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How Indian diplomacy, rooted in the epics, challenges the binarism of modern Western diplomacy.

27 November 2015
The Hindu

The main assertion of Deep K. Datta-Ray is that Indian diplomacy is rooted in the Mahabharata, which predates modern Western diplomacy by several centuries. The author presents his case ably and at great length. He illuminates Indian diplomacy’s lifeline to our ancient heritage and brings the analysis all the way to the present.

Diplomacy as seen by the West operates within the conceptual framework of International Relations (IR), seen as anarchical and binary. Expectation of violence and denial of unity are the foundational origins of western IR theory. Hence, the task of diplomacy is to deliver the world from violence. But, ironically, Western diplomacy renders conflict and violence endemic and perennial. ‘Modernity’ appropriated by the West is nothing other than an assertion of its own culture, Datta-Ray asserts.

Western theory of the ‘sovereign nation state’ and the justification of its right (not merely its power) to pursue its narrow self-interests at the expense of common good and world peace are the fundamental evils of the international system in place since the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648. As Arnold Toynbee, the great historian, observed wisely: “The cult of sovereignty has become mankind’s religion. Its God demands human sacrifice.” IR is seen as a zero sum game — one nation’s gain is another’s loss. That’s the essence of Western ‘power politics’. No wonder, endemic violence is a pervasive reality.

In stark contrast, India’s strength lies in seeing ‘totality’ in a more consistent and systematic way than most other civilisations. Reflexivity of Indian diplomacy manages to avoid the aspirational terminal point. Allegiance to a ‘geobody’ rather than to nationalism enables India to manage differences without violence. In this context, it is pertinent to recall Tagore’s observation: “Our languages do not have a word equivalent to ‘nation’.”

Secularism comes in handy in reducing primordial differences. Recognition of the diversity of the past that continues to define the present is the unique feature of India. In fact, as the author observes, the mind-boggling diversity threatens the very unity and sovereignty of the nation at times. India’s effort is to make the ‘present’ liveable in “technicolour.” As Dr. Usha Mehta, the famous freedom fighter, said, India should forever remain a “colourful society that is colour blind.”

Reiterating that the Mahabharata is the tool kit of Indian diplomacy, Datta-Ray asserts that the art of diplomacy was thriving long before European modernity. In fact, Harold Nicolson’s much-hyped delineation of the qualities of a diplomat is old hat in ancient India.

Mahabharata is to be seen as an intellectual text and not a religious text. Itihas should not be seen as settled history — “Thus (iti) indeed (ha) it was (asa),” which implies that iti could have been many other things. Dharma and the highest dharma (structure of structures) represent a rationality superior to the anarchical-binary foundation of the Western IR theory.

The essence of diplomacy is negotiation and the overarching goal is avoidance of war. Sama, Dana, Bheda, and Danda, a diplomat’s upayas, tricks of trade, are integral to negotiations practised by Krishna, the astute diplomat of the Mahabharata. As the Pandavas’ emissary to the Kaurava court, Krishna tried them all. However, the way the author retells the familiar story to fit his paradigm is worth close reading (pages 119-134). If in the end war became inevitable, the world should know who was responsible. Public opinion mattered even there.

In the epic, Duryodhana wanted to imprison Krishna to prevent his meeting the diverse stakeholders of the empire. Emperor Dritarashtra would have none of it. Harming a diplomat who comes to negotiate peacefully was against tradition, he declared. Diplomatic immunity is an integral part of the code of conduct described in the Mahabharata.

Datta-Ray goes on to establish how the dharma complex converted the Mughals into Indo-Mughals. Interested scholars must read Chapter IV carefully. Then, the British Raj brought in modern European diplomacy, which erased the reciprocity and communication of the Indo-Mughal days. Ideas of ‘the other’ and ‘race’ were roped in to counter the non-moderns.

British modernisers considered their colonisation to be superior to the oriental despotism they unseated. Therefore, their “annual plunder” of India was justified — an ingenious, self-serving rationalisation indeed.

Gandhi’s rationality to counter Western modernity came on to the scene. Datta-Ray’s extended analysis and intellectual re-construction of the non-cooperation movement, of satyagraha, which turned the violence integral to resistance inward into the satyagrahis themselves, and the whole process of ‘spiritualisation of politics’ must be read in full to appreciate the innovative narration.

The author incorporates the concepts of non-alignment, peaceful co-existence, and Panchsheel into the overarching structure of structures — the dharma complex and highest dharma. The Non-Aligned Movement is presented as peaceful resistance at the international level. The analysis and the linkage with the sources are scholarly and exhaustive. However, one cannot escape the feeling that things drag at places. But that is a minor failing in a brilliant and innovative narration of the ancient roots of Indian diplomacy.