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.