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  • Lavanya Vemsani

India’s Foreign Policy Needs to Escape the Legacy of Colonial Entanglements

India is currently trapped in numerous foreign policy entanglements dictated by her colonized past. Upon independence India continued and fostered foreign relations that were initially inherited from the long oppressive alien rule rather than revisiting and reassessing foreign relations based upon equality and convenience. India’s convenience and security rarely mattered in these initial pacts and foreign treaties. Now that India is past the rough and tumble stage of establishing as a new democracy, it is necessary for it to break away from these colonial entanglements to foster foreign relations suitable to her emergence as a strong democratic nation in Asia. Hence, it is time for India to take a deeper look at its foreign policy and devise policy designed to integrate historical experience and intellectual traditions of India.

Currently, foreign policy of India stands on uncomfortable crutches of alien inheritance as it is divested from its original inherited historical practices and intellectual tradition. Therefore, to find its own way, India should not shy away from looking into history and nurturing previously thriving relations within its neighborhood. The most important compendium on India’s statecraft, the Arthasastra has important lessons to offer. They might not literally apply to the current world, but it offers a starting point to develop original policy. Kautilya in his Arthasastra, book 6 chapter 2, defines strength of the State in three aspects, stressing that “strength is power, and happiness is the end”. The three aspects of strength detailed by Arthasastra are: power of deliberation (intellectual strength); prosperous treasury (wealthy & healthy population); martial power (physical strength), when these three properties are properly cultivated happiness naturally results. India must focus on developing these three areas for a strong international position.


Kautilya also discusses the strengths and weaknesses of enemy kingdoms and methods to foster alliances with prospective alliances of states. Book 7 of Arthasastra is dedicated to the Circle of States (Rajyamandala). The basis for the formation of the Circle of States involves the six-fold policy: peace (sandhi), war (vigraha), neutrality (asana), marching (yana), alliance (samarasya), and balance with equal powers (peace with one and waging war against the other). Since, the states would like to stay in a state of neutrality it is important to consider features of peace, war, alliance, and marching to maintain a balance of power. Book 6 and 7 deserve close examination. Even though, Arthasastra is an ancient text, it preserves systematic strategic thought of India’s statecraft. Knowing the basic foundations that guided Indian state historically should serve as guidance for India to devise its own India centric foreign policy. Discussion of national defense and strategies must form part of education and discussion among young and growing population of India. It is important that Arthasastra is introduced into high school and college level curriculum to stimulate thought and discussion on national understanding. No civics education at any school level would be complete without studying the tenets of Arthasastra. The new National Educational Policy might help develop stronger and responsible citizens of India.

Foreign relations should not be based solely on the present, but they should be based on a combination of a nation’s past relations along with future prospectus. Therefore, India must adapt a three-pronged strategy of escaping the colonial legacy, strengthening internal statehood, and bolstering foreign relations. The three steps necessary for this are: Firstly, dismantling/withdrawing colonial organizations of which India was a member of; forming a treaty alliance of like-minded nations is important; secondly, fostering people-to-people relations with friendly neighbors that share historic ties and cultural relations with India; thirdly, forming a treaty alliance with the like-minded democracies of Asia.

Dismantle Organizations with Colonial Baggage

History had been both India’s strength and weakness simultaneously in the sphere of foreign relations. India needs to step away immediately from the legacy of foreign relations thrust upon her from her colonial past. India must reach deep into her memory to recover her true selfhood and identity as an independent nation. India’s past spanning over nine centuries is overtly controlled by colonial regimes, which introduced alien laws and administration that suited the imperial masters rather than the people of India.


India was drawn into numerous international organizations. Three organizations are of particular concern in this regard, for their lack of positive contribution, and drain on precious resources: The Commonwealth, NAM and SAARC.


SAARC is formed with nations within the geographical sphere of India with the hopes of developing a geopolitical and trade network of nations. However, these nations share nothing more than geographical proximity as most of the nations are under state system dissimilar to democracy. India’s colonial entanglement in regional political crises of her neighbours- Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh- pushed it into SAARC, an organization of these nations established with the ambitious goal of developing regional cooperation among the member nations. However, the success is limited with India bearing the brunt of funding and allocation of resources. This organization failed to hold annual meetings recently due to rising tensions among member nations. This organization is being used by some nations to promote their own regional domination rather than cooperation. It is time for India to dismantle this organization and replace it with a seperate eastern and western border alliance, which balances regional powers.


NAM is a relic from the Cold War. And in today’s world of 21st century is no longer needed. India is one of the four founding members of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) along with Yugoslavia (Josip Broz Tito), Egypt (Gamal Abdel Nassar), and Ghana (Khwame Nikrumah). This is one of the failures of international organizations as many of the countries that founded the organization were soon embroiled in internal issues almost on the verge of civil war. Yugoslavia, Egypt and Ghana had their own internal revolutions and national reforms. Nasser was assassinated, Kwame was exiled in a coup, Marshal Tito’s dictatorship ended following his illhealth. India certainly wasted its resources and energy on this uneventful international organization. With Yugoslavia emerged from a hodgepodge of states under the dictatorship of Marshal Tito, finally broke up and gave rise to independent nations. It is a disgrace that India allied with dictators like Tito to found NAM and continuing with this organization is a travesty. The precise reasons for India in joining this group of states are not known. Neither that the states are like India in statehood nor do these nations have cultural affinity with India. Being a member in this motely group is burdensome rather than strategically advantageous. A new foreign relations equivalent is to be explored and created by fostering relations with likeminded democracies.


Similarly, Commonwealth is another organization into which India was pulled through colonial forces rather than choice. Such forceful alliances should be disbanded. Commonwealth has no visible impact on the world other than Commonwealth games that are held from time to time. Other than promoting imperial symbols joined by the colonial subjects of Great Britain the member states have nothing in common. Commonwealth should be disbanded immediately as imperialism is past is time for 21st century. If that is not possible to dismantle it, India should at least work actively with other member states to change the name of this organization before attempting necessary organizational changes to make it more amenable to the 21st century.


After leaving these organizations, India should create an Indo-Pacific Coalition Against Terrorism. Awareness about Pakistan, Turkish, and Bangladesh instigated terrorism stays under the radar for the most part in international discussions. However, since the 1990 numerous terror incidents from southern India and Sri Lanka are linked to terror organizations directly located in these nations. India must take a lead in bringing it to the international community as a humanitarian crisis and actively seek alliances to curb such developments. A terror watchlist must be developed amongst the countries affected by terrorism to allow for the sharing of information. India cannot continue to ignore the issue of terrorism and radicalization, since this is one of the major issues affecting balance of power in the world. India needs to lead the creation of new treaty alliance in the Indo-Pacific which shares the defense and strategic concerns of India.


People to People Relations


A state cannot function without the unity of its people. India must bring out unified, comprehensive education and development across India. The NEP 2020 makes important strides in this direction. In addition, India needs to work internally to build people-to-people relations. For lasting peace and cooperation people-to-people relations are as important as state-to-state relations and good will. Cultural exchanges as well as Educational exchanges between the allied and treaty nations of India must be encouraged. India must work closely with nations that have strong historical ties with India in the Indian Ocean zone. For example, nurturing people-to-people relations with countries in the neighborhood including Japan, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam due to the longstanding historical cultural relations would be much more fruitful.


The second aspect to developing people-to-people relations is to nurture India’s large diaspora spread across the world. Here, we must also consider India’s forced migrants including the Roma populations spread across many nations in the Europe and Russia. India should embrace all her children including the long-lost Roma in this effort to develop people-to-people relations.


Treaty Alliances with Like-minded Nations


Kautilya notes in the Arthasastra that the State should divide those located on their borders into categories based on natural environment, the nature of the state, and the power of their army and economy. In addition, one must also take note of the strategic location of the neighboring states with regards to natural features such as rivers and mountains etc. India can balance the relations by building more parallel relations beyond the borders. According to Kautilya, Rajyamandala (circle of states) is established following consideration of a number of features such as natural location, cultural, economic, and defense capabilities. If India can find nations that match her capability in natural location, cultural, economic and defense capabilities, it would be an asset for the resulting circle of states and truly influence the world affairs. The friendships between like-minded states are the strongest. Alliances formed due to like-mindedness in economic and political nature have longevity, therefore India should seek support among the democratic nations of Asia.


Relations on the western borders of India are increasingly becoming volatile. Pakistan might be a border state, but India should consider cultivating relations with Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia along with Afghanistan rather than competing for relationships and resources with Pakistan. Hence, India must cultivate relations beyond its borders on the western border to encircle Pakistan and other nations of concern.


On the eastern borders, instead of worrying about relations with Bangladesh or China, India should focus on cultivating better relations with Japan, Australia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. Relations with eastern states is closer to the heart for India, since ages. Beginning with Ashoka maritime trade routes on East Coast leading up to Australia is at the center of India’s relations. Ashoka sent his own children to Sri Lanka and friends to other Southeast Asian states. Malaysia and Indonesia may have changed their culture in the past two centuries, still it is in the best interests of India to cultivate and continue to foster relations with these states as well as those of many Pacific Islander nations including Papua New Guinea along with Australia and New Zealand. Equally fortuitous are relation on the west coast of India. Eastern African nations and South Africa are also emerging economies and cultivating favorable relations here is very important for India.


The world is approaching a flash point due to current challenges in medical, economic, and political areas that currently plague the world as a result of pandemic. It is possible that the next five years might see tremendous changes in the global economic, political, and social systems. A nation that utilizes this transition period prudently to implement a reorganization in the fields of economic, social, and political systems can expect a brighter future in the new millennium. This type of opportunity avails itself very infrequently. India availed such global opportunity during the first millennium to emerge as the global leader, and although she faced pushback during the second millennium, there seems to be a great opportunity for India to emerge as a thought leader in the third millennium beginning now. It is for India to prepare and step-up to this challenge.



(Professor Lavanya Vemsani, is a scholar and professor of History specializing in Indian History and Religions, in the department of Social Sciences at Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio. She researches and publishes on subjects of ancient Indian history and religions as well as current history of India. She is Vice President and President-Elect of the Ohio Academy of History).

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