Thursday, October 17, 2019
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Mamallapuram Decked Up For Modi-Xi Kodak Moments

MAMALLAPURAM, TAMIL NADU: Welcome to the new diplomatese: “Coordinated press releases” is how Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will get their points across at the end of their second informal summit at this world heritage site on Saturday. Sources said drafts have already been exchanged and both sides will presumably pore over every comma and full stop before giving their approval.

India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale is expected to brief at the end of the summit on Saturday, after Xi departs. The buzz is no breakthroughs are likely but both sides will reiterate their desire to keep relations ticking over and thereby ensure no hiccups on the disputed boundary.

Of course, the Indian dilemma remains: how does one ensure nothing happens on the border when there is no effort by China to address it. Adding another layer of confidence building measures (CBMs) is not addressing the dispute. And if one throws in all the other issues between the two countries (Kashmir, Pakistan, trade deficit), it makes for a combustible cocktail.

Some here in Mamallapuram see a subtle message in Modi taking the Chinese leader to view the 43 feet high “Arjuna’s Penance” monument. According to legend, Arjuna practised severe austerities in the hope that the gods would bless him with extraordinary powers including that most deadly weapon, Lord Shiva’s third eye. Modi hinting perhaps that while China is strong and powerful, India was not far behind in the power sweepstakes.

The story and the messaging get diluted when one considers that Arjuna’s penance is from the Mahabharata, which is a literary epic, full stop. Nothing further should be read into it.

A word about Mamallapuram, which is how Tamils refer to Mahabalipuram. The choice of this location for the informal summit draws from its ancient 7th century linkages with China during the reign of the Pallava King Narasimhavarman I around 630 AD. The Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang visited the Pallava capital Kanchipuram in this period and has written extensively about the kingdom and Buddhist centres of learning. Kanchipuram is about 50 km west of here.

Residents of this town, while appreciative of the VIP nature of their visitors, are also quietly resentful. As a resident remarked: “We are in a curfew like situation, having to account for who we are despite living here for decades. Movement is restricted and we have been advised to stay at home”.

Traders and local businessmen are also affected. A section of the normally busy East Coast Road (which runs from Chennai all the way down to Kanyakumari, a distance of over 800 km) was blocked to ensure hassle free movement for the VIPs. Reportedly, 8000 Tamil Nadu police personnel are on duty to check any untoward incident.

Well known Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsundue was reportedly jailed along with some others for protesting against Xi’s visit. It is a sad but perhaps inevitable commentary on how the Tibetan struggle against China’s occupation is barely a footnote as individual countries seek to get their own measure of China.

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