This holy month of Ramzan makes one remember the brotherhood of Islam and India’s policies especially as regards its Muslim neighbours and the Islamic world generally. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s near obsession with the US and the Anglophone West should not obliterate India’s ties with Central Asia, Iran and the Middle East, which have a longer and richer history.
The Iranian port of Chabahar, which the PM recently inaugurated, has immense trade and strategic importance. The port and the highway through Iran into Afghanistan, paralleling a long stretch of Pakistan’s border with Iran, will connect India directly with Central Asia. In doing so, India does need to recognise the Chinese presence in the region and respect it.
China is blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It can also create difficulties in Kashmir, Ladakh, and large parts of the Northeast. Despite the dangers of its economy eventually slowing down, the Chinese are capable of humiliating any of the major powers today, and it can easily buy out Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, hemming India from all sides given these countries’ dislike of India’s big brotherly attitude.
As it is, neighbours are the most difficult to keep happy, and India has over the years managed just the opposite. The hyper-nationalist aggression does not help either; one cannot threaten to nuke neighbours and think they will merely sulk silently.
Thus, India must reassure neighbours that its geo-political ambitions are not at the cost of their security; and that it can indeed provide leadership in safeguarding mutual interests of all South Asian countries. In this context, some insights from medieval rulers’ foreign policy can help. The Khaljis to a certain extent, the Tughlaqs and especially the Mughals ruled a greater part of the subcontinent with varying degrees of direct control and autonomy in large swathes of territory from Kandahar in the west to Kamrup in the east and from Kashmir in the north to what is now called Kanyakumari in the south.
Rulers such as Muhammad Tughlaq, who is often at the butt end of jokes on political fiascos, sometimes wrongly, the most capable of the Pathan empire-builders in India, Sher Shah Sur, and the Mughal patriarch, Akbar the Great, had shown international ambitions, though with little success in terms of breaking into Central Asia and Iran; yet Indian presence in those regions was profound with many occasions of mutual cooperation, which could be seen in mercantile networks as well as religious, intellectual and artistic exchange and circulation of ideas in a connected Eurasia. In much of these interactions, India would be a major beneficiary without appearing to ruffle any feathers.
Leaders, whether in politics or business, can possibly learn a lesson or two from historical experiences of medieval and early modern era, when the major portion of new world’s bullion was being brought to India in a climate of international commerce heavily loaded in India’s favour.
Rulers had created conditions for the market to flourish in big cities supplemented by a number of regional centres.
Poor people might still be suffering, but the consumption patterns would show the well-to-do were leading lives at par with richest in the world.
Thus, people in Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran, Uzbek Central Asia and Mughal India were part of an integrated world which competed with Europe through the early modern era; societies in those parts still look up to India to take a lead and show the way. Therefore, the best approach would be to help form an apposite environment for mutual cooperation.
This will require a broad-based political theory and vision of the kind successful empire-builders and rulers of ancient and medieval India invoked. There is certainly no harm in styling oneself as the Chakravarti king of ancient India or a medieval Caliph for that matter.
However, rulers were not merely charging on their horses, they also alighted to rule. Some of them must have believed conquest was to govern, and successful ones did so equitably.
Tughlaq’s military campaign across Himalayas had ended in an embarrassing disaster, Sher Shah’s naval expedition against Iran was aborted by his untimely death in a blast at Kalinjar, and Akbar’s forcible attempt to style himself as the caliph of the age ended in a whimper. We also have the 12th-13th century example of Qutb-ud-Din Bakhtiyar Khalji, who having swept the Indo-Gangetic plains through Bihar and Bengal, led a disastrous campaign into the Northeast with a wild dream of conquering Central Asia across territories controlled by the Chinese.
A hawkish approach does not pay dividends. Diplomatic overtures might yield better results, as instances of frequent reception of envoys and exchange of gifts from medieval centuries amply manifest.
Foreign policy mandarins might well draw their lessons from the past.