India is a multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-linguistic “union”. The Englishman was able to hold this “loose sally” together by use of force. There were ebbs and flows of centrifugal movements in some states. But, the Englishman was able to quell them in a nascent stage.
The desire for self-determination or independence from the English yoke arose very late in India. In fact, it was the Englishman himself who paved way for the arousal of political consciousness in at least the elitist Indian leaders. David Hume, followed by a few other Britons, headed the Indian National Congress until toddler indigenous leaders grew strong enough to lead it.
India dreamt of being an undisputed successor to the pre-partition Imperial India. It harbored an ambition to emerge not only a South Asian hegemon but also a world power. However, its ambition suffered many setbacks. Let us review the vicissitudes of India’s “greatness” ambition in a historic context.
Jinnah’s joint defense pact
To get recognized as a major world power it was necessary for India to establish its primacy first as a major power in its neighborhood. The Quaid-e-Azam wished that India and Pakistan forget the acrimony of the partition. He keenly desired that the subcontinent and all of South Asia should remain aloof from rivalry. He proposed a joint defense pact with India.
Had India accepted his idea, the two countries would not have been at daggers drawn after independence. Before his final flight (Aug 7, 1947) from Delhi to Pakistan, he sent a message to the Indian government, “the past must be buried and let us start as two independent sovereign states of Hindustan and Pakistan, I wish Hindustan prosperity and peace.”
Vallabhbhai Patel replied from Delhi, “The poison [the Quaid] has been removed from the body of India. As for the Muslims, they have their roots, their sacred places and their centres here. I do not know what they can possibly do in Pakistan. It will not be long before they return to us.”
Even Nehru, an ostensibly liberal leader, regarded the creation of Pakistan as a blunder. His rancor against Pakistan reached a crescendo in his remarks: “I shall not have that carbuncle on my back.” (D. H. Bhutani, The Future of Pakistan, page 14).
Ayesha Jalal in a paper Why Jinnah Matters (Maleeha Lodhi (ed.), Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State) recalls: “Just before his own death, Jinnah proposed a joint defence with India as the Cold War started to shape the world and the two power blocs began to form. Jinnah was still thinking as a South Asian nationalist…had Jinnah’s vision prevailed and found an echo in India, we would have seen a very different South Asia…there would have been no crippling defence expenditures.”
“There would have been no reason to join one or other camp of the Cold War. There would have been open borders, free trade and regular visiting between the two countries…a more humane sub-continent might have emerged.”
The bone of contention between India and Pakistan
India’s cold shoulder compelled Pakistan to challenge its self-conceited “primacy” at every footstep. Accession of some princely states either to India or to Pakistan became a bone of contention between the two next-door neighbors, toujours at daggers drawn. The Jammu and Kashmir was, particularly, a hard nut to crack.
Pakistan posed a formidable adversary to India’s hegemony at every international forum. To pacify Pakistan, India’s then home minister, Vallabhai Patel offered Kashmir literally on a platter to Pakistan in exchange for Junagadh. But, Liaquat Khan, then Pakistan’s prime minister spurned the offer. He mused, “What shall I make of the Kashmir mountains?”
Read more: No border truce can resolve Kashmir dispute
Faced with the raiders in Kashmir, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru approached the United Nations for “mediating”, not for “declaring Pakistan an aggressor”. The stark, nay brutal reality then was that India realized that at the United Nations not only the permanent but also the temporary members supported Pakistan’s position. India did not approach even the International Court of Justice as it perceived that it had a weak case.
India remained nominally non-aligned while Pakistan joined security alliances with the USA. Military and quasi-military confrontations took place between the two neighbors. But the Kashmir dispute remained unresolved despite the fisticuffs. Even today, Kashmir is a nuclear tinderbox.
Read more: Pakistan says no change in stance on Kashmir
Setback to India’s world power ambition
India’s disastrous defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War buried India’s dream of world leadership. India was able to dismember Pakistan’s eastern wing in 1971. Yet, her dream of becoming a world power or a South Asian hegemon remained unfulfilled. Political instability coupled with erratic economic policies whittled down Pakistan’s clout in the comity of nations.
In contrast, India, post-1991, adopted such economic policies that rejuvenated its tottering economy. Still, India could not get recognized as a paramount power in South Asia as the Imperial successor to the British raj.
While Pakistan remained defiant, India managed to coerce Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim to sign such treaties in 1949 and 1950 that made “New Delhi in charge of their foreign policy” (Manjeet S. Pardesi, Is India a South Asian or Asian Power; Knut A. Jacobsen, Routledge Handbook of India, page 136).
Sikkim was absorbed into the Indian Union in 1975. About Bhutan, there are strong voices in India demanding India should annex it before China does so. To tame Nepal, a landlocked country, India blockaded it and annexed its Kalapani territory. But, Nepal is steadfastly resisting India’s pressure.
India’s significant post-partition “Asian Great Power” initiatives
Convinced of being heir-apparent to Imperial India, Nehru organized Asian Relations Conference a few months before the country’s independence in March-April 1947 (India became independent on August 15, 1947).
In January 1949, India organized a conference on Indonesia to deal specifically with Asian issues, particularly Indonesian independence from the Dutch. At the same time, India forgave debts owed by Burma (Myanmar) to India during its separation from India in 1937.
In 1951, India signed a security treaty with Indonesia. A few months later, it signed a similar treaty with Burma. During the early post-colonial year, Burma behaved as if it was India’s vassal. India dictated Burma even on the latter’s internal security issues.
In 1952, India signed a treaty with the Philippines that amounted to a non-aggression pact. This “pact” was signed amid an environment in which China in the post-War (post-Colonial) context appeared to assume a threatening posture in view of the situation emerging in Korea and Indo-China. An Indian chairman happened to head each of the three International Commissions of Supervision and C control for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, created at Geneva in 1951.
Ascending on the great-Asian power trajectory, India signed security arrangements with the Indonesian Air Force n 1956, with the navy in 1958, and the army in 1960.
India forays into North and North-East Asia
Engrossed with great-power ambition, India did not confine its foreign-policy endeavors to Southeast Asia. It dabbled into Northeast Asian affairs also. Even without any direct diplomatic ties, the Korean peninsula was de facto divided during 1950-53 (in the wake of the Second World War). India continued to maintain a facade of non-alignment despite the desire and initiatives to forge security alliances with several countries.
Diplomacy is like the acrobatics of balancing on a tight rope. Though the USA opposed, India recognized de jure the People’s Republic of China. The USA, under Harry S. Truman (1956) began to suspect India as a Communist-China sympathizer.
Throughout the 1950s, India supported China’s inclusion in the United Nations Security Council. Besides, it introduced Communist China to the Afro-Asian countries at Bandung in 1955.
India even legitimized China’s invasion and annexation of Tibet by signing the 1954 Panchsheel agreement. India under Nehru also acted as a diplomatic interlocutor between China and Tibet after India had granted refuge to Dalai Lama in the wake of the Lhasa Uprising.
China and the Soviet Union become suspicious of India’s foreign policy
India continued making goodwill gestures to both China and the Soviet Union. But, both countries construed Indian policies as a conundrum. To their chagrin, India supported the US-sponsored resolution on Korea. This gesture annoyed both the Soviet Union and China. They became skeptical of India’s nonalignment credentials.
India shrugged off China’s and Soviet Union’s annoyance and lobbied hard for the repatriation of the Korean prisoners of war (POW). Through India’s effort, some 23000 POW happened to be repatriated though it then appeared to be a Herculean job.
Under India’s Lieutenant General KS Thimayya, Major General SPP Thorat leading some 6000 Indian troops and administrative personnel in the Custodian force (that landed in Korea) accomplished the POW’s exchange.
At the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo, all the 25 top Japanese leaders were charged with Class A war crimes. Indian judge Radhabinod Paul declared all of them “not guilty”.
India regarded the USA’s San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan as “unfair”. This treaty bounded Japan to pay war-time reparations. India signed a separate treaty, the first-ever with Japan, waiving all war-time reparations.
Under Nehru, India invited Japan to the 1955 Bandung Conference even though Japan was not then a member of the United Nations. Japan became a member of the UN later in 1956.
Read more: Pakistan values its relations with Japan
Clash with China: End of India’s world-power ambition
China suspected India was bent upon reverting Tibet into its pre-1950-51 status as a buffer state between India and China. India’s disastrous defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War buried India’s ambition to emerge as a major Asian power for the remainder of the Cold War period.
India hails Galwan (Ladakh) unarmed clashes as a “victory”. But, in actual fact, the clashes were a storm in a teacup. India’s stand-in media contradicted its official stand. India admits China “did not annex an inch of Indian territory” (so said Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the all-party political moot).
The 1962 Sino-Indian War ad Galwan clashes portrayed India as a power that could not stand China without external military support. India was forced to revert conceptually to the subcontinent as her primary area of concern. Despite Pakistan’s vivisection in 1971, India remained a regional power.
India and China, One Year After the Galwan Clash https://t.co/UfKMW8olxf
— The Diplomat (@Diplomat_APAC) June 17, 2021
Pakistan’s moves to cut India to size
Pakistan facilitated the USA’s tacit alliance with China. It achieved nuclear parity with India. It prevented India from emerging even as an undisputed regional bully.
In 1972, the then Shah of Iran declared “any attack on Pakistan would be tantamount to an attack on Iran and that Teheran was committed to the territorial integrity of Pakistan.”
In the aftermath of India’s “victory over Pakistan”, India embarked upon Indira Doctrine (ID). This doctrine is akin to Monroe Doctrine. The ID postulated “South Asia was India’s sphere of influence and India would not tolerate the intervention of any extra-regional power here unless it was on India’s terms. At the same time, India would not intervene in the domestic affairs of the regional states unless requested to do so.”
Within the framework of this doctrine, India intervened in the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-1990), forestalled a coup in the Maldives (1988), and blockaded Nepal during 1989-90 to force it to toe India’s diktat in economic and diplomatic relations.
India’s world-power inspiration to major Asian-power ambition
Subdued by several events, India appears to have now abandoned world-power ambition. It is concentrating on consolidating its position as a major Asian power. Under Manmohan Singh, India undertook structural economic reforms that banked on Japan, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank.
India strengthened its naval command in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and began conducting joint naval exercises with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (Lion King annual bilateral submarine warfare exercise). India trained Malaysian pilots to fly MiG-29 aircraft and upgraded defense cooperation with Vietnam.
India sees itself as indispensable to the strategic balance of power in Asia. It abhors China’s dominance in the region.
A series of jolts reduced India’s world-power inspiration to major Asian-power ambition. Nehru declared, “India was bound to play the role of leading and interpreting Asia and specifically South East Asia to the wider world.”
Manmohan Singh, the architect of India’s Look East policy, stressed, “India’s Look East Policy was not merely an external economic policy, it was also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in evolving global economy.”
India’s great-power dream will remain unrealized unless it mends its fence with Pakistan. Sandwiched between China and Pakistan, India is unlikely to win a two-front war.
Amjed Jaaved has been contributing freelance for over fifty years. His articles are published in dailies at home (The News, Nation, etc) and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, et. al.). He is the author of eight e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes, and other issues in focus. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.