Between 1840 and 1940, way before Bob Marley would sing Buffalo Soldier in a searing lament to the black men from Africa shipped as slaves to fight Native Americans for their white masters, a similar drama was enacted in Asia.
In China, Indian soldiers and policemen – mostly Sikhs and Pathans – were hounding the Chinese people for the British, to peddle opium and to claim political power for their colonial masters. China lost and ceded Hong Kong in an enforced lease to Britain until 1997. The Chinese call it a century of humiliation. Indian soldiers and policemen participated in the conquest of the Chinese, not unlike the black men who were used to subjugate the native people in North America.
“Buffalo Soldier” was the term used by Native Americans for African men inducted in the mid-19th century to all-black cavalry and infantry regiments created by the US Congress. “Stolen from Africa/ Brought to America/ Fighting on arrival/ Fighting for survival.” Thus, sang Bob Marley, urging fellow African Americans to never forget their history, a history George Floyd may been killed for embracing recently.
Narendra Modi, like many men obsessed with the unprepossessing framework of nationhood, has a library of ready and garbled ideas about what is Indian and what isn’t. He won elections claiming his origins as a tea vendor, neither realising nor revealing that tea, and certainly tea laced with milk that he once sold, came through colonialism to India from China. As such, there’s little culturally or remotely Indian about tea, though Modi’s followers may not want to see the point. What is truly and originally Indian is cotton, which was first grown in the Harappan Valley, and its Indian farmers are committing suicide.
The colonial transaction of tea and opium put an economic and political burden on the Indian people. The Americans grasped the perfidy more readily. They dumped boxes of British-labelled tea into the sea, and called it the “Great Boston Tea Party”, thereby proclaiming independence from Britain.
While we are on the subject, even Pakistanis may wish to figure out what their forebears were drinking, as religiously as they celebrate tea today with such fuss and ritual, had the British not raided China. Nineteenth-century Urdu poets provided some hint of what they were sipping, but tea was not it.
Before the British or the Mughals arrived, India was celebrated in China, Central Asia and in the farthest regions of East Asia for its unique cultural export called Buddhism. In the Southeast Asian region, the cultural conquest came as a mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It’s a tribute to the durability of this peaceful transaction that devout Muslim men and women bearing Hindu names in Southeast Asian countries routinely stage the story of Ramayana with aesthetic appeal and reverence. Before the advent of colonial gunboats to ply politics and culture, Buddhism was ferried to Korea by sea, this time by a Buddhist princess from Ayodhya, as India’s Pranab Mukherjee was reminded during an official visit to Seoul. A Buddhist, not a Hindu, princess from Ayodhya!
Politics of memory
I once visited the White Horse Temple in Louyang, the revered Chinese cultural hub. This Buddhist shrine in landlocked Henan was where the monks first travelled from India, at least one of them on a white steed, around 68 AD. One witnessed PV Narasimha Rao, the inveterate Brahmin, standing in obeisance before the Buddhist shrine before flying to Beijing to sign the landmark treaty of peace and tranquillity. It is this 27-year-old pact between Rao and Li Peng that is being tested in the tense military stand-off underway along the borders in the Ladakh and Sikkim regions. There are two memories at work here, and a couple of political and economic expediencies.
The Chinese question the Indian view on the boundary as a legacy of India’s colonial historiography. Indian officials encourage the memory of 1962 to fester, when, they believe, China betrayed India’s trust by waging a border war. There’s an archive full of compelling literature on both sides about who poked who in the eye to set off the extended round of bad blood. Suffice it to say that the Chinese also had a seven-month-long bloody stand-off with Moscow at about the same time, including the so-called Ussuri River incident.
Had the memory of that Sino-Russian rift been allowed to linger, there would perhaps be no Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, of which India and Pakistan are currently full members. Had the memory of 1947 been allowed to overwhelm the present and the future, similarly, there would be no Sikhs offering food and solidarity to Muslims at protests against a new citizenship law.
It is curious that while memories of 1962 are officially fanned, few would recall that Richard Nixon, Donald Trump’s inspiration, had dispatched the nuclear-armed Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to threaten India. Why is it that in the course of a discussion on keeping Indian Ocean sea-lanes secure from Chinese dominance, Indians desist from remembering they once opposed American bases in Diego Garcia?
Several explanations have been offered for the Sino-Indian stand-off. They range from securing the Gilgit-Baltistan route for CPEC, to American sale of anti-submarine helicopters to India ostensibly with an eye on China.
However, on March 17, 2017, the UN Security Council passed a resolution on Afghanistan. The 34th paragraph welcomed and urged “further efforts to strengthen the process of regional economic cooperation … including through regional development initiatives such as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road [the Belt and Road] Initiative….” It would be clearly wiser for India to leverage China on the belt and road initiative to deal with its problems with Pakistan. While Pakistan has played the Buffalo Soldier in the Zia era, India could yet learn from its neighbour’s humbling experience. As for China, it might consider rewarding India with a bit more than a tea habit.
This article first appeared on Dawn.