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Interrogating International Relations: India's Strategic Practice and the Return of History

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  • March 14, 2011
    Book Discussion Forum

    Speaker: Dr Jayashree Vivekanandan (Senior Research Associate with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi)

    Chair: Mr. N.S. Sisodia

    IDSA invited Dr. Jayashree Vivekanandan, to discuss her book “Interrogating International Relations” in which she has analyzed the centrality of context and contingency in cultural explanation of state behaviour, that includes analysis of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s grand strategy.

    Vivekanandan stated in her opening remarks that strategic history is understudied and under theorised and that her endeavour through the book was to problematise and theorise India’s strategic history. She advocated for a much deeper understanding of the historical and cultural aspects in studying international relations.

    She began by giving an overview of the Mughal state under Akbar who personified the empire. According to Vivekanandan, unlike other empires, the Mughal Empire did not disintegrate into smaller princely states. She described it as a precursor to the modern Indian state. Despite being a war state, the emphasis was on negotiating differences and on a calibrated use of force. One of the tactics employed during that period to diffuse the threat was the Mansabdari system, which assimilated peasants into the military. This form of system resulted in a highly militarised society. Another aspect that was an intrinsic part of Mughal grand strategy was power projection. Enormous processions involving the length and breadth of the society combined with mobile capital were extremely symbolic in projecting power.

    Describing the discursive aspect, Vivekanandan highlighted the prominence of debates and dialogues. To ascertain how effective Mughal Empire’s soft power was, she studied the Rajput and the Deccan Kingdom. The Rajput kingdom displayed significant similarities with the Mughal system in the military structure and witnessed much lesser conflicts. On the other hand, the peripheral Deccan kingdom witnessed higher levels of coercion which could be attributed to lack of normative appeal for the Mughal system.

    In the book, Vivekanandan examines India’s strategic history to verify and provide counterarguments for certain cultural representations held during the colonial period. Firstly, the commonly held notion about the caste system was that it stifled individualism and led to the formation of a fractured society. For this reason, India could not ever present a united front. The negation to this claim, according to Vivekanandan, was that there were widespread variations in terms of caste systems throughout India that defied generalization. Secondly, on the issue of violence and sovereignty, the colonial predisposition was that India was characterised by endemic violence. Conquests were not invasions by outside powers, but were internal; that is, the threat existed within the land. The negation offered by Vivekanandan to this argument was that there was a systemic hierarchical model prevalent that strengthened and fostered order in the country. On the third point of rationality, the notion was that India was not dwelling on the realm of reality. India was considered too other worldly to understand strategic affairs. Vivekanandan contested this claim by asserting that there was a highly developed rationality system. Fourthly, cultural representations of India in terms of spiritualism typified India as transcendental. The perception was that Indians had developed a sense of fatalism which prevented them from strategising. Vivekanandan challenged this by pointing to the Lokayata philosophy which bases itself on materialism. Lastly, on the subject of cyclical history, the widely held notion was that India had no sense of linearity in terms of history with negligible importance to recurrence of events. Vivekanandan countered this argument by pointing out that India lived in linear times and offered as a possible example, the Vedas which had a twelve month calendar. She also commented that arcs of progression of time were evident in India’s strategic history.

    Elaborating on the disciplinary point of view, she asserted that there is an unimaginative treatment of India’s strategic past, utilising only selective periods of history. She highlighted that with the onset of the Cold War, culture was politicised and was seen as an identifiable national characteristic. She concluded by urging for a rethink of three notions; firstly, international systems, she argued, must go beyond the Westphalian State; she suggested that empires should be considered an international system in its own right, secondly, culture should be understood in more dynamic terms and lastly, power should be interpreted in its social context.

    Report prepared by Pratik Jakhar, Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.