Arun Shourie: Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Every time China advances a claim, watch how our government — and media — react in feeble, confused, and contradictory ways, writes Arun Shourie
November 21, 2007: We were all at the weekly meeting of the BJP members of Parliament. L.K. Advani was presiding. Two of our colleagues represent Arunachal in the Lok Sabha — Tapir Gao and Kiren Rijiju. They drew attention to the fact that Chinese incursions into Arunachal were not just continuing — these were becoming more frequent and the Chinese soldiers were coming in deeper into our territory. They pointed to the statement of a senior official heading our force that is deployed on the border: the official had felt compelled to disclose in a public statement that there had been 146 incursions in just 2007. The MPs — who know the area well, who tour extensively across the state, to whom local inhabitants regularly and naturally bring information — said that the Chinese were now preventing locals from going up to regions where they had been taking their animals for grazing; that they were being supplied goods from Chinese shops...
They drew even sharper attention to an incident that had occurred just three weeks earlier. For as long as anyone could remember, there had been a statue of the Buddha — well inside Indian territory. Local inhabitants used to go up to it — pray, make their offerings. The local commander of the Chinese troops had told Indian soldiers that the statue must be removed. Our soldiers had pointed out that the statue was well within Indian territory, and so there was no question of removing it. The Chinese had come, and blown off the statue...
I raised my hand for permission to speak. It so happened that I was half-way through a book, Why Geography Matters, by the well-known geographer, Harm de Blij. Setting the stage, Blij points to the clues that one can get from maps, and why it is important to pay attention to them — especially when governments publish them. He recalls ‘a telling experience’ he had in 1990. A colleague of his, working then at the University of Baghdad, had sent him an official map that had been published by the Government of Iraq. The map showed Kuwait as the 13th province of Iraq. At a meeting in Washington, Blij had drawn the attention of the then chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives to the map and its implications. The gentleman had told Blij not to worry, the US Ambassador, he said, was on top of things... A few days had not passed, and Iraq had marched its armies into Kuwait... The first Gulf War...
But it was the passage that followed that was of urgent interest to us, and I sought Advani’s permission to read it. The passage is as follows — please do read it carefully:
‘Cartographic aggression takes several forms. Some overt, as in the case of Iraq, others more subtle. In 1993 I received a book titled Physical Geography of China, written by Zhao Sonqiao, published in 1986 in Beijing. On the frontispiece is a map of China. But that map, to the trained eye, looks a bit strange. Why? Because in the south, it takes from India virtually all of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, plus a piece of the state of Assam. Now this book is not a political geography of China, nor is the matter of appropriated Indian territory ever discussed in it. China’s border is simply assumed to lie deep inside India, and the mountains and valleys thus claimed are discussed as though they are routinely a part of China. Make no mistake: such a map could not, in the 1980s at least, have been published without official approval. It should put not just India but the whole international community on notice of a latent trouble spot.’
BJP members of Parliament are acutely sensitive to national security issues. Here were two colleagues from the state testifying to what the Chinese were doing in Arunachal, and now here was a book that was warning about what was afoot — a book published far away, a book written by an author who had no interest in either running down China or upholding India’s position on anything. The effect was palpable. Advani said that the two MPs and I should attend the BJP press conference that afternoon, and draw the attention of the media to the facts. Advaniji said that, in addition to explaining the background, I should read out the passage too.
When Parliament is in session, the press conference is held every afternoon. The large room was packed with journalists. After Sushma Swaraj and Vijay Kumar Malhotra had dealt with events of the day, Tapir Gao and Kiren Rijiju narrated the facts. I set out the context — and read the foregoing passage.
I had hardly concluded that the usual clutch — pro-Congress, pro-Left — was up in arms. ‘When was the book published?’ one demanded. I couldn’t get the relevance of the question: what has the date of publication got to do with the warning that the author had penned, even more so with the facts that the MPs have set out? ‘No, no. As the book must have been available even during the NDA regime, what did your government do about the matter?’ I hadn’t looked up the date of publication. I did now. The edition I had in hand had been published in 2007! It records that the book was first published in 2005! The journalist subsided. In any case, I pointed out, trying to soften the deflation-by-date, the vital thing is not what the book says — the passage from the book just illustrates that, while others are concerned, we continue to sleep. The thing of vital consequence is what is happening on the ground, and this is what my colleagues here — who represent the area in Parliament — have just narrated.
‘But what did the NDA do about the incursions?’ another member of that clutch demanded. First, the head of the force at the border has spoken about the incursions that have taken place this year, in 2007, I pointed out. What could the NDA government have done about them? But assume that incursions were taking place then, and that the NDA government did nothing. Does that in any way become reason for not doing anything today? Please do have some mercy on our country, I said. Here is China claiming our territory; here it is, having begun that well-rehearsed series of steps which precede a grab. Are we going to divert ourselves from that reality by the usual ‘tu-tu, mein-mein, NDA vs UPA?’
‘No, Mr Shourie,’ — it was the pro-Left journalist — ‘but you have to acknowledge that there is no agreed international border between India and China. So...’ That is the Chinese position as articulated by your paper often, I said. It has not been the position of any Indian Government...
By now enough diversion had been created. The press conference was soon over. My Arunachal colleagues were, of course, disheartened — ‘If this is how much the national press cares...’ I was incensed. For years I have seen such clutches divert attention from life and death issues and been unable to do anything about it. Here was another painful instance.
Not only was the question at hand a matter of life and death for our country. It was one on which we had the most recent historical experience to keep us alert. When Acharya Kripalani, Ram Manohar Lohia, K.M. Munshi and others had first drawn attention to Chinese maps that showed vast swathes of Indian territory to be part of China, Panditji had replied that he had taken up the matter with the Chinese and they had said that these were old, colonial, faulty maps, and, as they had just gained independence, they had not had time to correct them. Later, these very maps were used to argue that the areas had always been part of China. Mao had then declared, Tibet is the palm of China, and the Himalayan kingdoms are the fingers of that palm... Did the journalists not remember any of this?
An anchor from a news channel phoned. I saw your press conference, he said. We have been following this story for many months. Can you please come to our studio?... No, I said, I really am very upset at what happened... But I give you my word, he said, we think this is an important issue, and we are going to follow it in the coming months also. I will send an OB-van to your house.
The van came. The late night news. The earpiece in my ear... All set. Delay — quite understandable: some new eruption in Nandigram... Eventually, the anchor and I are talking.
‘But are you sure about the facts or is the BJP indulging in its usual fear-politics?’ the anchor asks. But why don’t you ascertain them from the two MPs who represent the area? I respond. Better still, why don’t you send your own correspondents and photographers to the area? I inquire. We will, we will, I assure you. I was just making sure...
In any case, look at what the ambassador of China has himself said, I remarked. Remember, just days before Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, was to come to India, the ambassador declared, right here on Indian soil, that Arunachal is a part of China...
‘But maybe he was saying it for rhetorical effect,’ said the anchor.
Rhetorical effect? I skipped a heartbeat. Is the Chinese Ambassador also running after TRP ratings like the TV channels? Would an ambassador say such things just for effect? And that too the ambassador of China, of all countries? You mean an ambassador, you mean the ambassador of China of all countries would claim the territory of the country to which he is accredited, that he would lay claim to an entire state of that country for rhetorical effect? I asked. And remember, I pointed out, he repeated the claim in Chandigarh later. And look at the government of China — it has not distanced itself from the claim advanced by its ambassador. On the contrary, its ‘think-tanks’ have held ‘seminars’ in the wake of the ambassador’s statement. In this the ‘scholars’ and ‘diplomats’ and ‘strategic thinkers’ have declared to the man that Arunachal is ‘Chinese territory under India’s forcible occupation’; that it is ‘China’s Tawang region’; that it is ‘Southern Tibet’ which must be brought under the control of the Tibet Autonomous Region. And you call this rhetorical? That is just lunatic...
The anchor was off to the next item. ‘Be that as it may... Another controversy... Thank you, Mr Shourie. Always a pleasure talking to you. Moving now to a slightly less controversial story...’ ‘SHILPA SHETTY,’ he said, his voice rising, ‘has not been in the news since the famous Richard Gere kiss, but we have her back today. Here she is, SHILPA SHETTY...’
The sound on my earpiece cut. Shilpa Shetty had once again trumped poor Arunachal.
Both sets of exchanges — at the press conference as well as over the TV news channel — had been typical. In part, the problem is extreme, brazen partisanship — and this takes two forms. One is the premise of many: India can never really be in the right: you just have to see the play Musharraf’s devious formulae have got in many of our magazines — the presumption is that we are in the wrong in Kashmir, and so we are the ones who must bend, and go on bending till Pakistan expresses satisfaction. This premise is compounded in the case of many others by commitment: you can rely on several of our colleagues to see merit in China’s stance on everything. The second variant is domestic predilection: the BJP is evil incarnate; because the BJP has raised the issue, the issue itself must be trashed. That is how the mortal danger from Bangladeshi infiltrators has been shouted out. That is how the dual-faced, anti-national politics of many in Kashmir has been shouted out. That is how appeasement of narrow sections for votes is routinely shouted out. That is how what is happening in Arunachal is being shouted out.
And then there is what has become the nature of the media: the obsession with the sound bite on the one side and with the next ‘breaking news’ on the other. Issues like Kashmir, the nuclear deal, the way China is translating its economic strength into military might — these require more than a sound bite. The media has no time for that.
Similarly, to deal with China, to counter Pakistan’s proxy war, the country must sustain a policy for 20-30 years. And for that, you have to keep readers and viewers focused on that issue for decades at a time. But the media is fixated only on what it can project as ‘breaking news’ in this shift — what was ‘breaking news’ in the last shift is ‘old hat’ by this one.
Even more than partisanship, and the obsessions of the current media with the next ‘breaking news’, the problem is superciliousness — this has become the reigning ideology today. What we see every day in papers — that ‘Shilpa Shetty over Arunachal’ business — was brought home to me directly one day. We happened to meet while flying to Mumbai — the owner of one of the country’s foremost newspapers and I. I accosted him about what his paper was carrying on Kashmir — every allegation, every smear that any and every secessionist thug was spitting out at our country and our forces was being carried on the front pages of his paper as fact. Aren’t you reading the nonsense that your paper is printing on Kashmir? I asked. And I gave examples from the preceding few days. The entrepreneur listened. And then exclaimed: ‘Arun bhai, yehi to faraq hai aap mein aur hum mein. Aap abhi bhi hamara paper padhte ho!’ — ‘That is precisely the difference between you and us, Arun bhai. You still read our paper!’
That such a person no longer bothers to read his paper was just a pose. His real message was, ‘Kashmir, did you say? I am above such trifles...’
This weak-kneed government is a problem, of course: its nominal leaders have lifted helplessness to new heights. But the even graver problem now is that the one instrument by which it could be shaken up, the media, has become a problem of its own.
Make no mistake: China watches all this. It watches the feeble, confused, contradictory ways in which our government, and even more our society, reacts each time it advances a claim. And it pursues its policy:
• Repeat the claim;
• Go on repeating the claim;
• Let time pass.
And they will reconcile themselves to the new situation. Has the policy not succeeded in regard to Tibet? No Indian Prime Minister will dare mention the word ‘Tibet’ or ‘Taiwan’ — lest doing so offends China. But China will go on claiming what it wants — for reasons that we must understand!
But why think of Tibet and Taiwan? Has the six-step policy not succeeded in regard to Aksai Chin? In spite of the unanimous resolution that the Parliament passed at the time under Panditji, is there an Indian leader who will today demand that China hand back Aksai Chin? And do you think that when they deliberate over what they are to do in regard to Arunachal, the Chinese do not remember the success they have achieved in Aksai Chin?The writer is a BJP MP in Rajya Sabha