Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to India last week was more than a homecoming of sorts to a country where she went to school and college, and which shaped her political beliefs. It was also about repairing ties frayed by New Delhi’s abrupt decision in the mid-1990s to engage with the military junta in Yangon after decades of support for her campaign. She ended up reminding the world’s largest democracy of how far it had strayed away from the ideals of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, in the pursuit of realpolitik.
For a country which has prided itself on something bordering on “Indian exceptionalism”, and fighting for equality and non-discriminatory policies on the global stage as well as the voice of the downtrodden in the initial decades since it won independence in 1947, the gentle admonishment from Suu Kyi must have rankled. Gandhi wouldn’t have countenanced such a policy shift towards a military regime that brutalised its own people, she said, whatever the compulsions. She was saddened that India had taken a path different from hers, despite their shared colonial history and close ties between the independence leaders of the two countries, she told The Hindu in an interview ahead of the trip.
It’s one thing to be pilloried by your own people and an unrestrained press about the rot that has set deep into Gandhi’s India; it is another for a foreigner to be telling a proud democracy that it wasn’t living up to its own legacy.
Indeed, historian Ramachandra Guha wrote a few months ago, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was among a host of leaders beating the path to Myanmar’s door as the military relaxed controls and a quasi-civilian government took charge after a rigged election, that Aung San Suu Kyi was probably more of a Gandhian than any living Indian. The Nobel laureate had run a peaceful campaign against one of the world’s most repressive regimes, refusing to give up or compromise during her long years of incarceration. Not Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress party which fought for India’s freedom, or her prime minister Manmohan Singh or even Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption campaigner whose supporters are trying to project him as a latter-day Gandhi. “Compared to this Burmese heroine, these are all nakli (false) Gandhians,” Guha wrote.
It was Singh’s Congress government that reversed course, worried that strategic rival China was fast building a relationship with Myanmar in its own backyard. It also fretted about the sanctuaries that insurgent groups in its turbulent northeast region had established just over the border in Myanmar. In the end, it was the promise of tough action against these insurgents that led India to open up to the junta, even offering them weapons, ostensibly to fight the insurgents.