Modernizing the Raj legacy


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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.


That the Raj had a great influence on independent India’s foreign policy is rooted in a simple fact – the centrality of geography in shaping a nation’s world view. Modern India’s political geography is indeed an inheritance from the Raj. India’s territoriality, constructed under the Raj and partitioned as the imperial power left, remains a powerful influence on modern India’s world view. The emergence of British India’s territorial framework involved the construction of a unique threefold frontier system.

First, an ‘Inner Line’ delineated the limits of fully administered sovereignty of the Raj. (Embedded within it were the barely sovereign princely states). Second, beyond the Inner Line, the Raj drew an Outer Line that was less a claimed boundary than a convenient framework for the defence of India. In the largely tribal regions between the Inner and Outer lines (for example what are now known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Pak-Afghan border and Arunachal Pradesh, originally known as the North East Frontier Agency on the border with Tibet) the Raj did not exercise full sovereignty. It had loose arrangements with the tribal leaders who were left free to look after their own affairs, but would contribute to the security of the frontiers. At a third level, the Raj constructed a system of protectorates and buffer states that were formally sovereign but bound to the Raj in a treaty system in a manner that excluded the influence of Britain’s rival great powers from Europe.


The independence and partition of the subcontinent in 1947 did not destroy the glacis that the Raj built beyond its fortification of the Inner Line. Both India and Pakistan adopted the Outer Line as their formal border, but have struggled in extending their sovereignty to the zones between the Inner and Outer Lines. Pakistan’s current troubles in FATA, and India’s enduring difficulties in the North East and its contestation with China on the sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh, should constantly remind us of the problems that the two nations have inherited from the territorial structures created by the Raj. Pakistan desires ‘strategic depth’ of the kind the Raj enjoyed in Afghanistan. India seeks to maintain its special position in the eastern Himalayas.

Beyond the issues of integrating the tribal territories, India had also to deal with the legacy of the Raj as a provider of security to the protectorates and buffer states. The much touted ‘Nehruvian’ foreign policy did not shirk the Raj legacy. While Nehru pursued an idealist foreign policy at the international level, he did not for a moment hesitate in accepting the Raj burden in the neighbourhood. The first four treaties that independent India entered into were with Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Afghanistan. The first three agreements were variants of the Raj treaties with these states in the 19th century. As China entered Tibet, Nehru moved quickly to consolidate the traditional security arrangements with the three Himalayan kingdoms.

Nehru found no contradiction between his high minded idealism at the global level and pragmatic realism at the regional level. It is only the ‘Nehruvians’ who tend to avoid a rigorous assessment of the first prime minister’s regional policy. Nehru also personally signed a friendship treaty with Afghanistan in 1950. It was much less ambitious in scope than the other three, given the reality that India had lost its frontier with Afghanistan to Pakistan. Nevertheless, Nehru was signalling India’s enduring interest in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the changed geopolitics after the partition. There were other countries like Burma which sought a security treaty with India in the 1950s. Nehru, however, advised against one and instead proposed functional security cooperation with the eastern neighbour.


It is politically incorrect for the foreign policy establishment to acknowledge that many of its current mantras were invented by the British Raj. Consider for example, India’s insistence that outside powers should not interfere in the internal and international affairs of South Asia. This is a straightforward continuation of the Raj’s determination to prevent other great powers from stepping onto the glacis constructed for British India. Our neighbours in the subcontinent and China have had no problem seeing through this. China viewed Nehru’s policy towards Tibet as a continuation of the Raj policy. Beijing has always denounced independent India’s claims for an exclusive sphere of influence in the subcontinent as a pursuit of unbridled ‘hegemony’. The Himalayan kingdoms, on the other hand, were keen to maintain the Indian security umbrella as they faced China on their borders.

Independent India did not have the power of the Raj to enforce an exclusive sphere of influence, but never gave up the objective. As India’s geopolitical position weakened after the partition alongside its relative economic decline, Delhi saw the establishment of U.S. alliance with Pakistan, Russian intervention in Afghanistan, Beijing’s relentless pursuit to expand its influence in the subcontinent – from Pakistan to Myanmar – and the spread of ideological influences from the Middle East. Independent India might have been too weak to prevent the entry of other powers into the subcontinent, but it was not ready to accept the meddling of outside powers in its immediate neighbourhood.


Beyond the geographic imperative, the institutional continuity ensured that the Raj legacy lives on in the making of Indian foreign policy. Like so many of our national security institutions, the Foreign Office dates back to the period when the East India Company emerged as the dominant power on the subcontinent. The oldest avatar of the Foreign Office can be traced back to 1783, when the Secret and Political Department was formed by the company to deal with sensitive political communication with the various kingdoms within the subcontinent and on its periphery. The Secret and Political Department was run by the ‘Persian Secretary’ (all interstate communications in the subcontinent were then in Persian), the oldest predecessor to the current ‘Foreign Secretary’. It was renamed the Foreign Department in 1843, and reorganized again in 1914 as the Foreign and Political Department, with two separate secretaries. The Political Wing dealt with the princely states and other Asian kingdoms, while the Foreign Department focused on engagement with the European powers.


In 1937, the Indian Political Service, a forerunner of the Indian Foreign Service, was created. Long before they were incorporated into a separate service, our earliest diplomats in the modern period were known as the ‘politicals’. There was much romance and awe attached to the work of the ‘politicals’, who operated in the remote corners of the Indian Ocean littoral and Asia, and outsmarted rival powers to influence local rulers to win special privileges for Calcutta and later Delhi. Not all the ‘politicals’, however, were attached to Calcutta and later Delhi under the British. The Bombay Political Department, for example, was responsible throughout the 19th century for India’s diplomatic intercourse with Persia, Mesopotamia, Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. Nor were all the ‘politicals’ ‘civilian’. The early Indian diplomatic corps was happy to recruit from the army and the navy. In 1890, for example, nearly 40 per cent of the ‘politicals’ were from the armed forces.

The geopolitical tradition of the ‘politicals’ did not disappear after independence. Even as they adapted to Nehru’s global activism, the politicals had to continue dealing with the rapidly altered regional environment. This involved the integration of the princely states at home, sustaining old security arrangements with the smaller neighbours, dealing with new borders created by the partition, and coping with China’s emergence as a powerful new neighbour. The ‘politicals’ switched comfortably between the rhetoric on the democratization of the international order at the United Nations and non-aligned gatherings to being ‘pro-consuls’ and ‘viceroys’ in the neighbouring capitals.

These two faces of Indian foreign policy should not be treated as some kind of contradiction. Rather, they represented two different compulsions on independent India’s foreign policy. At the global level, India sought to establish an independent profile that refused to submit to the Cold War regimen in order to increase its influence. At the regional level, it sought to maintain the Raj legacy as the provider of security to smaller states and the arbiter of regional destiny.


Neither the geographic imperative nor the institutional continuity could, however, compensate for India’s relative decline during the Cold War and its influence in the region. India’s economic isolationism and its deliberate de-emphasis on trade saw the steady erosion of commercial links with India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood. Although India was a major aid giver within South Asia, there were other more attractive options now available for India’s smaller neighbours – from both the West and China. As Sino-Indian tensions flared up at the turn of the 1960s, sections of the Nepali establishment discovered the virtue of playing the ‘China card’ in Delhi. Half a century later, Beijing has become a lot richer and powerful and has become an attractive partner for all of India’s neighbours, much to the discomfiture of Delhi.

In the intervening decades, India did indeed affirm the Raj legacy. Indira Gandhi liberated Bangladesh, integrated Sikkim, and proclaimed the so-called Indira doctrine of India’s regional primacy. In the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi sought to discipline the King of Nepal – who was flirting with China – by ordering a trade blockade, used force to secure the Maldives against a coup, and inserted the Indian military into Sri Lanka in order to keep peace between Tamils and the Sinhalese.


While India’s role as a ‘regional power’ was at once acclaimed and denounced, it was quite clear that India’s neighbourhood policy had reached a dead end by the turn of the 1990s. It was becoming increasingly clear that India could not sustain its Raj legacy in the neighbourhood by fiat alone. The case for a new Indian regionalism was first made by Inder Kumar Gujral in the second half of the 1990s. Although the ‘Gujral Doctrine’ was criticized for being too accommodative, Atal Bihari Vajpayee chose to persist with it. But it was during Manmohan Singh’s tenure that the new thinking on South Asia crystallized.

Buoyed by a growing economy and a new political self-assurance, Manmohan Singh articulated the case for positive unilateralism towards neighbours. Underlining the importance of shared prosperity in the subcontinent, making a genuine effort to resolve long-standing political problems with the neighbours, offering economic concessions without seeking reciprocity, Delhi now sought to convince its neighbours that India represented an opportunity rather than a threat. With increased economic resources at hand, India has been able to put its money where its mouth was. Its aid disbursal and commitment to its neighbours has reached impressive proportions in recent years – two billion dollars for Afghanistan, one billion to Bangladesh and 500 million to Sri Lanka. But beyond the economic, India needed an overarching political framework to engage its neighbours.


The first manifestation of the new approach was the formal revision of the treaty relationship with Bhutan. India’s 1949 treaty with Bhutan was undoubtedly one between the protector and the protectorate. Article 2 of the treaty talked about Bhutan being guided by India in the conduct of its foreign policy. The UPA government recognized that the agreement made no sense at the turn of the 21st century, when unequal and hegemonic treaties are neither sustainable nor effective.

Acknowledging the imperative of modernizing the relationship with Bhutan when the country was moving towards democracy, India signed a new treaty in early 2007. The offending provisions of 1949 were removed and a new basis was crafted for security and political cooperation between Bhutan and India. The revised Article 2 now stated: ‘In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.’

Unlike Bhutan which had developed a quiet way of managing its problems with India, Nepal has been far more vigorous in questioning its 1950 treaty with India. Many in Nepal, especially the Maoists, have long denounced the 1950 treaty with India as a symbol of Delhi’s dominance over Kathmandu. Delhi, however, has been ready for quite some time to revise the treaty with Nepal. That commitment was reiterated during the visit of Nepalese Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai to India in late 2011. But Nepal’s divided political classes are some distance away from coming to an agreement on exactly what kind of a treaty they want with India. Delhi’s willingness to build more sustainable arrangements with the neighbours was reflected in the signing of three new partnership agreements in rapid succession with Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives.


The agreement signed during September 2011 by Dr Singh and Sheikh Hasina is titled somewhat vaguely as a ‘Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development’ between Delhi and Dhaka. But it lays out a comprehensive basis for mutually beneficial cooperation on wide-ranging issues. These include trade and economic cooperation, water resource management, joint disaster relief, agriculture, science and technology, and environmental protection. While the main focus of the treaty is on developmental cooperation, it has provisions for security cooperation. Article 9 of the treaty commits both countries to ‘cooperate on security issues of concern to each other while fully respecting each other’s sovereignty. Neither party shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the other.’

Delhi and Dhaka had good reasons not to recall an earlier peace and friendship treaty they had signed in 1972. The arrangement hammered out in the immediate wake of the liberation of Bangladesh was similar to the treaties that Delhi and Dhaka had signed with Moscow. The treaty, which was to be valid for 25 years, was quickly forgotten amidst the turbulent political evolution of our eastern neighbour during the last few decades. Unfortunately, the significance of the ‘new’ treaty with Bangladesh was lost, in the region and beyond, amidst the controversy over the Teesta water sharing that Manmohan Singh could not sign because of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s last minute objections. Nevertheless, it marks an important milestone in the evolution of Delhi-Dhaka relations.


In contrast to the treaty with Bangladesh, the strategic partnership agreement signed with Afghanistan in October 2011 got much attention at home and abroad. As the first strategic partnership agreement that Kabul has signed, the pact was bound to draw much notice at a time when the U.S. and NATO are preparing to end their combat role in Afghanistan, and Pakistan was making a feverish bid to gain control over what it sees as the endgame across the Durand Line. While the agreement raised sharp concerns in Rawalpindi about India’s future role in Afghanistan, Washington publicly welcomed it as a positive step. From India’s own perspective, the agreement probably puts an end to an excessively cautious approach to the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan.

India’s emphasis since 2002 has been on economic cooperation rather than on military engagement with Kabul. The new strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan puts political and security cooperation right at the top of the scheme of things, when it asserts that ‘India agrees to assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces.’ The question of Indian military boots on the ground in Afghanistan is deliberately excluded. Senior officials of the government say much of the training will take place in India and potential arms transfers will depend upon the kind of requests that Kabul makes and Delhi’s ability to deliver them. Cautioning against an over-interpretation of the agreement, Delhi argues that the pact provides an enabling framework for security cooperation if and when the two sides decide to move forward.


The ‘framework agreement on cooperation for development’ signed with Maldives during November 2011 underlines the new importance of the island nation in India’s security calculus. Straddling the vital sea lines of communication between East Asia and the Middle East, the Maldives has emerged as a critical element of any future security order in the Indian Ocean. It was the Maldives’ special geopolitical location – at the virtual centre of the Indian Ocean – which saw the British Raj develop an air base at Gan island on the Addu atoll during the Second World War. Maldives was also a protectorate of the British Raj. As the Chinese Navy enters the Indian Ocean and focuses on building special relationships with various island states, including the Maldives, India is placing a new emphasis on consolidating its traditional security links with these nations.

The agreement with Maldives covers the full range of developmental cooperation as well as deepening the maritime engagement between the two countries. Article 5 of the treaty talks about strengthening security ties through ‘coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information’ and refers to the intensification of India’s support in the areas of training and capacity building for police and security forces in the Maldives. Given India’s growing interest in maritime security, Delhi would surely like to conclude a broad-based framework agreement with Colombo as well. Delhi might not be able to move forward quickly given the concerns about the rights of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka after the defeat of the LTTE and potential objections from Chennai. India and Sri Lanka did negotiate a defence cooperation agreement many years ago, but it remains to be formally signed. Both sides already have a robust programme for defence exchanges and high level consultations.


There is one agreement that Dr Singh probably wants the most but has remained elusive. It is a peace and friendship treaty with Pakistan. In 2006, speaking in Amritsar, not too far from the border, Manmohan Singh hoped that the negotiations with Islamabad would culminate in a comprehensive treaty of peace, friendship and security.

If the peace process took a beating after the Mumbai terror attacks at the end of 2008, hope has again been rekindled in 2011 after the completion of the first round of the resumed dialogue. There is much expectation about Pakistan normalizing trade relations. But even as Dr Singh persists with Pakistan, few in Delhi are willing to bet that the current dialogue will lead to a sustainable peace settlement with Islamabad. Nevertheless, while relations with Pakistan remain uncertain, the progress in India’s relations with most other nations of South Asia during 2011 has been remarkable. Taken together, Delhi’s recent agreements for partnership with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives mark a significant effort to reconstitute India’s neighbourhood policy. Unlike in the recent past, India is not claiming primacy in the region as a divine right. Instead, it is offering genuine partnerships to its neighbours premised on sovereign equality and mutual benefit. In doing so India is modernizing the Raj legacy and making it relevant to our time.