Former NSA Shivshankar Menon shares his top lockdown picks to better understand the India-China border conflict from a historian’s perspective.
In 2020, the year of the India-China reset, when tensions were high and the story became one of rivalry and territorial dispute, much of my reading was contemporary. Power Shift: India-China Relations in a Multipolar World by Zorawar Daulet Singh examines India-China relations in the current geopolitical context and should be on every India-China watcher’s list. Equally interesting in building the larger narrative and explaining China’s new assertiveness was China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism by Oxford professor Rana Mitter who never fails to see deeply and write well.
A real and unexpected delight was Gazing Eastwards: Of Buddhist Monks and Revolutionaries in China by Romila Thapar, her diary of several months spent in China in 1957 studying the remarkable murals and sculpture at Dunhuang and Maijishan on the Silk Routes. Thapar was in China at a time of revolutionary change, when Mao’s experiments in mass politics and economics, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution loomed. She was able to live, speak and work in China in ways that are still not possible today, including shaking hands with Mao and Zhou. Her perceptions and comparisons with India are worth thinking about.
The lockdown caused by the pandemic was also an opportunity to dig into my ever-growing pile of books to be read and to revisit old favourites. Two books that helped to broaden my sense of India-China interactions were What China and India Once Were: The Pasts That May Shape the Global Future, edited by Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Elman, and Beyond Regimes: China and India Compared, edited by Prasenjit Duara and Elizabeth J. Perry. Both offer sophisticated and intelligent long-range comparisons of India and China. The essays in them are useful correctives to the mono-focal narratives of inevitable conflict and militarised hopelessness that dominated public discourse in India on China in 2020. It is somehow reassuring to know that today’s India-China dilemmas and conundrums are not new and that there have been ways through them in the past.
All in all, it has been a good year for the historian’s eye. These books bear witness to the value of the historian’s understanding of events, nations and people. We could do with more of that objectivity and understanding in our daily lives and politics.
I did not read much fiction in a year when the fact was really stranger than fiction. Started with Jin Yong’s ‘Legends of the Condor Heroes’ first volume, A Hero Born, a martial arts fantasy that is probably the most popular Chinese novel ever and has been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Pure escapism. But I prefer life.
Shivshankar Menon is a former National Security Advisor and Foreign Secretary