During my first 2007 visit to Crosswords, which is Kolkata’s version of Borders Books, a strategically placed table of books wrapped in narrow, yellow sashes that said “We guarantee you’ll like it!” caught my eye. I’m always amused by “guaranteed” books like these, full of eagerness, like kindergartners in front of a playground fence. They are in most cases a store’s brief attempt at (re)establishing a canon of literature, or ridding shelves of overstocked items. The idea, though, of returning a book in 14 days and saying, “You know, I just didn’t like it, can I have my 225 rupees back” is… well, I don’t know what it is…I just wouldn’t do it.
I went home with a thin hardcover of 3 essays by Amitav Ghosh called Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma. A local re-print of work that had appeared elsewhere first. Very well written pieces, as expected, with Ghosh’s inevitable elements of self-praise that, because I have come to expect it, don’t actually mind. (I in fact look for them — look, here he goes, telling us how clever he is!) The essays are worth reading if only because we don’t read much about Cambodia, and the last essay, which is about his trip to Burma in the mid-90s, has relevance to current events in this part of India.
India’s long-held position towards Burma generally has been in line with the United States — advocating democratic rule, concerned about human rights abuses committed by the ruling government, and limiting commerce. That policy appears to have changed in the past few months. According to news reports, the Indian government has been providing arms to the Burmese Junta to aid Burma in its anti-insurgent efforts. Groups such as the International Socialist Council of Nagalim – Khaplang (the ISCN-K) operate from Burma and the ISCN-K claims part of Burma as Greater Nagaland. Terrorists like ULFA also use Burma to escape from the Indian Army crackdown on their violence in Assam. The Indians, hoping that Burma can do its work for them, sent Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to meet with the junta so that everyone was one the same page. So far things are following the usual script — Burma has launched operations against insurgents, killing a few and destroying Burmese villages and livestock along the way (while also planting landmines as a gift to the future).
And of course, India getting on the “good side” of Burma means that there’s less opportunity for the Chinese to make inroads. In fact, the Chinese have made plenty of inroads already, helping Burma build up its military installations in the Indian Ocean, pushing for road improvement between the two countries, and lobbying hard for access to Burma’s natural gas fields.
If you live in India, it’s impossible to escape the optimism that comes from Indian CEOs gracing the cover of international magazines. The phrase for 2007 is “India Poised.” My question is this: while Indians are doing all their poising, does anyone notice what is happening next door? Does it matter to Indians who is getting killed and who is helping? It seems to me that if you really are poised to be an international player, you should be ready for the responsibility. Why the silence?