It has been possible to argue that comparing Asia’s two largest countries, China and India, is akin to holding up an apple to an orange. This is not because the challenges facing them are so very different. Neither China’s authoritarian polity, nor India’s democratic one have prevented large-scale corruption, environmental degradation, yawning inequalities or food contamination scandals from raising their ugly heads on both sides of the border. But what has kept the two from being Himalayan birds of a feather thus far is their markedly divergent temperament and foundational culture.
The potency of this divergence however, is being increasingly diluted, with the Indian state beginning to sound and act like the country it has long had a schizophrenic relationship with. (Modern day India wants to both be China and not-China: a six lane highway-filled, manufacturing powerhouse that is praised for its political openness and liked for its yoga.)
The abrogation of the special status that gave autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir and more crucially, the style in which this was achieved — relying on secrecy, troops, arrests, curfew and a communications shutdown — has brought India closer than ever before to the ‘results oriented,’ actions, unhindered by political debate and democratic niceties, of authoritarian China.
Pacifying restive regions
One obvious commonality between New Delhi and Beijing has been their need to grapple with, and pacify, the restive regions on their peripheries: Kashmir and the Northeast in India, Tibet and Xinjiang in China. All of these regions are home to peoples of a religion that is different from that of the country’s majority: Muslim (Kashmir/Xinjiang), Lama Buddhist (Tibet), Christian (Northeast India). All are home to ethno-nationalist movements demanding independence or greater autonomy.
Both China and India have declared these border areas as “integral” parts of their territory and refuse to countenance the possibility that they might be disputed. (China claims that Tibet has been part of the country for over 700 years.)
People with dissenting interpretations are labelled “splitists” or “separatists”. The periphery is seen as crucial to national security, while being described as backward, in need of development assistance.
In China, the ruling Communist Party of China portrays itself as having ‘liberated’ the people of Tibet and Xinjiang from the backward norms of their religions, ending the feudal dominance of religious leaders, bringing equality to women and economic development to the regions. In fact, many Han Chinese believe that Beijing excessively panders to these provinces by giving them special sops. For example, Tibetans were always excluded from the notorious One Child Policy that restricted most Han families to a single child.
Equality before law, economic development, the empowerment of women: these are all arguments being touted today in favour of ending Jammu and Kashmir’s special status; for anyone familiar with China, they render a strong feeling of déjà vu.
Yet, all this rhetoric skirts the reality of egregious human rights abuses that both countries have used in their nation-building endeavours. Torture, rape, illegal detentions, extra-judicial killings and a militarised environment have ensured that hearts and minds have not been won. A common identity has failed to develop, and as the China case demonstrates, this is not because of too much autonomy.
Dibyesh Anand, Professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster, has argued that both India and China are ‘postcolonial informal empires’, whose anti-imperialist rhetoric disguises their imperialistic attempts to “consolidate and discipline their borderlands.”
But what used to distinguish India from the more common charges of colonialism faced by China was the fact that the people of Jammu and Kashmir had been provided guarantees under Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, along with a strong foundation to build a system of local governance. The ban on non-locals buying land, and permanently settling in the State, also prevented demographic engineering like the large-scale Han migration into Tibet and Xinjiang.
Independent India’s crowning achievement to date has been the development of institutional mechanisms for negotiating large-scale diversity and accommodating frequent, aggressive disagreements. This is an achievement that deserves as much awe and respect as China’s economic miracle. It might be less shiny and more chaotic, but it is, in its own way, quite spectacular.
Debate and contestation are not a discardable option for India but an existential necessity. Historically, India has been a civilisational rather than territorial entity, more metaphysical than geographic. It is a nation held together not by language, religion or geography, but by an idea. Multiplicity is foundational to this idea. It is what has allowed India to persist and flourish as a political unit, despite the once widespread belief in the West that an independent India would inevitably Balkanise.
The new choices that the Indian government is making may well help cover up some of the cracks that its relatively liberal history was unable to weld. It may also fail to do so and lead to complete rupture. But the risk of India forsaking its own sources of strength — pluralism and debate — to emerge as a second rate copy of its muscular, nationalist neighbour to the north is clear.
Pallavi Aiyar is the author of the China memoir, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’