A very unGandhian land

India didn’t start projecting power yesterday

When you read an article that goes “Land of Gandhi Asserts Itself as Global Military Power” in the western press you suspect that it is a stereotype-reinforcing piece written for stereotypical western readers. And that is exactly what Anand Giridharadas’s piece in the New York Times is. (Linkthanks Ram Narayanan and Rajeev Mantri.)

Yes, India achieved its independence through the political stewardship of Gandhi. And Jawahar Lal Nehru, its first prime minister, was caught between his rhetoric, perhaps his personal convictions and cold, hard reality. That’s where the “Land of Gandhi” ends as far as the rejection of violence and military force is concerned.

Let’s ignore the various strands of opposition to British rule (hey, Mr Giridharadas forgot the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Aurobindo Ghosh and Subash Chandra Bose) that can lead us to conclude that Mahatma Gandhi was an aberration. A gigantic aberration, but an aberration nevertheless. Let’s focus on the India since 1947.

The Republic of India was forged together through very unGandhian ways. Some rulers were woed with promises and solemn covenants, which were subsequently broken. Other rulers were coerced using the threat of force. Hyderabad and Goa were annexed through the use of force.

Nehru himself pursued a risky strategy with China but little understood military affairs to realise the disconnect between his intention and India’s capability. But he authorised the invasion of Goa. Lal Bahadur Shastri authorised the escalation of the war Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started in Kashmir. Indira Gandhi did a number of very unGandhian things. Rajiv Gandhi sent Indian troops to combat in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, in addition to signing off on the production of the nuclear bomb. And Atal Bihari Vajpayee carried off the use of military force within the framework of nuclear deterrence. Land of Gandhi, anyone?

The Indian government has generally tried to put a gloss on its use of power by casting it in various morally appealing terms to obfuscate the underlying realpolitik. To the extent that India was ever the Land of Gandhi, it has long asserted itself through the use of force. It is just that its own growth during an era of increasing globalisation has caused it to be interested in a wider area of the globe than was the case earlier.

25 thoughts on “A very unGandhian land”

  1. Nitin:
    Barring the title and a couple of sentences in the body, the cited article says little to warrant a lament about the loss of “Gandhian values”. When authors quote the garden variety homo-sapiens [“some also fear that India may become the kind of swaggering power it has opposed”], I suspect they are fishing for attributions of their own views. And, Ms.Newmyer’s characterization of a shared air-base in Tajikistan as “a marker of an imperial kind of capability”, is a joke. It’s not that India has set up a permanent military base in Mexico or Canary Islands, is it?

  2. The truth, though, is that we are still pacifist. We punch well below our weight. Whether or not Gandhi was instrumental in that is debatable. But our current economic and political clout is growing without the attendant military guarantees. A dangerous state of affairs.

  3. The Gandhian support to the British during WW II & against the INA is conveniently overlooked, though it’s obviously clear all over the article, that India is simply emerging as an assertive Nation, nevertheless, there is a desperate deluded attempt to project it as an daunting threat to the world.

  4. libertarian

    But our current economic and political clout is growing without the attendant military guarantees. A dangerous state of affairs.

    Brilliantly articulated. Thanks.

    I fear non-benign outside powers (the dragon for one, the rat on our western border for another) could perceive their window of opportunity to mischief shrinking should india raise the military ante to match its economic and geopolitical priorities, and might just be tempted to pre-empt the move with misadventures of their own. “An India with confirmed second strike N-capability would be dangerous to take-on, why not do so before that happens?” is the kind of dangerous thinking the pakistanis are well known for.

    But then again, depending on how we play our cards, Delhi might just come out unscathed.

  5. This is a timely review of the NY Times Article.
    I wonder, why almost every time, India tries to put “Morality” above “Pragmatism”.

    I think it’s more because Our leaders have only talked of Gandhi, but never ever practiced, what he preached. It;s partly, also because the man himself didn’t practice, what he preached.

    Masses behind Gandhi are what made him, what he was. He ended up enforcing his whims and fancies [withdrawing non-copoperation movement, Supporting Khilafat, fasting to pay 55 crores to Pakistan ] and his worst habit of Pitting “His-Men” against leaders,
    1) Pattabhi Seetaramayya against Subhas Bose in 1939 election and his fury against the elected president
    2) Dis-owning Democracy by selecting 0-voted Nehru against unanimous choice Sardar Patel for Congress Premiership

    I read in Atany Dey’s blog, where in he calls India has a fetish called Gandhi.
    Holding fetishes isn’t good for rational thinking.

    We can’t put on a news shirt, until we drop the old garb.
    It’s time to we adopt some Gandhian thoughts [Frugal Living, Hard Work, Cleanliness, Customer Orientation] and leave some other [No to Military, Hypocrisy, …..]

  6. Dear Nitin,

    this is my first post on this blog, so let me first introduce myself.
    I am a German Ph.D. student working mainly on Power Transition Theory and the foreign politics of rising powers (meaning: India and China).

    I have followed your postings here for quite some time and find them to be very interesting and sophisticated. Keep up the good work!

    Now to the article:
    A very good commentary!
    I absolutely agree with you.
    In fact I believe that what you say about “Gandhian values” can also be said about “non-alignment.
    Since the end of the cold war and especially since the advent of the US-India Nuclear Deal you can hear rumblings lamenting about the “end of non-alignment” everywhere, when in fact the defections from the NAM-values (as formulated by Nehru and Tschou En Lai) have been at least as common in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s as in the 90s and today (some examples have been quoted in the article).

    If by chance anyone here does understand German, I have published a piece about the presumed “end of nonalignment” where I argue along the lines of Nitins article and conclude that when “the norms of nonalignment” came in conflict with “the realities of realpolitik” the latter almost always triumphed.
    It can be accessed here (in a few weeks there will also be an English version ready):
    http://www.hsfk.de/index.php?id=9&no_cache=1&detail=3870&cHash=8f48c8f3e4&L=1

    Best wishes,
    Carsten

  7. Sud: thanks.

    “An India with confirmed second strike N-capability would be dangerous to take-on, why not do so before that happens?” is the kind of dangerous thinking the pakistanis are well known for.

    Not sure if the Pakistanis spend much time thinking any more thinking about catastrophic strikes. More alarming than ultimate scenario war-gaming, we don’t raise the cost of much simpler mischief: this silly Indian Mujahideen aka LeT being allowed to get as far as they did for example. We hoot like monkeys each time but do nothing. Just our luck that they can make life hard for themselves all by themselves! Sometimes we even get credit for it – like in Balochistan 🙂

  8. Carsten,

    Welcome. Non-alignment as a policy position for India was arguably based on realpolitik in the early days of the cold war (1945-early 1950s). But NAM assumed that what is good for India is good for everyone else. It would have been one thing if India used NAM to bolster its own position, but unfortunately, India got deluded into believing its own platitudes. In the end, the dogma of non-alignment lived long after the utility of non-alignment was dead.

    So yes, the emprical evidence points to realpolitik whenever there was a conflict between the non-alignment and national interest.

  9. It would have been one thing if India used NAM to bolster its own position, but unfortunately, India got deluded into believing its own platitudes.

    I realize that it is merely a convention to anthropomorphize states and no one really believes that a state is a human and susceptible to common human failures.

    One may write that “India is gripped by fear of terrorism” or “India is joyful during Diwali” and mean that a very large majority of the people of India share an emotion. But something that is not widely shared cannot be transferred to India. So it’s important to stress that the entity which was deluded and believed its own platitudes was not India but someone who was in charge of formulating policy in India. That distinction is worth keeping in mind.

  10. I tend to agree with Atanu. Did India conduct a referendum among all its citizens to be non-aligned or was the policy chosen by its leaders as the best policy for India?? Knowing it was chosen by leaders and knowing how capable our leaders were then, I have no more comments on this non-aligned position!

  11. @Venkat,

    No referendum is necessary for policy matters as India is not a direct democracy. The government of the day has legitimacy to make those decisions.

    Nothing is decided by referendum, not even your marginal income tax rate. So that argument is a red herring.

  12. Yes, Udayan, the government makes the decisions, democracy or not. Whether there is popular support for a decision or not is the question. Though not true in all cases, in many cases it is easy to estimate whether or not a decision has popular support or not.

    In this instance, I am guessing that the Indian population was not sufficiently informed on the question of non-alignment and therefore they could not have had an opinion one way or the other. India’s participation in the NAM was therefore entirely due to the whims and fancies of one particular leader. If it was a mistake, it was a mistake that he made, not a mistake that can be pinned on the people however indirectly.

  13. its good to read stories, that potray india’s image as an emerging super power, it also proves how assertive weve (Indians ) been since post independence period….the same assertiveness must certainly boil down to solving our internal problems ….that is waiting as a silent time Bomb ..ready to explode with potential problems…that may undermine india’s future growth story !!

  14. Atanu –

    “I am guessing that the Indian population was not sufficiently informed on the question of non-alignment and therefore they could not have had an opinion one way or the other.”

    while I do agree with you that, the non aligned movement was a charade, what I don’t understand is how can we reasonably expect a largely illiterate populace to parse the pros and cons of a complex foreign policy strategy?

    p.s. yes, you can always point towards america’s 97% literacy rate and the small fiasco that is – iraq:)

  15. Trilok, I suppose having the capacity to become informed about a topic (that is, being educated about it) requires general literacy. But literacy is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for being informed. It is quite possible to be literate and fundamentally ignorant. Worse yet, even a literate population can be lied to and brainwashed.

  16. Atanu, I completely agree with your last comment (#16). Though I think looking at democracy through the prism of education can be misleading. Even though education is fundamentally important for any kind of society to prosperously function (democratic or undemocratic), democracy really only functions when ordinary people claim it as their own.

    So for example the protests in Singur and Nandigram by mostly uneducated or semi-literate farmers was very much democracy at work. The response of the Left government in W. Bengal was tyrannical but in its aftermath SEZs have become an extremely sensitive issue for all state governments. Recently, the Maharashtra farmers voted against the Reliance SEZ. Had Nandigram not happened, no one would have asked these farmers whether its okay to approve a SEZ over their land.

    There are quite a few such examples where mostly semi-literate, seemingly powerless people in India have shaken the seats of power through democratic choices. Even today, mostly poorer sections of rural India votes in a much higher proportion than their richer urban countrymen.

  17. Navneet –

    “There are quite a few such examples where mostly semi-literate, seemingly powerless people in India have shaken the seats of power through democratic choices. Even today, mostly poorer sections of rural India votes in a much higher proportion than their richer urban countrymen.”

    In many instances these “semi-literate, seemingly powerless people” are not acting [or even voting] on their own volition, but are taking to streets because one political party or another is compelling or instigating them to do so.

  18. I agree Trilok, there are many such cases where political parties instigate their own agendas. In fact in India there are more such cases then real democratic participation but my point was:

    democracy really only functions when ordinary people claim it as their own.

    So looking at it from literacy levels may be misleading because all sorts of democratic forces shape a nation’s future. Societies where its people actively participate in shaping it become the most successful democratically. I think most people do not see a direct connect between foreign policy and their own lives so it becomes easier for governments to get away with a lot more mischief than what they can do domestically.

    While I agree with Nitin that this NYTimes piece is unusually alarmist, I am refering to the ongoing discussion about NAM and the voice of the Indian people in never having a say in it. Not much has changed even today, as far as foreign affairs are concerned.

    For example: One of the most important issues of our times, which effect all our lives in India, are the meetings at WTO and IMF. No one from ordinary citizens of India has any say in it. In fact those who will be most affected have the least say. And these closed session meetings can radically alter millions of lives of people who have no power of democratic participation and are left to the mercy of their governments.

  19. Navneet,
    Singur is a very bad example of “people power” at work. It is much more about a bunch of goons holding a local economy hostage, without any compromise possible which would have satisfied the aggrieved party (farmers) while ensuring that the local economy grows. It is a prime example of a bunch of self serving politicians and goons destroying the livelihoods of a whole town. Do you think the Tata factory would not have employed lots of people, and kept a whole local economy alive through local consumption?

    It is nice to feel good about oneself on some silly ideological grounds and talk about “people power”, but it is also self serving and damaging, since the people getting the shaft due to actions justified by such self serving nonsense are mostly poor people without much of a say in the matter.

    For people who think India is “soft” on internal security, they should read the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). It is one of the most draconian legislations that can be promulgated for internal security purposes, enabling the state (through the army) to suppress any internal security problems by sheer force:
    http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/document/actandordinances/armed_forces_special_power_act_1958.htm

    For a defence of this act:
    http://www.idsa.in/publications/strategic-analysis/2004/oct/Anil%20Khamboj.pdf

    India is very much an “ungandhian” land. Its very politics is often dictated by force. If, one day, India does settle its internal security matters and chooses to direct her resources outwards at a large scale, this will be very amply demonstrated.

  20. Thanks Krishna. Yes I’m aware of the shenanigans that “Didi” Mamata Banarjee is playing in Singur for her personal political gain but that digresses from the point I’m trying to make. Singur and Nandigram have become the reasons why state governments have been forced to rethink their land acquisition policies. This was recently demonstrated when the farmers from Raigad in Maharashtra won the right to vote and voted against the Reliance SEZ. This consequence (of winning the right to vote for or against land acquisition) is a result of democratic power which I don’t think is a “silly ideological ground”.

    As to your other question:
    Do you think the Tata factory would not have employed lots of people, and kept a whole local economy alive through local consumption?

    In this case it doesn’t matter much (except academically) what you or I think because neither of us were planning to look for employment at the Tata Factory. The people of Raigad, for example, voted against the Reliance SEZ and for better or worse, it is still their democratic decision. They are well within their rights to vote against land acquisition of THEIR lands. Such kind of voting rights were not given to Nandigram or Singur which led to the whole fiasco over there. Had they been asked, they might have very well chosen in favor of it. But yes, I agree with you: Singur has become more politicized and screwed up because of “Didi’s” own ambitions and the Left’s horrible adminstration.

    You also said:
    It is nice to feel good about oneself on some silly ideological grounds and talk about “people power”, but it is also self serving and damaging, since the people getting the shaft due to actions justified by such self serving nonsense are mostly poor people without much of a say in the matter.

    Maybe its just a knee-jerk reaction from your part, but please read my previous comments again. I find your remarks contradictory to everything that I’m saying. I’m trying to point out that literacy is not always the only way to look at democracy and it works best when people take ownership of their choices. I’m arguing in favor of these “poor people” having a say as demonstrated, regardless of their literacy levels. Also these “mostly poor people” are not mostly poor in Singur or Nandigram. They are mostly land owners with small to large farmland holdings. This ownership of land is their wealth. They just don’t have an MBA or Law degree. I’m not sure what your Tata question implies. Are you saying that the Government or the Tatas should be left to best decide for them if their land should be acquired or not?

    Returning to the context of this discussion. Had Indian citizens been given a chance to vote for or against NAM we might have as well chosen to go for it regardless of our literacy levels in the 50s but then at least we would have borne full responsibility for our actions. Not the paternal whims of Nehru. Ditto for IMF and WTO in today’s times.

    As far as India being very much an “ungandhian” land.. Yes, Nitin is spot on. I think its a very un-gandhian land too and has been since its inception, especially on Government policy level.. both domestic and foreign. Your example of “the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act” further strengths that position.

  21. Aam Insaan,
    The army from NCO’s upwards has the right to shoot to kill any person or persons it considers a threat. This is the most draconian aspect of this law,
    second, it gives the governing authority (not necessarily elected by the people of the state) arbitrary authority to declare a particular region “disturbed” and apply the armed forces special powers act. I would think these two properties would be sufficient to deem a law ‘draconian’.

  22. Krishna
    You’re absolutely right, these NCO’s whose duty zone is on the Nation’s borders, clamour to be positioned in such distressed life threatening dangerous conditions within the country, I am in total agreement with you that while patrolling these so-called disturbed areas if they come face to face with a bunch of AK-56 wielding ‘Holy warriors’ who fire upon them, they must await for orders on how to respond from the local MLA who is ‘necessarily elected by the people of that particular state’, or else dismantle the Armed forces for dereliction of duty – point taken.(reminds me of 1962).
    All these authoritarian State Governors & Central government Administrators who take over the ruling of states by force & without any sanction from the ‘people elected Government’, & who on their own whims & fancies declare any damn area as disturbed, enforcing their own manufactured draconian laws, sanctioning the killings of ‘innocent holy warriors’, ‘self-styled freedom fighters’, friendly infiltrators, & worst still, they are accountable to no one.
    No need of any productive checks & balances of ‘draconian acts’, just get rid of all CrPc laws also & kick out all it’s arbitrators.
    -Arrest all State Governors/ Administrators in the country & hang them for the arbitrary application of these draconian laws.
    ALL SHALL BE WELL HENCEFORTH in the ….huh….where…. where is the country gone???

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