May 25, 2020
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Towards A Strategic Vacuum

Broadminded global politics did find proponents in the Indian subcontinent early last century. The country today is embracing hardline positions.

Towards A Strategic Vacuum
Lines Of Thought
India’s PM Jawaharlal Nehru at the 1961 NAM summit in Belgrade
Photograph by Getty Images
Towards A Strategic Vacuum

The world is in crisis. The risks from climate change, a renewed threat of nuclear weapons, the Long War on Terror, a refugee catastrophe and the possibility of ecological collapse have fed widespread anxieties about economic security and personal safety. Everywhere there is clamour for solutions, yet never have the options felt more restricted. On the one hand, there is the liberal order, which has brought us austerity, global corporatism and soaring inequality. On the other lies a return to majoritarian nationalism, which, unfettered by international institutions, helped lead humanity to two world wars.

India, for its part, has sought to play it safe, adopting muscular, majoritarian nationalism at home while embracing the liberal order abroad, unwilling or unable to make a clear choice between the two, or to think creatively beyond them. In contrast with this lack of imagination, India’s anti-colonial pioneers dreamt of a country on the move, in the world, alive with possibility. They brought commitment, energy and an undeniable zeal for tackling intractable problems, to make the impossible possible. The fate of India and that of the global polity, they insisted, were inextricably linked. As they applied their ideals, they inspired a generation to think and act in new ways, and their insights may well yet offer a pathway out of our current predicament.

Beginning in the late 19th century, but drawing from an older well of ideas, visionaries across the world saw that many of the biggest social issues—poverty, identity, migration, violence— were interrelated, and so demanded an integrated set of solutions. Across a wide swath of the political spect­rum, internationalists, as they came to be known, argued that one had to look at things from a planetary perspective to find the most viable and enduring answers. In the United States, for instance, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt brought both optimism and determination to bear as they unleashed programme after programme to help combat the despair of the Great Depression of the 1930s. They profoundly reconfi­gured the American political economy before FDR declared a universal quest for Four Freedoms: of speech and worship, from fear and want.

This kind of broadminded global politics resonated with a wide array of founding figures in the Indian subcontinent, who came to similar conclusions on their own terms. Despite disagreements and debate, they found common ground on a substantial set of goals: a belief in collective responsibility for the social good, a sense of justice, a duty to raise up the wretched, and a desire to emphasise shared human dignity.

B.R. Ambedkar gave the “highest place to fraternity as the only real safeguard against the denial of liberty [and] equality; and fraternity was another name for brotherhood or humanity”. “What else can give to all living beings the same happiness which one seeks for one’s own self,” he asked, “to keep the mind impartial, open to all, with affection for every one and hatred for none?” Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, quoting Mahatma Gandhi, insisted “we must recognise that our nationalism must not be inconsistent with progressive internationalism.” K.M. Munshi declared that India had to have “a sense of fairness, a burning desire for peace and a faith in One World.” Informing all of these views was a scathing critique of nationalism that Rabindranath Tagore had penned in 1917.

Rabindranath Tagore wasn’t a votary of nationalism

Railing against the “cruel epidemic of evil” and the warmongering exclusivity at its core, Tagore argued that nationalism was no solution to the people’s ills, and instead a cause of them, juxtaposed to an international cosmopolitanism.  In his forlorn, soul-stirring way, he concluded with a lyrical warning: “The naked passion of self-love of Nations,” he wrote of “the sunset of the century,” “in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.… The crimson glow of light on the horizon is not the light of thy dawn of peace, my Motherland. It is the glimmer of the funeral pyre burning to ashes the vast flesh—the self-love of the Nation—dead under its own excess.”

Such words spoke to Jawaharlal Nehru’s heart, and appea­led to his tactile understanding of politics. From the end of the First World War, he sought ways to turn such poetry into political prose. After his initial hopes were raised and then dashed by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, he found an opening when Gandhi began quietly talking about internationalist ideals in the late 1920s. The two soon began to exchange ideas, agreeing, first and foremost, that the imperial order had to be upended, for therein lay the ultimate manifestation, if not the root, of systematic dehumanisation, discrimination and domination. These triple terrors led not only to everyday misery for millions, but also, inevitably, to violence and to war.

But the fate of the Fourteen also revealed a tragic truth. Internationalism in and of itself was no panacea, for it was not inherently anti-imperial. Instead, as the League of Nat­ions willed into being by South Africa’s Jan Smuts demonstrated, the two could go hand in hand. Combinations of empires, would not—and could not—alter the ideologies and ambitions that were hardwired into their constituent units, making such an organisation an ineffective instrument of peace. The League’s failure to prevent the outbreak of World War II proved this point as much as it revealed the need for all, including the Great Powers, to be included in a functional international union.

B.R. Ambedkar pinned vitality to fraternity.

That internationalism did not inherently serve as a negation of imperialism didn’t mean that it could not. For Gandhi, the takeaway was obvious: “[i]nternationalism is possible only when nationalism becomes a fact, i.e., when peoples belonging to different countries have organised themselves and are able to act as one man.” But for this to be true, the type of nationalism mattered, as did the type of internationalism that followed. This meant that “narrowness, selfishness, and exclusiveness” all had to be rejected and expunged. As with all other things, for Gandhi the way one travelled to a destination determined the nature of the arrival and where one might be able to go thereafter.

Writing in July 1942 to a prominent disciple, Gandhi proclaimed, “I was trying to take…everybody towards world federation…. I want free India too for that purpose.  If…power of non-violence is firmly established, Empire idea dissolves and world State takes its place, in which all the States of the world are free and equal.” Just weeks later, the Indian National Congress committed the anti-colonial movement to this ideal in the Quit India Declaration. In the wake of World War-II, India formally adopted the creation of “One World” as its grand strategic objective, “a world government, with all its requisite organs for executive, deliberative, and judicial functions...[where] the absolute sovereignty of each nation will have to undergo an agreed upon modification.”

Progressive internationalism was premised on the principle that free people everywhere should determine their future—together—under the aegis of forged common ideals.  Differe­nce and the will of the locality had to be respected, under the proviso that neither could serve as an excuse to oppress. Gandhi explained that individual, national, and int­ernational independence were all interconnected, and one could not have one without the others, each limited only by the legal maxim to “not use what you have to harm others.”

K.M. MUNSHI declared as an educationist that India had to have a burning desire for peace and a faith in One World SIBLINGS Nehruvian realpolitik mitigated India’s idealism. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit furthered it at UN general assembly.

This is what led Indians to embrace the new concept of human rights then in gestation. In parallel with decolonisation, and as part of it, India understood such rights as a way to embody the basic values that all societies shared, essential for the common good. Each right carried with it an attendant obligation, so every person, every people, and every state had a range of duties to one another, inflecting the protections all were guaranteed. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Hansa Mehta helped shape the formal UN instruments with this in mind.

For nearly two decades, India advanced this agenda with tenacity, though of course not without domestic and international setbacks and inconsistencies. The country’s idealism was practically mitigated by a sense of realpolitik, shaped in part by Nehru’s Fabianism.  India saw the big picture, but also approached each consti­tuent situation clear-eyed. Compromise that validated opponents while not betraying principles was essential to progress, and small achievements were to be celebrated.

A liberal international order took the place of the imper­ial regime, coinciding with its demise, and centred on the nation-state. But, for India, this was not at odds with its goals, since decolonisation and self-determination were seen as fundamental elements and preconditions for functional global government. The liberal order was a step in the right direction.

Indian leadership attracted admirers from all over, from eccentrics like “first world citizen” Garry Davis, to éminen­ces grises, like Albert Einstein. Arnold Toynbee, who had achieved renown for his grand Study of History, travelled to India in 1960 to deliver the first Azad Memorial Lectures at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, a year after Nehru inaugurated them. Introduced, along with the prime minister, as “citizens of a world state which is not yet in being”, Toynbee pointed to what he called ­India’s characteristic “fabulous variety-in-unity” as “the only alternative to mutual destruction”. He brought his talk to an end reflecting the catholicity of the Maulana for whom his talk was named: “We have not merely to appreciate our neighbours’ distinctive contributions,” he affirmed, “we have to love our neighbours themselves as precious members of a human family.”

But the Cold War created an impenetrable cloud of confusion and paranoia. Suspicion bred more suspicion, until, finally, mistrust between a polarised world restricted and then smothered any opportunity to forge stronger bonds. The 1962 Sino-Indian War was but one symptom of the malaise, after which India abandoned the high road. From its descent, it has never regained the standing.

India’s turn away from its former positions following the Chinese incursion was not a sharp, immediate reversal, but rather a gradual one. The country continued to work within international frameworks like the Non-Aligned Movement, and to build regional cooperatives like SAARC, to stand apart from the superpowers, though now in service of much diminished aims. It jettisoned its larger dream of One World, and started to take more hardline, aggressive positions, embracing a perceived new realism. Nonetheless, India never retired its high-min­ded talk either, and the result has been a growing gap between rhetoric and action, the country’s hollowed-out moral proclamations betraying the bigger strategic vacuum.

Yet, the world is now in crisis. And both nationalism and the existing libe­ral order have fallen short in addressing our underlying distress, and have, in some ways, even exacerbated matters. And so perhaps it is time to think anew about India’s unfulfilled internationalist vision of a world governed by political and civil liberties, as well as economic, social, and cultural rights—of a world that celebrates differences of custom and community within such norms, and that empowers people at both the local and the global level.

“Keep watch, India,” Tagore imp­lored. “Be not ashamed…to stand before the proud and the powerful with your white robe of simpleness. And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.”


Illustration by Sajith Kumar

Grand Concepts

  • Internationalism: A political principle that transcends nationalism and adv­ocates greater political or economic cooperation among nations.
  • Socialism: A range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production.
  • Cosmopolitanism: Ideology that all human beings belong to a single community, based on a shared morality.
  • Transnationalism: A social phenomenon grown out of the heightened interconnectivity between people and the receding economic and social significance of boundaries among nation states. The term was popularised in the early 20th century.

Manu Bhagavan teaches history and human rights at Hunter College and the City University of New York, and is the author of The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World.

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