Oslo Notes: North by northwest, but where’s the rest?

September 19, 2010


What makes a country matter to another?


The conference in Oslo was part of a large and important collaborative research project between IFS, Norway and IDSA, India on strategic thinking in India. Unusual for security studies conferences, the focus in this one was on philosophy and thought that underpin policy and behaviour relating to security. The historical overview began with the Indian epics and finished up with surveys of perceptions and writing in the post-colonial period with regard to particular relationships.

Nothing new about it, but the most striking fact about discussions over two and a half days was that India’s northern neighbours and the U.S. had a complete stranglehold on the worldview reflected in the discussions. Coming from Chennai, sitting in the city where many rounds of Sri Lankan talks have taken place, Sri Lanka’s invisibility was striking.

What accounts for the dominance of the northwestern neighbourhood, China and the United States in Indian thinking? One can suggest some explanations.

Relative proximity to the Indian capital and its resident security elite is one possible reason. Another might well be history—the Khyber Pass has been gateway to migration and invasion alike, and the unsettled border with China holds innumerable potential gateways to which the Indian media has been drawing attention recently. Moreover, the postcolonial history of India’s foreign relations has been centered on unresolved ideational and territorial national identity issues, and their focus has been the Indian northwest.

The nation-building process in India has also created a historical narrative of India that emphasises and valorises periods when pan-Indian polities were created, over those when regional powers were dominant and mutually competitive. The latter were usually centered around the coasts and the Deccan, while pan-Indian polities found their centre in the Gangetic plain, first in Pataliputra (Patna today) and then in Kanauj, Delhi and Agra. The periods where regional kingdoms dominated were often periods when oceanic trade, colonisation and conquest were the norm rather than large land expeditions—the Pala and Chola kingdoms are prime instances. They were focused on Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and even East Africa as opposed to the Hindukush-Himalayan neighbourhoods.

More discomfiting is the possibility that as foundations, universities and think-tanks in the west commission more and more work in the area of studies, their own interests are reflected in the work of people they engage with or employ. The likelihood of media attention directing academic attention is just as disconcerting.

One interesting conversation I found myself having was about the need for a history of maritime activity in India. To this research wishlist, I would add the need for a critical intellectual history that asked why some regions dominate strategic thinking in India, more than others do. Realpolitik cannot be answer enough, can it?

At the end of two and a half days of deliberation, our Norwegian hosts raised the question: Where does Norway figure in India’s strategic horizon? That’s a very hard question to answer when the line of strategic vision does not quite move 360 degrees but stays fixated on a particular geopolitical zone.

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