Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was the earliest advocate of the Non-Alignment Movement, a doctrine that enabled the newly decolonized nations to keep away from the larger world politics of the Cold War. Additionally, Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, took the stance of non-violence that, in the sphere of international politics, restrained India from interacting with the world in a way that requires aggression. On the one hand, both non-alignment and non-violence have encouraged a view of India as a nation that has not engaged with the world in terms of clearly taking a stand in the face of international conflicts. On the other, India also has also been known to cultivate strategic alliances with nations that show considerably less reticence contrary to the spirit of non-alignment. India also maintains nuclear weapons, thus seemingly violating the fundamentals of non-alignment and non-violence.
To address this apparent contradiction between professed ideologies and actual behavior, one must identify “deep sources of conduct” underlying India’s stand on great power politics. Or so argues political scientist Rahul Sagar. Such sources, he suggests, can help in making sense of what otherwise comes across as “ad hoc” policy making. A plethora of material is indeed available to understand India’s “worldview” and foreign policy its worldview informs: documents related to treaties and alliances signed by India and books by bureaucrats reflecting on the circumstances at certain moments in India’s foreign policy decisions on the one hand, and the ancient political treatises such as Chanakya’s Arthashastra on the other. The former are available from 1947 when India became an independent nation and the latter are far too removed from contemporary affairs to be used as a guiding line.
The deeper sources of modern India’s conduct ought to be located in the newspapers and periodicals of the 19th century for this is where educated Indians debated among themselves regarding international affairs and British interventions therein (which invariably involved Indian resources). In To Raise a Fallen People: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Indian Views on International Politics, Sagar has put together an anthology of voices from the period to draw attention to a missing piece in the body of work on India’s intellectual history on political thought. The excerpts he has chosen emanate from an eclectic mix: nationalists, religious philosophers, and India’s first woman doctor, among others.
The themes Sagar has used to categorize the essays do not point towards a contemporary understanding of foreign policy but are instead formulated in ways that point towards inter-national relationships. They relate to questions such as: how can India become “great” once again? What can it learn from the West? What can it teach to the West? As rudimentary exercises in the making of self-image, the excerpts collected under these themes provide glimpses into attempts at articulation of opinions of a nation-in-the-making despite their focus on British motivations and actions in world politics. Two examples stand out: thoughts on British responses to Russian aggression and debates on British opium trade with China.
As Russia began to expand into Central Asia, one set of Indians wanted to wait and watch while the others wanted to block the Russians from expanding into Afghanistan. The defeat of the British (Indian troops) in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-42) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80) prompted Dinshah Ardeshir Taleyarkhan, a municipal commissioner of a city in Gujarat, and Ganesh Vyankatesh Joshi, a political leader, to argue that inaction was an open invitation to Russia to invade India. He urged Indians as well as the British officials to attend seriously to the task of building the British Indian army by increasing military expenditure. On the other hand, Dadabhai Naoroji, the great Indian nationalist leader before Gandhi, and Dinshaw Edulji Wacha, a member of the Indian National Congress, argued that the war against Russia was essentially a British affair and just another means of depleting India’s economy as visible in the steep rise in India’s public debt. All the excerpts demonstrate some consciousness of how a nation, had India been one at that time, ought to negotiate the conflicting demands of national security and economy.
The ethics of the British opium trade with China also drew a range of responses. One set of people (including Tagore who called it “the death traffic”) found it deplorable that the British traders and the Indian agriculturists were thriving at the cost of so much suffering in China. Historian Shoshee Chandra Dutt argued:
One thing is certain, namely, that no fiscal consideration can justify the British Government in continuing to inflict on China the grievous evil that the diffusion of opium in that country has given rise to. No Government ought to make private vice a source of public revenue.
In contrast to such a moralistic stand, Srish Chandra Basu, a landlord and magistrate, argued for pragmatism:
Admitting for argument’s sake that financial considerations may justify the surrender of the opium revenue, the question arises—would the abolition of the opium trade of India with China bring any amount of possible good to the Chinese and effect their moral regeneration as urged by the agitators? The natural inference from the existing state of things would be that there is no possibility of reforming the Chinese by the withdrawal of exportation of the Indian drug into China, since their own cultivation of poppy combined with importation from Persia, Turkey, and the Mozambique, would easily enable the to satisfy their demand for the drug.
While such commentaries have been studied by historians in different contexts, the lens that Rahul Sagar brings to them is that of political theory. His anthology expands the scope of historic interest in India’s political thought and thereby supplements the existing knowledge about ancient Indian discourses along with contemporary perspectives.