Category Archives: India

From ambassador to author

Published in The Global New Light of Myanmar on 7 October 2015


Mr Rajib Bhatia served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2005

Mr Rajib Bhatia’s career as a top level diplomat spanned more than three decades and nine different countries, including Myanmar, where he served as India’s ambassador between 2002 and 2005. Since retiring from the Indian Foreign Service in 2009, Mr Bhatia has written more than 150 articles on foreign affairs. On Monday his new book, India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours, was released in Yangon. He talks to The Global New Light of Myanmar about what his research unearthed and some of his career highlights – such as taking Senior General Than Shwe to the Taj Mahal.

Your book covers a topic of vast proportions – how did you go about it and how would you describe the finished product?

Indeed, I’ve covered the whole period of India and Myanmar’s relations, from ancient times to the present. It took me four years to research, with my research beginning in 2011 when Myanmar’s reform period began. And I did of course draw on my four years of experiences as an ambassador.
One aspect of my book that I’m very candid about talking about is one of the most talked-about dimensions of the relationship: China. I devoted a separate chapter to what I call the ‘India-China-Myanmar triangle.’ The other feature is that my book presents an Indian perspective on Myanmar polity, society, culture, foreign policy and economy. Although my book’s title is India-Myanmar: Changing Contours, it’s about much more than that: it’s about the surrounding region as well. I can also say that while I have tried to be objective, I did have an agenda. That agenda was to try to contribute to strengthening of relations between India and Myanmar.

As India already has so many trade partners, is the benefit you refer to Myanmar’s alone?

No, it’s a shared interest. First of all we are immediate neighbours. We’ve become close through history and we also share common challenges: both Myanmar and India want this region to be one of peace and harmony. Neither wants a single country to dominate the region. Both want to see a strong ASEAN. When I say ‘strengthen,’ it means a shared interest between India and Myanmar, and also for the region’s interests.

The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, which was the capital of the British Indian empire - including Burma - until 1911. Photo - Jessica Mudditt
The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, which was the capital of the British Indian empire – including Burma – until 1911. Photo – Jessica Mudditt

How would you describe the dynamics between India, Myanmar and China?

China has a legitimate reason to have good relations with Myanmar – after all they share borders and history. And similarly, the fact that India wants to have good relations with Myanmar also makes sense. One of my central questions was to find out what Myanmar wants, because it’s a country in the middle of two big giants and it’s being wooed by both. My own reading is that Myanmar does not want to choose one country over the other. Myanmar wants to have a cooperative relationship with both. It does not want either country to compete, much less confront one another over it. If we understand that, it becomes clear that all three countries should work for the harmonisation of interests in such a fashion that the stability and progress of Myanmar is assured.

One of my central questions was to find out what Myanmar wants, because it’s a country in the middle of two big giants and it’s being wooed by both.

Would you agree that in comparison with China, India has been less actively engaged with Myanmar?

I must first say that China’s economy is about five times bigger than India’s. So if you were to just calculate the dollars and cents, then the answer is yes – China’s economic stakes are much bigger in Myanmar. But if you take a larger and deeper view, the bond between India and Myanmar is very, very close. Buddhism came from India, which defines Myanmar. There are cultural influences that came from India that remain today. During the British Raj, for five or six decades, Myanmar was ruled as part of British India. These are historical facts that cannot be denied. And in recent years, India has put in very substantial sums of money in various cooperation programmes – somewhere in the range of 1.5 to 2 billion dollars. That is not a small sum of money. So while China may have much bigger stakes, India’s are not small. I also believe that India is willing to do more, and that if Myanmar were to look a little bit more towards India, it will find India looking back towards it.

You mentioned that your book is written from an Indian perspective – please could you elaborate on that?

There are two things I’d like to mention in terms of the ‘Indian perspective.’ The first is that I have used a lot of Indian sources and views of Indian scholars to illustrate my points. I feel that – with due respect – if Australian, French and Norwegian scholars etcetera can hold forth on Myanmar – well, we are next door and would like to do so also. My idea was to put across Indian voices and views onto the international stage, which I believe I will succeed in doing because my book is published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

The second thing is that there is vast knowledge in India about Myanmar – it’s scattered, but it’s definitely there. From the northeast we have Myanmar next door, as we do from West Bengal and from the Bay of Bengal. So the knowledge is there and what I wam arguing is that we must recreate the sense of proximity between Myanmar and India.

Mr Rajiv Bhatia with Mr Shri Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India's 21st Ambassador to Myanmar at India House in Yangon.
Mr Rajiv Bhatia with Mr Shri Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s 21st Ambassador to Myanmar at India House in Yangon.

What was it like being an ambassador in Myanmar, back when it was truly a different place than it is today?

I had a very rich and varied experience. Of the nine countries I served around the world, which included Africa, Central America, North America and other parts of Asia, it was Myanmar that had the deepest impact on me. It’s very close to my heart.

The high point of my career in Myanmar was accompanying Senior General Than Shwe, who was then the head of state, to India on a four-day state visit. I acted as his personal guide to some of India’s highlights and we had an excellent relationship. I took he and his wife to the Taj Majal, as well as to Kolkta, Bangalore and Delhi. He was mesmorised by India’s diversity.

What do you think Myanmar can learn from India in terms of celebrating diversity?

India certainly learned the hard way since the time it was partitioned with Pakistan, that religion and politics have to be separated. Religion is between an individual and their god but politics is about the peoples’ wishes. So the two must be separated.

While Myanmar and India are close, how does your book address the waves of anti-Indian sentiment that have arisen from time to time?

History is history: it cannot be changed. It is a fact that large numbers of Indians left when World War II began, when U Nu made legal changes and when Ne Win was in power. All those periods are there. But we should learn from history. Indian people are not against Myanmar – they are very friendly towards them. And those of Indian origin living in Myanmar have contributed in important ways to the country. I would strongly recommend, as I argue in the book, that two things are very important. The first is to expand economic cooperation and the second is to develop a close and more diversified relationship between the people of India and Myanmar.

In a practical sense, how can this be achieved?

One idea I have is to set up an India-Myanmar cultural foundation, which could be funded through the business communities and governments of both countries. The funds could be placed at the disposal of the ambassadors in Yangon ad Delhi. This would free up the ambassadors from bureaucratic interference and would allow them to truly contribute to small programmes bringing in tourists, media, university students and so forth. Bringing these types of people together more often could prove enormously beneficial.

In the last chapter of my book, I also suggest that a strategic partnership should be set up to hold annual meetings and such things. It’s among a specific list of recommendations I make in the final chapter of my book.

India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours is published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.


Photo feature: Unusual Kolkata

Published in Dhaka Live in October 2011

Dhaka Live’s Jessica Mudditt recently visited the bustling city of Kolkata.  With a population of almost 16 million people, it is slightly larger than Dhaka.  These pictures depict its inhabitants going about their daily lives: for some it is tougher than others.

My favourite place for breakfast
A friendly wave and a beautiful specimen
Taking rest
Repairing an Ambassador taxi
Kolkata Traffic Police
Reading forms
Cinderella coach ride - with a Kolkatan twist
Lassi love

A complicated honeymoon in Kolkata

Lassi love

Kolkata’s cultural and religious diversity is striking to an outsider.  While navigating its bustling streets and tiny lanes, I passed by Armenian Churches, mosques with an art-deco edge, Jain temples, Hindus, sadhus and dozens of roadside shrines, Catholic nuns, Jewish schools, Sikhs, polka-dotted saris, burqas with gauze veils, business suits, and casual Western dress.  This list is by no means exhaustive, and sadly, there were also many too poor to wear anything but rags.  I was pleasantly puzzled by the white burqas embroidered with colourful floral motifs and lace.  After making some inquiries at our favourite tea, toast and dhal stall, I learnt about the Sunni Muslim Borhra community.  The distinctive burqa is known as a “rida.”

Minutes later, a hip young dude strode past in a t-shirt that said, “Support national integrity: forget religions and marry me.”

While munching on McDonalds in Kolkata’s trendiest locale, Park Street, prominent signs assure customers that no pork or beef products are on the Macca’s menu.

Even the tourists looked eclectic, with some women opting for flowing skirts or hippy trousers, while others strutted their stuff in near transparent singlets and tight leggings.  Ditto for the male tourists: some will return home more tanned than others.

Before my Bangladeshi husband and I were married, we dreamed of honeymooning in Bhutan.  Sherpa and I will go there one day — as soon as we can afford Tk 40,000 flights plus the $200 daily tourist fee, but decided on Kolkata for our first honeymoon.  As we didn’t have a wedding party, we’re planning another 99 romantic getaways.

I arrived two days before Sherpa, because the prospect of a one-hour flight versus a 10-hour train journey was too enticing to resist; however Sherpa’s visa limited his entry to India by train only (he’s really tough anyway though, and is laughing all the way to the bank…)

A “Cinderella” carriage ride through Kolkata

However when I arrived at my second favourite city in India, I felt glum. To borrow a lyric from the Australian folk group, The Waifs, I missed Sherpa: “like a left arm that had been lost in a war.”  To counter that, I gave myself a project: to find us a comfortable, good value guesthouse.

This may sound easier than it was.  Touts at the airport had driven me to Capital Guesthouse the night before in a black Ambassador – I didn’t have a guidebook on arrival so I was happy to be taken anywhere.  I was shown a few squalid, small and over-priced rooms by a podgy staff, who sold me beer, toilet paper and water with impressive insistence and rip-off rates.

I raced past the receptionist while murmuring “I’ll have a think.  Thanks.” I was briskly trotting away from reception when the manager hurtled after me and knocked off two hundred rupees.  It was getting late, so I caved in. But I knew it wouldn’t do.  I laughed when I read Lonely Planet’s review of Capital Guesthouse: “About as charming as a prison.”

While Sherpa was working on articles and translation assignments for the last 24 hours straight before leaving Dhaka at 6am, I wandered around and around the Sudder Street “tourist ghetto” area (again quoting Lonely Planet) to find a more cheerful environment.

Five years ago, I spent six months in India and my average travel speed was about 3.6 days in any given place; so that’s a total of about 50 different guesthouses.  Based on this experience, I’d say that prices in Kolkata are in line with others around the country, but for some reason, you get far less for your money.

I traipsed up and down narrow staircases with abnormally large steps, and was shown rooms that made me want to cry.  The vast majority had no windows, no privacy (thanks to gaps in the walls close to the ceiling) and no space whatsoever, though dirt abundant.  One guesthouse manager asked me to enter the room in order to see its toilet (and a bucket for cold “showers”), but he had to exit first so that I could get past the bed.  Even the hotel rooms over our budget were small and not particularly appealing.

I collided on a set of stairs with an Israeli couple who were on the same mission as I.  The pretty girl in army boots and aforementioned leggings said to me, “Look, it’s going to be bad wherever you stay in this city, so you may as well go for super bad and super cheap.”

They took me to Parragon Hotel. Though it’s rooftop is a great place to meet fellow travelers, most of its rooms look like a prison cell fused with a lion cage.  Windows overlooking the “lobby” area are made of strong latticed wire.

“What will we do?”

Feeling truly despondent, I drank my twelfth tea while continuing to sweat (I was in the process of developing a highly unattractive heat rash).  As well as it being our honeymoon, this was Sherpa’s first trip to India and I wanted him to have the best experience possible.  I’d seen at least 30 hotels and had a “shortlist” of about eight business cards, but none made me smile.  So when I checked out of Capital Guesthouse the next day and happened to find another guesthouse nearby with an unusually long driveway, I was delighted to be shown a room full of character, with adequate space, a 15 metre high ceiling (no joke) and it was also definitely the cleanest (though one night we had a brief visit from a mouse, who scampered back under the door before I got properly stupid).  And one night cost only 500 rupees; or 750 if we wanted air-con.

I told the manager my husband would be arriving that evening by train, but when I entered his name in the typically lengthy logbook for details pertaining to India’s international visitors, I looked up to face frowns.  Nothing was said, but the tension was palpable as I continued to enter my details.

“Look,” I said after a few of minutes of stony silence, “If you have a problem with us, I do not want to stay here.”

A Sikh man sitting next to the manager, who had been silent up until this point, blurted out, “We’ve never had a mixed couple stay here.  There’s a law against Indians staying with foreigners in hotels.”

“A law?” I asked incredulously.

“Erm, no, not a law,” replied the manager next to him a bit nervously, “It’s sort of a convention.”

“Of course it’s not a law,” I snapped back, “Because it’s racial discrimination and would be challenged at the UN.”

The Sikh man piped in again.  He said, “The authorities have told us not to allow mixed couples, because foreign women have been drugged by Indians after drinking alcohol in their room.  It’s for your own protection.”

“You want to protect me from my husband?” I asked.

“Do you have a marriage certificate?” he shot back.

“He’s bringing a copy,” I replied curtly.

“Are you just married?” he asked.  This was a clear and offensive insinuation.  I didn’t dare tell him he was ruining was our delayed honeymoon.

I hadn’t expected this, though I had felt mildly alarmed the night before when I read Lonely Planet’s advice for women travelers – “… mixed couples of Indian and non-Indian descent may get disapproving stares, even if neither individual actually lives in India.”

I tried to control the emotion in my voice when I said I found it sad that Indian men were held in such low regard by their own authorities, but pointed out that my husband was in fact Bangladeshi; thus a foreigner just like me.

“It’s the same thing,” he snapped.

I admit I wanted to punch him.

Young love in the gardens around Victoria Memorial

Nevertheless, they proceeded with the check-in and I went to the room to unpack.  I was shaking a little and wasn’t sure whether I had angered them so much that they would ask me to leave when I went back to reception.  Not that I wanted to stay in such a place – for all its faults, Capital Guesthouse didn’t bat an eyelid when I told them about Sherpa (I was offered a double-priced taxi service to the station to collect him).  But what if other hotels had the same hostile attitude towards us?  And how could I find another suitable place, after seeing so many that weren’t?

When I returned to reception, the angry man had gone.  I never saw him there again, though I did occasionally see him on the streets.   I never acknowledged his presence and he was probably doing the same.

The manager smiled as I came down the vast steps – it was a warm, genuine smile, and he offered me a chair.  Imran apologised at great length and emphasised their concerns were based on protecting women like me, and that “modern people” work at the guesthouse.  He told me about a foreign girl who was drugged and robbed while in another hotel with six Indian men.  Such incidents may be a real problem in India – and indeed, the world – but I said that any sort of “protection” based on skin colour was unpalatable.  I wondered about the wives and husbands of Indian people or those from the rest of the sub-continent (who I was told also fell under the mixed couple ban).  Surely they would want to show their life partner their roots, and the amazing land of India – but were they too being treated like this?  It felt such a contrast to my life as a wife in Dhaka, where I’m asked on a daily basis if I’m married.  When I tell (mostly curious CNG drivers or shopkeepers) that my husband is Bangladeshi, the reaction is often jubilant, and it’s never, ever, been negative.  At a pet shop in Nodda Bazar, the owner there still calls me “Bhabi” [“brother’s wife”] and he sold me an aquarium pump even though I was Tk 250 short.

However I really did appreciate Imran’s efforts to calm me, and hoped that would be the end of it.  But when I was reunited with my beautiful man, I felt I had to give him prior warning, though I worried it would distress him.  It did, and when we arrived, a different staff member was seated behind the desk.

Sherpa and I at the Victoria Memorial

When I introduced Sherpa as my husband, the man didn’t respond and refused to make eye contact, though he was glowering somewhere below the desk.  Without saying another word, he called Imran to ask whether our presence had been authorised.  I asked to speak to Imran, who again reassured me that everything was fine, but I told him we were being treated badly again.  He apologized again.

We had a wonderful week in Kolkata and no one threw nasty looks or eggs at us.  The hotel peons were lovely towards us and we became quite friendly with Imran, which is why I decided against naming the guesthouse we stayed in.  After Sherpa had left for the return train home, I chatted to Imran while waiting for my taxi to the airport to arrive.  Imran told me how busy he was preparing for his wedding, to be held this November.  He and his fiancé celebrated their engagement on 18 March – the day before Sherpa and I were married.  We laughed and then Imran invited Sherpa and I to his wedding, and gave me his email address.  Although it may not have been a fairy-tale honeymoon, there was definitely a silver lining.