Foreign Policy

M.L.Sondhi and Shrikant Paranjpe

The Hindustan Times, May 8, 1995

Important constellations of foreign policy problems for India revolve around the question of the international community’s responsibility to intervene in the affairs of sovereign states.  It would serve as a useful stimulus for India to function actively in the international arena for comprehensive global security if it could focus attention on the underlying resilience of the Indian nation-state as a political and economic security system.  Indian decision makers are fully aware of the core elements of the contemporary discussion on deconstruction and decline of sovereignty, and should carefully identify factors which can have a negative impact on Indian capabilities.

The new foreign policy agenda should be compatible with the ongoing transformation of the international system but alternative scenarios for the future should be institutionalised on the basis of the historical continuity of the Indian political system.  India enhanced its global status after freeing itself from colonial rule.  It can harness its democratic creativity to the development of a sui generic approach to the management of ethnic conflicts through new instruments of policy without a qualitative change in the integrity of the Indian state.

The concept of self-determination started to acquire a renewed legitimacy in the international scene in the wake of the changes in eastern Europe in late 1989.  One of the key dimensions of the change was the identification of trends which in turn suggested specific areas for policy action.  The test case of this was the stand on the future of the Baltic states.  The initial reluctance of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev to grant independence to these states was seen as a denial of this right.  The support given by the European Community to the independence movement of the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia came from this principle.

The early 1990s saw a reflection of this international situation in India.  In Kashmir, for instance, the demands made by the JKLF started to be articulated in the specific language of self-determination.  The earlier “Islamic” logic of aligning to Pakistan was given up and the demands centered on independence of Kashmir.  The earlier demands of plebiscite were now to be used not to merge with Pakistan but to seek an autonomous/independent status for Kashmir.

It was the Yugoslav imbroglio of 1992-93 that brought international attention to the problems that self-determination can create if accepted as an absolute demand.  The European Community had in fact granted the same principle to Yugoslavia in the peace conference.

The Yugoslav situation brought forth a clear cut argument about the position to be taken on the issue.  One extreme position was that of accepting the right of ethnic nationalities to determine their own future.  This meant granting of political independence to these nationalities.  Their demands for self-determination would thus have to be clarified as a national liberation struggle and would gain the legitimacy of a freedom struggle.  At the other end of the spectrum is the stand that the national integrity of the state is to be maintained at all costs.

Given the sanctity of integration, the borders of the state become inviolable.  This implies that demands raised by diverse elements within the state for independence constitute separatist demands and therefore have to be curbed or resolved.  The state can not accept the fact that these nationalities have rights of self-determination.  Their rights can be clarified as minority (human) rights which can be legitimately articulated within the state system.

In between these two extreme positions can be positions that grant more or less autonomy to the ethnic nationalities within the state system.  These positions indicate degrees of autonomy and not the possibility of independence.

In the Indian context, however, the Indian state system continues to be confronted with this debate of self-determination based on ethnic nationalities and national integration.  The Indian model of national integration that was based on the principle of “unity in diversity” had worked in a period where the forces representing central unity had not trampled on the diversity of the periphery.  In the Indian framework the issue of peripheral diversity was looked upon as a political problem to be tackled through political dialogue.

The analysis of the ethno-nationalist issues facing India suggests that while there may be many policy proposals for meeting the challenge of violence and ethnic tensions, many suggestions are motivated by vested interests which use the slogan of self-determination simplistically without determining the risks posed by external dependency.  The primary objective of Indian polity should be to place various alternatives in the context of a “national dialogue” for which clear rules and procedures should be established.

Consequently much of the challenge of the next decade can be met by taking a clear cut position that in order of preference India would design appropriate public responses to facilitate national integration.  In contrast, the demands that are articulated in the context of self-determination would be incorporated into the socio-political mainstream as ‘minority rights’ and will help to reshape the Indian political environment without obstructing sustainable processes to promote integration.

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