For generations of China watchers, Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea was an objective interpreter of the tumultuous events which unfolded in the Peoples’ Republic.
Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea was one of the world’s leading scholars on China, a political scientist who skirted the minefield that her subject’s often fraught relations with India laid before her peers with integrity, wit and an objectivity of consideration rare in the field of Sinology.
Taking to academia at a time when India was recovering from its traumatic war with China in 1962 and emotions ran high, Mira Sinha, as she was known prior to her marriage to veteran journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea, was capable of being objective even in the most trying of circumstances. And though it may be tempting to conclude that with her passing, an era of balance in Indian analyses of China has come to an end, the tradition of scholarship she pioneered has more than a few adherents within academia, the media and also government, thanks in large measure to the work of the Institute of Chinese Studies which she helped to found.
Born in 1930 and selected for the elite Indian Foreign Service in 1955, Mira Sinha’s first posting was to the Indian Embassy in Beijing. She worked there for nearly four years when she fell victim to a bizarre government rule of those times that forced women officers to quit if they got married. She resigned from the IFS – the service to which her first husband also belonged – and soon began teaching post-graduate courses on Chinese politics at Delhi University.
In a conversation with The Hindu, one of her students, former foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, recalled the trying circumstances under which she set up the Department of Chinese Studies at Delhi University in the 1960s. Sinophobia was at its peak “There were four of us in one batch and there were more teachers than students. But she persevered and even at times when Sino-Indian ties went through tremendous emotional upheaval, she retained her capability of being objective. To do so consistently is a tribute to her calmness, grace and dignity.”
A founder member of the China Study Group and the Institute of Chinese Studies, of which she was the first director, Mira Sinha Bhattarchjea was consulting editor of the journal, China Report. After retiring from Delhi University in 1995, she continued as an emeritus fellow of the ICS. She was the author of numerous scholarly papers, a book, ‘China, the world, and India’, and co-editor of ‘Security and Science in China and India’ along with Manoranjan Mohanty and Giri Deshingkar. Besides China, Mira was also a scholar of Gandhi and was working on a major work on the Mahatma at the time of her death.
She would often warn of the dangers of viewing China through the British colonial construct. “Why stick to the 19th century concept that we must always be at loggerheads with our neighbours and that we need some sort of buffer state? If we don’t change our attitude, we will just become the tools of the Americans,” she wrote. She was a regular contributor to Frontline over the years.
Never one to discount the boundary dispute, she also took a swipe at the boundary-centric news reports covering high level Sino-India summits to the exclusion of everything else. “No matter how the outcome of the recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is assessed, it would be difficult to deny that the centrepiece of the summit was the festering boundary problem. In fact, judging by the substance and thrust of the three political documents signed, this appears to have been the real purpose of this visit, as indeed it seems to have been of every prime ministerial meeting since 1954,” she wrote in Frontline in 2005.
With the border dispute still being sorted out, Mira believed that the “economic prospect” would play an important diversionary role and would help “advance the process forward on this most knotted problem of boundary settlement.”
In perhaps the only clear headed analysis of how the boundary talks have made progress including what amounted to a no-war pact, she pointed out the achievements so far — a stated and shared agreement on the nature of the problem, reaching a single comprehensive settlement covering the entire stretch, wrapping this up in a package that should shape the form and nature of the future relationship and an agreement not to use force by any means, which can be interpreted as amounting to a no-war pact. Both sides have also largely demilitarised the borders and set in place a border management system to encourage easy cross-border movement of goods and people.
Mira Sinha recognised the strong national emotions over the border dispute but felt the time had come to change the images and fears of the ‘other’ in the public mind. She incisively examined even the blandest of statements and pointed out the “unexpected bonus” from the agreement to open an additional point for border trade via Nathu La in Sikkim. “This agreement appears to be politically innocent but actually has great political significance. It masks the diplomatic achievement of the seemingly impossible. It is being interpreted as a confirmation of the existing realities, namely, that Sikkim is part of India as Tibet is of China though both will continue to assert that this is not so. That is the way of diplomacy and there is no way of simplifying this,” she wrote.
During her last visit to the ICS, when the media was generating hysteria over the alleged increase in the number of Chinese “incursions”, she expressed dismay over the “madness of looking at things by the hour,” reminiscences Dr. Alka Acharya. “Her passing away has dealt a blow to the voice of sanity on India-China relations.”
( Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea died in New Delhi on December 13 after a brief illness. She is survived by her husband, Ajit Bhattacharjea, and her daughter, Namita Unnikrishnan.)