Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:3 May 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


As an independent political nation, India was still very young, when it assumed the leadership of the newly emerging Afro-Asian nations. The leadership slipped from its hands, when its rhetoric of peace did not match with its own performance, both domestic and international; its foreign policy failed to perceive the changes taking place in the economic front all over the world. The policy became a list of clichés. Smaller and less prosperous nations, with equally tradition-bound societies, soon reaped great advantages by focusing more on the economic content in their policy than on high sounding moralistic declarations. India came to realize only much later that without a sound economic base of its own, its pretensions to leadership will be just what these were—mere pretensions.

To recapture the imagination of the West, India's foreign policy became more and more a cultural policy, with greater interest shown in the cultivation of the protest academics, protest politicians, and moralistic philosophers. It made an alignment with the emerging New Age performers in the sphere of religions and personal life styles, much to India's detriment, and to the dismay of the ever-increasing ranks of the conservatives in the West.

The shift in the geopolitical balance which began with the growing rift between the Soviet Union and China, and the entry of China as a major international power caused the most crucial and disadvantageous turn in India's foreign policy. India's preoccupation with its geographical integrity (deeply impressed in the collective consciousness of India by the partition of British India into Republic of India and Pakistan) came to haunt and guide Indian foreign policy. The elitist Indian politician, brought up in the Fabian tradition, easily identified the utmost national interest of preserving India's geographical integrity with his bias for socialism, which easily led to India being the leading supporter of the Soviet Union. India was soon perceived to be mouthing what Soviet Union wanted it to say. Americans began to see that India was rather simply sanctimonious.

From the state of being ignored by the US and its allies, in 1980s, India became an orphan in early 1990s. The death of Rajiv Gandhi and the consequent weakening of the Nehru legacy coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union. India's preoccupation with preserving its geographical integrity, with brokering world peace and with the celebration of egalitarian ideals and protest thought had not led her anywhere. In fact, she is presently facing the hardest of all challenges from within, from Kashmir. However, people at large have always been behind the leadership in fostering, preserving, and moulding the geographical integrity of the nation. This was not necessarily a product of the foreign policy.

At long last, along with fear and despair, India seems to be waking up to face the reality and to make amends through a foreign turn, a turn which while retaining some clichés yet, is willing to break new grounds. The evidence for it is seen in the sweeping changes in its economic policies. Its tilt towards the West, especially towards the United States, is more pronounced. And this has infuriated the leftists and hard-core nationalists within the country.


Since its independence in 1947 from Britain, India has tried to follow a foreign policy which it considered would be truly characteristic of its independence, a policy which would bestow upon it the status of a big power and preserve its geographic integrity, even as this policy would lead to an equitable world both for the common man and the poor nations. India offers an excellent example of how poor nations, full of ambitions and pretensions to leadership, wanted to manipulate the world around them in their terms by assuming moralistic positions and how these failed miserably in a world of power politics. India was soon seen to be a staunch apologist for former Soviet Union. Whereas China with its communist label still intact was and is able to sail smoothly with the nations of the democratic West, India continues to be at a disadvantage, proving the point that similarity in the nature of political systems does not necessarily guarantee success in foreign relations. India is trying to make amends for its "faults" of the past through a sweeping and dramatic economic turn in its foreign policy content. Will this foreign turn in economics result also in a real change in the rest of its foreign policy?

Since the advent of the NDA government in India, there are discernible changes taking place in Indian foreign policy. Yet one also continues to notice the inflexible, and cliché-ridden policies as in the past.


The foreign policy of independent India has been influenced more by Nehru's idealism and thinking than by practical ends in the past. The resolutions and declarations of the Congress leadership in general, and Jawaharlal Nehru in particular, have shaped the contours of Indian foreign policy. However, the elements of the Indian foreign policy are not totally original. Just as the Indian constitution owes several of its essential features to the succeeding proposals of the British India government, the current foreign policy, in its various manifestations and demands, takes its cues from the stated and unstated foreign policy declarations of the British India government.


A desire to have a grand Indian nation motivated some of the declarations of the Indian National Congress as regards its foreign policy. For example, whereas in 1885 the Indian National Congress opposed the annexation of Upper Burma with British India, in late 1920s it opposed the de-annexation of Burma from British India. By this time the foreign policy ideas of the Indian National Congress, the vanguard of Indian freedom struggle, looked towards a greater Indian nationhood.


The role of religion in India's foreign policy cannot be exaggerated. Hindus claim to be the most tolerant of all religious groups. But this claim has been continuously shattered, resulting in certain adverse reactions among various nations. Secondly, India has to come to grapple with the fact that Hinduism is more or less a single nation religion, whereas Islam, Christianity and Buddhism are religions practiced and encouraged in many and diverse nations. The view the practitioners of other religions hold regarding Hinduism and Hindus certainly influences the foreign policy of these nations towards India. India's insistence on its secular credentials may be appreciated in the academic circles all over the world, but India continues to be a Hindu-majority nation, a Hindu nation, in the minds of lay Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists all over the world. The foreign policy formulations of other nations do not fail to recognize that India is a Hindu nation, despite India's claims to the contrary. Not only the fundamentalist turn in Islamic countries but also the conservative orientations in the Christian West look at the alliance between the New Age Movements and Hinduism with great suspicion.


Culture has been a great tool and strength of India's foreign policy right from its independence in 1947. However, this culture policy has never touched the hearts of the ordinary men and women in other nations. Only a small number of people in the western societies (who could be extra-ordinary people, but without much impact on foreign policy administrators in those nations) found Indian culture attractive. More often than not, culture was seen closely associated with religion, and other social systems such as marriage and eating habits, and this association has brought adverse notices in the minds of the vast majority of people in other nations. India's culture policy was aimed at the people of Hindu diaspora on the one hand, and at the academically oriented and protest minded fringes of other nations, on the other. The policy was successful in revitalizing the cultural moorings of the diaspora, but it did not derive any benefit from the latter. Even the traditionally friendly southeast Asian Buddhist nations (a friendship based on an appreciation of and admiration for the Hindu roots of Buddhism) soon preferred an economic orientation in their relations. Culture and religion still remain a great possibility, if India could establish a much better image for its internal affairs and economic capability. It is often forgotten that Hinduism and Buddhism are two distinct religions and that the Buddhist masses in the Buddhist nations may look at the Hindus and Hinduism entirely from a different angle.


As already pointed out, India has preoccupied itself with the possible threat to its geographical integrity from the beginning. Most of India's foreign policy hinges on this fear. This preoccupation, however, has not resulted in the elimination of the threat. The Indian involvement in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and the story of the integration of Sikkim reveal the inside of India's foreign policy. Ever expanding Indian naval presence in the high seas, Pokharan II, missile technology, and other developments forced on India from across its borders add to the policy of self-protection and possible expansion.


The domestic language policy of India is geared towards a progressive shrinking of the use of English, a great beneficial legacy left by the British. In tandem with its religion and culture postures, the Indian foreign policy tried to promote the study of Indian languages abroad. This was a direct emulation of the British, French, German and Soviet policies. Once again there was some success, but this success was limited to the fringes of Western societies. On the other hand, the domestic language policy in support of a national language has been incorporated as an element of India's foreign policy in its attempt to include Hindi as one of the UN official languages, and to strengthen the ethnic identity of the Indian diaspora.

Again and again, India exhibits a burning desire to seek acceptance and recognition as a great power, but its claims are expressed through weak and misplaced instruments. The ancient nature of a civilization, expressed through a continuity in religion, culture and language, does not bestow upon any nation great power. Past achievements are no guarantee for the future status of preeminence. And yet India can still exploit the growing desire among ordinary Indians to learn and master English to its advantage in the free market world. Thus the role of language in its foreign policy is not diminished, but it needs to be carefully worked out, especially with the changes towards a free market economy.


The word foreign in English and its corresponding word or words in Indian languages such as Tamil has several meanings which, more or less, center around the spatial dimension. Hardly one comes across an expression of a temporal meaning for the word foreign in English and Indian languages. This is an important feature that must be borne in mind for an explanation of the concept of "foreign" and its application to a formulation of a policy.

Some of the meanings that one finds for the use of the word foreign are as follows:

The law given to Moses in the Bible aims at nation-formation. It emphasizes the exclusive identity and purity of the Israelites as a distinct people group through several behavioral guidelines. Exclusiveness and purity of the people group as well as their identity came to be based on language only in later days, even though language was used as an instrument, a tool, (as in the Babel) to make similar peoples foreign to one another. Thus, an early attested and deliberate function of language was to separate peoples from one another, even though in its natural realm, language as a communicative tool, should have had the function of uniting individuals for transactions. Language which was used as a tool to separate peoples from one another, to make similar peoples to look foreign to one another (Genesis 11:1), inevitably, returns to unite people in communion with God, when speaking in foreign tongues became the symbol of receiving the Holy Spirit within Christian theology. That which was used to separate comes to unite.

In some time-honored Indian texts such as Tirukkural in Tamil, a na:Tu 'territory, country, nation' is viewed mostly as a political entity, a land of political boundaries, not linguistic ones, because of the then prevailing system of political power and administration. Tirukkural views na:Tu mainly as a geographical territory with supporting organs to protect and perpetuate it. One could be a foreigner even within the same contiguous linguistic territory since that linguistic territory could fall within two different political units. On the other hand, within modern India, an Indian citizen will not be considered a foreigner simply because he or she does not know the language of the province. Language is not a deciding factor in deciding the status of a person as a foreigner.

With the migration of populations from one part of the globe to other parts of the globe, necessitated by the prevailing conditions, especially since the advent of European colonialism and imperialism, language became not only a tool of foreign policy but also a significant content of foreign policy of nations.

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