is not a theme that has attracted much attention in this country. Given our complex love-hate relationship with Britain, Indians are reluctant to vest the colonial power with too many virtues. It’s fashionable to denounce Britain in the most pukka British accent available. But, there is little doubt that the British training of leaders like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Sri Aurobindo and Muhammad Ali Jinnah made a profound impact on nationalist thinking. Even leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai, who were educated entirely in India, learnt of democracy, the rights of man and parliamentary representation from the English syllabus and authors to which they were exposed. We were subject to the same foreign formative influence as many Chinese, but we were not honest enough to admit it.
There can be no question of China now replacing the UK as the source of influence and inspiration. But, just as the old saying has it that familiarity breeds contempt, familiarity also creates a comfort zone. Two instances come to mind to illustrate the absence of this so far as China is concerned. A friend in Delhi – a retired senior IAS officer who has intellectual pretensions since he also runs a think tank – once visited Beijing because a close relative was posted there. I asked him what he thought of Shanghai. He didn’t go to Shanghai. “What’s the point of visiting another Bombay?” he retorted. The other example concerning the same man didn’t concern China directly, but illustrated the complacent insularity of the well-placed Indian. He called the Straits of Malacca between the Malay peninsula and Sumatra the “Straits of Mlechha” because he was convinced that Indian mlechhas – outcasts of Hindu society – shaped the Suvarnabhumi and Majapahit empires. So many of us are governed by stereotypes of which we are not even aware. As E M Forster says in Two Cheers for Democracy, a cow in a pasture doesn’t know it’s fenced in. It believes the whole world is it’s to roam. We are prisoners of our stereotypes.
The specifics of differences – whether about Aksai Chin, the McMahon Line, the Brahmaputra river’s waters or Doklam – are another matter. I am talking about attitudes. It used to be said at one time that India rebuffed Chinese suggestions of a compromise package deal (probably trading Aksai Chin for the McMahon Line) because of the strong pro-Soviet lobby in the External Affairs Ministry. That lobby disappeared with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. What remains today as obstacles to a rapprochement are our own ignorance, incomprehension and inhibitions heightened by a lingering sense of grievance from 1962 and a heightened sense of national pride. That was evident in the emotive unanimous parliamentary resolution of 14 November 1962 which invoked “the flame of liberty and sacrifice” and “a fresh dedication to the cause of India’s freedom and integrity” to affirm “the firm resolve of the Indian people to drive out the aggressor from the sacred soil of India, however long and hard the struggle may be”.
Younger Indians are not aware of that solemn commitment. They did not taste the fear and humiliation of 1962 when Bomdila’s fall produced Nehru’s disturbingly dramatic broadcast that almost implied India was abandoning its north-east. They know only that China’s booming economy, worth $11.8 trillion, is nudging the US and might surpass it in the foreseeable future. They also know that every single one of India’s neighbours is anxious for closer ties with China. The only apparent exception is landlocked dependent Bhutan, and it has been suggested that the Bhutanese would happily come to formal terms with their all-powerful northern neighbour if their historical treaty-bound friend in the south allowed it.
Young Indians, who feel thwarted by the hurdle of the National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) in their quest for a medical qualification, are turning to China which is a cost-effective destination. China’s medical degrees are recognised by the Medical Council of India, and the course is conducted in English. A Chinese medical university usually charges between $2,000 and $3,000 for annual tuition while living costs another $1,000. Russia is a possible alternative, but there is a language problem in Russia, and many young Indians also feel that Russian graduates are less easily cleared by the MCI. China is now the third most favoured foreign nation for Indians going abroad to study. The US and UK still rank first and second but the latter has become less popular ever since London abolished post-qualification work visas. There were more than 13,500 Indian students in China in 2015, India ranking among the top 10 nations sending the highest number of students to Chinese universities. This is bound to rise as more and more global rankings recognise the quality of Chinese universities. Most Indian students now go to China to study medicine, but interest is growing in Chinese engineering and computer science courses as well.
Two points must be made clear. First, the Chinese appear to have an even more negative image of India than Indians do of China and its people. Second, to ask for better understanding is by no means to praise China. There is much to criticise and condemn in the country that saw no harm in the Tiananmen Square massacre. But, there is also much to admire and emulate in a nation where 90 per cent of the respondents to a survey say “Yes” when asked, “Will you and your children be better off 10 years from now?” It’s 30 to 40 per cent in the US.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.