Changing Indian Exceptionalism: Global and Regional Implications
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 11 Apr , 2024

In the current election season, the issue of India gifting the Kachchatheevu is land to Sri Lanka in 1974, has been raised as a poll issue by one party. Along with this ‘gift’, many Indians are now questioning similar ‘gifts’ like Aksai Chin to China, Kobe valley, Coco Island to Myanmar and offer of Rajouri Poonch to Pakistan. It is a pattern where India felt that it must be generous to neighbours to buy peace and friendship with them. India as a peaceful nation that never invaded neighbours and obtained its freedom ‘purely’ through peaceful Gandhian means, was at the core of our foreign and defence policies. Thus, India sought to distance itself from other nations that followed politics of power and built an image of a peaceful nation wedded to non-violence and world peace. This was Indian ‘exceptionalism’.

It is a universal truth that ‘All’ nation states are formed on the foundation of some sort of ‘exceptionalism’. The US prided itself as the oldest democracy and beacon of freedom in the world. It claimed to be a refuge for the world’s oppressed and a nation of immigrants. The inscription on the statue of Liberty in its first line asks ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’. It has come a long way from that to building walls to keep out immigrants. Russia, not very long ago in its ‘avatar’ as Soviet Union claimed to be the bastion of socialism and heaven for toiling masses of the world. In our neighbourhood, Pakistan claims to be a fortress of Islam. China, after all but abandoning Communism, has gone back to its image as the ‘Middle Kingdom’, an intellectual and power centre of the world. The Germany (Master Race), England and France based their nationalism on their race and culture, that was thought to be ‘exceptional’. British then invented the theory of ‘White Man’s Burden’ to justify its colonialism.

Historically, some sort of distinguishing quality/attribute has always been the raison d’etre of a separate existence of a nation state.

A famous film song of the 1950s that is often quoted,  ’De di hame Azadi bina khadga bina dhal’ (Gandhiji gave us freedom without using sword or shield) was the notion that was nurtured and became part of the foundation of Indian defence and foreign policies. This is in spite of the fact that within two months of getting freedom, India had to fight a war to retain Kashmir. The Gandhian Satyagraha and non- violent movement were a spectacular failure in 1955/56 against Portuguese in Goa. Goa had to be liberated using military force in Dec 1961.  Despite these aberrations, peace at all cost remained the major plank of Indian foreign and defence policies. Against Pakistan we remained on strategic defensive while Pakistan continued fight a proxy war over Kashmir and used terrorism as a low cost no risk option. Against China, we sought to buy peace by keeping the border infra structure undeveloped signalling a resolve to fight on Chinese terms and that to on our own territory.

The nadir of this Indian exceptionalism as apostle of peace was reached when in Nov 2008 Pakistani proxies launched an attack on the financial capital of India, Mumbai and our only reaction was to send protest notes.

In May 1999, Pakistani forces posing to be Kashmiri freedom fighters infiltrated and occupied posts across a mutually accepted Line of Control (LOC). Our response to this transgression was purely defensive in terms of confining operations to our side of LOC. We unilaterally declared that we will not cross the LOC. The Army paid a heavy price in human lives to retake the posts. Not learning from the past, again in 21st century, we were ready to withdraw from Siachen glacier that was defended at great human and material cost.

2014 change of regime in India signalled more than just change of ruling parties. It started a process whereby the violent stream of Indian freedom movement, as represented by Azad Hind Fauj and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, was recognized as having played a significant part in freedom movement. The role of Gandhiji and his non-violent movement in making it a mass movement continues to be recognized but is no longer given the sole credit for freedom. Installing statue of Bose next to India gate was the visible symbol of this change.

In Sep 2016 in response to terror attack on Uri garrison in Kashmir, India launched several ground attacks on Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Earlier also cross border raids did take place, but these strikes were strategic in nature and spread over almost entire LOC. Unlike earlier times, India not only acknowledged these attacks but also warned Pakistan that all future transborder attacks will meet retaliatory strikes. This was a marked departure from Kargil 1999 when we unilaterally had declared that we will not cross the LOC. In a further reiteration of this policy in Feb 2019, in retaliation for Pulwama bomb blasts, India launched air strikes inside Pakistan targeting terror camp at Balakote.

Since 2016, India has reversed it policy of not building infrastructure on China border. Today India has created road and airfield network almost at par with the Chinese. When this led to clashes in Ladakh in 2020, India aggressively occupied dominating heights in Ladakh and checkmated the Chinese.

India’s transformation from a Gandhian peace-loving nation to a ‘normal’ nation is complete. The apparent hunting of wanted terrorists on Pakistani soil has completed the circle. 

Indian exceptionalism has changed from emphasis on its peace heritage to Indian culture and civilization. The change began with the Prime Minister delivering his first address in UNGA in Hindi. Propagating yoga and Indian culture and philosophy as unique has become the foundation of new India. Colonial legacies are being dismantled. Its only time that the final step will be taken to relinquish membership of The Common Wealth and finally bury the colonial past.The peace overtures continue but with a caveat that India will use force when necessary to defend itself and its interests.

The transformation is irreversible as no successor regime can back track on the active retaliation policy. This has become the new ‘normal’ for India.

It is time that the countries of the region and world at large take note of the new framework  of foreign and defence policy that has emerged.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

Former infantry soldier who was head of War History division, Min of Def, Research fellowships including Fulbright, Kennedy Centre, IDSA, USI and Philosophical Society. 30 years research of conflicts in Kashmir, NE, Ireland, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Author of 7 books on military history.

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