Few turned up to listen to former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra speak at a seminar organised by the Observer Research Foundation on India-China relations at Calcutta University's Alipore campus last weekend. The stiflingly hot Kolkata weather must be one reason. The subject must be another. And yes, it was a Sunday morning.
Mishra minced no words -- compared to the relatively long, albeit enlightening treatises from various China experts. If I were to take away a headline statement from his comments, it would be this. "It's a fact that we have not put behind the Chinese attack and the humiliating defeat of 1962."
His statement followed a self-posed question: "Is there a lack of trust between India and China?"
Actually, Mishra laid the ground, post facto, for what could have been an interesting platform to direct the India-China debate. Unfortunately, he spoke last. Several academics, politicians, former bureaucrats and former military men, some the best in the country on China and India-China, made their debut before him. Listening to them was a treat as well.
But what caught my attention and perhaps crystallised my own thoughts were Mishra's closing remarks. "We must not be sentimental about relationships, as we were in the early years of independence. We must proceed on the path that both need good relations."
To someone who is attempting to understand the genesis of four decades of mistrust, Mishra's insights were useful. While he did not refer to them directly, he did seem to suggest that economic relations could well be maintained or furthered without necessarily compromising defence considerations.
He acknowledged that in a decade, China would displace the US as the country's largest trading partner. He also pointed out that there was distrust in China over India's developing relations with the US.
The discussions also raised a few larger questions, to which I am not sure the answers are all there. First, are we slow in engaging with China because of this 'veil' of historical sentimentality Brajesh Mishra referred to? And does that mean that as a nation we only do business with or learn from those who are friends? Or not? And is that sentimentality clouding a more pragmatic approach to India-China relations?
Let's put aside economic relations for the moment and focus on an issue I think is also important. China has lessons to offer on the scale management of physical and social infrastructure. India needs to scale solutions to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, create jobs, manage its impoverished regions, or build a credible primary school education system.
The usual response to all this is to dismiss China's relative success to its communist style of government. My increasing sense is that this response, combined with the veil of sentimentality of the past and present, creates a judgement cloud.
And it prevents us from seeing things for what they are. And allows us to make excuses for inaction.
To return to the Alipore discussions, Jadavpur University Professor of International Relations Jayantanuja Bandopadhyay opened one on strategic issues by saying those who debate India-China strategy must first expand the use of the word strategy.
"Strategy is not only military," the greying professor with a French beard said repeatedly. "Whenever I go to Delhi and there is a talk of India-China strategy, the discussion veers to whether Agni III will hit Chinese cities. Let's have a pragmatic Calcutta view."
It was leading from this that I found the views of former chief of army staff General VP Malik interesting. He began by saying that as former army chief, the only area he could focus on was the military. His job, he pointed out, was to defend borders and be permanently wary of anyone and everyone.
According to him, unresolved border issues were, by definition, conflict-generating. "I advocate caution," he said, but added, "Not because I think we should not co-operate."
He also stated as a matter of record that in the India-China November 1996 accord, both sides reaffirmed that they would not use or threaten to use force to settle the border dispute. He added that having seen the 1999 Kargil war and the Lahore Agreement signed only a few months before, he was bound to be sceptical of any cross-border bonhomie.
Mishra, on the other hand, said espionage was a game that had been played since time immemorial. Even friendly nations spied on one another. The important thing was how you protected your intelligence. Was he referring to assets as well?
He recalled with a smile how in May 1998, the Americans seemed more upset by the fact that they didn't know the nuclear tests were coming rather than by the tests themselves.
He closed off with this gem. He said there was no room for "bhai-bhai" relationships. He said he had been working on bettering India-China relations since the 1960s. He also said he had dear friends in China. But neither they nor he would do anything that was detrimental to national interest.
The two countries should look for mutuality and convergence on objective parameters, rather than sentimentality, he reiterated. I thought that was a perfect marriage of Delhi's fears with Kolkata's pragmatic view. Except I never knew Kolkata could have a pragmatic view.