By Swapan Dasgupta
Shortly after Independence, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel was asked to comment on the flare-up in Indonesia. ‘‘Indonesia? Ah, Indonesia,’’ Patel mused, and then, flashing a smile, replied, ‘‘Ask Jawaharlal.’’ The story may well be apocryphal but it does suggest that his colleagues viewed Jawaharlal Nehru’s penchant for pontificating on world affairs as silly.
Six decades later, Nehru’s preachiness has been replaced by an astonishing measure of babu-speak. ‘‘We don’t comment on the internal affairs of another country’’ has become the template response of ministers to almost everything, including attacks on Indian students in Australia and the offensive depiction of the Goddess Lakshmi by Burger King. Given this stonewalling, South Block’s silence on the upsurge in the so-called Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China isn’t surprising. ‘‘What’s it got to do with us?’’ may well be the Twitter-formatted ministerial response.
That Xinjiang or East Turkestan (as it is called by Uighur nationalists) has long and profound links with India has been conveniently forgotten. Yet, as late as 1951, India had its own consulate in Kashgar, the trading hub of Xinjiang, an arrangement that dated back to 1890. The occupant of Chini-Bagh (renamed India House in 1947 but now known by its original name) in Kashgar was drawn from the Indian Political Service and received instructions, not from Whitehall but from the Viceroy’s council. Indeed, before he was accorded full diplomatic recognition by the Chinese government in 1904, Sir George Macartney’s official position was special assistant for Chinese affairs to the resident in Kashmir — a pointer to the fact Xinjiang had everything to do with India.
The consulate in Kashgar had two primary responsibilities. First, to be an observation post in the Great Game that involved Russia, Turkey and British India; secondly, to look after the interests of the Indian traders in Xinjiang. There was also a third, unstated role: as a facilitator of archaeology.
In 1890, Captain Hamilton Bower stumbled across 5th century Sanskrit manuscripts on birch bark leaves while surveying the Taklamakan desert. This discovery led to a flood of archaeological expeditions from Russia, Sweden, Germany and Britain. Sir Aurel Stein, a scholar of Hungarian Jewish descent, was by far the most well known of these scholars who established Xinjiang’s importance as a centre of Buddhism. Modelling himself on the 7th century Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang, Stein, with his fox terrier Dash in tow, gathered a rich haul of antiquities which he donated to the British Museum and left a few pieces for museums in India.
China viewed the likes of Stein as bounty hunters which they undoubtedly were. However, China’s commitment to preserving Xinjiang’s heritage has itself come under a cloud. The indiscriminate demolition of the old town in Kashgar has riled Uighurs, already sore at being reduced to a minority by organised Han Chinese immigration.
It was the wooliness of Nehru and the gullibility of K N Panikkar, India’s first ambassador to China, which allowed Zhou Enlai to sweet-talk India into closing its consulates in both Kashgar and Lhasa in Tibet. Zhou gave a verbal assurance that Indian interests will be looked after by a friendly China. The closure was the precursor to the stealthy construction of the Karakoram highway linking Xinjiang and Tibet and the formal occupation of Aksai Chin in 1962. India suffered humiliation because it was too trusting and had abandoned its geo-political responsibilities.
Unlike what the Panchsheel lovers claim, invoking a lost legacy isn’t fanciful nostalgia. When the Communists reneged on their commitment to grant Uighurs political autonomy — the top leadership of the community was conveniently killed while flying to Beijing for talks — several hundred Uighurs fled China. These included Isa Yusuf Alpetkin and Mehmet Emin Bughra, the leaders of the Eastern Turkestan Republic which existed from the 1930s to 1949. It is significant that they took refuge in India because they regarded New Delhi as a sympathetic neighbour. It is only after they experienced India’s cravenness that they shifted to Turkey.
It is fortunate that the sustained neglect of India’s interests in Central Asia was somewhat corrected by P V Narasimha Rao with his support for the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Today, India enjoys both goodwill and a political clout with the leadership of the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks — communities that have ties with the Uighurs and are agitated by the goings-on in Xinjiang. These are relationships waiting to be built on.
If India wants to play a more meaningful role in global affairs, it has to come to terms with its rich imperial inheritance. There is precious little in the post-1947 record that can guide India’s journey back to relevance. The meek, it has repeatedly been shown, don’t inherit the earth.