Modernizing the Raj legacy

Modernizing the Raj legacy

By C Raja Mohan
Seminar, 1 January 2012

ALTHOUGH India’s political elite refuses to remember the legacy of the British Raj, Delhi’s security establishment can’t forget the essence of the nation’s regional policy established under colonial rule. Consider, for example, the reluctance of the Congress Party, which runs the state and central governments in Delhi, to mark, let alone celebrate, the founding of New Delhi as the capital of India a hundred years ago. Yet, India’s mandarins have been busy in 2011 negotiating new bilateral treaty arrangements with key neighbours. The new partnership agreements that India has signed with Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives are perhaps the most significant achievement of Indian diplomacy in 2011. These agreements are indeed about modernization of the Raj legacy in the subcontinent. They mimic in some ways the kind of security arrangements that the Raj had constructed with British India’s smaller neighbours. They also differ significantly from the Raj framework. Delhi is adapting to the new circumstances and opportunities that it now must deal with in its immediate neighbourhood.

The general unwillingness of India to acknowledge the importance of the Raj legacy in foreign policy can’t all be put at the door of the political classes. The Indian National Congress may have enough reasons to perpetuate the myth that Indian foreign policy was divined by Jawaharlal Nehru when he took charge of the nation, first as the vice chairman of the Viceroy’s executive council in 1946 and then as prime minister on 15 August 1947. The BJP might have been critical of Nehru’s foreign policy, but never had the intellectual depth to put the evolution of modern India’s external engagement in a credible perspective of its own. The Left was too blinded by ideology to see the essential continuities in India’s foreign policy.

The failure on the part of the academia that studies Indian foreign policy for a living must take considerable blame for widespread misreading of the sources and tradition in India’s diplomacy. Driven largely by political science, the study of Indian foreign policy, at home and abroad, was dominated by an analysis of India’s idealist positions on international issues in the early years after independence. Few have bothered to assess the seamless connection between what Kolkata and New Delhi did in the region before independence, and what Nehru and his successors sought to achieve in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood after 1947. Historians could have done much better, but only less than a handful in that profession have been interested in studying the pre-independence sources of Indian diplomacy.