Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Us and Them
I have been ploughing through Ramachandra Guha's massive tome India after Gandhi a biography of India (I mean indeed a biography rather than a history of a young nation finding its feet) since independence. Despite the ponderous and stolid nature of the subject, the book is a very easy read and has some amusing snippets about many important events. Indian democracy may have its flaws but it is not without colour and Ram Guha makes full use of this, while not ignoring the strong ideological underpinnings given by Nehru and Gandhi that many of us believe have kept India together. One of these events that caught my attention was not about domestic polity but a border issue. This refers to the events that culminated in the India-China war of 1962. For the preceding three years Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-Lai had exchanged numerous letters over the border issue, these turning more and more acrimonious with time. Border skirmishes became a frequent occurrence and public attitudes towards the Chinese started to harden both amongst the public at large and amongst political parties (except the communists). There were frequent demonstrations against China and Mao and a large number of harsh letters were also exchanged between the officials of the two countries. One of these incidents, as described by Guha took place in Bombay. The Chinese version communicated to New Delhi by Peking described a group of protesters who raised slogans and made speeches against China's putting down of the Tibetan 'rebellion'. What is more serious, they pasted up a portrait of Mao Tse-Tung on the wall of the Chinese Consulate-General and carried out wanton insult by throwing tomatoes and rotten eggs at it... and some more along these lines. It was clear that pelting tomatoes at the great Helmsman's portrait was not on and constituted a huge insult to the head of state of the PRC and the respected and beloved leader of the Chinese people. In a measured and mature response the Indian Government, used as it was to the public burning of effigies of its leaders and numerous other such 'insulting' behaviour, deeply regretted the discourtesy shown to a picture of Chairman Mao.... and while the behaviour of the protesters was 'deplorable', added, perhaps with more than a touch of smugness, The Chinese Government are no doubt aware that under the law in India, processions cannot be banned as long as they are peaceful. Not unoften they are held even near Parliament house and the processionists indulge in all manner of slogans against high personages in India. Incidences have occurred in the past when portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the Prime Minister were taken out by irresponsible persons and treated in an insulting manner. Under the law and Constitution of India, a great deal of latitude is allowed to the people as long as they do not indulge in actual violence. It was clear at that time and from subsequent events, that this nuance was totally beyond Peking's comprehension. However, before we get too complacent, let me add that this was the Nehruvian vision of a democratic India that was speaking. Today, we as a nation and as a Government are far more intolerant of dissent. The Government is intolerant of differing opinions (though even now it would be unthinkable in India to ban the kind of protest marches that the monks tried to carry out in Tibet a few months before the Beijing Olympics and paid dearly for their actions) and we, as a people are intolerant of others in our society who do not share our opinions. And while we are nowhere near to being a totalitarian state like China, it is time to think about how far we have left behind the democratic ideals of people like Nehru and Gandhi.