Decolonisation of India’s International Relations: An Empty Prospect?
A closer examination of India’s colonial past is extremely important in understanding its modern day international identity, as discussed during the conference hosted by the Department of International Relations, Ashoka University
Pallavi Raghavan19 January, 2023 | 6m read
In January 2020, enabled by a grant provided by Ashoka University the Department of International Relations hosted a conference titled ‘The Limits of Decolonization’. The sessions repeatedly veered toward a question that occupies a prominent part of our contemporary discourse: is the moment now finally ripe for ‘real’ Decolonization to be achieved?
The current political wisdom has it that an elitist, Westernized set of voices crafted policy in their own interests, alienating, in the process, a set of authentically ‘Indian’ set of values, that would have presumably projected a stronger, more masculine image to the world. A variety of political gestures, ranging from a debate to institute Hindi as the national language, to the showcasing of an alternative leadership of India’s independence movement, have thus been taken in an apparent bid to reverse the damage caused by India’s post-Independence leadership. These positions have a critical bearing, both for India’s domestic, as well as internationalist self-image.
However, as many panelists at the conference showed, this process of attempting to ‘Decolonize’ is far more complex than what a simple eye-catching and ultimately hollow series of political announcements would suggest. What all the interventions at the conference did agree on was that a closer examination of India’s colonial past was especially relevant in understanding its modern-day international identity. A special section of the International History Review, based partly on the findings of the conference, considers the roots of many present-day approaches and decision-making structures for shaping India’s internationalist values. As a whole, the articles in this collection argue that its roots are located squarely in the requirements of the colonial state in the 19th century.
For one thing, knowledge systems of understanding India, as well as its interactions with the world, borrowed extensively, and were shaped with reference to, ideas about governance and international thinking created outside, and often predating, the Indian nation-state that came into being from 1947. In fact, Martin Bayly shows, in processes that straddled the dates before and after the transfer of power, the process of crafting India’s internationalist image was often a means by which its ideals of nationalism could be constituted domestically. Moreover, India, and its imagination of the world, were also constituted through a set of knowledge practices developed in relation to colonial requirements. Therefore, as Raphaelle Khan points out, institutions such as the Indian Council of World Affairs, a critical site for the development of debates on India’s position in the world, borrowed and appropriated frames of internationalist thinking created within the Indian Institute for International Affairs, a sister organization to London’s Chatham House. Similarly, Vineet Thakur shows us how the foundations of post-war diplomacy were set during the interwar period, and that Indian diplomats Srinivasa Sastri, as well as Girija Shankar Bajpai were firmly rooted in a context of Commonwealth politics, and their worldviews heavily tempered by the functioning of this organization.
Berenice Guyot-Rechards follows the trajectory of Apa Pant, a diplomat in the Ministry of External Affairs in the early years after Independence. His duties, she reminds us, were increasingly complex: as he found himself concerned with the well-being of people who were ethnically Indian on the one hand, yet deemed to be outside the purview of the responsibility of the government of India on the other. His constraints in being able to provide acknowledgement and redressal to Indian communities settled outside the Indian nation-state, often came in the form of the need to adhere to a conception of governance that prioritized the territorial boundaries of the nation-state, as opposed to being able to address the concerns of all ethnically Indian communities in different parts of the globe.
The process of deciding which Indians to have jurisdiction over— whether within the subcontinent or outside, was thus carried out while adhering to strictly territorialized definitions of national interest. In fact, the framework through which India deals with its neighbourhood, Elizabeth Leake points out, is in an ‘intermestic’ view: domestically informed notions of citizenry and governance shape the way in which the demarcation of the international is understood. The ways in which such ideas of governance continue to shape India’s positions in the neighbourhood are obvious but owe themselves, these articles would point to a choice to adhere to colonial notions of governance, rather than an attempt to discard them. Similarly, Avinash Paliwal demonstrates, India’s involvement in partnerships based on the ‘Bandung Spirit’, was also, ultimately, based on its ability to utilize ‘the sinews of colonial bureaucratic ties’. Removing the traces of ‘colonialism’ from the apparatus of India’s internationalist relationships thus is in fact difficult to achieve in practice: these ties continue to be operationalised as part of India’s toolkit for foreign policy making till date.
Ultimately the essays show, there was considerable overlap between colonial and post-colonial ideas of governance and jurisdiction, to an extent which continues to remain relevant today. Embarking on an internationalist journey on avowedly ‘decolonized’ principles, thus, will need far closer scrutiny of the extent to which our ideas of governance, administration and external relations are shaped by visions of empire from the 19th century. As these questions increasingly come to occupy a central space in Indian conversations about International Relations today, it is important for Indian universities to occupy a more prominent role in the analysis of this process.
We would like to express our gratitude to Prof. Malabika Sarkar for her generosity in her help for this project.
(Edited by Dr Yukti Arora and Saman Waheed)