India China relations are in a trajectory of long term competition cum confrontation cum conflict which ever way described based on one’s proclivities and time perspective. Nation states continue to conduct normal business particularly in the hyper connected flat world of interdependencies. The business end of this was evident in supply chain disruptions in the last two years due to spread of COVID 19 pandemic.
In the wider band of India China conflict – the standoff in Eastern Ladakh is the latest episode so to say which has lasted for almost two years now.
On the military front 14 rounds of talks have been held between Senior or Corps commanders of the two sides on disengagement and de-escalation from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh with troops on both sides having eyeball to eyeball contact at many points. Some progress has been made indicating that at the transactional level there is of necessity for reconciliation what ever be the overall national mis-equations.
There is a large body of influential opinion in India for adopting a more strident approach in dealing with China particularly on issue of national sovereignty as entailed in the eruptions at the. This may have justifications, but pragmatism demands that a balance be maintained and the Indian government and perhaps the Chinese to has prudently decided on the path of engagement without compromising on the basics – though political opponents may feel otherwise.
Apart from conflictual trajectory of two regional powers caught in the zero sum trap, major events also shape relations and the “Galwan” incident is one such the collective memory of which on both sides is leading to those who seek reconciliation to step back from engagement.[i]
This is evident from the most recent episode of this incident which has led India to boycott the opening of the Winter Games 2022 in China as the Chinese response was from their own collective memory of the event. Thus China choose Col Qi Fabao, regimental commander during the Galwan clash as the torchbearer for the Olympics.
Galwan is important as on 15/16 June 2020, the first border clash between armies of the two rivals resulted in heavy loss of lives, 20 on the Indian side and officially 4 on the Chinese side with some unverified reports claiming that 38 PLA soldiers were lost.
Significantly thereafter there has been no major physical skirmish or cross firing incident in the past 20 months.
However, magnitude of the losses at the LAC occurring after many decades resulted in Galwan forming a collective memory due to psycho social impact of the event.
This impact intensifies from strong emotions due to loss of blood of soldiers whose sacrifice always carries a higher level of emotive connect for the people at large.
Collective memory has been described in memory studies as representation of the past that has been collectively adopted through narratives.
Shared narratives arise from joint experiences of a society and at the national level one of the factors shaping the same are the account is one that is shared by the State through official sources such as press statements and social channels such as media.
The unified recollection of the Galwan incident has thus been nurtured by both sides and while India possibly seeks to move beyond, China appears to be continuing to surcharge the story in the national psyche as is evident from nomination of the Col Qi Fabao the PLA Regimental Commander as the Olympic torch bearer
The Chinese intention is possibly to tap into the public recall of Galwan by reinforcing the narrative of a strong PLA, of Galwan as an epitome of resistance and of sacrifice for the sake of national sovereignty. If that be so the Winter Olympics was obviously the wrong choice or perhaps was intended to be so giving anticipated counter narratives that could have been certainly expected from India.
Thus, the collective memory has been reinforced on both sides China and India but in different ways.
Given that India had undertaken a compromise of sorts by not siding with the United States and the West who officially boycotted the Winter Olympics, nomination of Qi Fabao as the Olympic torch bearer has evoked opposing emotions in India and the government will find it difficult to justify attempts for dialogue or meetings particularly on national sovereignty issues linked to the LAC.
Not just the winter Olympics, abduction and torture of a youth from Arunachal Pradesh allegedly by the PLA during the same period may add another event in the collective national memories reinforcing the belief of hostility of China under Xi Jinping towards India.
How can India and China overcome the collective memory of Galwan – apart from time being the healer an attempt by the state parties and civil society to avoid frequent reference to the same would be necessary, there are no indications that this is likely to happen soon?
[i] For a detailed analysis of impact of collective memory of events and conflict read Nets-Zehngut, Rafi. (2013). Major events and the collective memory of conflicts. International Journal of Conflict Management. 24. 209-230. 10.1108/IJCMA-06-2012-0052. The article is based on this work of the author gratefully acknowledged.