The Making of Indian Foreign Policy: A Critique of Eurocentrism, written by Deep K Datta-Ray. 2015

In: Diplomatica

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London: C. Hurst & Co, 2015. Pp. 308. £45.00 Hardback, isbn 9781849042130.

It can be difficult to locate the particularity of a country’s foreign policy without resorting to cultural exceptionalism. However, in Datta-Ray’s The Making of Indian Diplomacy: A Critique of Eurocentrism, a scathing deconstruction of modernity and eurocentrism in international affairs, he throws caution to the winds and embarks on an often-convoluted tour of India’s exclusive position in the world.

Having achieved close access and interviews with the Indian Foreign Service (ifs) through the patronage of previous Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Datta-Ray was granted rare and invaluable access to an often-enigmatic ministry. However, much of the initial promise of Datta Ray’s access is mitigated by his confrontational and often unsubstantiated analysis he calls “Producer Centred Research” (pcr). Built on a rejection of pre-existing analytical frameworks, which he sees as being too enthralled to modernist principles, Datta-Ray utilises his own claims to offer a case by case, context driven analysis of the ifs. This contrasts with Western analyses of International Relations, he claims, which cannot fathom the Indian polity due to their internalised need to position India within their universalising modernist frameworks. These can often make the ifs’s actions seem irrational, which Datta-Ray tries to dispel by understanding the internal logic within the workings of the institution.

Instead of following the hegemonic standards the West sets, Datta-Ray argues that the ifs (as well as the Indian state) is carving out a path towards an alternative Indian modernity. Western states motivated by their culturally Christian roots are locked into a perpetual civilising mission to homogenise others to their norms. India, however, is informed by a “Cosmic” approach. In this cosmology, India seeks symbiosis with other states, and is willing to react and interact with the norms of other countries, rather than impose its vision of the world. Moreover, this cosmological approach is a strength for India, allowing it to conclude agreements with other states, without the ideological baggage that a similar agreement with the United States might imply.

India’s cosmology is built on its unique historic and cultural traditions, taking inspiration from the spirit of India’s Epic of the Mahabharat. In the later chapters, Datta-Ray reconstructs a longue durée history from the Mughal era to the present day recounting how the legacy of the Mahabharat has underpinned every “Indian” administration. Whilst the Mughals, particularly Emperor Akbar, adapted to the Indian context and traditions, making themselves “Indian,” the British are portrayed as unable to do so due to their own commitments to the Western civilising mission. This could even be to their detriment, as presented in one example of East Indian Officials unsuccessfully trying to bribe their way to a trade deal with the Mughal Empire without following the proper protocols.

With the end of the British Raj, India was able to revert to its historical commitment to the Mahabharat, whilst operating in the modern world through a foreign policy informed by Gandhi’s commitment to satyagraha; passive-resistance. Continued to the present day by Nehru and his descendants in the Congress Party, India has blended its ancient and modern history to create the underpinnings of India’s alternative modernity in the ifs. The pinnacle of Datta-Ray’s argument on India’s alternative modernity was the 123 Agreement with the United States over India’s nuclear capacity in 2007. Though an agreement on nuclear weapons might be an odd choice for representing India’s non-violence, it displays how India resisted American attempts to control and homogenise the nuclear playing field through non-proliferation.

Part history, anthropology, and critical study of international relations, Datta-Ray employs a multidisciplinary approach that relies heavily on essentialist and meta-culturalist notions behind the creation of foreign policy. The idea that the West is primarily motivated by universal norms such as human rights is inaccurate, and universal norms are regularly if not cynically sacrificed for political expediency. Conversely, the idea that Indian policy is largely derived from its ancient Hindu epics rather than more contemporary concerns runs contrary to most academic analysis on Indian Foreign Policy.

By heavily relying on an interpretation of Indian culture and history as underpinning India’s diplomacy, the book is laden with Indian exceptionalism. This is particularly acute in the claim that India has escaped the hegemony of modern western thought and the vestiges of colonialism, allowing the generation of its alternative modernity. In claiming that India has liberated itself from western notions such as nationalism, he skates over the very real presence of Indian nationalism that is often inflated by the state. Moreover, the alienating distance between the state and its people created by Western modernity is reguarly practiced in India against secessionist movements which ifs officers in the book have branded “robbers and bandits.” Raj era laws are routinely used to quell rebellion, revealing more continuity from the British administration in the Indian state than Datta-Rai admits.

The historical section of the book follows a long genealogy of Indian National histories that try and carve an idea of India’s exceptionalism from its syncretic past. Though Datta-Ray has used some historical materials, most of his argument rests of claims derived from his pcr approach and Indian nationalist histories. His work on the post-independence era is also driven by the need to prove India’s move away from Western norms such as sovereignty, rather than on historical reality that has shown India to be something of a “sovereignty hawk.” Rather than representing a unique facet of Indian foreign policy, India’s staunch support for state sovereignty was typical of non-aligned postcolonial states during the Cold War. Moreover, India’s breaching of the principle of state sovereignty on several occasions makes it even more akin to the behaviour of other states.

Where Datta-Ray’s argument is more robust is his critique of Western notions of international relations, which reveals a broad knowledge of the literature. However, his absolutist and exceptionalist arguments are a great detraction from his more poignant critique of eurocentrism in international relations.

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