Event ReportsPublished on Feb 20, 2016
India needs to think about its foreign policy differently

“The idea of India is constantly changing. It is this dynamism we need to take on board,” according to Dr. Itty Abraham, Head of the Department of South-East Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS).

Discussing the core arguments presented in his most recent book, “How India Became Territorial: Foreign Policy, Diaspora, Geopolitics” (Stanford 2014) at ORF-Chennai Chapter, Dr. Abraham noted that static ideas are what created problems. India should be comfortable with shifting boundaries, and the shifting identities of its citizens, well beyond its boundaries.

He argued that as a nation, India was extremely comfortable with diversity within its borders. The problem was that it made sharp distinctions between the domestic and foreign.

“Domestic policy,” Dr Abraham said, “referred to issues being resolved within India’s boundaries, while foreign policy was seen as beginning just outside India’s borders. India needed to reconcile the two, as well as resolve its conflicts both with regards to its territorial boundaries and its Diaspora, only then would it have the clout and credibility that it wanted internationally.”

Dr Abraham argued that two aspects of foreign policy, namely, the treatment of diaspora and the management of geopolitics, in particular showed the continuities in foreign policy, from pre-Independence to the subsequent era.

He argued that the roots of Indian political thinking began well before 1947 with the British, with the result India’s foreign policy could be seen as imperialistic in nature -- imperialistic in terms of how it treated its diaspora and also how it managed geopolitics. He maintained that India was thinking as an imperialistic state, and not a nation-state.

Dr. Itty Abraham said there was a need for India to think about foreign policy differently. Looking at existing studies in Indian foreign policy, he identified, “an unfortunate tendency to focus on bilateral relations”. There was also an inclination to think of foreign policy as what the Prime Minister of the day dictated. As a result, India’s foreign policy was studied in isolation -- the relationship with China, for instance, was held out separately from its relationship with Russia. Alternatively, it was divided up and analysed in relation to Indian prime ministerial eras and sagas – viz, Nehruvian foreign policy, Indira Gandhi’s, Narasmiha Rao’s and now Narendra Modi’s.

Dr. Abraham offered a way of thinking about India’s foreign policy that he believed didn’t suffer from a myopic viewpoint, nor did it isolate policy to specific nations. Instead, he claimed to be placing greater emphasis on exploring the underlying structural factors in international relations and recognising the similarities through history.

Curzon’s ‘buffer zones’

Tracing Indian political thinking to the British, and specifically to Lord Curzon, Dr. Itty Abraham talked of Curzon’s fear of expanding empires. Curzon advocated, ‘buffer zones’ or intermediary zones between empires, which needed to be kept independent so that empires didn’t touch each other. Thailand was to buffer the expanding French empire, Afghanistan the Russian empire, and Tibet the Chinese empire. The focus on creating these buffers showed that there was no perceived threat from the sea.

In contrast, Dr. Abraham pointed out K M Pannikar’s observation that the greatest threats to India over the last 500 years have come from the sea, not land. However, he said that Indian foreign policy had never echoed Pannikar’s warnings, but had inherited the ‘Curzonian mindset’ and with it an obsession with territory. Dr. Abraham advocated that “we rid ourselves of a curzonian view” and embrace instead Pannikar’s concerns.

Commenting on India’s treatment of its Diaspora, Dr. Abraham pinpointed an inbuilt ‘Us vs Them’ divide that could be traced back in history. He referred to several examples in history that highlighted this mind-set, including the time when Nehru, speaking to overseas Indians in Malaya, asked them not to return to India. To him, this showed the idea of an Indian citizen as an inherently territorial one. Dr. Abraham argued that even though new categories of citizenship were being introduced in India, such as the OCI and POI that were being seen as more inclusive, it was a still very much a class based idea and therefore remained exclusive.

‘Imperialist mind-set’

The speaker felt that distinctions were made between those Indians who could do something for India, such as the NRI/Diaspora in the US, the UK and Singapore, for instance, and those who couldn’t do much, such as those in Martinique or Uganda. India needed to move away from this resource-based mentality, where the Indian Diaspora were viewed in narrow terms of what they can do for India.

Answering a question about India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Africa, in the light of the massive investments being made by China, Dr. Abraham extended the same argument. He said we needed to think of Africa not just in terms of its natural resources but as a place where India could sell its genuine achievements. He named Indian Railways and Indian Census as some of these achievements.

Providing another example that in his view highlighted India’s imperialistic mind-set, Dr. Itty Abraham pointed to Indonesia’s adaptation of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. He found there was a tendency in India to treat Indonesian version of the epics, for instance, as a copy, while the version celebrated in India as the original. It was these imperialistic tendencies and notions of purity and pollution that he felt India needed to discard. “We need to see the Indian nation not as a map or a geographical idea but as Indians all over the world, an Indian nation as defined much more by its people and not as territory,” he added.

Two ‘boundaries’

Talking about the geopolitics of South Asia, Dr. Itty Abraham said he was deeply interested in understanding why India was unable to resolve its boundary disputes since Independence. Critically for India, he said, there were two kinds of boundaries, the boundary around its territory and that around its people, and both these boundaries were shifting.

Using other examples from history, including the Paris Peace Conference (1919), Dr. Abraham traced India’s endemic struggle of competing identities. He painted a picture of two Indias fighting for recognition at the Peace Conference. ‘Official India,’ he said, was seen at the negotiating table, represented by the Indian delegation, which included the Maharaja of Bikaner, Sir Ganga Singh and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for India, S. P. Sinha. Just outside the door of the conference hall and fighting to get in were the so-called ‘insurgents’ who insisted they were the real Indians.

Focusing on the experience of the Indian Diaspora, and also Indian geopolitics, Dr. Abraham argued that Indian foreign policy post-1947, had not resolved these issues. “We are working to multiple narratives of what it means to be a sovereign state and we are not able to resolve this…What the country is going to be is being questioned in multiple ways...What are the implications of having boundaries around nations as well as people? ...What is India’s relationship with these parts?”, he said, implying that the ‘Kashmir issue’ too needed to be revisited in this context.

This report is prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.