A policy to smooth out the diplomatic bumps

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2010, 12:00am

On the eve of India's celebrations marking its diamond jubilee as a republic recently, a strategic partnership was formed with South Korea. Yet another example of the multilayered and multifaceted international relations system being crafted by India, the partnership is a fitting reminder of the civilisational dynamic of Indian foreign relations.

India's approach to international relations is motivated by a world view radically different from the European view of 'us' and 'them'. First formulated by thinkers such as Hegel and Weber, their way of thinking became hegemonic and even colonised the minds of many Westernised Asians. The European view divides the world into blocks, irreconcilably alienated from each other. The fundamental flaw of this arises from the question: what divides man from man?

For Hegel, mankind could be divided along geographical lines. In the early 1800s, he formulated the self/other divide and cast the self, a European, as good and contrasted them with Indians, writing that, as a European 'crosses the Indus, he encounters the most repellent characteristics, pervading every single feature of society'. Unsurprisingly, such a view sparked the conquering instinct in man, led to colonialism and then the cold war - all schemes operating on the principle of subsuming and then converting the 'other'.

In contrast, India's civilisational dynamic sees no divides. The ancient notion of dharma, laid out in the Mahabharata and known to all Indians, lays the emphasis on a unified cosmos, assumes we are all essentially the same and encourages reliance on experience because each one of us has a history and inclinations, which creates variety. Inevitably, we must all interact because, as the Mahabharata makes clear, we live in a crowded world and people constantly bump into each other. The emphasis is on empathy.

India practises a diplomacy of engagement, not domination. Open to forming relations with any nation willing to help it, what is first required is to know what India wants: to raise millions out of abject poverty. The underlying principle is to avoid conflict.

South Korea is a key to this plan. South Korea's Posco is setting up a US$12 billion steel plant in Orissa - a state which remains trapped by poverty. The project is the single biggest foreign investment into India. Second, South Korea is an influential player in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, which India views as critical in terms of attracting technology and investment, and as a region which can absorb skilled Indian labour.

In keeping to its civilisational approach to diplomacy, India is not practising something unique. Korean president Syngman Rhee's racist attitudes towards Indian troops during the Korean war meant that, although they provided sterling service in Korea, winning the admiration of Americans, India was excluded from the Korean Conference of 1954. The fact that, today, Korea is able to make India its 13th strategic partner demonstrates that Asians are capable of overcoming divides. If Korea can do it, then so can the rest of the world.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based historian. dattaray@gmail.com