Tag 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.


A Day in the Life of a Bollywood Extra – Jessica on the set of Ta Ra Rum Pum

Published in The Daily Independent Weekend Magazine, 23 April 2010

Child star Angelina Idnani on the set of Tara Rum Pum with the film's sexy director
Child star Angelina Idnani on the set of Tara Rum Pum with the film’s sexy director

“It was the chicken neck.  I know it was. That stupid, stupid chicken neck…”

Those were the last words I heard from my travel companion before leaving him in a dingy hotel room for the next 14 hours.  I was about to spend the day as an extra in a Bollywood film.  We were supposed to be going together, but Mark was in the grips of a terrible case of food poisoning and he wasn’t capable of making it down to reception, let alone a film set on the outskirts of Mumbai.  His decision to have a dalliance with cheap meat in India could not have been more poorly timed.  I could see in his sorrowful eyes that he knew it.  The missed opportunity was a double blow to Mark – he’d already been turned away from an all-male Bollywood casting because he was wearing cheap sandals.  As they say, the world of show business is cruel.

I tried to shrug off the feeling that I was abandoning a fallen comrade on the field.  It was putting a dampener on the excitement of witnessing the happenings of a film industry that fascinates and mystifies me.  Mark and I had deliberately loitered around the Colaba Causeway in Mumbai for a significant portion of each day, hoping to be spotted by a talent scout looking for foreigners to work as extras.  I thought my hopes were dashed until we were finally approached, just a couple of days before we were due to leave the megacity.  A young guy with gelled hair and tight jeans had flashed his business card at us – we flashed our best smiles back and expressed our deep enthusiasm for a 12 hour shoot the following day.  We would be paid 500 rupees – but I would have done it for nothing.  In actual fact, I would have happily paid a fee and walked over broken glass to be a part of it.

When I turned up at the designated meeting point around 7am, there were masses of other foreigners already there.  I was instantly deflated – how would I get my face onto the screen amongst all this lot?  As I boarded one of two large buses, I resolved that a strategy to achieve fleeting “stardom” would have to be formulated on the spot.  I knew it wouldn’t arise through my acting skills, because I didn’t have any.  Even the most gentle of high school drama classes had made me cringe, and I’d quit them at the earliest opportunity.  But this was Bollywood, and I was prepared to act as though I enjoyed acting.

Bollywood churns out over 900 movies each year, so I was very fortunate to be cast in Ta Ra Rum Pum, which became the eighth highest grossing film in India in 2007.  It stars Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji, along with child actors Angelina Idnani and Priya Singh.  Ta Ra Rum Pum follows the up-and-down-and-up-again career of racing car driver Rajveer Singh or “RV”, as he becomes known to fans.  After becoming the number one driver in the United States, RV has a serious accident and thereafter loses his courage.  His performance drops, his manager fires him, and shortly afterwards he’s out of a job.  His family struggles financially, and when RV’s son swallows glass after eating out of a garbage can, the hospital tells RV and his beautiful wife that $65,000 is required for their son’s treatment.  With no other option to raise the cash, RV returns to racing.  He beats his nemesis in a thrilling race, taking the number one spot.  The gorgeous young family live happily ever after – The End.

Happy to be getting closer to the action – and the movie stars!

The majority of the film was shot in the USA, but for whatever reasons (possibly financial – extras come much cheaper in Mumbai) the scenes involving the racing car spectators were shot in India.  After a two hour journey through Mumbai’s choked streets, we arrived at a huge set comprising a partially painted racing car track and a set of bleachers.  We filed into a huge white tent and were handed either red, yellow or green caps and a matching flag.  Some of the luckier ones were asked to change into something from the wardrobe – unfortunately my yellow singlet top fitted right in with pre-existing requirements.  A thrill of excitement passed through me as I saw the racing car outfits of various sizes hanging on a rack.  I munched on some snacks and took in all the showbiz bustle.

Hanging about was a mistake.  By the time I ambled over to the bleachers, the front and middle rows were taken.  I made my way up to a rear stand, feeling like I was a kilometre away from the cameras.  The director was a handsome man who looked like a star in his own right.  He addressed us with a megaphone, explaining that we were about to film the scene when RV wins a big race.  We were told to clap, to cheer and to chant “RV.”  Optimum enthusiasm was essential, we were told rather unnecessarily.  The excitement was palpable.  And then the words that every Bollywood wannabe loves to hear – “Lights.  Camera. ACTION!”  After about 12 takes, our hands were clapped red raw.  We then feigned sadness and despair when RV crashed, and cheered up again when he won the race of his life.  I realise that this doesn’t sound particularly complicated, nor time-consuming – I’m not really sure where all the hours went.  There was also a lot of standing around in the sun – but I wouldn’t expect anything less from a film set.

We were given regular breaks, and I used each one to return to a seat slightly closer to the action.  By this stage the big stars had appeared – Rani Mukerji emerged from a pastel coloured trailer, with a man carrying a sun umbrella hovering close behind.  Wearing jeans and a tank top, with her long thick hair in loose curls, Rani looked every inch the mega starlet.  Her beauty was over-powering – almost shocking.  The child star, Angelina Idnani, looked as cute as a button in a red racing outfit and didn’t appear to complain about the heat.  She took her place in the middle of a row and was handed a pair of bongo drums to beat.

A surreptitious shot of my proximity to Angelina Idnani. Please excuse my stupid expression.
A surreptitious shot of my proximity to Angelina Idnani. Please excuse my stupid expression.

The director looked around, laconically scanning our “pick me!” faces.  Eventually he pointed at me and said, “You – in the green singlet.  Come down and sit here.”  Full of exhilaration, I glided down a few rows and realised “sit here” meant occupying the vacant seat next to Angelina.  I was beaming like an idiot – which was presumably a perfect expression for the RV’s victorious finale car race.  After a few takes, I attempted to make small talk with Angelina. She was very polite but it was the first time in 15 years that I felt intimidated by a 10 year old.  I wondered how many multiples of a hundred (??!) her bank account exceeded mine.

I was still travelling in India when Ta Ra Rum Pum was released, so I bought a pirated copy on a street corner.  Before watching it in full, I skipped to the scenes I thought I might see myself in.  It was proving fruitless and I was consigned to having been relegated to the cutting room floor.  And then I spotted my toothy smile and crooked cap.  Yes, it was me. In Bollywood.  For three whole seconds.
I’m wearing a green singlet, left of Angelina Idnani (in the very last part of the finale scene below).