It's not just Jairam Ramesh

Last Updated: Mon, May 17, 2010 05:31 hrs

Jairam Ramesh may have won friends in Beijing, but back in India, the Environment Minister’s stock hit a low, with the Prime Minister himself reprimanding him in public.

Of late, there seems to have been a surge in the number of Indians, not restricted to politicians, who have suddenly become spokespersons for the People’s Republic of China.  

Academics, members of think tanks, ‘experts’, journalists... the list is growing longer by the day.

The incident with Ramesh is noticeable because it ultimately needed the intervention of the Prime Minister himself.

The Global Times, one of the mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party, clapped with both hands when Ramesh, on a recent trip to Beijing, spoke of the need to remove ‘needless restrictions’ imposed by the Indian Home Ministry on Chinese products.

India, he said, should view its ties with China from the ‘broader perspective’. A ‘paranoid’ attitude towards Chinese firms, including telecom major Huawei Technologies, could damage the India-China relationship and spoil the ‘Copenhagen spirit’ , developed last year around the climate change table.   

 “The point is that Huawei is creating assets in India, it is hiring Indian professionals, over 80 per cent of its employees are Indians,” he argued.  

Apart from the fact that he had no business speaking on subjects beyond the purview of his department, there is such a thing as 'Cabinet collective responsibility' and he should have respected it. If he disagrees or is unable to make his colleagues change their views, he always has the choice to resign. That is the way 'Cabinet collective responsibility' works the world over.

That is not all. Believing that he was still Union Power Minister, Ramesh declared that India should use Chinese expertise to implement its hydrological projects in Arunachal Pradesh.

As Environment Minister, he should perhaps look into the environment clearance for these projects before ‘awarding’ contracts to Chinese firms, even if they have more expertise that their Indian counterparts in building dams.

As a Union Minister, he should also have thought of the consequences of his utterances. Has he forgotten that China still claims territory in Arunachal? Does he know that these areas are included in the Chinese Five-Year Development Plan prepared by Beijing?

To say, "But our ability to handle vast hydel projects is much less compared to China," is not only childish, it also creates a lot of confusion in the already-complicated relations between Delhi and Beijing. The good ‘contact’ between India and China during the Copenhagen Conference has nothing to do with the present issue.

Around the same time, Mid-Day quoted intelligence agencies as saying  many Chinese were settling in Arunachal Pradesh, and the power projects in Sikkim and Assam had become the easiest entry points for these infiltrators. “An estimated 200 of the 500-odd Chinese labourers hired from contractual jobs escaped from Sikkim and headed for Arunachal Pradesh,” the article said.

This is not the first time Indian officials have become the spokespersons for China’s view and policies.

In November 1950, a month after Tibet was invaded by the People’s Liberation Army, K M Panikkar, India’s Ambassador in Beijing, pleaded the Communist cause with his Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
 “My own feeling is that at a crucial period, they [the Chinese] manage to instil into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means,” Sardar Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister wrote to Nehru “...The final action of the Chinese, in my judgment, is little short of perfidy...Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions.”

The declassified cables from Panikkar to Nehru show the ambassador constantly arguing the Chinese point of view, without taking into account India’s strategic and historical interests.

In the same letter, Patel ironically added: “In Peking we have an Ambassador who is eminently suitable for putting across our friendly point of view.”

The Indian diplomat’s constant kowtowing to Beijing did not improve the situation, but made it worse. The fact that Panikkar advocated China’s stand had incalculable consequences for the relations between India and China.  

This is often not understood in India. ‘Kind-heartedness’ is one of the motivations for Indian politicians, diplomats, journalists and academics to speak for China. Scores of ‘good-hearted’ people are under the impression that if India is ‘kind’ to China, the Communist leadership will return the consideration.

There is also this nebulous concept of Asian ‘brotherhood’, inherited from Nehru’s days. Whenever there is close collaboration between the two Asian giants, like in Copenhagen, it creates great euphoria, not to say ananda, amongst many Indian peace-lovers.

But there is a more serious issue than the ‘peacenik’ clique. When Indian ‘experts’ defend Beijing on issues such as the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra or speak of ‘sending back’ the Dalai Lama to China to solve the border issue, it raises serious suspicions. Ditto for the recent support Huawei received in its campaign to enter the Indian market.

It is not difficult to trace where the ‘inspiration’ comes from.

A few weeks back, The Times in London quoted confidential intelligence reports about the steps taken by British Telecom (BT) “to reduce the risk of attacks by hackers or organised crime…We believe that the mitigating measures are not effective against deliberate attack by China”.

According to The Times, the British agencies told “ministers of their fears that equipment installed by Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, in BT’s new communications network could be used to halt critical services such as power, food and water supplies.”

At the same time, several Indian papers were questioning the government about its so-called ban on the Chinese company. Rather strange, it isn’t? Why can’t the Indian press take care to get proper and balanced information?

The answer perhaps lies in a book published a few years back, “The KGB and the Battle for the Third World”. Edited by Christopher Andrew, it is based on documents exfiltrated by a former Soviet agent, Vasili Mitrokhin. It quotes Oleg Kalugin, the head of the KGB’s Foreign Directorate Intelligence, who describes India as ‘a model of KGB infiltration of a Third World government’. The author says: “The openness of India’s democracy combined with the streak of corruption which ran through its media and political system provided numerous opportunities for Soviet intelligence.”
Kalugin spoke of ‘scores of sources’ in the Indian government.

An article (Chinese 'gifts' worry India) written in 2006 by the present Chief Editor of comes to my mind. At the time of President Hu Jintao’s visit to India, a senior Indian intelligence official had expressed his concern over “the dramatic increase in Chinese attempts to woo Indian politicians and business leaders with gifts, some of them phenomenally lavish.” Those who receive these gifts ‘spanned the political spectrum’ it said, noting that the Intelligence officer expressing serious concern “over this alarming trend, which has increased in leaps and bounds over the past three or four years."

With the tremendous ‘rise’ of China, the new importance of the Middle Kingdom in world affairs, and the tough economic competition between Delhi and Beijing, this trend is bound to increase.

Today, China is wealthier and a lot more aggressive in the international scenario. The easiest and ‘cheapest’ way to influence a ‘brotherly’ nation like India is in getting politicians, media and academics ‘on board’. The KGB or the CIA worked the same way in the 1970s in Delhi.

 “The CIA’s hand could be detected in material published in certain newspapers,” says the book on the KGB. “We of course paid them back in the same coin… Like us, the CIA diligently and not always successfully did what they had to do. They were instruments of their government’s policy; we carried out the policy of our State. Both sides were right to do so.”

Similarly, today Beijing is carrying out the policy of the Chinese State, not only in India, but the entire sub-continent.

After the SAARC meeting in Thimphu (Bhutan), I was shocked to read in an article about South Asia in The Islamabad Post: “In the early ’50s it used to be called the Indian Subcontinent. In the ’60s it was called the Indo-Pakistani Subcontinent. It would now be true that that the euphemism of South Asia could be called the Chinese Subcontinent.”

Though Mr Ramesh may have not been influenced by these considerations, his utterances should be seen in this context. It is a pity that the Prime Minister sacrificed a mature and seasoned diplomat (Mr Shyam Saran) to hand over the negotiations to perhaps too bright a minister.

Climate change negotiations are often a boring and tough business; a lot of sweat for little glamour, to put it in cricketing terms. But our environment minister could have found other, less damaging ways to get some attention.

Born in France, Claude Arpi's quest began 36 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been a student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He is the author of numerous English and French books. His book, Tibet: the Lost Frontier  (Lancers Publishers) was released recently.

Also read: Jairam Ramesh and the assassin's mace | More columns by Claude Arpi