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Sifting Through the Himalayas

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 14, 2014

    It seems Prime Minister Narendra Modi is drawing his strategy from Kautilya’s "Rajamandala" for visualizing circles of friendly and enemy states. Both his Bhutan and Nepal visits were in line with the ancient Indian political discourse and they were undoubtedy a grand success. Modi is on the reawakening drive with vengeance and his sifting through ancient tracks might simply work for his foreign policy pursuit. However, how Modi visualizes Pakistan and Bangladesh that have long drifted away into a different axis will remain a test. So far, failing to conceptualize India’s geographic continuum as a whole rather than a set of small neighbours rendered space for others to maneuver the region.

    However, the bigger challenge is conceptualizing China in the ancient idiom. The Mandala (circle of sacred and friendly space) encompassed or overlapped both Indian and Chinese space. In fact, historians acknowledge China-de’se as a constituent component of Indian political and spiritual disposition at least until the Harsha period.

    The epicenter of this sacred circle was ironically in the Himalayas where both ancient nations today find themselves locked in a boundary dispute. The axis had drawn in India-China congruencies and they were mostly in non-territorial sense. The Indian Mandala revolved around the core (center) rather than on periphery (boundary). China built its own federation of tributaries around the Middle Kingdom precept.

    The Islamic invasion however flattened the Mandala and India-China axis but the distortion began after Western science of cartography presented reality on a flat surface and demolished the conceptual circle of unity and infinite relations in cosmic sense under the Asian thought. Cartography conformed to linear line, fixed boundary and bureaucratic apparatus; together they pierced borderlands and split nationalities. The linearity of divide though illogical for people living in the interlaced flow of history came to knock down India-China confluence, sparked off conflicts and entailed a string of crises. However, linearity still guides today’s foreign affairs and policy prescriptions – call it geopolitics.

    Is Modi preparing to view China in nonconventional sense? Perhaps it is difficult but not impossible. The pulls of Asia have not disappeared. It depend how he will stir India innovatively that will weigh the power of politics ultimately. Drawing from Modi’s momentous speech in the Nepali Constituent Assembly, the Himalayas holds the keystone for Asian culture, environmental, political and regional security. His speech was remarkable and if expounded it could change the Asian context.

    The key issue still remains stalemated are over Tibet. The Dalai Lama who professes Lamaist Mandala accepts neither radicalization nor reconciliation. He seeks no linear equation either separation or independence. He has even dropped the “greater autonomy” demand and now willing to settle for living under the Chinese constitution, if it guarantees space for Tibetan culture. A sensible proposition though.

    A path forward is required and it may be time for an out of box Tibet settlement. The onus is upon China to rethink. China has the resources, both intellectual and material, to revive the past epitome, as it has done on the “Silk Route” to restore the lost ancient linkages. Time is running out fast for Beijing; any restitution plan is possible only during the current Dalai Lama’s lifetime. The stakes are high as problem transcends borders. To be sure, neither China nor India should desire radicalization of the Himalayas – not an impossible prospect though.

    In Katmandu, Modi aptly talked on the economic imperatives. The Himalayan natural strength is gigantic but it is home to the world’s 40 percent of poor. Industries are nearly non-existent. Tremendous opportunities exist but the main sticking points here are not the treacherous mountains but manmade blockades. The long militarized borders prohibit the people access to external markets. This is of course unsustainable as also undesirable to perpetuate.

    However, Modi has to think beyond the immediate circle and leverage the Himalayas as a bridge for India reaching out to wider Eurasian space the access to which has blocked by Pakistan. A way out could be to promote a regional market across the border, woven by a web of spiritual and commercial interests. Once viewed as absurd, the idea of India-China jointly cooperating in Central Asia is becoming a reality now. A cooperative thinking could herald a constituency of appreciativeness, softening of mistrust and muting the China threat.

    But can Modi convert the existing problems into opportunities? Opening the Himalayan door could benefit India more than China but delay could risk serious ramifications against China’s increasing quest for strategic minerals and water resources.

    Buddhism is fast becoming a factor of cultural mobilization and economic growth cross Asia including in China. India is sitting atop millennia-old tourist mines. Buddha-Industry alone could transform the lives of millions, providing lucrative career options to its youth. The followers of Shakyamuni (400-500 million already) link their spiritual destinies to India. Tangible actions are required not just for market import but also for staging India’s soft-power lever. In many ways, Buddhism could affect the geopolitical trend, and in fact, China is grabing the leadership role - controlling the both trend and nature of discourse. India cannot afford to lose its ancient wisdom tool. Of course, both India and China require a synergy for a nuanced and adept policy pursuit in this regard.

    Linked to this is the imperative of promoting a brand of sustainable cultural tourism. China plans to invest $10 billion to build infrastructure projects (roads, airports and hydropower stations) to develop the Kailash-Manasarovar, supremely sacred for billions of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. A series of pilgrimage corridors across the Himalayan ranges could serve as engines of economic growth for the people living in the region.

    Finally, coordinated policies are essential to mitigate the environmental challenges. Gradual glacial attrition means water scarcity. The case of Brahmaputra’s diversion by China has raised some eyebrows in India. Here again the solution lay in culture than in politics. Just as the Mt. Kailash is the abode of Lord Shiva, the Shuomatan Point or Brahmaputra’s U-Bend is the home of Vajra Yogini – a sacred deity, worshipped by millions in both India and China. Eventually water, environment and culture would become the keystone of policy planning.

    Attempts at fixing a linear boundary in the Himalayas will remain futile as the reality transcends the political exigencies. The British strategic masters had to create buffers and frontiers as they too failed miserably on the boundary. Even McMahon had to use a broad brush to distinguish boundaries hithero remains disputed. India and China should give up seeking a geometrical linear boundary and instead opt for a soft cultural frontier along the trans-Himalayan region. A gradual transformation of the long militarized boundary into a humanized frontier zone will serve the interests of India, China and the Himalayan people.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India