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"Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy"

Lecture at Indian History Congress - Patiala by Hon’ble Shri I.K. Gujral, M.P, former Prime Minister of India on 30th December 1998


Distinguished guests & learned friends,

I welcome you here in my home state and also in this historic city of Patiala.

As we stand on the doorstep of a new millennium, whose first light is now only a year and a day away. I reflect on the century that has just passed, my thoughts invariably go back to the time a little over fifty years ago when the subjugation and humiliation of many long centuries ended and our country rediscovered the dignity of freedom. This was a moment surcharged with history and emotion, a moment which in Jawaharlal’s immortal words "comes but rarely when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation long suppressed, finds utterance".

As this august gathering would recall that despite all this euphoria, the time and circumstances of Independence were not particularly promising. Freedom’s dawn saw the Motherland cut into two warring halves, causing immense pain and trauma. Millions of traumatized refugees sought home and shelter in an already over-burdened land. There seemed very little holding the newly born country together. Churchill’s caustic comment, that India deserved as little to be called a nation, as did a purely geographical entity such as the Equator, was ringing an ominous bell.

A newly born nation state had to cope with both political and economic adversity. The ravages of colonialism and feudalism had combined to devastate the land, leaving it an economic basket, incapable even of feeding itself. We would struggle with famine and starvation for the next two decades, until the Green Revolution took root here, blessed in the fertile soil and enterprise of the Punjab, before spreading across the land. But at that time even agriculture was a subsistence, a hand to mouth affairs. Barely five per cent out of a total population of 350 million were literate. Most Indians remained entrapped in the ignorance, poverty and mental slavery that came to be ingrained over the past centuries of serfdom. For the vast majority of India’s teeming millions, freedom was experienced, if it was experienced at all, only as some remote theoretical concept.

From these unpromising beginnings we come to the present time. Over these years we have suffered more than our fair share of misfortune, to which were added some human blunders and wasted opportunities. Yet, few will deny that the face of India has been transformed in the fifty years since Independence. It is true that far more remains to be done. My purpose here is not to list a catalogue of our successes and failures. Some often wonder that how is it that this country, despite the many burdens and misfortunes since its birth and despite its poor, unlettered, calamity prone land has remained united, democratic and a Law based society whilst many others in similar circumstances have fallen by the wayside? What is it about it that allows its one billion people today the luxury of taking freedom and progress for granted.

History records that following India’s independence nearly a hundred other nations also won their freedom, most of them in circumstances which were far more promising than those of India. Yet none of these were able to safeguard their democratic freedoms. Whether one considers Nigeria or Ghana or Kenya amongst the larger nations of post colonial Africa, or Indonesia or Burma or North Korea here in Asia; whether it is far away Latin America or our very own neighbourhood of the South Asian subcontinent, the fact of the matter is that virtually every newly independent country in every Continent had to grapple, in some form or another, with extended periods of dictatorship, absolute rule or some form of a ‘guided democracy.’ Very few nations have sustained a faultless record of democracy that India does; certainly none have enjoyed the luxury, as we have begun to do in India today, of taking our democracy and our democratic way of life for granted. Many of you, in these circumstances may be recalling what Poet Iqbal had said:

To what do we owe this unique and enviable situation? This is a question to which there can be no unambiguous or categorical answer. This subject, by its very nature, is as much a matter of personal interpretation and conviction as it is of clinical, scientific analysis. Yet, if we want to discuss the character and roots of Modern India this question is a very basic one, which goes the very foundations of our nationhood; it is a question which each of us should reflect upon at some length if we are to fulfil our civic duty to preserve and bequeath a well functioning society to our children and grandchildren. Permit me to utilize this opportunity to share with you what I have learned through the insights and experience of long years of public life.

My conviction is that the strength and durability of India’s democracy has much to do with the principles which steered our freedom struggle and the ideals we followed on the road to our Independence. Those of our generation who were privileged enough to participate in it, fondly remember how Gandhiji’s inspiration transformed a fight against colonial domination into something much larger than a mere political struggle - we felt ourselves drawn into the current of a profound moral crusade whose aim really was to reinstate that timeless and universal Justice which is each and every human’s due.

Under Gandhiji’s stewardship, the Indian freedom struggle became part and parcel of a wider social reform movement directed at redressing the cruel injustices of our traditional social order. How could we deny dignity and social justice to millions of our own fellow countrymen, torment the lower castes and inflict cruelty upon cruelty upon the womenfolk, how could we perpetrate the vilest injustice upon our own people and still pretend to seek dignity and equality for ourselves? In whose name after all were we fighting for freedom? Could we ever hope to overthrow the external tyranny while all these internal tyrannies remained untouched? Mahatma Gandhi provided the answers. And so the battle for freedom was joined, not for the sake of the elites, but in the name of the poorest and most deprived of India’s downtrodden masses.

Gandhiji, as is well known, placed means before ends. The struggle he devised was one that renounced violence and which drew its strength and sustenance from the sheer power of principle. To confront all the might and pomp of the largest and most powerful Empire known to man, Gandhiji summoned, from deep within the heart of the Indian tradition, the moral tenets of satya and ahimsa. Virtue would be our only weapon. And so we plunged into the struggle, convinced that we were engaged as much in pursuing justice for India, as we were in pursuing Justice in the abstract. This idealism would carry power and moral force enough to make the liberation of India meaningful.

So was it that Independence Day, 1947, brought us something much more than a transient, technical freedom. We learnt, or rather I should say relearnt, the way of peace, to shun violence, to have regard for the peaceful approach and to keep faith in peaceful means. We learnt that equity in society was a moral imperative and our own enlightened self interest demanded that we practise equality and have special consideration towards the poor and underprivileged. Such a society, one which acts in defence of its weakest, which values equality, which adopts non-violence as a way of life, a society which upholds the Truth and which acknowledges the supremacy of moral force, such a society will always be blessed as a liberated and democratic society.

This is why, to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this address, India has made a success of its democracy. We hitched our wagon to the star of natural justice and let it take us where it would. It took us, as it always does, to liberation. As long as we keep in mind the lessons of our freedom struggle, the wisdom we learnt at the footsteps of Gandhi and Nehru, as long as we hold true to this high tradition, our India will remain a free and prosperous society.

Let us never stray from the humanistic approach. Our own scriptures tell us that entire humanity is but a single family. Let us keep faith in the idea of a global brotherhood to which all human society belongs. Let us recognize the equal and inviolate dignity of every human being, and let us never abuse it. Let us not be led astray by opportunistic politics that may promise short cuts to success, tempting us down the slippery slope of hatred and oppression. Some voices do urge us in that direction, but to heed them would be to destroy the very foundations of our civilization.

Today, as we embark upon the second half century of freedoms’ journey, two competing visions of India have been placed before us. Both seek to make India a ‘great nation’. The objective may be seemingly similar. One tells us to continue with the same basic approach that we have followed since 1947. This is the path of ‘vasudaiva kutumbakam’. And here in the land of Punjab Guru Nanak had told us: " ." This advocates an approach of liberalism, humanism and non discrimination; of tolerance and equality at home and open engagement with the outside world, on equal terms, abroad. The other camp says that this first approach simply would not work since it panders to the minority, it does not pursue an ‘India first’ approach aggressively enough. These critics would prefer the direct road to an illusion of greatness. Such a short cut takes us via a ‘cultural nationalism’ to the dictatorship of the strong, the obliteration of the weak, the regimentation of society hand in hand with the growth of militant sectorism.

We need not waste much time debating these approaches for here at least the verdict of history is unambiguous and clear. The blind road may provide some occasional, transient glory but its eventual outcome is bound to end in disaster. Every history book tells us that the inevitable fall out of aggressive and narrow concept of nationalism would end in conflicts abroad and destruction at home. Nehru who was first hand witness to the growth of militant nationalisms in Europe said of it, "These creeds, (i.e. Fascism and Nazism) were narrow and overbearing and based on hatred and violence. I watched their growth in their respective countries as well as elsewhere. They brought a certain prestige to their people for a while, but they also killed the spirit and destroyed all values and standards of thought and behaviour. They ended up by ruining the nations they had sought to exalt."

To those in our own country who have begun to preach this sort of hatred, I would only ask, please pay heed to the lessons of history. The hatreds may or may not destroy the enemies, but these will surely destroy our nation. Next door to us is the State of Pakistan which was a creation of communalism, of minority communalism. The advocates of Pakistan created their ‘pure’ State, and felt that they had solved their minority problem by evicting or harassing non-Muslims into submission were soon to witness that the basics of peace or social harmony evaded them. Soon they saw a Shia killing a Sunni and the vice versa, and Punjabis and Sindhis at dagger drawn at each other and soon. The plight of Mohajirs I need not elaborate.

When human-beings start to subdivide human beings into separate categories, instilling fear and hatred among them, then they embark on a process to which there can never be an harmonious end. These divisions and hatreds, like some evil ghost always return to haunt the originator.

The media often tells the tales of the Karachi slum dwellers divided and sub-divided into twenty or so separate castes - Punjabi Shia, Punjabi Sunni, Seraiki, Pathan, Baluch that do not intermingle with the other. These new brands of communalisms have created havoc there Our communalists here in India also want us to travel down the same road to the same dead end.

Mr. Chairman,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Foreign policy as you know derives from the national ethos and profile of a country. Over the past fifty years if we had a consensus on key aspects of our foreign policy it is precisely because there was consensus on the character and outlook of the Indian nation, as a progressive, secular and law based society. In recent months, in parallel with the sharpening debate over national goals and priorities we have seen mounting dissensions over the countours of our foreign policy.

Today, for the first time in fifty years we find the overwhelming consensus that had traditionally marked Indian foreign policy being fractured. Even in recent past, Indian foreign policy always received broad support since it flowed naturally from the temperament of an idealistic young nation. Our foreign policy never had to serve a chauvinistic agenda. Rather, idealism and pragmatism combined to produce an approach that served not only our own interests but also served the common good of the world community. Speaking in 1949, Nehru described the philosophy of his Government in these words:

"Indian foreign policy has tried to combine idealism with national interest. The main objectives of the policy are: the pursuit of peace, not through alignment with any major power of group of powers but through an independent approach to each controversial or disputed issue, the liberation of subject peoples, the maintenance of freedom both national and individual, the elimination of racial discrimination and the elimination of want, disease and ignorance which afflict the greater part of the worlds population… This is a positive and vital policy that flows from our struggle for freedom and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi."

This idealistic temperament meant an active engagement international affairs, in the true sense of public spiritedness, irrespective of whether our own interests were directly involved or not. Ours was the activist’s role in world affairs as we jealously guarded our own freedom of action and avoided becoming party to others’ disputes or the messy alliances that divided the world. This outlook would lead us to the role of international peace keeper, starting from the 1950’s in the Korean peninsula, Indo-China, the Congo right up to the 1990’s in Somalia, Haiti and Cambodia. We led the campaign against colonialism and mobilized international opinion against apartheid. India is founder member of virtually every international organization of any standing, and acclaimed without reservation as a leader of the Third world. The accumulated goodwill generated by the great causes and purposes we have served means that the good name of India is respected. This helps us in various ways, and it also helps the ten million or more Indians who live with dignity and respect in foreign lands. This is a glorious tradition which will be recalled long after those who speak the language of cynical realpolitik have come and gone.

Another tenet of Indian foreign policy was that of developing friendship and commerce with the countries of Asia - Africa, based upon the principles of Panchshila. We had always regarded the developing nations of Asia and Africa as fellow travellers and close neighbours with whom our newly independent nation felt tied with a special sense of affinity and destiny. There was never a time when the concerns and causes of these brother countries, were not India’s concerns and causes as well, right from the days of the Afro-Asian Conference held in New Delhi, to Bandung, to the NAM and today in new fora such as the G-15, the Indian Ocean Rim Grouping, etc.

The neighbourhood foreign policy that I had the privilege to put into practise - what is termed the Gujral Doctrine - represented a modern day continuation of this very traditional theme. I do believe that the latter half of the Twentieth century will be recalled, in times to come, as the age of regional cooperation. Such cooperation has after all been the impulse behind the contemporary worlds’ most striking economic miracles. Europe, which was all but devastated after two world wars, today has a common currency, a common Parliament, and unified politico - military structures. Latin America, South East Asia, South Africa are witness, in varying degree, to similar economic transformations. Is it not time that we in South Asia also try and look ahead, instead of remaining trapped in the past, forever the victims of a frozen, medieval mindset?

As and when South Asia decides to take control of its destiny no outsider will come to show us the lead. We will have to do it ourselves. And India, as the natural leader of South Asia will be called upon to walk that extra mile, to make that extra contribution that leadership of any nature entails. That is the logic behind the Gujral Doctrine, that is why to the well established principles of Panchshila, I felt it necessary, in the context of our smaller South Asian neighbours, to add the novelty of non-reciprocal treatment.

Diplomacy, properly handled, can be a positive sum game, in which there are no losers and all participants benefit. Regional cooperation in

South Asia is an idea whose time has come; it it bound one day to take off and when it does it will bring immense benefits to each individual country and to the subcontinent as a whole. It is this larger prize that we must keep firmly in mind. Take just the case of energy for example. Nepal is sitting on a unutilized hydroelectric potential of nearly 100,000 MW, energy which is flowing untapped into the sea. In Bangladesh, large reservoirs of gas are being discovered almost daily, gas which can not be consumed in Bangladesh internally. In Pakistan, over-capacity in the electricity sector has led to inflated tariffs and high costs for producers and consumers alike. India meanwhile is already energy deficit and its dependency on external energy resources is expected to grow exponentially in the years to come. If we are able to commercially access the surpluses that exist in our own subcontinent, this would greatly help our energy security while moderating our energy bill and attracting massive investments into these neighbouring countries once the investors are sure that a vast Indian market will be open to them. Opening out trade, transportation and communication links in the subcontinent will greatly reduce costs in all SAARC countries, bringing increased benefits to all citizens, in particular the poor and the deprived sections of societies on whose back the present inefficiencies are sustained.

The foreign policy approach that I have been advocating is meeting with success. One was seen only a day back when Sri Lanka and India signed a Treaty that takes us a bilateral free trade. It dispels the image of South Asia as a conflict ridden, poverty stricken backwater, outside the mainstream of the global economy and polity. Instead, for the first time, India and the South Asian region as a whole came to be seen by the world as a dynamic development frontier, endowed with all the attributes of a major global player. This shift in perception helped revitalise our relations with the major powers, and we had a fruitful of dialogue at the senior most levels with the United States, Russia and China, amongst the other great nations of the world. One result of this diplomacy is that Indo-Pak relations, despite several hiccups, have shifted to a gear that offers hope.

Distinguished delegates,

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Another area where India has made pioneering contributions has been in the quest for global nuclear disarmament. We have always stood by the belief that the best guarantee for India’s security as indeed for the security of the world at large was a world free of all nuclear weapons. India was the first country to call for a ban on all nuclear testing in 1954 and to seek a non-discriminatory treaty on non-proliferation in 1965. This activism continued without pause, both before and after the first nuclear test that we conducted in 1974. For India, disarmament has been the over-riding priority, irrespective of our nuclear capability. In 1978, India proposed a treaty on the first non-use of nuclear weapons, we called for a nuclear freeze in 1982, and in 1988 we proposed a phased programme for achieving complete disarmament.

More recently, India’s disarmament credentials have been called into question. We have been criticized for holding up global disarmament measures such as the CTBT, and for violating the international norm against nuclear testing. My basic objection to the nuclear regime which the Nuclear weapons states tried to foist upon us was that it was unjust and a chirade that it perpetuated a nuclear apartheid, and that it was for that very reason as unacceptable to us. It bears emphasis that India has never insisted on the possession of a particular type of weapon or weapons system on the grounds of national security. On the other hand, we have signed every disarmament treaty that has been universal and non-discriminatory in character e.g. conventions banning the use of chemical or biological weapons while resisting partial and discriminatory approaches.

My Government’s approach to the nuclear aspect of national security was quite clear - we would refuse to submit to the nuclear policies demanded by the Nuclear Weapons States. At the same time we would refrain from actions that may provoke a nuclear arms race or risk heightened tensions with our neighbours. It was a delicate balance that we had adopted between the competing demands of tradition and realpolitik at one level, and between the essentials and non-essentials of India’s overall security at another. The present Government chose a different way. At this moment it may serve no purpose to discuss the merits and demerits of the tests since the egg cannot be unscrambled. In a nuclearized environment, even more diplomatic and principled policy projections are needed since the Tests have added a new dimension to our security perceptions. Keeping in mind bellicosity of the Nuclear weapon powers, the threats to Indian security are greater; the hazards and contingencies that need to be addressed are complex and varied, and attention to thousands of minute but essential details cannot be avoided. Unless these functions are attended to with a greater level of competence than has been on display so far, it may be difficult to escape the allegations that the May tests have diminished, not enhanced our national security.


Ladies and Gentlemen;

What has happened is behind us, we have to look ahead. The great utility of History is that it does serve as an authentic road map to guide us on our travels ahead. In conclusion therefore I would like to spell out some principles that we as sensible, thinking Indians would do well to bear in mind in charting the future of our nation.

Let us, firstly, keep faith in our idealistic roots. This is a cynical age which makes it all the more necessary for us to carry conviction and show how shortsighted it is to under-estimate the power of idealism. Idealism has the power to carry us a long way, and this is true for individuals and nations alike. Both, ultimately, can only be as great as their ideals. Through the long march of History, few nations were rendered great merely by the arms and armaments they acquired or flaunted. The opposite however was true. Great nations were invariably those that accorded the utmost attention to internal harmony, stability and compassion towards their minorities, the poor and others among their weak and defenceless citizens. In 1867, Abraham Lincoln asked his countrymen to make the sacrifice of a bloody and prolonged Civil War, rather than accept or in any manner compromise with slavery. There was no obvious self interest or advantage accruing to his Government or Party in abolishing slavery. Much in the manner of Gandhiji in India, Lincoln urged his countrymen to join the war against slavery and oppression because it was the right thing to do. "No nation can survive, half slave and half free" said Lincoln. This was not the call of expediency but the summons of an elemental and pure justice which confers freedom and strength on all those who trust and embrace it.

There is a tendency, when one views the world in the prism of the moment, to imagine that the world belongs to the rich and the powerful, to those who deploy the larger armies or the more fearsome armaments. If this indeed were true, the world would have belonged to the heirs of Hitler, or Stalin, or others amongst the mighty generals and dictators who came before or since. But the world belongs to the democrat, not to the warlord or the dictator. The world has never belonged to the heirs of a Mussolini or Salazar but always to the heirs of Gandhi and Lincoln and all other prophets and men of peace who advocated the path of compassion, love for ones fellow creatures and the equality of all humanity. The world belongs to the heirs of Guru Nanak and Gautama Buddha, not to the heirs of Ravana or Kansa. The eternal mystery is as to why we often emulate the latter rather than the former.

Let us also therefore see the strength of India in the strength of the underprivileged. Let us empower the weaker sections of our society - our women, the poorest castes and classes, our minorities - to play a fuller role in national life. Let us keep our society an open society - open to new ideas, to new technologies, to international best practices, to ideological currents. Above all, let us keep ourselves open to self criticism. Openness is the antidote to stagnation, throughout history it has been the engine driving the growth and progress of nations. Closed doors only breeds monopoly and the vested interest which militates against the interests of the poor.

In the years ahead, the international profile of India will only increase. At the same time we will have to deal with an international order that is increasingly unequal, unfair and domineering in nature. How do we tackle this situation? The answer does not lie in retreat. India’s own chequered history and the more recent experience of the world with its iron and bamboo curtains should convincingly tell us that retreat from the world is a remedy that is far worse than the disease. To paraphrase Deng Xiao Ping, one does not lock the doors and windows of one’s house for all time merely because some flies may come in. The answer really is to engage the world but from a position of greater moral strength and endurance. India will be strong as long as our borders are peaceful and our relations with our neighbours are on even keel, as long our commerce is open and our trade, investment and cultural exchanges bring us in constructive contact with all the peoples and nations of the world. An active engagement with the outside world is essential for it gives the nation a vision and a world view and a better understanding of its own strength and weaknesses, and as the historian has said "the peoples that hath no vision, perisheth."

I do hope that our Foreign policy will always retain its broad vision and its humanitarian scope.

Thank You

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Bio-Profile :
Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

Bio-Profile :
Mrs. Shiela Gujral

Excerpts from the book "A Foreign Policy for India"

Selected Speeches

Latest Articles