The histories of Indian international relations

India’s history of international relations thinking is, therefore, the story of multiple intellectual lineages, both deeper and more complex than existing accounts often allow
India’s contributions to international relations thinking are substantial and ongoing. Its current world role can be better understood through these more detailed historical investigations. (Wikimedia Commons)
India’s contributions to international relations thinking are substantial and ongoing. Its current world role can be better understood through these more detailed historical investigations. (Wikimedia Commons)
Published on Apr 29, 2021 07:31 PM IST
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ByMartin Bayly

India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar recently lambasted international organisations critical of India’s strained democratic credentials as hypocritical, ‘self-appointed custodians of the world’. The remark was unsurprising given India’s natural sensitivities towards external criticism. But the comment demonstrated the multiple ideological sources of India’s nationalist and internationalist thought, most of which remains under-appreciated in the still western-centric world of international relations.

India has been pivotal in developing knowledge about international relations both as a practice and as an academic discipline. As one looks beyond the worldviews and influences of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rabindranath Tagore, and tries to gauge the ideas and global impact of figures such as Veer Savarkar and Subhash Chandra Bose, it becomes imperative to systematically unpack the multiple sources of India’s intellectual contributions to this field.

One site for the development of such knowledge was the Indian Council on World Affairs (ICWA), India’s first independent international affairs think-tank. From 1943, as with the revolving door between American think-tanks and the United States state department, the ICWA became an institutional powerhouse that generated foreign policy knowledge not just for a decolonising state, but the world at large. Prominent figures, such as Angadipuram Appadorai, were part of a new cadre of scholar-practitioners playing a substantial role in the conception and implementation of the non-aligned movement that challenged Cold War binaries in fundamental ways. The generation of such useful foreign policy knowledge for independent India provides one lineage of Indian international relations, but we needn’t stop there.

Other deeper histories can be found in unlikely places. Since its inception in 1919, the League of Nations was the target of critique from a wide section of the Indian intelligentsia. Often seen as an imperial club, India’s membership of the League was overseen by the colonial state which selected moderate delegations to the League’s assembly who were favourable to the interests of the British raj.

One of the League’s functions, under the auspices of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC), was to develop the ‘scientific’ study of international relations. Newly researched archival material at the League’s Geneva repository shows how these efforts included the establishing of League societies in India and attempts by the ICIC to encourage Tagore to advance the League’s mission within India.

Such efforts drew in scholars such as the Lucknow political scientists Vangala Shiva Ram and Brij Mohan Sharma. They actively voiced Indian perspectives on League of Nations reform and world federation in newly establishing scholarly journals such as the Indian Journal of Political Science.

A third lineage can be identified in the worldly exploits of activists, scholars, and revolutionaries who advanced the cause of Indian independence through overseas travel and encounter.

Generations of Indian schoolchildren are familiar with the freedom fighters and their role in advancing India’s domestic liberation. But, through their travels, the activist-scholars among them frequently developed an international outlook too, broadcasting their works through outlets such as the Calcutta-based Modern Review.

In many ways, India’s freedom was a product of transnational advocacy. Calcutta University sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar’s lengthy research trips to East Asia, Europe, and North America, for instance, included publications in leading American journals of political science. He advanced ‘Hindu’ interpretations of world order, including the Kautilyan mandala conception of geopolitics, later adopted by Nehru. Although ostensibly moderate in his views, Sarkar’s collaborations with the peripatetic Taraknath Das hinted at more revolutionary connections. Das’s scholarly profile included works on Japanese foreign policy and the history of India’s world role.

India’s history of international relations thinking is, therefore, the story of multiple intellectual lineages, both deeper and more complex than existing accounts often allow. This is the story of a field of thought deeply entangled with world affairs and global developments in the systematisation of international affairs knowledge in the first half of the 20th century. A more holistic story of the histories of Indian international thought is possible, as scholars such as Raphaëlle Khan, Vineet Thakur, and Rahul Sagar, are now showing.

Not only would renewed attention to these histories offer a more faithful recovery of Indian international thought, it would also provide a wider tapestry from which to tease out the lineages of international relations thinking that feature in contemporary Indian foreign policy debates. The Hindu right’s active geographic imaginary of a ‘greater India’ — Akhand Bharat — the rhetoric of India’s ‘human bridge’ through its diaspora connections, and Jaishankar’s ire towards western institutions – all have their roots in the visions of a world order crafted throughout the early 20th century.

India’s contributions to international relations thinking are substantial and ongoing. Its current world role can be better understood through these more detailed historical investigations.

Martin Bayly is an assistant professor, department of international relations, The London School of Economics and Political Science

The views expressed are personal

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Thursday, June 30, 2022