Unresolved territorial disputes with neighbours have been a major part of India’s life since Independence. Nearly seventy years after the great Partition and many wars, India is struggling to find a solution to the Kashmir question with Pakistan. Although Delhi took a big step towards cleaning up the boundary with Bangladesh in 2011 it is finding it hard to get it approved in the Parliament. Although the territories to be exchanged by Delhi and Dhaka are rather small, there is considerable political resistance in the two large states bordering Bangladesh—Assam and West Bengal.
Although the contested border with China has been peaceful since the late 1980s, talks on resolving the dispute have stalled and tensions are rising along the undefined Line of Actual Control.
What is it that makes India, China and Pakistan so reluctant to cede territory, even when the costs of a prolonged conflict have been stupendous and the benefits of a pragmatic compromise immense? This is the question that Itty Abraham addresses with much insight and wisdom in How India Became Territorial. In examining India’s historical experience with nation-building, Abraham seeks to explain the deeper sources of endemic territorial conflict among the postcolonial states.
Abraham’s work is divided into two parts. In the first, he deploys critical theory to parse the relationship between territory and foreign policy and puts the story of the modern nation state in perspective. The author argues that the contested process of decolonization is at the root of territorial conflict in the postcolonial world and examines the political consequences of making a spatially defined homeland as the pre-condition for national identity and international acceptance. Abraham concludes that the refusal to cede even small parts of territory is about the presumed national identity and legitimacy rather than about the potential economic gains of holding on to them.
The second part of the book turns out be strikingly innovative as it connects India’s territoriality to its diaspora and geopolitics and dissects India’s foreign policy practice in these domains. These are uncharted waters in the contemporary studies of India’s foreign policy. Abraham’s valuable expedition becomes an exciting one as he navigates us back to the pre-Independence era to get a better sense of India’s foreign policy conundrums.
Abraham rightly argues that the contested nature of India’s geopolitics and its approach to overseas Indians can be traced back to the inter-war period. He demonstrates the great value of returning to the pre-Independence era to understand the deeper sources of India’s foreign policy—in the construction of India’s territoriality under the Raj as well as the nationalist imagination of India’s place in the region and the world.
The book is, in essence, about India’s unending struggle to come to terms with the borders and citizenship. As Abraham puts it: ‘Diaspora is a state practice that separates the territorially bound nation from its overseas community. It produces “insiders without”, namely nationals who live beyond the state’s territorial borders. Geopolitics is a practice that, in the process of creating state borders that are defensible and secure, results in the creation of “outsiders within”, nonnationals who live within recognized state borders.’
Abraham discusses India’s changing approaches to the diaspora in recent years, but insists that the new appreciation of the non-resident Indian is only a partial adaptation that is tilted to the successful ‘upper class’ and ‘upper caste’ sections of the overseas communities. Independent India’s geopolitics, Abraham argues, have stayed close to the contours defined by the Raj and have tended to treat large parts of its frontiers as buffers rather than as parts of the heartland and there by accentuating its national security problems.
The book is original and interesting when he brings together the discussion on diaspora and geopolitics to bear upon India’s on-going engagement with Pakistan. ‘The Muslim majority state of Pakistan that now interrupts colonial India’s northwestern strategic frontier can be seen as the spatial intersection of both geopolitics and diaspora: in both cases it also stands as their ultimate negation.’
‘The people of Pakistan’, Abraham says, ‘are India’s closest diaspora yet are also, because they are predominantly Muslim, an alien corpus that can never be incorporated into the national body. The Pakistani state occupies a territory, that due to its sovereignty, highlights the breakdown of the colonial geopolitical scheme that India long relied on for its military security by extending its frontiers far beyond its national heartland.’
Abraham asserts that Pakistan represents an irreconciliable contradiction to the ‘territorially bound and imagined India’. In the end the author’s proposition that India must deterritorialize its worldview to seek reconciliation with Pakistan may not be as subversive as one might think. Two prime ministers over the last decade and a half that represented very different parties, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, have both sought solutions to the Kashmir question by fudging the question of territorial sovereignty over the disputed state.
The proposition that India must change the nature of its borders with not just Pakistan but with all its South Asian neighbours has indeed got some policy traction in recent years. The problem has been the lack of political will in Delhi and its inability to construct a popular argument and mobilize public support that can help overcome the scepticism of the security establishment.
Looking at the wider region, the idea of Asian unity was at the heart of the self-awareness of the postcolonial consciousness in the East. After considerable initial difficulties, East Asia over the last few decades seemed to go beyond the narrow territorial vision and promote significant regional integration. The intensification of territorial disputes between China and its East Asian neighbours as well as the ethnic conflict within the region underline the difficulties in overcoming the territorial trap.
It is a pity that Abraham’s fluently written and finely argued work is not aimed at the general audience. Abraham’s rich and rewarding discussion on India’s territoriality and foreign policy deserve a wider airing beyond the ivory tower.
- Raja Mohan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a Contributing Editor for The Indian Express.