M.L. Sondhi

The Pioneer, October 18, 1997

There has been a general cognitive inertia in New Delhi in respect of an independent framing of diplomatic issues of concern to the Irish people, or for that matter of concern to the Scots or the Welsh, with everything happening in the British Isles being looked upon as the exclusive domain of the British in deference to the Indo-English “partnership”.  This cognitive inertia may have been appropriate during the Cold War, but in the post-Cold War world, intensive intellectual effort by analysts and officials is urgently required to place upcoming issues like Irish unification in India’s foreign policy agenda.  New Delhi has in the past displayed only an episodic concern with Ireland, and there is little indication of a clear and sustained observation of the Sinn Fein either directly or through any third party.

Thus in this area, Indian thinking continues to exhibit an archaic character, blindly following London-defined policies or raisons d’etat by morally censuring the anarchy in Ulster instead of developing political insights into the emerging future beyond the present polarisation in Northern Ireland’s political system.  Apart from not doing its homework on the British Labour Party’s stance towards Kashmir, South Block has been remarkably resistant to the dramatic implications of Tony Blair’s reversal of the historical centralisation in Anglo-Scottish relations.  Be that as it may, if India fails to take a proper and adequate initiative on the Irish question and the Irish peace process, it will be guilty of a foreign policy lapse of some magnitude.  We would have expressed an indifference to Ireland’s national interest and have lost the bargaining leverage with a new generation of Irish people living in a united country.  In the past high level visits of Indian dignitaries to Ireland have mostly consisted of ceremonial rhetoric about Eamon de Valera’s contribution to India’s freedom struggle, but the need of the hour is to actively reach out to both parties to the peace process.

India has to overcome London’s pressure for maintaining silence over the Irish question to the point where New Delhi can actively begin to influence Commonwealth and world opinion in favour of Irish unification, as we did over the question of ending apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa.  The English lobby in India will of course have none of this, and some friends of India in London would more likely be incensed.  With prudent and coordinated efforts India could, however, prepare and even be a catalyst for accelerating Irish unification.  The devolution of power from London to Edinburgh is likely to accentuate some of the basic vulnerabilities in London’s power position, enabling India to find a new optimal threshold for its cooperative behaviour with London.  In the past we have accepted British encouragement of separatism in Punjab and Kashmir as the inevitable price of what has been promoted or achieved in economic, educational, political and defence-related areas of interaction – in trade or within the Common wealth – between the two governments.  With the latest developments the relative power position should now shift in favour of India’s bargaining stance.  If we do not remain unconcerned we can exploit the range of effective choice which has opened up with the era of devolution in Britain by playing a quiet but effective role in building up pressure on Tony Blair’s government to resolve the inconsistencies in London’s policies towards India.  The success of this project will depend on how clearly and realistically Indian decision makers define the parameters of our own national interests.

India’s experience with the reintegration of the two Germanys could act as a guide for establishing stable relationships in a future united Ireland.  In the early sixties, while serving in the Indian Embassy at Prague (then Czechoslovakia) it was part of our responsibility to keep a close watch on developments in East Germany with which we did not have formal diplomatic relations (in deference to the Hallstein doctrine).  South Block was divided into two camps over the future of the “German question”.  The committed bureaucrats together with the politicians who made up the GDR lobby in New Delhi kept pressing for Indian acceptance of the division of Germany, but fortunately there were also senior advisers like Ambassadors Khub Chand and Badrud-din Tyabji who held their own and insisted that India’s broader political and economic concerns made it imperative to have a Bonn-oriented diplomacy.  They endorsed the values and emerging image of Adenauer’s democratic West Germany against the competing programmes offered by persons like Krishna Menon and those tilting towards Pankow (GDR).  Their policy position was ultimately accepted by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, thereby helping India to make reasoned and informed decisions which ultimately stood us in good stead when the Berlin Wall was dismantled and Germany became a united country.

In line with our German experience therefore, we could develop a more assertive stance on the Irish question.  We could, for example, make a beginning with an invitation to Gerry Adams to visit India in connection with the celebration of the 50 years of Indian freedom. Given the historical associations between the two freedom movements this would constitute a very natural and appropriate gesture.  In real terms it would increase the Irish leader’s prestige internationally if India could endorse his and Sinn Fein’s shift away from violence.  Again, without creating friction in London-New Delhi relations, one of the Indian think tanks could be encouraged to call an international conference on the pattern of the Asian Relations Conference of 1946 to garner support for a peaceful and united Ireland.  And lastly, with India’s market-oriented reforms in place and with the talk of India being the next pivot of prosperity in the Asian region after the setbacks experienced in the Southeast Asian economies, India could also focus on the future economic prospects of a united Ireland with the emerging markets in India and Asia.

The historical challenges faced by our respective freedom movements have equipped both India and Ireland with a nationalist-ideological consensus which can further a common agenda of freedom and democracy without the crusading zeal which has shaped the experience and ethos of some of the other actors of the global community.  It was on Indian soil in the Punjab (in the Jalandhar cantonment) that Irish soldiers mutinied and proclaimed freedom for Ireland.  Pursued moderately, an Indo-Irish political engagement will provide a sensible response to the strategic realities of each country’s situation in terms of the contemporary patterns of power and diplomacy.

A Gerry Adams visit to India will also help in sharpening our political antennae in respect of an issue which is of considerable importance to the United States and has implications for US foreign policy.  While avoiding any provocative diplomatic steps vis a vis London, India could improve her understanding of America’s stake in Irish unity.  It would also sharpen the Indian elite’s understanding of the preconditions of the real politik dimensions of foreign policy making. 

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