K M Panikkar on India’s strategic omphaloskepsis

The costly refusal to see beyond itself and the subcontinent

An extract from Sardar K M Panikkar’s Annual Day address to the Indian School of International Studies on 13 February 1961:

The study of international relations is fundamentally a study of power relationships. This, of course, has to be interpreted in terms not only of military power but also of political stability and leadership, industrial strength, and all the factors which contribute to the power of nations. The power relationships between nations are constantly changing, and unless a country understands and adjusts itself to the changes that are taking place around it, its own security will be seriously endangered. In our own time we have witnessed such changes, cataclysmic in character and revolutionary in effect, that the picture of international relations may be said to have been completely transformed in the course of two decades.

It is only by a continuous and vigilant study of power relationships in the world that even the mightiest nations can maintain their position. Without a knowledge of the changes and dynamics of social life taking place elsewhere in the world no country can build up its own life. This is the primary object of international relations. Diplomatic relationships which every country now establishes with the ther independent nations of the world has this knowledge as its primary object. Earlier, since political interests were limited to one’s own neighborhood, diplomatic relations never extended beyond countries which were closely connected with one another either by geography or by interests. As everyone knows, modern diplomacy developed in Italy and spread from there to the rest of Europe. Till the second half of the nineteenth century, even the independent countries of Asia did not consider it necessary to set up permanent diplomatic missions in other countries or to study the dynamics of power so far as other countries were concerned.

Neither the Moghuls nor the Marathas had any notion of the sources of strength of the European nations with whom they had to deal. The Chinese Admiral who challenged the might of Britain during the First Anglo-Chinese War knew nothing about the naval strength of Britain and firmly believed that he could defeat the British Navy with his fleet of junks. The result of this ignorance of the sources of power of other nations was that India had, for a long time, to remain subject to a foreign power while China was, for over a hundred years, the whipping-boy of European nations.

From the earliest times, India lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers. While China was continuously watchful of developments across its land frontiers and had developed a very efficient system of diplomatic relationship on a continental basis, the Indian idea of diplomacy was confined to states within the geographical limits of India. Within this area, at different times, India developed a system of international relations and diplomatic usage. But so far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned, we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance. It is a well-known fact of history that the changes in the dynamics of power in the Hindu Kush Valley profoundly influence the politics of the Indo-Gangetic Valley. From the time of the first Aryan invasions this has been one of the determining factors of Indian political evolution. The emergence of a powerful state in the Kabul area, whether in the time of Kanishka, Mahmud of Ghazni or Ahmed Shah Durrani, profoundly influenced events within India; and yet, so far as the great states of the India-Gangetic Valley were concerned, they continued to remain ignorant of these developments and, therefore, were unable to take the necessary steps to safeguard their independence. In the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, every effort was made by that king to collect and evaluate information about the political situation in India and to estimate the sources of strength of the various Indian states. We know with what thoroughness this was done from Alberuni’s great work. In contrast, we may note that the great monarchies—rich, powerful, and well organized according to the standards of the time—of King Bhoja of Dhar and the Gurjara Pratiharas of Gujarat knew little or nothing of the revolutionary transformation which had taken place in the Kabul Valley and of the strength of the great state which Sabaktajin had established and Mahmud had inherited and enlarged.

This may be compared with the policy which the policy which the British pursued from the beginning of the last century, when they established themselves as one of the imperial powers in India. The invasion of Egypt by Bonaparte was viewed as an event affecting the security of India. When Napoleon and Tsar Alexander reached an agreement at Tilsit, the British authorities in India immediately took steps to send a mission to Persia, the object of which was to find out the extent of that country’s defensive strength and to explore possibilities of entering into an alliance with its government. Sir John Malcolm’s report on Persia is still a classic. Similarly, the advance of Tsarist Russia towards Central Asia led to the British neutralization of Afghanistan. The British did not wait for enemies to penetrate as far as Panipat before taking countermeasures as the Indian rulers of the Gangetic Valley had been accustomed to do. They carefully studied the conditions across the borders, developed a large body of experts who studied the geography, language, political conditions, and economic structure of the areas which bordered on India or which were considered to be of vital importance to the defense of India. No area was left uncovered. The British Government in India had at its disposal men who had devoted most of their active life to the study of sensitive areas: the North-Western Frontier and adjacent areas, the Persian Gulf and the Trucial Coast, Tibet and the Himalayan regions, Sinkiang, Alma Ata, and other areas of Central Asia. It was sufficient for them to cover the areas of special interest to India because the British Empire, as world power whose interests were spread over five continents, was able to take care of the rest.

Our case today is different. We have to keep ourselves informed of developments in all parts of the world, not because we have vital interests everywhere, but because conditions in the world have so changed that events in the most distant parts may affect us in a manner which few of use realize. Undoubtedly for us the vital areas continue to be those immediately bordering India; and consequently the study of conditions in these areas is of permanent importance to us. But with changed economic, political and military conditions, other areas also emerge as vital and sensitive. At no time in India’s long history had Tibet and the North-Eastern Frontier become areas of vital concern to India’s defense. The geographical, political and social conditions of Tibet were sufficient guarantees for our safety from that quarter: while the North-Easter Frontier covered by dense forests and high mountains was also a dead frontier. Besides the Himalayas provided us with an almost impenetrable wall across which no invading force had ever approached India. Today, the emergence of a great military power on the other side of the Himalayas, which stretches from the Karakoram to the borders of Burma, has totally transformed the situation. This is only one example of the frequent changes in areas of international sensitivity, without a knowledge of which it is not possible at any time to formulate national policies. This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent. [International Studies 22:2 (1985) pp192-195, emphasis added]

Sunday Levity: The Trichinopoly cigar

Celebrating the continuity of policy

A retired senior navy officer related a curious story. The stringent editorial policy of this blog required some fact-checking before it could be published. And luckily for you, it checked out. So here’s the (published version) of the story of a humble civil servant who sought a promotion.

In the early 1960s the Madras government set up a pay committee to review the pay structure and the service conditions of its officers and staff. One day a ‘top secret’ double-sealed cover landed on the desk of the chairman. It was from ‘CCA, office of the chief secretary, Fort St George, Madras’. He opened the cover to find a very humble and polite representation for upgrading the post of CCA to that of office superintendent in the chief secretary’s office because of the petitioner’s unblemished service record of 20 years. But there was still no clue as to what CCA stood for.

The chairman sent for the petitioner and asked him what these three letters meant and what exactly did he do in the chief secretary’s office. With gravity and dignity behoving a member of the chief secretary’s staff, the latter stated that in view of the 30-year embargo regarding disclosure of secret matters, he could only speak after 1975. The chairman said that in that case he should withdraw his representation and place it before the next pay committee after 1975. Appreciating that he was caught in a trap of his own making, he clarified that CCA stood for Churchill’s cigar assistant and thereby the secret unfolded…
Continue reading Sunday Levity: The Trichinopoly cigar

Still keeping Victoria’s promise

But breaking Sardar Patel’s

There were over 554 Princely States within India’s boundaries in 1947. By the time the Constitution came into force on January 26th, 1950, every one of them had acceded to the Republic of India. That feat was made possible by the energy and ingenuity of two men: V P Menon, the secretary of the States department, and his political boss, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the Home Minister. Together the cajoled, coerced or convinced the Maharajas, Nawabs and other rulers to hand over political power to the Indian Union. In return the Republic of India made them solemn promises: their pensions, special privileges and rights were enshrined in the Constitution.

On October 12th, 1949, defending the guarantees that the Indian Union gave the former rulers, Sardar Patel told the Constituent Assembly: “These guarantees form part of the historic settlements which enshrine in them the consummation of the great ideal of geographical, political and economic unification of India, an ideal which, for centuries, remained a distant dream and which appeared as remote and as difficult of attainment as ever even after the advent of Indian independence… the minimum which we could offer to them as quid pro quo for parting with their ruling powers was to guaranteed to them privy purses and certain privileges on a reasonable and defined basis. the privy purse settlements are therefore in the nature of consideration for the surrender by the Rulers of all their ruling powers and also for the dissolution of the States as separate units… The Rulers have now discharged their part of the obligations to by transferring all ruling powers and by agreeing to the integration of their States. The main part of our obligation under these agreements is to ensure that the guarantees given by us in respect of Privy Purses are fully implemented. Our failure to do so would be a breach of faith and seriously prejudice the stability of the new order.”

Just two decades later, the Indira Gandhi government breached that faith. On December 28th, 1971, the 26th amendment to the Constitution abolished the privy purses and withdrew the recognition granted to all former rulers.

All, that is, except the Prince of Arcot.

Why the exception? Because, it turns out, that the Government of India is honouring a pledge made by Queen Victoria in 1867. The British colonial government, after applying the notorious doctrine of lapse, appointed Azim Jah as the Prince of Arcot, and awarded him a tax-free pension in perpetuity.

The Indian republic broke the promise it made. But it’s still keeping the one Queen Victoria made. Now isn’t that something?