International Relations (IR) theory has been a relative latecomer to South Asia. Until a few years ago, much of the IR literature in South Asia—and indeed on South Asia—had been unabashedly untheoretical. But the last decade has seen a flowering of very deliberately theoretical work in South Asian IR. This flowering was made possible by renewed interest in South Asia in American academia and by a growing crop of South Asian IR scholars, some of them trained outside the region. It has been propelled by a strong sense among many South Asian IR scholars that the region had neither engaged with nor contributed much to the global IR theory debates and by a determined commitment to reverse this lacuna. E. Sridharan has been at the forefront in this endeavour. This two volume set of essays was preceded by an earlier collection of South Asian IR theory works focused on nuclear weapons and deterrence in the region which also Sridharan edited. And several years back, Kanti Bajpai and Siddharth Mallavarapu edited another two volume set of Indian IR theory essays.
The volumes are a good barometer of how far IR theory has developed in the region but also of how far it has to go. The good news first: what these volumes demonstrate is that there are now a fairly large number of IR scholars in the region who are interested in theoretical explorations and actively engage with IR theory. This suggests that the traditional antipathy among South Asian IR scholars towards theory has diminished. Diminished, because experience suggests that there is still a residual level of dismissiveness towards theoretical concerns among IR scholars. Another caveat that needs to be mentioned is that much of this work is being carried on in India. In this two volume set, for example, sixteen of the twenty-two essays are from Indian contributors.
These essays suggest a number of other conclusions also about the state of IR theory in the region. One of the most notable features of these essays is their inordinate focus on large issues and questions and almost complete avoidance of analysis of specific and narrow policies or issues. There are three essays that analyse regional issues: Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Aparajita Biswas examine regional integration and Varun Sahni looks at regional security. Others focus on bilateral relations: Nalini Kant Jha and Mohammad Humayun Kabir spotlight Bangladesh-India relations. Ayesha Siddiqa examines the evolution of civil-military relations across South Asia, in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. A few essays are purely theoretical explorations: two essays by Shibashis Chatterjee outline a critique of structural realism and a deconstruction and double reading of South Asian security order; two more essays by Sanjay Chaturvedi sets out the Hindutva worldview and IR theory and the challenge of diaspora. Only two essays (out of twenty-two) focus on anything narrower: in two excellent essays, Rajesh Basrur and Rahul Mukherji focus on the Sri Lankan policy reversal towards India in the early 1990s.
This excessive focus on large issues should be a concern to IR theorists. While explorations of general problems of war and peace, bilateral relations and regional integration are all important issues and need to be addressed by South Asian IR theorists, the almost exclusive focus on these issues is an indication of disciplinary immaturity. Specific policies are almost never used to test, improve, modify or generate theories though they are better suited to such work. There is not a single essay here on a particular international outcome or foreign policy decision or policy.
There are a number of possible reasons for this focus on large issues. The most obvious is that addressing such large issues is easier than conducting detailed, intricate policy case studies. Such policy case studies are difficult in the absence of adequate access to the documentary record. But it is also possible that those of us doing IR work in the region are using this as an excuse because even in the absence of the kind of documentary access, we can still attempt such studies. Srinath Raghavan’s War and Peace in Modern India, a detailed analysis of Nehru’s grand strategy, is an example of what is possible with an innovative approach to sourcing primary data. But it is possible to attempt such works even without being as innovative. Indeed, Sridharan’s earlier edited volume focussed on nuclear politics and deterrence theory in South Asia, a much narrower area. And the large quantity of theoretical work on nuclear issues in South Asia belie the normal claim that lack of data and documentary access is the key problem preventing such detailed work by IR theorists in the region. If work on a narrow issue such as nuclear policy can be repeatedly attempted, there is little reason why such work cannot be attempted in other areas of IR.
Another noteworthy feature of the contributions in these two volumes—which also reflects the entire field—is the dominance of what might be loosely called critical theories, which includes the various ‘posties’ (postmodernism, postcolonialism, poststructuralism etc.), plus social constructivism. A couple of the essays could be characterized as being Liberal in orientation; another couple are somewhat eclectic in approach; but the vast majority explicitly follow the critical theory path. (Oddly, there is also no feminist contribution here though there is anecdotal evidence of serious interest in such approaches in the field). But there is not a single essay that could be characterized as Realist in orientation. The absence of Realists among Indian IR theorists was noted in the previously mentioned volume by Bajpai and Mallavarapu also; clearly this is a region wide phenomenon. Indeed, it might be even wider than the region because surveys of IR faculty in the US have also demonstrated that Realism is not the dominant theoretical perspective. However, unlike in South Asia and other parts of the world, Realism does constitute the second most prominent theoretical perspective among American IR scholars. Still, the antipathy to Realism among South Asian IR scholars is somewhat unfortunate. Delivering the E.H. Carr Memorial Lecture in Aberystwyth in 2004, John Mearsheimer noted a similar anti-Realist tendency among British IR scholars and argued that greater diversity of theoretical perspectives was necessary for the intellectual health of the field in Britain. This could not be truer in the South Asian context.
This might also partly explain the obsession with grand themes: while critical theory serves a useful function in highlighting the weakness of Realism and Liberalism, they are not particularly useful in explaining specific state behaviour or international political outcomes. Thus theoretical and methodological choices are a serious limitation on the kind of case studies and theoretical works that Indian IR theorists can attempt. The domination of critical theory in South Asian IR suggests that this unfortunate obsession will not end soon.
“…unlike in South Asia and other parts of the world, Realism does constitute the second most prominent theoretical perspective among American IR scholars. Still, the antipathy to Realism among South Asian IR scholars is somewhat unfortunate.”
Despite the clear domination of critical theory approaches among South Asian IR theorists, there is also a strange defensiveness in these essays, evidenced by strident criticism of Realism. Almost every essay starts out by decrying the utility of Realism. It is difficult to square the persistence and frequency of this criticism with the almost total absence of Realists in South Asian IR theory unless we assume that these critics are spreading the Realist net wide enough to catch IR literature that are popularly characterized as ‘Realist’ but which are not Realist in the IR theory sense. Indeed, an essay by Shibashish Chatterjee does characterize opinions of most Indian security analysts as ‘Realists’ but this is rather simplistic labelling because as Chatterjee himself points out, their views are a confusing mix that include opposing and incompatible perspectives (centrality of state but recognition of the influence of de-territorialized forces, focus on military security but also inclusion of ‘comprehensive’ security ideas and so on). Most of these perspectives are not ‘Realist’ but might usefully be characterized as Nationalism and its variants. This confusion about what constitutes ‘Realism’ is a common one even if it is unfortunate, particularly from IR theorists. Realists have constantly battled such labelling, most recently in the conflation of American Neo-conservatives with Realism but it does appear that for Realists this is an issue that requires constant engagement. State-centrism and power-centrism are essential but insufficient markers of Realism.
Clearly, South Asian IR scholars’ engagement with theory has some way to go but it is on its way. South Asian IR theorists need to figure out whether the focus on theory necessarily means that they can only talk to and write for each other or whether they can use theory to contribute to greater understanding of both regional IR history and contemporary policy challenges. This is the next big challenge for South Asian IR theorists.