Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India and the World since Independence: Choices & Compulsions

  • Ambassador (Retd.) Skand R. Tayal

    By: Ambassador (Retd.) Skand R. Tayal
    Venue: Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam
    Date: May 06, 2022

I thank the Mahatma Gandhi University Kottayam and the Ministry of External Affairs for giving me an opportunity to interact with the students of international relations and politics at this prestigious University.

At the time of independence in 1947, India’s leadership faced many immediate challenges. India had been partitioned by the colonizers and millions of refugees needed to be resettled. There were more than 500 independent States which needed to be integrated peacefully in the emerging Indian Union. (Even Travancore initially wanted to be an independent kingdom!)

Then on 26 October 1947, Pakistani tribals invaded the Kashmir Valley. The then leadership reposed faith in the United Nations and took the Pakistani aggression in Kashmir to the UN Security Council on 1 January 1948. It was a policy CHOICE.

The then Congress leadership wanted to keep the outgoing European colonizers away from the affairs of emerging newly independent countries of Asia and Africa. In pursuit of this goal as Interim Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru hosted an ‘Asian Relations Conference’ in March 1947 in which delegations from 28 countries including Tibet had participated. This was followed by the 1954 Bandung Conference dedicated to Afro-Asian Solidarity.

This was an expression of Indian’s CHOICE to insulate the country from the East-West ideological divide.

India was one of the first countries to recognize Peoples’ Republic of China on 1 April 1950. It was clearly a CHOICE in an attempt to work together with the new rulers of China for peace and stability in Asia.

India chose to accept PRC’s claim over Tibet in 1954. India gave up its trading post in Lhasa and did not insist on settling the Tibet-India border. This was clearly a poor policy choice.

In 1961, India together with the leaders of Egypt, Yugoslavia and Tanzania launched the Nonaligned Movement to create political space to newly decolonized countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was a good policy choice for that time.

In October 1962, Chinese PLA attacked India. India’s humiliating defeat COMPELLED India to swing towards the United States for support and defense equipment. Prime Minister Nehru’s letter dated 19 November 1962 to US President John F Kennedy is a must read in this context.

In the meantime, India CHOSE to develop strong friendly relations with the Post-Stalin Soviet Union. The 1955 visit of Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin and CPSU Secretary Nikita Khrushchev was a resounding success where they publicly supported the accession of J&K to the Indian Union. Subsequently, USSR exercised its Veto in the UN Security Council in 1957 to kill a resolution seeking to introduce UN forces in Kashmir.

In the context of India’s principled abstentions in UNSC and UNGA on the current Ukraine-Russia conflict, the students of international relations need to remember that Soviet Union exercised its Veto six times to rescue India from facing a hostile Security Council led by the United States. Soviet veto in favour of India was twice on the Kashmir issue (1957 and 1962) once on the liberation of Goa (1961) and thrice during the 1971 Bangladesh War.

The September 1965 India-Pakistan conflict was followed by the Tashkent Agreement in January 1966. Was there any COMPULSION for Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in signing that Agreement will remain shrouded in mystery.

The events of 1971 leading to creation of Bangladesh was a test of India’s foreign policy and the might of our armed forces and both emerged triumphant. India was isolated as the US led Western Bloc backed Pakistan. India was therefore COMPELLED to sign the August 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation.

The 18 May 1974 Peaceful Nuclear Explosion in Pokhran desert was again a strategic CHOICE. India could withstand the ensuing US led sanctions and pressure as India had, by then, attained self-sufficiency in food grains because of the outstanding success of our Green Revolution.

Foreign Policy took a backseat in 1975-77 period of Internal Emergency and the 1980s because of the internal, political instability. The insidious ‘Khalistan’ movement was being supported by Pakistan and some inimical elements in UK and Canada. Their propaganda was effectively countered by our diplomats abroad.

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the end of the Cold War and redrawing of international strategic equations.

The then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao had long experience of working as India’s Foreign Minister and made wise and important CHOICES. The first was opening the economy for foreign direct investment. Breaking the shackles of the past ideology, India recognized Israel and also opened an office in Taiwan. India CHOSE the path of ‘Strategic Autonomy’ and launched the ‘Look East Policy’ which has been further strengthened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the ‘Act East Policy’.

The five nuclear tests of May 1998 were clearly a strategic CHOICE by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government. It heralded the emergence of India as a strong power with rapidly growing economy. India was recognized as an effective force for global stability and peace. Gradually it led to the de-hyphenation of India from Pakistan. Since the beginning of this century, India is now seen in the same league as China, Russia, Japan etc.

The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in United States focused world’s attention on Islamic religious fundamentalism and terrorism. India CHOSE to join the global pushback against terrorism without putting boots on the ground outside our borders.

On the changing regimes in Afghanistan, India has always taken a principled position in favour of the long-suffering people of Afghanistan. India has till now CHOSEN not to deal directly with the Taliban led provisional Afghan government.

On Ukraine also, India has CHOSEN to take a principled position as articulated by External Affairs Minister Shri S Jaishankar in the Parliament on 6 April 2022. Despite a succession of high level visits from Western countries to persuade India to change its balanced stand, India has not been compelled to give in. This reflects both the inherent logic of our position which is in favour of peace and an appreciation by India’s interlocutors of the sound basis of our arguments.

The core objective of India’s foreign policy is to ensure the security and territorial integrity of the country. Another core objective is to ensure a stable and peaceful external environment for India’s economic development.

As EAM, Shri Jaishankar declared in the Parliament that India’s approach to foreign policy is guided by:

- Our National Beliefs & Values
- Our National Interests
- and Our National Strategy

I will conclude by affirming that India is a strong nuclear weapon power with the 4th largest economy and equipped to fully exercise its ‘Strategic Autonomy’ on all matters of bilateral, regional or global importance.

South Block has the choice to pursue its national interest and no foreign power can compel it from changing this balanced course.