“Nehru gave China Panchsheel,” remarked Li Changchun, one of China's most powerful leaders, on Tuesday morning, as he found himself standing, somewhat surprised, in front of a bust of India's first Prime Minister in the heart of Beijing.
“In fact,” Mr. Li added, referring to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence which India and China signed in 1954, “we're still using this to solve our problems with many countries.”
Mr. Li, China's propaganda and media chief and fifth highest ranking leader in the Communist Party, was speaking during a visit to the Indian pavilion at the ongoing Beijing International Book Fair.
India, which is the country of honour at the fair, has brought 26 publishers and is showcasing three main themes — Buddhism, given its close resonance with China, and the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Nehru. Tagore, who visited China in the 1920s, is widely popular here. He was — and continues to be — a hit with the intellectuals, and is still read in colleges. So, for the Indian organisers, Buddha and Tagore were easy choices.
Nehru's legacy here, however, is far more complicated. Following the 1962 war, which China's leadership — and the official media — blamed entirely on Nehru's “aggressive forward policy,” the leader who was once popular for his “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” and pan-Asian solidarity messages became vilified. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Nehru was cast as a villain — sometimes, rather strangely for those acquainted with his economic policies, as a capitalist.
Unlike Tagore and Gandhi, Nehru is rarely mentioned in the media. Even a newspaper report on Tuesday, which spoke of India's well-received Buddhism theme pavilion, had no mention of Nehru's presence at the fair.
The pavilion's organisers say they hoped to address China's sensitive relationship with India's first Prime Minister by presenting, for the first time, his extensive scholarly works to the Chinese public.
“Nehru is not someone who forever cannot be talked about,” said Mridula Mukherjee, director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. “Yes, we had a conflict in the past, but mature countries have to deal with aspects of the past.” China had to deal with Nehru, who was Prime Minister for 17 years, if it wanted to deal with India. “Interpreting and getting to know his legacy in a different way will help this process.”
The response, so far, has been positive at least with academics. Two Shanghai-based scholars, who never had the chance to see many of Nehru's writings, placed orders for the extensive 41-volume selected works.
“Nehru is well thought of in the classroom, but the mainstream media here still avoids him,” said Binod Singh, a PhD scholar from India at the elite Peking University. “In some ways, he is still a sensitive, no-go area because of 1962.” Peking University politely declined to host a seminar this week discussing Nehru's influence on India's political economy. It will, instead, be held at the fair on Thursday.
Mr. Singh said interest in Nehru was being revived in academia — interestingly, for his economic policies. With increased interest in China on India's recent economic history, particularly post-reforms, the legacy of Nehru's policies is the subject of at least two books that are being written by Chinese scholars.
Among young Chinese though, Nehru is largely forgotten. He is invoked only by ultranationalist bloggers when they speak of the border dispute. Ms. Zhang, in her 20s, who posed in front of a replica of Nehru's desk for a picture on Wednesday, said she had heard of Nehru in high school, but knew little else about him. “I just like the desk,” she said.
There are signs that Nehru's legacy is beginning to be recast in other ways, as Mr. Li's comments on Tuesday hinted. Last year, Nehru was selected by the official media as among 60 foreigners who helped shape the People's Republic's 60 years.
“Nehru has made a big contribution to relations between China and India,” noted Ma Jiali, a South Asia scholar at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. “He was also the first leader from a non-socialist country to recognise China, when New China was facing many difficulties.”
Nehru was chosen, along with Tito and Ho Chi Minh, for being a leader “who formed close relationships with China,” according to the citation. It did not mention 1962.