Faisal Devji looks beyond cliches and argues against India abandoning her contrarian international position
When India and Pakistan embarked upon the first of many wars in the immediate aftermath of their independence, Gandhi, in a number of speeches from 1947 and 1948, was against taking their dispute over Kashmir to the United Nations. This was because he thought that international mediation would not only prolong the conflict by preventing any direct dealing between the two countries, but also attract bigger powers to their shared homeland, which would in the end become the site of proxy wars and might even pass into the hands of others. He recognised, in other words, that in some sense the UN operated much like the colonial state, its mediation serving to sustain and expand conflict by permitting the contending parties to bolster their forces artificially by turning to outside powers for sustenance. Given the subcontinent’s fate as a site for some of the most destructive proxy wars of modern times, from the anti-Soviet jihad to the War on Terror, who is to say if the Mahatma was not correct in his estimation? Only Indo-Pakistani rivalry, after all, made the Cold War’s last battle in Afghanistan possible, together with the emergence of Islamic militancy in its aftermath, since a peaceful subcontinent would have precluded the development of either one.
Gandhi preferred direct dealings even of a violent kind to the protracted if sometimes intermittent and low-grade conflicts that were the special gift of mediation. So he would have liked to see a real war between India and Pakistan, because it might make possible an equally real resolution of their dispute by honourable means. Before dismissing this curious desire as a sign either of madness or the most consummate hypocrisy, let us remember that the wars India and Pakistan have conducted represent perhaps their most honourable dealings with one another. For unlike Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism in India, to say nothing of the excessive and unregulated violence that marks internecine conflict in both countries, their wars have always been engagements of the most civilised kind, textbook exercises conducted outside civilian areas for the most part and replete with instances of camaraderie and honour among the opposing armies. Indeed these wars stand apart from others fought around the world by their old-fashioned respect for ethical codes of conduct. And in this perverse way they might well represent the greatest step towards nonviolence that either nation has ever taken. One might even say that one of the great problems posed by the nuclear capabilities of both countries today has been the elimination of conventional warfare between them as a possibility.
Gandhi’s suspicion of the international order has been inherited by every Indian government since independence, though assuredly not for the Mahatma’s reasons. So upon achieving her freedom, India rapidly disengaged from the global role she had played in the region and beyond as part of the British empire, closing her economy, disowning responsibility for her large diaspora and refusing to use her army abroad. Such a cautious attitude can also be seen in her refusal to participate in either the Gulf War or the Global War on Terror, to the degree of refusing to make Indian air space available to NATO forces.
Yet this attempt to protect her sovereignty from the interference of outside powers by no means meant that India wished to play no role in the international arena. After all Nehru had taken the dispute with Pakistan to the UN, and indeed India had an important role to play in reforming that institution to limit the say of the great powers in it and promote decolonisation as an aim for the international order. Of course Indians in colonial times had also repeatedly turned to international movements, from anarchism to pan-Islamism, and with independence Nehru followed up these experiments in international solidarity by trying to chart an independent and alternative course for India based on anti-colonialism and non-alignment.
The fact that he was constantly pulled back by India’s colonial inheritance of ambiguous and contested borders, whether it was over the claims to Tibet that resulted in the Sino-Indian war, or the imperial system of paramountcy that made Kashmir into a battle-front with Pakistan, Nehru’s ambition was often stymied but never killed. Even at the height of the Cold War India managed somehow to steer an autonomous course in world affairs. And she managed to do so while at the same time exercising great influence in the international arena, of which her diplomatic role during the Suez Crisis provides only one example. With the end of the Cold War, however, and India’s forced liberalisation, which was followed by strong if uneven economic growth, she is now in a position to join the international order as a would-be great power in her own right. Now that she is a nuclear power eyeing a permanent place on the Security Council, India is for the first time in her independent history on the verge of abandoning her contrarian international position and joining the international establishment. Yet by doing so India might in fact have lost the influence she had once wielded in world affairs even without the economic and military clout she now possesses.