Nirupama Menon Rao on South Asian Identity

Shruti Rajagopalan and Nirupama Menon Rao discuss merging musical traditions, what unifies India and its neighbors, and India-China relations

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Nirupama Menon Rao about the South Asian Symphony, Indian stories in opera, border tensions between India and China, the importance of Tibet, Taiwan and much more. Rao is a retired Indian diplomat, foreign secretary and ambassador. She was India’s first woman spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, the first woman high commissioner from her country to Sri Lanka and the first Indian woman ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. She served as India’s Foreign Secretary from 2009 to 2011 and as India’s ambassador to the United States from 2011 to 2013. She is the author of “The Fractured Himalaya: India, Tibet, China 1949-62” and founder of the South Asian Symphony Foundation.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Today my guest is Nirupama Menon Rao, retired Indian diplomat. She has served as High Commisioner to Sri Lanka and as Indian Amabassador to China and the U.S. and served as India’s Foreign Secretary. She is the author of “The Fractured Himalaya: India, Tibet, China 1949-62” and founder of the South Asian Symphony Foundation.

We spoke about the South Asian identity and how it is expressed through music, the history of the India-China border conflict, the future of Tibet and Taiwan, representation of India in operatic music, and much more.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit

Hi, Nirupama. Thank you so much for being here. This is such a pleasure.

NIRUPAMA MENON RAO: Hi, Shruti. It’s wonderful to be on your podcast, and I’m really looking forward to our conversation.

South Asian Identity

RAJAGOPALAN: Likewise. The first instinct is always to speak with you about China and your book and so on. I hope we get to that. But I actually want to start with a new venture that you have started a couple of years ago, and this is the South Asian Symphony (and you founded the South Asian Symphony Foundation). The goal is, through this symphonic music—all these musicians coming together—to bring peace and more cultural integration in the South Asian region. And you have musicians from eight countries, and you have a wonderful conductor, who is also the music director in Singapore.

What are the origins of this project? A symphony is an odd thing to merge—to express a South Asian identity, so I’m very curious about that.

RAO: Yes, Shruti. I’m glad we started with this question. Actually what created the idea of the South Asian Symphony, since we are talking about ideas here, was my fascination and my interest, really, and my involvement, in some ways, with the exercise of India’s soft power and also the whole business of public diplomacy or the whole process of public diplomacy. During my time in the foreign service, apart from the areas I’ve dealt with—like China or our neighbors (I’d served in Sri Lanka also). Plus, as foreign secretary you deal with almost everything that concerns our foreign policy, including public diplomacy.

This was an area I felt that there was so much India could do, because in terms of our credibility, in terms of what we stand for, in terms of our inclusivity, our management of diversity—from all these angles, I think I felt that as an Indian, I was kind of programmed in a sense. I was equipped in a sense to be thinking along these dimensions, which is why, when I retired . . .

And I’d always been interested in music. Music had fascinated me from the time of my childhood. My sister and I, we would—those were the radio years. We had no television to look at, no internet. Internet wasn’t even a speck in our eyes at that moment. But we listened to the radio. We would listen to music; we would listen to songs from America, from the rest of the world. And we would run to the radio every time a song that we were interested in was being broadcast, and we would jot down the lyrics. And we wouldn’t get the lyrics in one go. So a few days later when that song was broadcast again, we would make that rush to the radio again and fill in the blanks.

That’s how my involvement with music started. When I joined the foreign service, I was posted in Vienna, which is really the mecca of music, as far as the world is concerned. The Indian Embassy was exactly opposite the Viennese Opera.

RAJAGOPALAN: I have been there.

RAO: You’ve been there; you’ve seen that building—that very, you know, what should I call it? It’s from the Habsburg era, and it’s a huge, literally a monumental structure. I used to go there, listen to—I’d watch operas and listen to orchestras playing all over Vienna, and I was quite drawn to the way they brought the music to the world or to the audiences, and the kind of involvement, the kind of synergy that existed between the players and the audience, and the communication—as it does even in our own country, in our own environment. There is that communication that takes place, which is so divine.

I felt that this was something that I would like to learn more about, and so over the years, I got quite interested and involved with classical music, both Indian as well as Western classical music. What attracted me to Western classical music and the symphony orchestra was this idea of bringing diverse players and people together and getting them to sit down and work together to cooperate, to learn to listen to each other, to be curious about the other person, to create harmonies that involved coordination. That involved understanding how the other person—where the other person was coming from, and learning to create these alignments that didn’t sacrifice your own identity but, at the same time, created a climate of cooperation.

I tried to apply that in diplomacy and to difficult relationships that we are surrounded with, and to see whether there was any possibility, especially in South Asia where we don’t—haven’t built too many bridges of connectivity because politics has become part of the everyday. There is a saying that we’ve politicized the everyday. Everything starts from that, stems from that, is defined by that.

I felt in retirement I was liberated from being constrained in that sense. In officialdom, obviously, you have to follow the policy line, and you are involved, you’re preoccupied with so many things that you really can’t focus on issues like this: creating this utopian vision, as it were. As I’ve always said, every map in the world has to have a place called Utopia, and maybe this is my Utopia. I’ve tried to find it; I’m still seeking it. But the symphony is very much a part of that dream.

I had to bring people together, especially in a region like ours, which tends to be quite divided because of history, because of politics, because of all that surrounds us today, whether it’s our concerns about terrorism from Pakistan or whether it’s the concerns our smaller neighbors have about a big neighbor like India. That is inevitable, I suppose. Then what China is doing in our region. (We can talk about China later.)

Given all that, understanding the politics of this environment, I felt maybe music is apolitical enough, noncontroversial enough to be used as a binder, to be used as a connector, to be used as a unifier. That’s how the idea of the orchestra was born.

Imperialism as Unifier?

RAJAGOPALAN: Is—the symphony is essentially a European import, and is that perhaps the binding factor? There’s a broader, meta theme here, that we have this cacophony of identities and languages and so many other things going on in South Asia, but the binding factor really is that in the very recent past, there was this imperial rule across the region, and that is in fact also what gave us the identity of the subcontinent and holds us together?

RAO: Well, in that sense, yes. The subcontinent as we know it together today, and the kind of boundaries that have been drawn as a result of that, really stems from recent history—300, 400 years of history. But there’s a larger context, a larger ecosystem beyond that, that binds all of us civilizationally, and India being the fount of—in a sense, our culture and our civilization has been absorbed by many other countries in our region, and they have found their own definitions of it and created their own, carved out their own identities.

It’s not that we can superimpose our identity on them, and we must respect what they have carved out for themselves and what they have created. That’s what makes our region so fascinating. When I used to serve in Sri Lanka, I was fascinated by the way you heard the muffled footsteps of India beating in the blood of everything you saw. There were certainly those muffled footsteps. But they had created something quite unique out of it, quite different, quite interesting. One was quite fascinated by what one saw, what that connection with India had transmogrified into, literally. It was a very different picture and something that we needed to learn about, something we needed to study.

If you go to Anuradhapura, for instance, or to Polonnaruwa in central Sri Lanka—Anuradhapura is very much Magadha transported to a different environment, Ashokan Magadha really transported, something that perhaps in India has been—so many levels of history have been built up on that in many ways. But here you find it’s like a fly in amber, literally. It’s been there; they’ve built an identity around it. It becomes very much a part of their definition of being Sri Lankan, their Buddhist connection, their Buddhist identity. Really.

In some ways it has been also responsible in the sense—the majority community versus the minority community. It has created, generated its own dissonances also, no doubt about it.

To answer your question: Yes, it’s true that there is an identity that was carved out for South Asia as a result of the domination of colonial power in the last 300 years of our history. Before that, there is a rich tournament, a cavalcade of events and histories that have defined who we are today. I think we have to harken back to that also, and that’s where the issue of unity comes up.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I agree. I’ll disagree with you on one point. India’s an odd place—modern-day India—in the sense that the southern states have more in common civilizationally with, say, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand—that’s the overlap—than they have with, say, Afghanistan and Peshawar—those parts of the country. The north has virtually nothing to do with any of this, and we’ll see much more overlap with Pakistan. The northeast has much more overlap with, say, Burma and that civilizational history of Buddhism, transporting.

I just always feel like whatever we think of as the modern-day subcontinent has a civilizational unity, but it’s not the only one, because there are also these multiple civilizational things that are going on in all directions simultaneously, in different centuries—simultaneously and in different centuries. What we’ve carved out now as the subcontinent is just—there’s the ocean on one side, in one sense, and then the rest of it is the British territory that was drawn in some way.

I don’t know if I’m being very reductive, but that’s how it feels to me when I look at the list of countries in the South Asian Symphony, for instance.

RAO: Yes. Well, that’s true. Well, it reminds me of that line from the Superman movie: “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s Superman.” Is it Afghanistan? Is it Nepal? Is it Sri Lanka? Is it India? Is it northeast India? Is it North India? Is it South India? It’s South Asia! [laughs] That’s really what makes us what we are. It’s such an amalgamation of difference, an embrace of diversity. Yet there is a core of—


RAO: —identity that draws us all together. You listen to Afghan music, for instance—

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, absolutely.

RAO: The instruments that they use: the tabla, the stringed—the santoor or the sitar, you know? There’s so much that resonates with me as an Indian. I come from the south myself, but I’ve lived all over India, so I consider myself in that sense a child of a pan-Indian experience. The fact is, there’s so much that connects us.

And you have migrations. South Asia has been a region of constant migration, internal and external migration. Now, you take a place like Rajasthan and you look at Afghanistan, you see the kind of movement to and fro of people.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely.

RAO: The whole culture of chivalry and the way women are seen and the history of warring states—everything is so connected. Although religion has made a great difference. But the fact is that these internal and external migrations—and the constant movement of people within this region. If you even look at South India, if you look at the Parsi communities, even the Afghan communities that reside in cities like Bangalore for generations.


RAO: Tibetan.

Hyderabad, for instance, because of the Nizam’s dominions—the kind of connections they have with Turkey, for instance (the ruling family has had). That’s what makes India so fascinating. And northeast India is also a universe in itself; its connections with Southeast Asia.

So I’d never—and that’s come into the definition of the orchestra. I began with thinking, “We’ll create a South Asian symphony orchestra with all the eight countries in the region: that will define”—like you have in SAARC [the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation].

But then I thought, look at India. If you go to Kashmir, for instance, India becomes a central Asian country once you go into Kashmir, because its connections are with the north. If you go into Manipur or Tripura or Nagaland, so much of the orientation is towards Southeast Asia, towards Burma, towards parts of Thailand. Even to places like Yunnan in China, although politically we would not like to emphasize that. But the fact is, there are these connections, and the population in the northeast is obviously a product of all these migrations that have come out of Southeast Asia and out of the Tibetan universe, literally.

India is the place, as the British poet Kathleen Raine once said, it’s the place of many arrivals. I see it, not the place of so many departures, but the place of so many arrivals.

RAJAGOPALAN: There is a core. We might not be able to express it very well, but there is a core that holds us all together.

Musical Expressions of Identity

RAJAGOPALAN: What kind of music best expresses the South Asian identity? In modern times, it is Bollywood music, right? Because if I get in—I live in the Washington, D.C., area, and if I get into an Uber with a Bangladeshi driver or a Pakistani driver, the first thing they’ll ask me about is Salman Khan. In fact, once I was admonished—I think Salman Khan was not getting bail or something, and the Uber driver was scolding me that, “Your people have not given Salman Khan bail.”

In the present moment, it feels like Bollywood is this huge cultural—it’s the soft culture that has traveled from India across the South Asian region. But, other than Bollywood, what is the kind of music, especially a more classical expression, that expresses the South Asian identity, if not binds the South Asian identity?

RAO: Yes. Well, the primary aim of creating the orchestra, Shruti, was to bring people together, people who were essentially strangers to one another, people who didn’t communicate or converse with each other: to create these conversations, to create these bridges, to create an integrative instrument, which is an orchestra that would bring them together. It was not so much what they would play, although that is important because an orchestra—obviously, a repertoire of an orchestra is what makes an orchestra.

What we settled for was not only to look at South Asian music and try to see how we could bring it to be played by an orchestra. Because, as you know, in our part of the world we have a rich tradition of music, a great tradition of classical music, of vocal music, of folk music, of spiritual music. The way it is notated, the way it’s written down, is not something that an orchestra can use.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. It’s not transcribed for a symphony.

RAO: It’s not transcribed for symphonic use. So one challenge was to see what music we could take, which belonged to the region, which people were connected to, as far as this part of the world was concerned, which they sang—whether it was at weddings or funerals or rites of passage. We wanted to bring that kind of music also to the world. The idea was in a way to open the world to South Asia, to tell them this is the kind of tradition we have, and we are trying to play it in a language that you will understand: that is, bringing it to be rendered through a symphony.

At the same time, because I’ve always felt that openness to the rest of the world, an openness of mind is what makes a civilization great—because you not only give to the world but you also absorb from the world. Therefore, I felt our orchestra should be able to play the best of Western classical music also, which would take some time because we had to, first of all, be able to expose musicians from our region to some of the best talents outside, because to be playing in a symphony takes years, as you know. Every musician who is selected or chosen to play in a symphony has to be very, very good, very professional and has years of training behind him or her.

Obviously, our symphony is still in a very nascent stage. It’s just four years old. We are still getting there. We are still finding our way. We are still understanding the process that is involved in making a truly great orchestra, which is what we want to be at some stage. We play both Western classical music and we also play music from the region. Every concert that we’ve had has—

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I’ve heard a few on YouTube, and they’re lovely.

RAO: Thank you—has included both. In that sense, I wouldn’t use the word “fusion.” The idea is not fusion, but it’s this ability to create a model of coexistence. Coexistence not only in terms of all people from diverse nationalities coming together, but also different systems of music being able to coexist together and to be sounding perfectly in harmony with each other.

And you used the word “cacophony,” so obviously we would like to rise beyond that.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I meant it more in terms of if we all start talking in our individual languages, it would be cacophonous, right? Then there has to be something which kind of—and a conductor, which makes sense of this and makes it harmonious. I think that there’s a lovely metaphor in there somewhere for the overall region.

The South Asian Playlist

RAJAGOPALAN: I heard one of the concerts—and I’ll get to that in a moment. It starts with “Maitreem Bhajata,” which is—of course M. S. Subbulakshmi sang this at the UN, and there is this lovely . . .

It’s also the arrival of Indian culture on the world stage. I spoke about this with Keshav Desiraju on the podcast, actually. The late Keshav Desiraju: he had this wonderful book on M. S. Subbulakshmi.

RAO: I know.

RAJAGOPALAN: I was actually arguing that she was making a political statement. Which is, she’s not going to sing one of the very traditional Western—an ode to the West in a way that they understand. She shows up in her sari, in her traditional jewelry, flowers in her hair. She sings a song [Maitreem Bhajata] that has essentially been written by a Hindu scholar and the head of one of the mathams. It doesn’t represent all of India, but it’s very much an Indian voice. She just decides to be herself and feels that it will communicate.

I thought that’s a very political moment without making an explicit political statement. You begin the—at least the Chennai concert begins with that piece.

RAO: Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: What was the reason you picked it?

RAO: All right. Yes, I picked it because that was my years in diplomacy and the way I’ve been conditioned to be what I am today by what diplomacy taught me. What my years in the foreign service gave to me. I’m very grateful for that exposure.

I’ve always been a great admirer and fan of M. S. Subbulakshmi, from the time my mother used to sing her praises when I was a little girl. She was somebody I always looked up to, and I read about her, I knew about her life. There was never an instance when I tired of listening to M. S. Subbulakshmi.

I knew about this song, “Maitreem Bhajata,” the fact that it talks about friendship between nations, about rising above war and division. I thought to myself, when this idea of the orchestra began to germinate in my mind: That’s the song that should become the signature for our orchestra. That was why I chose “Maitreem Bhajata.” In fact, we sang it at the first concert also, in Mumbai.


RAO: At the NCPA.

I wanted “Maitreem Bhajata” to be the song with which we launched our concerts. Because the words expressed to me so much. You know when she sings “dāmyata datta dayadhvaṃ,” which means compassion and tolerance and generosity and self-control—all these things that we need. In fact, these were the words that also T. S. Eliot picked up when he began to write his poetry. So it’s very, very well known, these three words: “dāmyata datta dayadhvaṃ.” So I knew also, as a student of English literature, I knew about the fact that many Western minds had been attracted to this concept.

I thought this is a universal song, even if it is sung in the Carnatic genre and it is sung in Sanskrit. What it seeks to express is just tailor-made for what the orchestra stands for. That’s why it’s become the song with which I always have the concerts begin. We try to sing it in as simple a way as possible, with no frills, no accoutrements, because it doesn’t need that kind of thing. It’s so sublime, the message that it seeks to convey.

That’s why “Maitreem Bhajata” will continue, in fact, to—

RAJAGOPALAN: Open with that.

RAO: —open with that, whatever concerts we have.

RAJAGOPALAN: That can be the overture piece, right? For the South Asian Symphony?

RAO: Exactly.

RAJAGOPALAN: I heard the Chennai concert, and I don’t know if it was because the location was Chennai, but it had a couple of songs from “Roja.” That was one of the big movies that [marked] A. R. Rahman’s debut, and he broke out as this musical genius. Then there was a medley of Bollywood songs, though that was not all that was in the symphony. There’s a wonderful piece by Shirish Korde; there is the Dvořák symphony that you play.

Do you worry at all that (a) this was very Indian music or Indian-composition-heavy? Second, the choice of “Roja”—because that is a movie about terrorism and the Pakistani-sponsored terrorism and the independence movement for Kashmiri sovereignty and so on. Is there political thought woven into this, or are these just great songs that the locals would have appreciated, and they lent themselves to a symphonic transcription?

RAO: No, it was our way of paying a tribute to A. R. Rahman, really. And Chennai is his city, as you know. We were playing in Chennai, so we really wanted to play some of his compositions.

We didn’t look at the theme of “Roja,” to be very honest. It was more, these were beautiful compositions. The first song, “The Cry of the Rose,” that “Kadhal Rojave,” that song, in fact, we heard the song being performed by the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on YouTube.

We said to ourselves, “Now, this is a wonderful way of playing the song.” We hadn’t heard it played this way. “How are we going to get this for the orchestra?” Because getting a musical score—everything is copyrighted, and we have to be able to get all the permissions. We didn’t know how to, actually, because it couldn’t be found anywhere, the score.

Then what I did was, I knew Lord Karan Bilimoria, who’s a member of the House of Lords, and we keep in touch with each other. He had once mentioned to me that he had connections with the city of Birmingham and with Birmingham University and things. So I said, “Maybe I should reach out to Lord Bilimoria and ask him whether he can somehow contact the people in Birmingham and find the score for us.” Which he did exactly. He got in touch with the leader of the Birmingham Symphony, who then put us in touch with the composer who had orchestrated this music, A. R. Rahman’s music. His name was Matt Dunkley.

I wrote to Matt, and he was also contacted by Lord Bilimoria and the Birmingham Symphony director. He said to us, “I’d be very happy to give you the score to play on a complimentary basis.”

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s lovely.

RAO: And that’s how we got the score, because it’s impossible to get the score I think otherwise.

Just putting the symphony together has opened up so many doors—and finding musicians, literally digging deep to locate talent. It’s been a voyage of discovery, because the symphony was not ready-made. It was not some kind of an app that you download or something, you know? It’s not like that. You really have to be able to search for the talent and find the best people who can join the symphony. It’s been a quite epic kind of endeavor and physically quite a challenge.

South Asia in Opera

RAJAGOPALAN: I was sort of thinking back. When I heard “South Asian Symphony,” I started making some notes even before I heard the concert, because I was trying to think of what would my priors be like as an audience. If I didn’t know what you were playing, what would I expect to be played? And, you know, what actually ends up being.

I started thinking through—I’m a big fan of opera, like you. I used to live in New York City for a long time. I really miss the Metropolitan Opera now that I’m in Washington, D.C. I started thinking about—there was a time in the mid-to-late 19th century when Indian stories were told operatically in Italy and France and so on. This is, of course, “Lalla-Roukh,” which is one of your personal favorites. This is David’s “Lalla-Roukh.” And you had “Lakmé,” you have “Sakuntala,” you have “Padmâvatî.” You have a number of these lovely operas which are written—incidentally, all of these are about women.

I find that if I don’t count Philip Glass’ modern-day—


RAJAGOPALAN: —“Satyagraha,” which is based or inspired by the life of Gandhi, it seems like Indian stories that were told through opera have vanished from modern-day operatic depiction or imagination. These are not famous operas anymore. When I first started thinking about what would you play symphonically, I thought it would be a couple of pieces from these operas. You do have one song from “Lalla-Roukh” that you performed at the NCPA.

More generally, what has led to the decline of Indian stories in opera? Is it—I was reading a piece (I’ll try and find the link to it) that, you know, it’s sort of the decline of Orientalism. You do have “Madame Butterfly” and “Aida.” Those are still capturing popular imagination. I think, other than a few people in India, nobody knows that “Sakuntala” was even this famous opera that was performed in Paris. What do you think has led to that?

RAO: Well, you’re right. I think an opera like “Aida” is a great opera. “Madame Butterfly”: great music, great libretto. Maybe some of the Indian-themed operas did not really make that kind of grade as time went by. In the 19th century, you had this fascination with the Orient, with the East—the “imagined East,” as it were. And age of empire: so you had a lot of interaction. This whole question of the colonial mindset in many ways created these depictions, as it were.

Yes, with time, that has faded. We live in a new era, an era where decolonization has defined the way the world looks at the way history was. Also, as I said, some of these operas just fell off the map, literally. People forgot about them. Except for “Lakmé”—I think “Lakmé” gets performed more often than any of the other Indian-themed operas. Or “The Pearl Fishers” [Les pêcheurs de perles], for instance.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, which is a Sri Lankan story, but yes, very much about the subcontinent, yes.

RAO: Which is a Sri Lankan story. These get performed in a very niche—with “Lalla-Roukh,” for instance, there is a wonderful opera company in Washington, D.C., called Opera Lafayette.


RAO: I don’t know if you’re aware of them—


RAO: —but they do a lot of these—they revive many of these 18th-century, 17th-century and 19th-century operas and play them with the instruments that were used at that time. It’s a very period kind of presentation.

That’s how “Lalla-Roukh” was revived and played. They played at the Kennedy Center, and they also played at the Lincoln Center in New York—I think it was in early 2013 that it was. It was quite a beautiful production, but it wasn’t one of those—the “Aida” type of production.


RAO: It wasn’t that, with huge sets and all that pageantry. We haven’t really had that.

Maybe these operas were conceived of in a much smaller dimension, in some ways. Because the Egypt-themed opera or a Chinese—“Turandot,” for instance. The kind of spectacle that it presents. These operas that are themed on India perhaps don’t have that kind of spectacle.

Opera today is all about that, about spectacle, about statement, about that kind of projection. That element of just impacting the imagination with the music, with the sound, with the spectacle. That, maybe perhaps, many of these Indian-themed operas do not have. I mean, if that’s a fact.

But that doesn’t take away, I think, from the musicality of some of these operas. I think “Lakmé” has some beautiful music. “The Pearl Fishers” too. Even “Lalla-Roukh”—when I listen to the arias in the opera, some of them were really, really quite attractive. They may not make for immortal opera music, but certainly very, very attractive.

There’s no reason why, for instance, we shouldn’t do a revival of “Lalla-Roukh” or some of these Indian-themed operas in times to come.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think “Sakuntala” would do particularly well. I feel like for opera, the story is secondary to the emotion. And “Sakuntala” is one of those stories where the emotion is just so powerful. The story is kind of illogical and bizarre, to be honest, right?

RAO: Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s just pure mythology and fantastical. But the emotion, the true pining is like—it’s so beautifully told, even in the poetry, that I feel like that lends itself very well to operatic music and operatic expression.

RAO: Absolutely. I think that is certainly so. In fact—which is why the Chinese were so fascinated with “Sakuntala” in the 1950s. They staged it in Beijing and then, [when] Vice President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan went to China, they had put up a performance of “Sakuntala.” I think that opera, that story, is very well known in China even till today, despite all the political differences.

With China, the relationship has really gone south, but there is—unfortunately the larger dimension has escaped us, and there is no dialogue between intellectuals from both countries, and writers. We tried that, and there were some nascent attempts, but I think the politics has surmounted everything. Which is a pity, because we are two civilization states, really.

India-China Border

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t want to waste this opportunity, speaking of China, to pick your brain a little bit about the origin of this rocky relationship. Now, you are also an absolute expert on maps, and you’ve basically—you’re the person who basically revived and created the Indo-Sino border map project as it exists today. To me, it seems like the whole thing starts not so much—there are other issues, but it really starts as a border conflict.

It’s not even a border conflict in terms of “Oh, this is our territory versus yours.” It almost feels like this is a problem of a point of view. That the Indian side thought that the border is handed to them: This is the British legacy, and whatever the British surveyors had drawn on the map as the line is the line. To the Chinese, the point of view was, “Why should we consider the British line as the line? This needs to be figured out between neighbors, the way neighbors build fences. The neighbors need to survey this entire region and then decide what falls on one side versus another.”

Is that a good way of thinking about this, that it’s not about a particular point on the border, it’s just—there’s just too big a gap between the point of view of even how we think about the border?

RAO: Well, I think from both sides—I was reading a new book that has come out about the way India has been imagined in China. In fact, I have a copy somewhere. I was reading it last night. It’s by this young Israeli scholar, I think she’s of Israeli origin. She talks about how the West, without us knowing—that is, without us, meaning India and China, knowing—has been a mediatory factor in all the thought processes that we have about power, about sovereignty, about borders, about the way our nations are conceived.

In many ways, there is that Western mediation that occurred because of our recent history. In the case of India, British colonialism, but in the case of China, also the way concepts of India were filtered through the eye of—


RAO: —Western or English literature or writing or thought. This is the legacy that has been so difficult for both our countries to get rid of. Somehow, we have internalized it in much of our thought processes. I’m just throwing this idea at you, but I think this is something that I feel needs to be pondered about a little more. Because we are essentially confined, in many ways, by these definitions that we have ourselves acquired in a very mindless way. Because it’s just being absorbed, and we have decided that this is the truth that we should be governed by or we should be guided by.

In the case of India, these borders—obviously these borders that have become our nation’s borders, but in many ways that we inherited as a result of the British imperium in India. The way that—take the McMahon Line; take the way our views of Tibet were conceived of. In the case of China also, the Qing Empire was in many ways an imperium. The way they absorbed Xinjiang, the way they sought to absorb Tibet and didn’t succeed very much. But these ideas of what constituted China were in many ways as imperial as the way the British conceived of India’s borders or India’s confines.

Where do we begin? To whom do we attribute the original sin? That is the question. We seem to be stuck in this, and I think it has become more and more difficult for us to be able to consider a reasonable solution of these problems that divide us today.

It is just that our peoples, our nations, our populations, our political thinking class have been conditioned by these views, in both countries. That it becomes very difficult for us to break free of that and to say, “Let’s consider solutions that make for the security of both countries,” no doubt, but also help with transnational issues like water or climate or the local—the people in the borderlands, their cultures. We think of everything being controlled from Beijing or Delhi. But there’s a larger story beyond that, and that story has not been told.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m also curious, given that Nehru is such an important character in the early years and the relationship with China—when India gains independence, one of the first major projects, other than setting up the election commission and that part, is writing the constitution. In both of those projects, whether it is being a sovereign republic or having a democratic state, there was a lot of clarity that India will not be a dominion of the crown, India will shed its colonial past, it will write its own constitution. All the members will be not British House of Lords members or experts or imported from abroad. They will be elected from within or sent from the princely states. We see this again with the Planning Commission.

I’m surprised that this didn’t translate when it came to the India-China border, that the Indian state didn’t say, “Look, this was handed to us by the British, but we are carving out our own nation. This idea that this borderline must be jointly surveyed and negotiated and decided sounds quite sensible.” What was standing in the way? Nehru famously describes himself as the last Englishman to rule India. Was it a question of the first generation was still very British in its point of view?

Or is it a question of capacity? It’s a new country. We don’t have the ability to—I mean, this is thousands of kilometers on a very mountainous and rocky terrain. Or is it a lack of trust between India and China? Or is it the horrible memory and experience of drawing the map very recently during Partition—the Radcliffe Line?

So what is it that is stopping India from coming into its own in this one important area of sovereignty, when it decides in other areas to claim sovereignty and make a clean break from the colonial past?

RAO: I think it was a mix of all these factors that you’ve just mentioned. I think the idea of India—the idea of India is expressed in the constitution, of course, we all respect; and that is what defines us as a democracy. We owe a great deal to our founding fathers for the fact that India was defined in that way. We have held together; we were consolidated as a nation as a result.

I think when it came to defining our borders, I think we took it for granted, as it were. This whole map of India—“Mother India,” as we began to define it from the late 19th century in our literature and our writings—this whole concept of Mother India from “Aa Setu Himachalam,” as they say, from the Ram Setu, from the Palk Straits to the high Himalayas. That’s the way India was defined, and that’s the way we looked at it as a people: the nation, obviously, but as a people also. The way we defined our places of pilgrimage, the places from which we looked up to for our strength and for our definition as who we were ourselves.

I think all that came into the mix. We needed, of course, secure borders, and we saw the Himalayas as the best bastion to protect our interests. And yes, the partition of India and the fact that India had been divided and part of India had been carved out to create Pakistan—that did create deep wounds in the psychology of us as a nation; there’s no doubt about that.

The concept of losing territory again, and giving up land to another country, was really out of question. We felt that these were boundaries that we had inherited as the inheritor of, after the Raj had left, and we were responsible for these frontiers. It was our duty to guard them, to make them secure, especially once the Chinese had entered Tibet. At that stage, I think nobody had read the Chinese on this—nobody. I don’t believe the Chinese themselves had completely made up their minds as to where these boundaries with India should lie.

In a sense, you are looking at both countries in a terra incognita about boundaries and about drawing lines, about fixing the borders on maps. In that sense, we both, I think—and we were certainly groping in the dark about these matters.

Nehru, I think, assumed—he’d been conceptualizing this whole discovery of India and what India stood for and how India had come together. All this was very much a part of that definition of how he felt the nation should be projected, as far as the rest of the world was concerned.

What Is the Indian View of China Today, and Vice Versa?

RAJAGOPALAN: In your book, you’ve talked about how initially the Indian foreign officers’ view of China was something that was borrowed from the West—specifically the colonial establishment, but also partly from the United States. It was very much the oriental view of China. And China viewed India very much as an agent of the British, doing the bidding of this colonial power. Of course, this has a long history, given the number of Indian army members who served in the British army to serve the British cause. Also all the trade wars with China, that opium was exported. There’s a very long and entangled history there.

How has that view changed? What is the view today? How do Indians in the foreign services perceive China? And how do foreign service officers in China perceive India?

RAO: Well, I think a whole book could be written about that. How do the Chinese view India, and how do Indians view China?

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I don’t mean Indians and Chinese—sorry to interrupt. I don’t mean the Indian people and China—

RAO: As far as diplomats in the Indian foreign office are concerned (to cite one example), I think there is the whole history today, as far as the current generation of our diplomats is concerned, the history of our relations with China: the differences, the conflict of 1962, the sense of being betrayed after we had professed the strong friendship with China. China as an adversary, China which is a friend of Pakistan (which creates its own set of problems for us), China as a rival, China as a competitor. China as a country with which peaceful coexistence has proved to be not the favored formula, because it hasn’t worked. That’s really the perception.

Of course, there is also acknowledgment that China has progressed by leaps and bounds over the last three, four decades, has progressed ahead of India, and that there is a gap between us, India and China, that has to be made up.

But there is growing confidence in India in our capacity to really move forward, progress sufficiently in order to make that gap narrower and narrower, and hopefully at one stage I think we will be running side by side or even perhaps outrun the Chinese—who knows? In a way, we still have much to do, no doubt, about making up, as far as that gap is concerned.

Underlying all this, I think, there’s also interest in China among our diplomats, especially those who have studied Chinese, who have served in China. I think there is appreciation of Chinese culture, for instance. There’s no doubt that it’s a rich culture, has a rich history. Anybody with scholarly intent and scholarly interests, and also in terms of professional concerns and involvement, I think there’s every need for us to study China deeply. That’s what I think people like us who have served in China, who have worked on China, I think are drawn to the study of China—because there’s a whole universe out there, like there is for those studying India, to be understood. It’s a combination of all this.

And as far as Chinese diplomats, looking at India, I think it’s more like China has now become this, in many ways, a superpower.

RAJAGOPALAN: Superpower, yes.

RAO: It’s trying to run neck to neck with the Americans. It’s trying to benchmark itself only with America or countries like Japan, for which they’ve always had a sneaking admiration even though they hate all the history of Japan’s domination over China. In that sense, perhaps, India doesn’t remain so much in focus for the Chinese, including Chinese diplomats, except through the prism of looking at it from the South Asian angle.

They have the relationship with Pakistan; they would like to see India confined within this region. There is an animus, let’s say, about India’s relationship with the United States. There is discomfort about it. There is this compulsion, there is this urge to somehow beat India down, not provide it with that opportunity to be able to find its rightful place on the global stage.

Take, for instance, the Chinese view on our entry into the Security Council as a permanent member: That says it all. Or our entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Or the way they make it difficult every time the question of sanctioning Pakistan-based Islamic terrorists who work against India or terrorist groups—the way they try and block attempts to sanction those groups. All this I think speaks volumes about how China looks at India.

That era of the 1950s, when there was really a short history of Sino-Indian friendship, when there were attempts to study each other, when our literature was being translated into Chinese and they were trying to study us in a more deep fashion—I think that has suffered over the years after the war with China in 1962. In fact, many intellectuals—they had people like their most famous Indologist, Ji Xianlin, who was really put into a “cowshed,” as the legend goes, during the Cultural Revolution and suffered so much, and even despite that translated the Ramayana and Mahabharata during that period.

There are a few Chinese intellectuals, people in the universities, who have studied India and who know quite a bit about our culture. The politics of the relationship has, in a sense, confined that knowledge and adversely impacted the progress and the growth and development of that knowledge, and especially among young Chinese. In fact, many young Indians—we have about 20,000 of them who study in China, who study medicine, and who ultimately, I’m sure, during that period of stay get to know the country to a large extent, or to some extent at least.

Conversely, there is not that much as far as Chinese youth getting to know India except the knowledge of Bollywood and appreciating some of our films, but a deep study of India, it’s quite . . . That’s why we need that kind of intellectual-to-intellectual discourse between the two countries. It’s a pity that somehow politics stymies that.

Changing Relationships

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you see this changing in the next few decades? China’s population peaks next year, and India’s population will peak in 2065. Between now and 2065, India will add a quarter of a billion people to its population, and China will lose a quarter of a billion people if their fertility rates don’t change. One, that completely changes the demographic; India will be the much larger country. But the other part of it is, India will be the much younger country.

China has invested so heavily for a young country. It’s created these massive universities, and it’s created infrastructure that is essentially for the young working class. Do you see the Chinese relationship necessarily changing because the demographics will force their hand?

RAO: I really don’t know, because China’s aspirations to becoming the leading power, somehow, to shaping—I’m not saying China wants to destroy the world order, but it wants to shape it in a manner that is tailored to Chinese interests. So that concern and that obsession will continue to rule Chinese outlook and Chinese activities as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

Will it change the outlook on India? I really doubt—because as far as the India-China relationship today is concerned, there are so many imponderables: the question of the border; the question of Pakistan; the question of how China views the rise of India; the U.S.-China, India-China, India-U.S. relationships; and the whole situation in the Indo-Pacific—the growth of the Quad, for instance.

The alignments and the connections and the equations are so complex today, so you can’t reduce it to a simple definition—a set of prognoses: if this happens, this will follow. I don’t believe you can really have that deductive analysis because of the complexity of the situation.

RAJAGOPALAN: We worry about China as an adversary independently because there’s this huge border issue going on, and of course it’s the main competition for India in the South Asian region while partnering with the rest of the region. We also worry about China because of its closeness to Pakistan.

Do the Chinese similarly worry about India because of India’s closeness to Japan? That has been a historically very complicated relationship, the Japanese and Chinese relationship. And now India’s closeness with Japan—of course the entry into the Quad and the formation of the Quad itself—does that see that as one more fault line between itself and India that can’t be bridged?

RAO: I’m not so sure whether the Chinese regard the India-Japan relationship as a fault line, because the Indian-Japan relationship has been very close and has been one of the important foreign policy connections that India has always nurtured over the years. Even during the Cold War, going back to soon after World War II, and our attitude on the trials of Japanese people who were defined as war criminals and the kind of outlook that Nehru articulated about bringing Japan back into the fold as a legitimate constituent of a global order.

So I think that really drew the Japanese people very close to India, and I think that debt of gratitude was always there. Japan’s overseas development assistance for India during our five-year plans and right from the outset. That relationship is very close. I’ve never, at least, come across references or statements that seem to suggest that the India-Japan relationship is a source of discomfort to China.

It exists, and the Chinese have their problems with Japan, but they also have a very closely evolved and developed relationship with Japan. Just think of the connections between the two countries. Despite all the political history that divides them, it’s a very thriving relationship in many senses.

I agree that the development of the Quad, and especially our relationship with the United States, that’s what tends to worry the Chinese or concern the Chinese more than any India-Japan relationship is concerned.

Today, of course, within the Quad and the outlook of leaders like the late Shinzo Abe, for instance, on the Indo-Pacific, on Japan’s redefinition of its defense and security interests—these are things, obviously, that concern the Chinese.


RAJAGOPALAN: One other big issue which has been there since the beginning between India and China is Tibet and the Tibetan people and their movement and, of course, the seat of the head of the religion, which has now moved to Dharamshala for various reasons. Was there ever a scenario where Tibet would not have been an issue? In the sense that, from the very beginning—this is immediately after independence—there is a delegation that comes from Tibet to India, and immediately senior members in the Chinese establishment who were pretty close to Nehru, actually, they declined to attend.

This starts right at the beginning. Was there ever any other way this could have played out? Other than India just not recognizing the Tibetan people. But was this an error of judgment? They just didn’t think of the downstream consequences? Or this is how it was always meant to be, given the Chinese agenda of sinoizing Tibet, so to speak?

RAO: I think where the Chinese were concerned, even the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalists, had a certain attitude towards Tibet which was mirrored on the communist side also. This was how China as a nation looked at Tibet, I think, whether they were communists or nationalists. Even Taiwan, if you scratch the surface deep enough, you’ll understand that they have similar attitudes on the McMahon Line, similar attitudes on Tibet, that they’re being Chinese. As they say today, “Being Chinese.”

I don’t think that is going to be different, whatever the historical outcomes for China will be in the future—the way the Taiwan problem is sorted out or what happens to the internal order within China, who knows? The attitude on Tibet, the attitude on Xinjiang—I think these are very, very deeply embedded Chinese attitudes. They’ve internalized it so deeply. I don’t think that will change.

As far as India was concerned, our connections with Tibet—as they say, Tibet’s back door opens towards India. It’s the way literally gravity pulls the Tibetan people, the way they’ve looked at their Buddhist faith, what they’ve learned from India, the spiritual heritage, the philosophy which defines Tibetan religion. Even if their lifestyles have been influenced by China, no doubt, much of the way they dress and their food—and the fact is, Tibet has existed between these two civilizations—literally, India and China—and has been heavily influenced by both. In a sense, it is that meeting ground for India and China and ideally should have been that, should have continued to be that.

That was not the way history had ordained it to be. The Chinese have literally enforced what they see as their rights over Tibet, much to the fallout that you see—on Tibet, and the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India, and the Tibetan refugees here. And the memories of how Tibet were have been kept alive by the Tibetan refugee community, and the way that culture has sought to be sustained in many ways, and their religious heritage, too, which is so important, which defines Tibet literally as an entity, is so central: religion and the culture of Tibet.

I think India recognized that, and India respected that. Tibet was where we made our pilgrimages. If you go to Kailash and Mansarovar, they’re so tied to the Hindu religion, as much as they are to the Buddhist religion.

We had always seen Tibet as part of that spiritual space from which we had received sustenance, strength, inspiration and which had been a part of this process of give-and-take between our two peoples, as it were: the traders, the trading community, the families that were connected, the Himalayan kingdoms that were connected to Tibet.

Nobody can deny those facts of history. I think India was guided by that in the early years. Nobody really had studied the Chinese so deeply. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say Nehru made this mistake, Nehru slipped up as far as this was concerned, and he could have done this differently. It’s all easy for us to say that. The hindsight is always 20/20.

When you are thrown into a situation as a new nation—you are consolidating your nationhood yourself, you are building the country—there are many, many challenges that confront you. On top of that, there are these formidable geographies that define your borders. You have this big nation-state coming up across the Himalayas, China, and all that it’s seeking to do to consolidate its power. These challenges have to be understood.

I think under the circumstances—could Nehru have done it differently? Yes. In certain cases, yes. I think we could have waited to recognize Tibet as a part of China until we had been able to seek a settlement of where our borders were with China and made sure that this was recognized by China—tied it together, made it part of a combined understanding of how we should proceed. But that didn’t happen.

RAJAGOPALAN: What is the endgame that you see there? Do you see the religious seat fundamentally getting split, that there will be one line of continuity with the present-day Dalai Lama and his successor that is chosen? We know that the Chinese want to choose a different successor and place them at the seat in Tibet. Do you see a fundamental split of the religious authority and the seat, and the two will just continue and chug along, or do you see this becoming a major fault line?

Because it seems like, other than for Tibetans in India, this is not a political priority for anyone else—in a way that even Taiwan is, for instance.

RAO: That’s right.

RAJAGOPALAN: What can be the possible endgame for Tibet and Tibetans at this point? It looks pretty bleak.

RAO: I think it looks bleak, and the door has closed on that really for Tibet. Of course, we all wish His Holiness the Dalai Lama long life and good health, but there will come a time when his successor will have to be chosen, and the Chinese will definitely seek to impose their own choice as to who becomes the 15th Dalai Lama. That is something I think is a more or less foregone conclusion.

Even if the community in exile in India and across the world seeks to announce its own choice of who, and the controversy may continue—but within Tibet, I don’t think there will be a material change for the Tibetan people. That really lies at the crux of the matter. What is going to make a difference for the Tibetan people?


RAJAGOPALAN: When it comes to Taiwan, what is the endgame there? One way of thinking about it is almost—not to encourage war, but why are they being so coy about what they really want? On the other hand, Taiwan needs to continue as is for the rest of the world because it’s strategically very important. Economically, it has massive import. Of course, the Taiwanese people—their wishes need to be considered in this matter. What do you see happening there over the next few years?

RAO: I see the potential for conflict as far as Taiwan is concerned. There’s no doubt about it, because we are held in suspense. Everything is in suspended animation as far as Taiwan is concerned. Does Taiwan have the power to influence the course of events? The answer is really blowing in the wind, as they say. It’s really blowing in the wind.

RAJAGOPALAN: What is the Chinese perspective on this?

RAO: Taiwan is essentially powerless to influence these outcomes. That is the tragedy of—it’s a sad conclusion to draw, but I think we have to face it. The other aspect of it is China—the mainland Chinese, at least the People’s Republic—regards China as a country that was partitioned, literally partitioned when the nationalist Chinese established their so-called Republic of China on Taiwan.

It has been part of the core agenda of the Chinese Communist Party to somehow ensure that reunification takes place. That’s been their set principle from the 1950s. Even Prime Minister Zhou Enlai at Bandung Conference, if you listen to what he had to say, he said, It’s not that we want to sort out this problem by force, but the fact is that Taiwan is a part of China and that ultimately it has to return to the Chinese fold, as it were.

That is, every successive administration in China—it’s not just Xi Jinping; it’s all administrations in China—has made that a part of their central, core agenda. Whether they want to reunify Taiwan by force, that is the question. I think they are holding their horses. They will not commit themselves just like that. If certain red lines are crossed, as they see it, I think they are prepared to deploy force.

That will have enormously deleterious consequences, not only for Taiwan but for all of us in the region and across the world. It would spell a real holocaust in terms of the clash of power centers between the U.S. and China, and the consequences of that will be . . .

Thinking in terms of a war on the question of Taiwan, I don’t think anybody should really seek to pursue that as a feasible or a realizable—we don’t want that alternative to be realized. I think somehow this matter can be sorted out in a way . . .

Yes, for all of us, we would like to see Taiwan’s capabilities and its achievements not to be destroyed, not to be taken away. I think you have to acknowledge what the Taiwanese people have been able to achieve, something really—and Taiwanese democracy. You have seen democracy flower in Taiwan, which is such an encouraging contrast to what you see on the mainland. I think all of us, as concerned global citizens, naturally I think would want stability within China, but I think we would also want an environment in which the Chinese people are able to express themselves in a freer way, where fundamental freedoms and civil rights are not denied to them.

I think it’s not in terms of seeking to overthrow a regime in China but in terms of understanding that these freedoms and these rights that should come with economic prosperity and development, that should come side by side, have so far been denied to the Chinese people. For how long that can be sustained, this denial of these rights can be sustained, is the question. Is it feasible for the current way things are in China to continue indefinitely? That is the question.

Dictatorships and Change

RAJAGOPALAN: Is this a fundamental problem with dictatorships? You said that it’s not just today’s Communist Party. For 70 years they’ve talked about how there needs to be reunification. Now, in a democracy, people’s attitudes change, and that becomes part of the feedback loop with the government, which is conducting these negotiations and developing foreign policy.

The way Indians view Sri Lanka has changed like three times over since independence, given the original co-shared colonial heritage; and then the trade; then, of course, the Tamil Movement and the Indian intervention and the counterterrorism there; and then, post-civil-war, once again the balance has shifted.

Has this been taking place with the Chinese people and we just don’t know about it? Like the regular Chinese person doesn’t care about unification with Taiwan, but we don’t know about it because the nature of dictatorships is to hold themselves to the original book, whatever that may be, that’s been handed to them. Is this just what it means to have a single-party dictatorship, and there’s really not much of a way out, no matter how economically strong Taiwan becomes or how attitudes change towards Taiwan?

RAO: I think in a sense the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party has perhaps lost, to some extent, the credibility that it sought to deploy when it came to the merger of Hong Kong with China. When they spoke of one country, two systems in 1997 and said they would maintain it for the next 50 years—and that has changed.

In a sense, the regime decided to reinvent the playbook as far as Hong Kong was concerned. I think that’s where, on Taiwan, people have so many questions of—even if reunification takes place, will it just be that Taiwan is just swallowed up into the mouth of this huge whale, into the stomach of this huge whale? Or will Taiwan be able to maintain that special identity and that system and all the economic strengths that flow from it—which would be to the advantage of China, no doubt, if that happens.

Given the fact that the present Chinese regime has proved itself to be so brittle in terms of the way it—and so inflexible—the way it looks at, let’s say, borders with countries. The Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan talks of the revanchist entitlement of China. That is what we are being confronted with as nations in the region, as neighbors of China today.

All in all, I think the Chinese attitude does not portend well for how peace and development (the famous Chinese phrase) are going to evolve in our region.

Maps and Legibility

RAJAGOPALAN: Of course, you’ve been the ambassador to China, but before that you spent eight years in New Delhi on the Indo-Sino desk. And you were the compiler of all historical detail—the maps—and you became the locus of Chinese expertise in your generation. There was a genuine fear as the old guard was retiring that that disappears. Now, a large part of the work that you did was the mapping, was the indexing.

I feel like there is this tradeoff, right? When we are mapping, we are necessarily turning something that is three-dimensional into a piece of paper. A lot is being lost, not just in terms of altitude and terrain and rockiness, but also just who are the people living there? How do they perceive that region? On the other hand, it’s the only way to make these places legible. There is, in a sense, a need to flatten out that complexity.

How does that color your view about China, the fact that you spent such a long time necessarily trying to make at least a part of China, which is bordering with India, legible to Indians and to the global community?

RAO: Well, let me put that in context. When I came to do work on China, the historical division of the Ministry of External Affairs, which was headed by Dr. S. Gopal—Dr. Gopal had retired or had left the ministry. And a lot of the experts in the historical division, which had really compiled all the data, all the maps for our talks with China before the conflict (we had that round of official talks, three rounds of official talks in 1960)—they had done all the work, and they were the experts. They were not members of the foreign service. They were actually experts who had been recruited by the ministry. We had a historical division, as it was called, and that historical division had more or less become moribund by the time I was a young officer in the early ’80s. And so that’s how I came to do work on China.

They felt that they needed a young foreign service officer to specialize in these issues, because the older generation had literally died out. And it was necessary in terms of sustaining and deploying our diplomacy with regard to China that we needed this kind of expertise, this kind of conservation of the knowledge that we had, preservation of the knowledge. So that’s how I came into the process.

But at the same time, I was also dealing with the bilateral relationship. It was not that I was locked up somewhere in a dungeon putting maps together and studying the archives. That was not the case. I was actually an active diplomat. I was dealing with Chinese. I was going to China on visits for talks, for negotiations—as a member of a delegation, of course. My work was very much in the field of diplomacy, in the field of bilateral relations.

At the same time, I was a custodian of the maps and the historical archives, but also I was in the thick of it—in the arena, as it were. That was a unique privilege, I felt, which perhaps people in the historical division, as it was classically defined, had not had. I was able to straddle both worlds, which was a unique privilege. I would like to put that in context.

As far as the maps were concerned, it was not that I made any new maps or I was responsible for new lines or new alignments. I was in a way able to, for the benefit of all those dealing with China and with the subject, be able to provide that information and that knowledge, and to be able to, when certain problems occurred or when certain crises happened, to be able to speak about what had happened before. I had understood the terrain because I was dealing with the maps, and I had visited many of the border areas.

I became some kind of a go-to person, a reference point, much before we had Wikipedias and other things. I became that. In that sense, yes, I was considered a person who had a deep knowledge of the India-China border, about the frontier areas, about the history, about the maps. Also, since I was in the thick of the contemporary bilateral relationship—so I was able to develop that perspective also about how to deal with the Chinese, how to negotiate with them, what to learn from these experiences.

Chinese Influence on India’s Liberalization

RAJAGOPALAN: You were part of the delegation of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China. This was a break from history, right? After the legacy of the conflict in 1962 when the enormous hurt that the Indian government and establishment felt, almost personally—there was a period when there wasn’t much of an exchange for a while. Then Rajiv Gandhi is the break in that and restarts these relationships.

One curious thing about that visit. At the Mercatus Center, we are working on something called the 1991 Project, where we’re looking at the birth of the “big bang” reforms in India, how India liberalized and so on. In piecing together that history, we found that Narasimha Rao was hugely inspired by Deng Xiaoping.

In fact, his biographer, Vinay Sitapati, writes about this particular visit and how he was very disappointed that he couldn’t meet Deng Xiaoping because Rajiv Gandhi didn’t take his foreign secretary or his foreign minister along for that particular meeting. Can you tell us a little bit about that delegation and what we learned about China?

Was it a big wake-up call for India about how much China had progressed? Were there big lessons on liberalization? Because, of the three major pillars that were discussed, the economics was one of them. Was the fact that a communist country had also liberalized an important feedback for Indians, which may have propelled its own liberalization? Or was the point of connection just the individuals, Narasimha Rao being individually inspired by Deng Xiaoping?

RAO: Well, I remember when we were preparing for the visit of Rajiv Gandhi to China, the visit happened, in essence, as I read it (because I was in the thick of it—I was there, literally like a fly on the wall)—the fact was that we had the Chinese intrusion in Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh. It really caused a lot of tension. We hadn’t come to blows between the troops of the two sides, but we were in a situation of very close armed confrontation, and it was not getting better.

The Chinese were railing against us, and we were feeling the heat, and parliament was beginning to ask questions. And there was a standing invitation that the Chinese had made to Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s that she should go to China. She kept postponing it. She felt the time was not ripe or suitable, that one had to move very carefully on this issue. Then she was assassinated, and Rajiv Gandhi came to power.

Even in his first three, four years of his administration, I don’t think there was any concrete plan to really go ahead with the China visit. Sumdorong Chu changed it all. It was felt at that time—Rajiv Gandhi felt that he should make that trip as a kind of overture to China saying that this kind of a situation, where we are in confrontation, which tends to be a repeat of history in many ways (we have seen from our experiences in the past)—is there a way that we can lift ourselves above it and concretize and build the architecture of a relationship that is able to manage these tensions better?

It was at a time when Sino-Soviet relations were also getting better. Before that you had a rift, but Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese regime were in touch with each other. The Chinese and the Soviets were holding border talks; they were bridging differences.

I think within New Delhi, within Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, I think there was this feeling—but I must say here that Mr. Narasimha Rao was against the visit. He was not for the visit when we were planning it. He felt that it was too early. We were rushing into it. Did we have a plan? Did we have an endgame? Narasimha Rao being a man of very deep political experience, a very sagacious man in so many ways, so knowledgeable. He had elephantine memory and so much—his mind was like an ocean, literally, deep as that.

He doubted the potential benefits that could stem from such a visit. I remember that. But he came along. I think he was loyal to the Congress Party, to the Nehru family, and he was a member of the team. I don’t think he wanted to strike too deep a note of dissent. But he went along.

He didn’t go to the meeting with Deng Xiaoping; that’s true. But the joint secretary of East Asia, Mr. Vijay Nambiar—Ambassador Vijay Nambiar—was very much a part of—so we had somebody from the MEA [Ministry of External Affairs] there to record the meeting.

Yes, I think after that visit, and as relations began to improve between India and China—and the visit was a success, and we were able to diffuse that tense situation, there’s no doubt about it. I think Mr. Narasimha Rao began to study China more closely. I remember him telling me at some stage to—he turned to me and actually addressed me by name and said, “Nirupama, you know the Chinese think in terms of centuries”—and we had to think like that.

He was obviously—he’d been watching closely the trajectory of Deng Xiaoping’s statements and his policies and the way China was opening up, because even during that visit, in 1988, the China fever had begun to grip the rest of the world: how China was advancing, how quickly it was developing, that it was reforming, that it was opening up.

I remember during the Rajiv Gandhi visit, people like Mr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who was a member of the delegation, and other cabinet members who had accompanied Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, had long discussions with the then premier, Zhao Ziyang, literally about the economy, how the Chinese were dealing with reform and opening up, how they were looking at the agricultural sector, how they were looking at market reform.

Yes, this reform fever had begun, I think, to—certainly it had gripped the Chinese, and we were beginning to feel the intensity of it.

The India-China Equilibrium

RAJAGOPALAN: What is the endgame when it comes to the Indian-Chinese border? Both countries are giants; everyone knows there can’t be any major escalation or war—it’s out of the question. I think all parties are wise enough to recognize that fact. Is this just going to be a few kilometers back and forth and back and forth, and sometimes we throw stones at each other and sometimes we use guns?

Is that the equilibrium for the Indian-Chinese border, at least until India can develop economically enough to be a serious counterweight? Or do you see some other solution to this border situation—which is actually a very long border! I mean, we hear about the one-off cases in Galwan or something, but that’s not the only region which is disputed. How do you see this evolving?

RAO: Well, I really don’t know what the future will hold. I can only say it’s a very unsatisfactory situation, and that, secondly, all the gains that we had made in the last 30 years to build a management regime, as I call it, for India-China relations, has essentially collapsed—and we don’t really know. The road seems so—as somebody said long ago, one of our early sinologists, Professor Bagchi (P. C. Bagchi), said, “The smallness of the present, that is what is enveloping us, the smallness of the present.” You’re not even able to visualize what the future could be.

Obviously, when you have confrontation—the sort of armed coexistence between the two countries on this long land border, as you refer to it—it’s not a satisfactory situation at all, because it could escalate into something far more nasty, far more ugly, far worse than it is today. Both countries have to look at it very seriously and see (a) how we defuse these situations and (b) how we build a system which prevents this kind of confrontation and that looks at more innovative solutions that preserve the stability on those borders until we have a final settlement—the stability along the line of actual control, which is not mutually defined by both countries.

Surely big countries such as ours with aspirations to be much stronger, much more global influencers, as it were, should be able to devise solutions that make for peace and tranquility in these border areas. We all talk about China’s revanchist entitlement today, but I think even the Chinese should see sense on these issues, should see—I always talk about the need for sense and sensibility when it comes to managing relations, particularly between neighbors.

This border problem is particularly complicated because, where Ladakh and Kashmir are concerned, we have another party, which is Pakistan. So it becomes a trifecta there, and that makes it even more complicated. You need arrangements on the ground that prevent confrontations like what you saw in Galwan happening again—and what you’ve seen in Arunachal Pradesh in the last few days.

I mean, this is not something we can afford, because it has the potential to escalate into something more serious, and where does it lead? As you said, where does war lead us to? I think it’s a river of no return, literally, once you decide that war is the only solution. You need sensible arrangements to prevent that. It’s all very well to breathe fire on our TV screens, as we see, as a measure of—the graphics that you see. But that kind of graphic can’t define our future.

RAJAGOPALAN: A couple of weeks ago, when there were protests against the zero-COVID policy, the international press suddenly started going wild. They said this could be another Tiananmen protest, and these are the sorts of things that can tip a regime over. I mean, you know how this usually cascades.

Now, this was not that moment. But very large dictatorships are prone to this cascading behavior, where you never know which protest marks the revolution. What are the consequences for India if the Communist Party would collapse in China?

RAO: Well, what are the consequences for China if the Communist Party were to collapse? I mean, internally, what is the kind of fallout of that? That is going to be just—the Chinese use the word “interesting times.” That would be very interesting times, but interesting times in a very different way from what we define “interesting.”

I think the reverberations or the shock waves from that will be felt all around the region. China is so connected to the rest of the world today, the world economy, world trade, how technology flows are managed today—and China’s military and security power along its borders and in our region.

It’s how will the Chinese state, the Communist Party, react to attempts to collapse it or to overthrow it? I think that is a process that is going to be very, very complicated. It will, obviously, not go down without fighting, and that is going to be very, very—I mean, the consequences of that for China will be momentous for the people of China and, as I said, beyond our borders.

The best we can hope for China is, to use a [Communist] Party phrase, “peaceful evolution.” But peaceful evolution not the way the communists determine it, but in a way that—from within. From within the Chinese body politic itself, there is a movement for change. More reform, and opening up on the political side of it.

They’ve never had a glasnost the way the Soviets had it. They’ve always been allergic to it, at least the top leadership. But I believe that time has to come if China has to preserve its greatness and its resilience, as it were—because resilience is what is affected when you have this kind of inflexibility and this kind of one-party domination, as it were, which is really—I don’t believe that is the true destiny of the Chinese people. I mean, they’re meant for greater things.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much. This was such a pleasure. Thank you for being so generous with your time and insights.

RAO: Thank you, Shruti.

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app