From 1934 to 1959, a group of Indian intellectuals published eighteen volumes of the Journal of the Greater India Society, in which they presented a history of Indian internationalism. Their writings have shaped Indian foreign policy ever since.1
The patron saint of the Greater India Society was Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet. In defining Indian identity, Tagore had begun to look beyond India’s borders to its Asian neighbors. Ever the romantic, he had a vision of India as being at the centre of a spiritual—as opposed to a materialistic and Western–civilization, based on the commonly held humanistic ideals of Hinduism and Buddhism and extending from Southeast Asia to Japan.
In formulating an Indo-centric Asian humanism, Tagore was building on research by European indologists, who at the time were slowly piecing together evidence of wide-ranging Indian influences across Asia. Many of these indologists had also taught the founding members of the Greater India Society while they were students at the University of Paris.
Though relatively progressive, some of their research was strongly influenced by social Darwinist theories. In Southeast Asia, for example, the operating assumption was that the region was a blank slate till the “more civilized” Indians came along. Consider, for example, Hendrik Kern’s writings on the subject: “The Hindus have freely given all their knowledge…to the natives and in so doing they have laid the foundation to a great literature and…art.”2
One of the more chauvinistic voices was R. C. Majumdar, who conjured a hyper-nationalist history of an Indian Golden Age, when Southeast Asian nations were Indian colonies. But unlike the European imperialists, the Indians came in peace and the natives “cheerfully submitted to their foreign masters.”3
To Indian nationalists fed the dominant British narrative of a depraved and uncivilised India, it was only too tempting to fall for this idealized past. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, wrote of his delight when he first read about ancient India’s links to Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.
Romantic visions of a pan-Asian future with India at its spiritual center soon came up against unpleasant realities, however.
The first was that despite the rhetoric of common feeling, contemporary India actually had very little person-to-person contact with other Asian nations.
Second, Japan, one of the most vocal proponents of pan-Asianism, was revealing itself to be increasingly imperialist.
Third, in China, a country with which the Indian nationalists had expressed a special solidarity, the Guomindang appeared to have aligned with the European capitalists.
Fourth, anti-Indian feeling in what were then Burma, Ceylon and Malaya, was rising based on a fear of being overwhelmed by excessive Indian immigration.
Given its long flirtation with pan-Asianism, independent India was reluctant to abandon its ideals. Pan-Asianist thought formed the basis for much of Indian foreign policy in the initial decades of independence.
Again, Nehru asked if it were not “natural” that the countries of Asia should form some sort of permanent organization to promote common goals. Again, he positioned India at the moral center of any such movement.4
The nail in the coffin for Nehru’s pan-Asian dreams, however, was the Sino-Indian war of 1962, which gave lie to the myth of Sino-Indian friendship. On the Indian side, the letdown was immense.
The unfortunate outcome was that for a long time following the collapse of the early pan-Asian visions, the Indian foreign policy establishment refused to look eastward at all.
That changed in the early Nineties, when with the rise of a muscular Hindu nationalism, interest in India’s links with the East was revived. Some of the rhetoric echoed R.C. Majumdar’s.
Nonetheless, current Indian policy in the East, though it may have roots in a partial fantasy, has shown a markedly practical bent. Perhaps having learnt its lesson, India is now focused less on positioning itself as a spiritual leader in Asia and working harder to build effective alliances with its Asian neighbours.