Indigenism in Contemporary IR Discourses in India: A Critique

AuthorAtul Mishra
Published date01 December 2014
Date01 December 2014
Subject MatterArticles
Military-Madrasa-Mullah Complex 119
India Quarterly, 66, 2 (2010): 133–149
A Global Threat 119
Indigenism in Contemporary IR
Discourses in India: A Critique
Atul Mishra
This article critically examines indigenism in the field of International Relations (IR) in India. Indigenism
involves a claim that a select corpus of resources from early India—‘indigenous historical knowledge’—
is relevant for understanding contemporary India’s politics and international relations. It is also
projected as a basis for reimagining IR in India. Contesting these claims, the article outlines the ahistori-
cal and politically problematic nature of indigenism. It also argues that the appeal of indigenism reveals
a predicament of imaginative capacity that marks the scholarship concerned with reimagining IR in
India: despite considerable interest in lessening the dependence on the architecture of IR of the West,
there is less clarity about the shape and substance of new scholarly frameworks. The enthusiasm for
reimagining IR is not, as yet, matched by very substantive pathways to doing it. This too, inadvertently,
encourages indigenism. The article concludes by arguing that closely studying the political moderniza-
tion of South Asia and its implications for international relations of India and the region can resolve
this predicament.
Reimagining IR, non-Western IR, Kautilya, Ar thashastra, indigenism, South Asia, India’s rise, great power,
social theory, political modernization
Is it possible that knowledge forms can appear to be concerned with history but remain without a sense
of the historical? Historians suggest that claims about the past must be examined before being accepted
as historical. The field of International Relations (IR) in India is witnessing, among several of its
scholars, a growing inclination towards a select corpus of resources from early—‘ancient’—India for
doing IR in an ‘Indian’ way. This trend and the intellectual activities pursued within its fold can be
termed indigenism. Voices associated with indigenism claim that ‘indigenous historical knowledge’
chronicled in a corpus of Brahminical texts and traditions from early India can not only inform India’s
domestic politics and foreign policy but also become a basis for reimagining IR in India. Problematizing
this claim and thus critiquing indigenism, this article emphasizes the salience of the historical and the
modern for IR in India. It underlines the necessity of studying resources from India’s past historically
and argues that studying the political modernization of South Asia instead can be a substantive pathway
to reimagining IR in India.
Atul Mishra is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Studies in International Politics and Governance, School of
International Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India. E-mail:
Studies in Indian Politics
2(2) 119–135
© 2014 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/2321023014551869
120 Atul Mishra
Studies in Indian Politics, 2, 2 (2014): 119–135
The Shades of Indigenism
The following examples provide glimpses of indigenism:
In 2012, a leading Indian IR scholar proposed ‘an Indian grammar for International Studies’ (Mattoo,
2012, emphasis added). He suggested that having emulated the western ways of studying international
relations, it was time for Indians to ‘use the vocabulary of our past as a guide to the future’. Claiming that
thinking on international relations in ‘great civilizations’ like India and China went back ‘to well before
the West even began to think of the world outside their living space’, he suggested:
If all the books on war and peace were to suddenly disappear from the world, and only the Mahabharata
remained, it would be good enough to capture almost all the possible debates on order, justice, force and the
moral dilemmas associated with choices that are made on these issues within the realm of international politics.
The scholar conceded the claim was ‘astounding’ and clarified that his proposals were not advocating
‘revivalism’ or Indian exceptionalism. Yet, he argued that given India’s rising influence and the self-
confidence of Indian IR intellectuals, recovery of ideas from the Indian past will be essential to guiding
its future (Mattoo, 2012).
In 2009, one of India’s leading foreign affairs analysts wrote a piece on the 100th anniversary of
the publication of Kautilya’s Arthashastra where he noted that even though the ‘mandala theory of
international politics was referred to in many of India’s dharmashastras, it was Kautilya’s Arthashastra
that codified it’. He stressed the need for ‘a rising India to create a strategic vocabulary all of its
own (emphasis added). And further: ‘That India’s strategic lexicon must be rooted in its own political
traditions has not always been self-evident.’ The scholar noted that as India and China emerge as great
powers in the twenty-first century, as they begin to end the Western political dominance, ‘strategic
thought from Asia’s past is likely to return to the centre stage’. According to him, because Kautilya made
his arguments about power, governance and statecraft without invoking religion or divinity, Kautilya
was ‘a true founder of what we now call political science’ (emphasis added). He concluded: ‘As it
becomes more consequential for world politics in the twenty-first century, India would do well to revisit
its own realist tradition so solidly reflected in the Mahabharata, Panchatantra, Arthashastra, Kamandaka-
neeti, and Shukra-neeti’ (Raja Mohan, 2009; emphasis added).
The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi houses a project on ‘ancient
indigenous historical knowledge’. The project aims to build a conceptual language on strategic and secu-
rity issues and reinterpret texts and traditions relevant to them during the contemporary period. Its objec-
tives as specified in the opening event are: (a) to promote scholarship on Kautilya (and, presumably,
other similar resources from early India); (b) to ‘establish that India has a long tradition of strategic
thinking, which needs to be brought to light’. This is necessary because, ‘Western scholars have held and
many Indians agree that India has no culture of strategic thought. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
We need to rediscover India’s strategic thought. We do not know enough about it’; and (c) to provide
impetus to the study of regional thinkers on strategy and to ‘rediscover the Panchatantra, the Mahabharata
and Tamil Sangam literature to better appreciate Indian strategic thought’ (Gupta, 2012; emphases
added). A monograph (Gautam, 2013) written as part of the project positions Kautilya’s Arthashastra as
‘indigenous political theory’ (Gautam, 2013, p. 7), makes a case for engaging the text for directions on
policy studies, and argues that it is relevant to strategic and academic international studies too. Its author
identifies the ‘undue weight of foreign academic hegemony’ on Indian academics as one of the several

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