In his fight against the British Empire, Gandhi realised early on that the entity called India was not a nation in reality but merely a geographical expression of historic significance. It was in recognition of a relatively weak political identity that Gandhi forged his message of freedom and emancipation around religious beliefs of pan-Indian appeal. He combined in a single symbol of cultural unity; the concept of non-violence from Buddhism, the faith in the solidarity of the faithful from Islam, the depiction of truth as God from Hinduism, and the dignity of social service from Christianity, and gave it an evocative name from an ancient epic popular in several languages of India—the Ramayan. Gandhi’s Ram Rajya is an acceptance of the diversity of faiths prevalent in India.
Meanwhile, Jawaharlal Nehru found seeds of unity in his Discovery of India in the Ashokan empire. Nehru’s idea of India got its inspiration from the nation-states of Europe that closely resembled the concentration of temporal and spiritual authority in the person of an emperor. Nehru may have been a child of the Enlightenment, educated in the art and culture of the west in some of its finest institutions, but he was a thoroughly oriental Brahmin in his outlook. He aspired to fashion a nation of destiny from the glory of antiquity. It is the Nehruvian idea of India that inspired an entire generation of Indian intelligentsia. With the great minds gone, it was left to the expert, the diplomat, the scholar to manage this legacy and, interestingly, these Indians saw none of the humility but only the grandeur that apparently made up India.
An exaggerated sense of self-worth worked exceedingly well when two super-powers fought for spheres of influence during the decades of the Cold War. But as soon as the disintegration of the Soviet Union pushed the United States on to the pedestal of the sole superpower of the world, the mental map of the Indian mandarins got disoriented. A heightened sense of insecurity drove the Indian foreign policy establishment into the shelter of an ill-defined doctrine of ‘national interest’, traditionally the fig-leaf of nations too weak to accept or play a global role.
Symptoms of intellectual withdrawal are easily discernible in the public posturing of opinion makers in New Delhi. Unsure about the role of India in changed circumstances where there is no Soviet Union to police the sole policeman of the globe, the Indian intelligentsia is still unwilling to forsake the security of conformism. After all, it makes a whole lot of sense to go with your government when you do not have the crutch of an ideological alternative to hold on to. When such a tendency gains currency, it becomes the norm to seek security in numbers. Such an attitude of conformism is so rampant in the Indian capital that not even the so called independent thinkers of institutions of international repute are free from it.
The effects of the docile acceptance of official policy can be seen on all issues of importance. Like the mandarins of South Block, even think-tankers and journalists accept the fallacious proposition that all issues of India’s foreign relation need to be seen through the prism of Pakistan. An even more absurd extension of this line of logic is the centrality of Kashmir for the stability of South Asia. Instead of shaking the Indian sarkari babus out of their hallucinatory trance, India’s literati readily buy the argument that Pakistan is bent upon destabilising their nation. Paranoia of Pakistan has become such a fixation of India’s foreign policy that even countries like Nepal and Bangladesh are not allowed to remain outside the pointless controversy over a few square kilometres of completely barren icy slopes in Siachen.
Had the intelligentsia questioned Indian adventures in the tear-drop island of Sri Lanka when they learned that India’s intelligence agencies were engaged in training and arming Tamil militants, chances are that the slide of Serendip (Jaffna peninsula) into chaos would have been checked effectively. But the learned strategic analysts of New Delhi went along all the way with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka and helped perpetuate the fire of insurgency.
New Delhi academicians pride themselves on their ignorance of India’s own Northeast, and yet they cannot tolerate disinterested intellectual inquiry by outsiders in their affairs. Any question about India’s Northeast elicits a stock response in New Delhi—it’s a sensitive area so it should not be dragged into controversy. So what one gets to hear about Manipur or Bodos is the same all the time—no matter whether the source of information is the state government, the military headquarters, a member of the academia or a journalist.
I have experienced this astonishing absence of dissent in the New Delhi seminar circuit quite often, but the uniformity in the views of Indian experts at the recently- held Round Table on International Intervention and State Sovereignty was astounding nevertheless. The meeting was called at the initiative of the Canadians, to discuss how appropriate it is in this day and age for countries to intervene in each other’s affairs. Right from I. K. Gujral, the former Prime Minister of India, to the joint-secretary from its external affairs ministry, every one opposed the idea of international intervention in any and all forms in one voice. Irrational fear camouflaged in sermons of high ideology made for an irritating experience.
Be it Major General Dipankar Banerjee of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Colombo or Professor Ramesh Thakur, Vice-Rector of UN University, Tokyo, even seemingly independent professionals parroted the official Indian line with different sets of apologies by way of explanation. N. N. Vohra of the India International Centre, former ambassador G. Parthasarthy, General Satish Nambiar and Dr. Manoj Joshi of The Times of India too elaborated on the same Indian position of non-interference in the internal matters of sovereign nations, embellished with their own experiences and explanations. No Indian, not even a single one to cite as an exception, raised doubts about the relevance of such an idea of water-tight sovereignty in an age when media intervention through satellite does more damage than a few battalions of foot-soldiers on relief and rescue mission in countries like Haiti or Somalia. Does that mean that the decadence of independent thought has become all-pervasive among India’s noted intellectuals? It would seem so at the moment, but times are a-changing.
The coming of age of India’s mind is not being heralded by grey cells of the academia or the quiet reflections of its retired bureaucrats, but by a group of young journalists in India’s vibrant media. They have left behind universities and the strategic research institutions in aggressively questioning the ‘conventional wisdom’ prescribed by the bureaucrats of North and South Blocks along New Delhi’s grand promenade. Barkha Dutt questioning the handling of Kargil, even if retrospectively, was so different from the usual practice of veteran Indian journalists falling head over heels for official interpretations of apparently controversial decisions (see Himal, June 2001). The so-called Defencegate Scam unmasked by the investigative team of Tehelka.com took India by storm precisely because it was in complete contrast to the way ‘official secrets’ have been handled before by the mainstream media. It is a credit to Tarun Tejpal that he happily sacrificed the holy cow of defence secrecy on the altar of media probity and displayed the carcass of decadent moral values to all of India on TV screens.
It is not unlikely, of course, that even without the new, sensitive and irreverent minds, India always had its supply of critical thinkers, who refused to be cowed down, refused to bow down to a unitary and statist view of India and the world. Most likely, such people never got invited to seminars and workshops to express their truly independent opinion. Most certainly, they were never invited to the Round Table on International. Intervention and Sate Sovereignty.