India Today – The Need for New Thinking
Speech by
Professor M.L. Sondhi

National Thinkers Forum, August 19, 1989

Mr. President, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I think, it is in the fitness of things first of all to respond to the objectives of the National Thinkers Forum because I think there is a tendency which comes to us from several sources that perhaps much of the attempt to intellectualise the situation is a waste of time. It is not something done on the ground. I would suggest that the very nature of contemporary economics is such that thinking has to be introduced as a basic factor in the functioning of the economy. An economy is not just rupees and nayepaise. An economy is a system of thinking human beings. If specially, we have science at the level of 21st or 22nd century thinking and social studies and the system of polity remains of the 18th century and 17th century, then there will be a very big problem. Therefore, I think, it is of essence for us to decide now whether we are going to remain subject to certain iron laws because unfortunately the two traditions, capitalist and communist, both give us iron laws. Adam Smith and Ricardo formulated their theory in terms of the hidden hand, the homo economics, and everything was supposed to go all right on account of certain natural laws. The Marxist’s reaction to this was to formulate the labour theory of value to say that it is labour that is embodied in a given commodity and constitutes its value. Now, unfortunately, the development of science and technology and our thinking of interrelatedness of the phenomena to which Mr. Yashpal referred in the morning, has made it very difficult for us to sustain that type of logic.

This is what Gorbachev is about. This is what new thinking, perestroika and glasnost is about, that you cannot retain only a view of the world which is mechanistic, which is particularistic and which is in terms of trade-offs. So, very often we say either we will give you employment or we will give you a stable price level. Very often our economists say, “trade-off between employment and inflation.” But that is disaster, because, as I understood it from Prof. Yashpal’s contribution in the morning we want not to put off the light in one room and put it on in another room. Our objective is to put lights on in all the rooms. That we can do only through thinking. Especially if we find the country bewildered, it is the task of intelligentsia to bring in that element of thinking into the picture so that (a) we get a humane economy, that is, man is not sacrificed at the alter of economy, but that economy is for man, and (b) in the system of relationships in the world we always have the idea of a good state whether we go back to Kautilya or we go back to Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. But it was only one philosopher, and that was Immanuel Kant who said there should be good relations between states also. Therefore, how to get a world where the economy is sustained at a level at which satisfaction is available to all and the relationship between states is such that war is ruled out.

Sources of Indian power:

Now, to my mind this question directly concerns us in India because of the terms of power to which my distinguished colleague, Dr. Bimal Prasad, referred. Well, we have power in India. We cannot say that we can take any other view of the situation. But what is the source of power. To my mind, the source of power in India is fourfold. One is the primacy of Indian nationalism, as a moving force of the 20th century. Whether it was the Congress party or other parties or other social institutions, whether it was Mahatma Gandhi or it was Lokmanya Tilak, whether it was Maulana Azad or it was C. Rajgopalachari or it was Savarkar or any other leader, what we get is pulsation, a thrust forward, and the whole world takes notice. When Madam Bhikaji Cama unfurled the national flag at Stuttgart, well, we believe that the leaders of the international proletarian movement were all there watching it, may be Lenin was also there. So, the question is that India was not number two or number three. India was number one in terms of the primacy of its nationalism, and this temper has to be retained.

Secondly, the scale of popular participation in the Indian polity. In spite of our charges and counter-charges to which Mr. Prem Bhatia referred, still, the fact of the matter is that we have, a fight converted into a game, and the game hopefully will be converted into a debate. That is what a very great peace researcher Anatol Rapaport has called “the Model of Fights, Games, Debates.” You have to come eventually to a debate. You have to have a debate also in which you argue from each other’s point of view. It would be wonderful if in Punjab the Hindu would argue the case of the Sikh, and the Sikh would argue the case of the Hindu. Then you will get a debate which would be very beautiful.

Now, if we see our own programme which is the third factor, the programme for the utilisation of India’s vast human and physical resources, to my mind, this programme again is on a scale undreamt of in human history. Voytensky referred to India as the awakening giant. In fact, today among all the problems that face us in the environment, in ecology, in the preservation of our forests, all these problems are a part of a programme because we have done something and we have upset something else. But what we need is a wider vision still.

Therefore, I come to the fourth element which is how we will preserve ourselves. Well, we need an army to preserve. We have armed strength. Even more importantly, we have nuclear potential. I remember that when I was a Member of the Lok Sabha how much pressure there was on the Prime Minister Mrs. Gandhi to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The matter came for debate in Parliament, and speaker after speaker, you will find if you go back to the record, not only from the Opposition but from the Congress Party also, were all saying, “Let us give up the Indian nuclear option.” I had to make a speech, a very strong speech, in which I referred Mrs. Gandhi to the tradition of the national movement, that how if we give up something, we must know what we are giving up. I feel that I did contribute, and I was told afterwards that debate took a particular form, and Mrs. Gandhi took the decision to retain India’s nuclear option.


Now, I would suggest today again we will find it. When we discuss non-alignment, what exactly is non-alignment? Non-alignment is a political break-through, something which got us out of the morass in which the two super powers were binding the world. Our proper response to it in the beginning was, “We will assert our own power, our own independence, our own outlook. But, unfortunately, while this was the positive side, there was a negative side in the evolution of Indian foreign policy or, let us say, our failure to perceive the power potential we had because we accepted partition, for one.

Had this whole been one, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, this would have been such a great power that China or Soviet Union or America would have had to respect. But for some reasons we accepted partition, and this resulted in certain consequences. Furthermore, afterwards we also had loss of territory to Pakistan and China.

This is where thinking comes in. I still remember – I was a Member of the Ministry of External Affairs in the 60s, late 50s – how inadequately our bureaucrats were prepared for this problem. Their approach was highly bureaucratic, and the joke in the Ministry itself used to be that when the Chinese appeared, crossed our border, we did not push them back, but we asked for their passports and visas. So, that is the bureaucratic line. Have you filled the form? Have you filled it in triplicate? Have you filled it in quintuplet? We find it in our daily life. The actual problem is, you remove a person from the roadside. He has fallen in an accident. You take him somewhere. He needs blood. He needs to be saved. But somebody there says, “First fill in the form in triplicate.” While you are filling the form in triplicate, the person has passed away. So, you have to take him to Nigambodh Ghat instead of taking him to the hospital. To my mind, our foreign policy was well-conceived, well thought out. Mr. Nehru had a vision. Nobody can deny that. But on the ground level the bureaucrats have always been unprepared for new situations.

One of these was the loss of territory. They could not understand that you have to maintain your territory. You cannot just give it up. Our attitudes were too casual. I do not have to recall to you that the Aksai Chin road was built, and we did not even know about it. We did not know that the road had been built through our territory. Who are the eyes and ears of the Government? Who were the people wondering about it? Why did they go to sleep? The same is the case when we are dealing with Pakistan.

Then again Indian non-alignment. Once it had taken a form, it needed to be implemented. It needed to be implemented to prevent the interference ot the super powers in our sub-continent. But there was American interference, there was Russian interference. Then came the Chinese interference. Then, India started, to my mind, a phase of appeasement. Now I go back to the period when Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru strongly reacted against Hitler’s efforts to dominate Europe. At that time, I could point out to you very significantly that we took a stand that it was wrong of Chamberlain to have appeased the aggressors, and the aggressors should be confronted.

Now, as far as Pakistan’s relationship with the United States is concerned, it has been described as a diplomatic act against nature. There is no set of ideals which the United States with its democratic constitution shares with Pakistan. We do not know what Benazir Bhutto will do now. But the whole tenor of Pakistani polity has been anti-democratic, and yet the United States found itself in a very cosy relationship with Pakistan.

As far as China is concerned, only the other day the Times of India carried a small news item about Owen Lattimore who died recently. Owen Lattimore had been prosecuted by McCarthy in the United States. He was one of the greatest geo-politicians of the century. Owen Lattimore had come to India. He had met Pt. Nehru. He had met the members of his Cabinet because T.T. Krishnamachary has recorded it. Owen Lattimore had said, “Be careful about China. Be careful about its occupation of Tibet.” Owen Lattimore had said that Tibet will yield diminishing returns to any imperialism. No imperialism has yet succeeded in mastering Tibet. It has rejected Manchu imperialism. It has rejected Chinese imperialism in the past. It remains to be seen whether this Chinese rule there will last there or not. This is a geo-politician speaking, and not any other person who is interested in pros or cons.

Indian diplomatic firmness, if and when achieved, pays. It pays tremendous dividends. For example, in Bangladesh we were able to create a situation through diplomacy because you will recall that the Prime Minister went to all parts of the world. She prepared the situation. She went to Columbia University. She went and met leaders of the world. I remember, my colleague and friend, Mr. Sisir Gupta accompanied Jai Prakash Narayan. I am quite sure, Mr. T.N. Kaul could confirm it when he comes here, that it was not just decided arbitrarily. I think, there was a clear national consensus on this that Jayaprakash Narayan and Sisir Gupta should go to Korea, should go to other places, London, America and elsewhere and build up opinion. The Prime Minister herself built opinion also. So, here was a case of discussing matters with others. Then, when the action came in Bangladesh, led by a distinguished General, our troops and also with the Mukti Bahini’s help, were able to change the balance of power in this part of the sub-continent.


When we want, therefore, is to project our strength, because we are talking of power, our power has to have two aspects. It can’t only be brute power. It has to be a power to attract. The power of man which is to dominate and the power of women which is to attract, the masculine power and the feminine power, both, have to be combined in a country’s diplomacy. How will we get that? A book which I wrote some time in 1971 is called “Non-appeasement.” We do not have to appease any other country of the world. I outlined seven areas for very strong Indian initiative, and I think in 1989 I can still say that those are valid areas:

One, we have to develop multilateral relations in Asia. The Americans would like us to be tied up in South Asia, a small area. The Russians may like us to be tied up in South Asia and South-East Asia. But we belong to an area which extends somewhere from Iran all the way to Japan. This is what I call in my book “Oceanic Asia.” So, we have to interact with Japan. We have to interact with Australia and New Zealand. We have to interact with Korea. We have to interact with Thailand.

This is a larger diplomacy which requires thinking. I do not know whether in South Block anybody has done this thinking because South Block has always been concerned with making its worth very narrow and small, just attending to the task of the day and forgetting the tomorrow. This is a problem which is staring us in the face today. Can we avoid taking interest in Asia? The word “Asia” comes from the Sanskrit word “Usha”. It is our own continent, and we are getting locked up in a small area.

The second is independence in nuclear affairs. Whatever we decide, it should be our decision and not a decision taken through a telephone conversation with some foreign ruler. We must decide ourselves how we are going to meet the nuclear challenge, in what way.

Thirdly, we have to transform India’s relation with China. I cannot say it more eloquently than what they themselves have shown in the Tiananmen Square. They have not yet achieved that balance in world affairs which India achieved, thanks to the galaxy of thinkers we had. We had Shri Aurobindo. We had Mahatma Gandhi. We had Lokmanya Tilak. Then, if you go further back, we have Guru Nanak. We have Kabir. So, we have over a period of time got over our xenophobia. At our best we are like a big aeroplane, a Boeing aeroplane, which flies very high. That is how India will shine in the world if you fly at a high level. But about China, I am not sure. Many of my colleagues in the Jawaharlal Nehru University are great admirers of China. I also think that China has a great culture, great civilisation. But I think politically China has not achieved maturity because I cannot visualise this happening in India, that there is a students’ gathering, say, at the India Gate, and you send your own tanks to finish them off. It shows a big gap. So, what India has to do with China is to try and persuade China to make it see reason, to make it see sense. India has to become strong so that the rest of Asia feels strong. India has to transform its relationship with China. We cannot be afraid of China. We cannot also frighten China. But we have to take our stand and our stand has to be one of principle.

Thirdly, Bangladesh provides us with a new model. The new model is, whatever Pakistan stood for at the time of partition when Jinnah forced Pakistan down our throats, that model was a defective model. And the result is that Pakistan today is facing a host of problems. It is not an example to the world. It is not an example which can be sold to the world. In Bangladesh Bangobandhu Mujibur Rehman had created a society based upon thoughts of Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore, revival of the beautiful aspects of Bengal, of its feeling and thought. Well, even if they have strayed away, we hope, they will come back to that light and that insight which was there when India took this task of going and helping the liberation of Bangladesh.

Then again South East Asia. When we think of Cambodia, we can think of Angkor Vat. When we think of Thailand, we can think of Ayodhya. When we think of Indonesia, we can think of the cultural ties between us and Indonesia. Therefore, we have to extend our horizon right up to Indonesia and even further.

Then, as far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, we have to have a navy. But our navy should not threaten anybody. We should have naval co-operation in the Indian Ocean. We should co-operate with others.

Sixthly, the United Nations has to be made strong, in spite of everything. We have all sorts of memories that the Kashmir issue went there, and it was not well treated. Why? Because India failed to ask for a permanent membership of the Security Council. We are one of those powers which should have a seat in the Security Council. If we have a seat in the Security Council, then, we will take interest in world affairs from a position of strength, of courage and determination.

Finally, I would suggest that we must evolve our own strategic concepts. And here is where currently, because we are talking of India Today, I find a danger. Some time back I was criticising the Government of India myself for being rather lenient on the side of the Soviet strategic concept. Now, I find my good friend, Mr. Krishan Chander Pant, had been to America. He came back, and somebody said that he thought that his visit was very successful because the Americans have shown everything to him which they did not show to Mrs. Benazir Bhutto. I don’t think this should be our policy. I don’t think we have to enter into a strategic dialogue with the United States. What we have to do is to enter into a strategic dialogue with the world. India has not to be number two to China. That we cannot be. We will fail in our purpose. Even if Americans give us lots of toys, lots of guns and boats and so on, what are we going to do with them? I will come to it a moment later. The Clausevitzian doctrine of concentration of power is no longer applicable. What we are finding in the world today is that the whole international scene now depends upon governing images. There are certain images. When you think of Russia under Brezhnev, there was one governing image. When you think of Russia under Gorbachev, there is the governing image of peace, co-operation, goodwill for mankind. Today they say that if Gorbachev stands up from Western Europe, he will be elected President of any country in Western Europe. He is a world leader, loved by the people, not feared.

Therefore, what should be India’s governing image? Should our governing image be one of a big bully? Should we threaten our small neighbours? I don’t think so. I think we should stand up to America, stand up to Russia, stand up to China. If we show strength in that quarter, then, with our neighbours we can be a little indulgent.

India in the Emerging International System:

The situation, as far as India is concerned, I think, has changed in our favour. It has changed in our favour because this is what has been called, not the post-war era, but post war era. What is happening now is that the INF pact has been signed, and the whole idea of strategic force capability has become a little different. The Soviets have pulled out of Afghanistan, Namibia is heading for a solution, and we ourselves have shown that if we are asked, we can give help to Maldives, and also we went into Sri Lanka with the IPKF. So, the question which arises is: How will this system be evolved? The Americans and the Russians are on the decline. The Chinese thought that they were advancing. But they are facing the worst difficulties which any country is facing because their youth and their intelligentsia are against the Chinese ageing regime of Li Peng which consists only of people very very old and unable to respond to the needs of the new situation. So, India has a tremendous chance today. South Asia is poised on the threshold of change. India has emerged as a suitable core power and has established legitimacy in its interests in all the countries of South Asia.

Therefore, now the question is: can we project our image of a non-hegemonic power. Swami Vivekananda once said, “Have the strength of a giant. But don’t use it like a giant.” We must have power. But we must use it in a way that we create a nice environment around us. A democratically elected government in Pakistan is in place. Burma is experiencing some turmoil. In all these countries we should remember that we are on the same wavelength as Gorbachev. Gorbachev has taken initiatives which have brought to the forefront the powers, the alliance patterns of the region. What we have now seen is that there is stability in Indo-Soviet ties. Also China and Soviet Union have tried a détente or rapprochement. What India has been doing meanwhile is to diversify its defence, scientific and industrial linkages with Western Europe and Japan. This is for the good. Therefore, in the scenario which is unfolding, if we can develop a three-level strategy, I think, it would help us.

At the global level, I think, it is very important for India to react to what Gorbachev is doing. We cannot just sit back. Gorbachev has really created new thinking. I would have expected India to produce new thinking. I may be corrected. I have not seen a single statement of new thinking from South Block. I do not know what “Block” means. I am sorry to use a cheap pun. But the worst word we can use for a person who does not think is to say he is a blockhead.

So, something is wrong with our foreign policy because we do not respond. Here, Gorbachev is appealing to us again and again. He has even said that he believes in non-violence. I thought Dr. Bimal Prasad would refer to that because he often refers to this in our class lectures. He said again and again that there is possibility of looking. Since Mr. T.N. Kaul, Ambassador Kaul, has come here, I hope he will tell us what the new thinking of Gorbachev is because I think it is very important for us to understand it and very important for us to know it and feel it. So, that is at the global level.

Coming to the Asian level, I am all in favour of the normalisation process with China. I wrote the first article in “Pacific Review” which is published from Japan when our Vice-Chancellor of the JNU, Mr. Narayanan was sent to Peking to negotiate as Ambassador.

But, I would maintain that there is a way in which normalisation is achieved. It cannot be achieved by appeasement. It has to be achieved by the process of negotiation, by not giving up your claims. I was surprised that when the talks were starting between India and China, a spate of articles appeared in Indian press that Aksai Chin does not belong to India, written by Indians. Well, I really do not understand it. Is not the timing suspicious? One week before India-China talk starts, you produce all sorts of articles undermining the Indian situation? Why? Why should it happen? Aneurin Bevan once said, “I will not go to an international conference without my clothes on,” when he was asked whether he would ask for unilateral disarmament for Britain. India has nothing to be ashamed of regarding its right to Aksai Chin or its right to the McMahon Line. Well, we can have tough negotiations with China. We can bring in all sorts of questions as the Chinese themselves bring up. We should discuss the problem. We should be able to thrash it out. Therefore, the process of normalisation should work in order to evolve a framework for a co-operative regional state system.

China must not have its nuclear weapons targeted at us. China must withdraw the nuclear arsenal where it has been kept poised against us. We do not have any nuclear targeting against China. But China is targeting against us. I cannot forget that day when our Indian soldiers were released from captivity by the Chinese, the first thing that they did on reaching India was to pick up a little of the Indian soil and put it on their forehead. We cannot be untrue to those martyrs and those fighters for our freedom.

Thirdly, Indian policies have to be constructed within certain parameters. They have to be Indian parameters. The temptation to follow other parameters is very great. So, at the global level we have to make a re-assessment of the mutual role perception of India and the Soviet Union. Such a re-assessment would have to go beyond the rhetoric of the problems of disarmament and go into hard issues like nuclear policy, India-China relations, Indian Ocean as a zone of peace. We need to ask Mr. Gorbachev of his perceptions of the future Indian role in South Asia and Indian Pacific Region, especially about what he feels are the future projections.

Now I come to the question of our immediate neighbourhood. The SAARC summit of December, 1988 gave an opportunity to the leaders of India and Pakistan to appreciate mutual obligations, and the dialogue would have to go beyond the routine mention of peculiar bilateral irritants like the border. The dialogue would have to evolve a framework that would look into broader issues of world politics and regional compulsions. After all, we heard the glorious music of our poet Iqbal this morning. That is all common to us and Pakistan. Therefore, we have to discuss with Pakistan a wide array of problems, and our dialogue has to be widened.

The Sino-Indian dialogue has also to be widened. It has to include the rights of the people of Tibet. Pt. Nehru himself said in Parliament: “No solution of Tibet is going to be acceptable to India, which is not acceptable to the people of Tibet.” Mr. T.N. Kaul has written a very nice article some time ago on the rights of the Tibetan people. I would like to know from him whether he still adheres to that or whether he has changed his ideas.

But the point is that the agenda charted out by Mr. Rajiv Gandhi in his opening address at the SAARC summit in 1988 is a good agenda. But what has been done by our South Block mandarins? The Prime Minister had called for a three-point dialogue: war on poverty through co-operation in agriculture and industry; participation in regional sports and cultural activity and co-operative action on matters of environmental concern.

But I do not know how our policy towards Nepal is being drafted. We are causing environmental damage in Nepal everyday. Forests are being cut there. Mr. B.B. Vohra has been writing articles galore on water resources. I do not know whether they have become a part of the discussion of the SAARC. We have experts on water, on land, on other things. In Sweden there is a university specially created called the Linkoping University which deals with thematic studies like water, like communication, like problems relating to environment, ecology. But in India with our departmental and strictly casuistal way of functioning in universities which are narrowly conceived, we never arrange an inter-departmental or inter-mural, or inter-disciplinary meeting except when we want to advertise it. It does not naturally come to us. My suspicion is, if we are not able to create this political, diplomatic and economic dialogue in South Asia, we will unnecessarily fritter away our strength in activities like the Operation Brasstacks, showing our muscle here and there which will be just a show of power and get us nowhere. The American experience in Vietnam proved conclusively that low level applications of power do not lead anywhere.

I would, therefore, conclude by saying that something good happened in the world sometime back, and it is currently happening also. The first attempt was Nixon-Brezhnev era of détente, but it did not usher in an era of peace in the world. But fortunately Michael Gorbachev has given a certain degree of celerity to the process. He has linked it with the concerns of the third world. Therefore, there is a thrust for disarmament, peace and non-violence, and if this happens it is all for the good. If we miss this chance, I fear what may happen is that once again the super powers may go back to their old ways and then you may get what is worse, a super power condominium. The United States and the Soviet Union, instead of fighting each other, may just join each other. So, this is an opportunity which the National Thinkers Forum should not miss to create, as I would suggest, a special seminar and a special thinking on the way in which we have to utilise this opportunity which has been created by the sincerity of Gorbachev.

The problem is now and about the whole question as to how we would fill in the gap now between the world which exists, and the world which was there after the end of the Second World War in which the USA and the USSR played specific roles. Those two powers have withdrawn. Here, a regional state system has to have a play. It is countries like India which have to fill the empty space between the Soviet Union and the United States in the post war era. In South Asia, as in some other regions, the preliminary task of building an organisation has already been completed. The problem is now of building that architecture on it which Mr. Yashpal talked about this morning.

Thank you very much.

<< Back