Recovering/Uncovering the ‘Indian’ in Indian Diplomacy: An ‘Ancient’ Tadka for a Contemporary Curry?

Date01 August 2018
Published date01 August 2018
Subject MatterReview Essay
Recovering/Uncovering the
‘Indian’ in Indian Diplomacy:
An ‘Ancient’ Tadka for a
Contemporary Curry?
Vikas Kumar1
There is a growing awareness in India of the need to nurture indigenous interna-
tional relations (IR) traditions. India’s IR community, though, has only a cursory
familiarity with indigenous traditions. Most Indian IR scholars and practitioners
invoke indigenous traditions in a superficial manner. Non-English nouns are super-
imposed on full-fledged analyses, which creates an illusory bond with the tradition,
rather than being an organic part of the argument. Often such nouns are either
not found in the original sources referred to or appear in a very different context
in those sources. Hurried attempts to indigenise Indian IR thought and prac-
tice result in a clumsy repackaging of contemporary ideas as ‘traditional Indian.’
It is only through empirically and theoretically sound protocols of recovery/
re-engagement that the IR community can learn to think in and through the Indian
tradition, and adapt the tradition to speak to contemporary challenges. Presently,
without the scaffolding of heterodox Western IR traditions and Western scholarship
on pre-modern Indian languages and knowledge traditions, India’s Anglophonic
IR community cannot even critique the mainstream paradigm of the West.
As a result, despite India’s long history of reflection on interstate relations,
Western assessments and theorizations continue to dominate the modern
scholarship on India’s IR, with Indians mostly reacting to foreign assessments.
Arthasastra, dharma, Indian diplomacy, Kautilya, Max Muller, non-Western IR
India is a democracy … Its ruling group speaks excellent English … Almost all its
leaders have studied in Western universities. Yet Americans have a great difficulty in
coming to grips with the way Indian leaders approach foreign policy.
– Henry Kissinger (Datta-Ray, 2015, p. 1)
Review Essay
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
5(2) 197–215
2018 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797018783108
1 School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, India.
Corresponding author:
Vikas Kumar, School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, Karnataka 560100, India.
198 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 5(2)
If India’s practice and style of foreign policy is so recognisably and so uniquely
Indian, why is there not an Indian theory to explain it?
– Shivshankar Menon (Gautam, Mishra, & Gupta, 2016, Vol. 2, p. x)
Until a decade ago, the West confidently advertised its institutions and values as
uniquely conducive to material and social progress. However, substantial economic
progress since the 1980s in major developing countries that did not follow Western
models has been gradually eroding the West’s normative appeal. Growing South-
South trade, investment and defence ties have allowed even the less successful
developing countries to resist pressures to adopt Western norms. Furthermore,
conservative political movements and their intellectual apologists have strengthened
the forces opposing the imitation of the West. Even the academia has begun to relax
its pre-commitment to Western intellectual frameworks that are conceptually
inadequate vis-à-vis non-Western thought and experience. These developments
have made room for alternatives to Western knowledge, values and institutions
and provide the context for the growing interest in the normative and intellectual
foundations of the strategic behaviour of emerging powers among developing
countries including India.
This essay explores recent attempts to uncover/recover/infuse the ‘Indian’ in
India’s international relations (IR) thought and practice through Datta-Ray’s
The Making of Indian Diplomacy (Datta-Ray, 2015), Gautam, Mishra and Gupta’s
edited work Indigenous Historical Knowledge (henceforth, Gautam et al., 2015–
2016), and Bajpai, Basit and Krishnappa’s edited work India’s Grand Strategy
(henceforth, Bajpai et al., 2014). It first discusses the Max Mullerian prelude to this
literature, followed by an introduction to the books and contemporary responses to
the Max Mullerian challenge. The factors driving the current interest in the tradition
are discussed next followed by an introduction to different strands of the tradition
and an assessment of their relative strengths. The last part of the essay discusses the
contemporary relevance of the tradition and the difficulties in resurrecting it.
The Max Mullerian Prelude
Debates on India continue to be bogged down by a surprisingly elementary
question–can Indians think strategically? The origins of this question can be
traced back to the nineteenth century, when Europe concluded that Indians lacked
political consciousness. The Indologist Max Muller (1859, pp. 30–31) was one of
the foremost proponents of this assessment. He famously wrote that:
The Indian never knew the feeling of nationality … The Hindus were a nation of
philosophers … The present alone, which is the real and living solution of the problems
of the past and the future, seems never to have attracted their thoughts … history supplies
no second instance where the inward life of the soul has so completely absorbed all the
practical faculties of a whole people, and, in fact, almost destroyed those qualities by

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