Studying international relations in India

Supporters of veteran Indian social activist Hazare wave India's national flags at the India Gate during a hunger strike by Hazare and his team members in New Delhi

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editor's note:

This transcript of the Keynote Address was delivered by Shivshankar Menon, Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings India at the All-India International and Area Studies Convention 2019 at Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 30, 2019.

Thank you for asking me to the All India International and Area Studies Convention 2019. You have chosen an ambitious topic: “Ascending India: Reflections on Global and Regional Dimensions” and have a packed agenda in the next three days.

I must confess to being a bit surprised at being asked to speak to this convention, and to be given the honour of a keynote address. The last time I was asked to the convention in 2013, I spoke in some detail about what I thought was wrong with IR studies in India. I spoke about the disconnect between theory and practice, about the apparent irrelevance and over-reliance on methodology and theory to the exclusion of fine work that could be done in the archives, and about what I saw as the absence of quality in Indian IR studies. I will not repeat what I said then as it lives forever on the web and you can google it if you are interested. But you can see why I am surprised to be asked back.

When I spoke then in 2013 it was as a practitioner, as someone who was involved in actual diplomacy and international relations and could therefore be expected to be impatient with theory and would look for practical utility. Today I am on the other side, as I try to teach a course on geopolitics in a university and write and lecture, older but not necessarily wiser, closer and closer to my anecdotage.

So what do I think today about IR studies? What have I learnt? Have I changed my opinion? Not fundamentally.  My views have evolved, as I have, in three important respects: I think I have a better understanding of the constraints on IR studies in India; I now think the problem is with how we teach IR; and, I am much more hopeful of IR studies on India than ever before. Let me explain.

I now have a better appreciation of the constraints under which IR studies operate in India. One of the most obvious is the lack of proper archiving of contemporary Indian primary sources which, by the nature of our subject, are primarily with and from government. And the more interesting, or controversial the issue, the less likely government is to transfer its papers to the archives. But that situation changed in fits and starts in this century and there are treasures to be discovered in the National Archives today, and not just in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Besides, as recent scholars have shown, there are treasures to be mined in state archives, in private papers, and in Russian and other archives abroad, all relevant to the study of India’s international relations. One recent example was the use of the Assam state government archives by a French scholar to write on development on both sides of the Arunachal Pradesh border in the fifties and early sixties.

Secondly, I still believe that there is a lack of rigour and discipline in our IR studies that results in a situation where, with a few exceptions, the best work on India and the subcontinent is done by scholars, many of them Indians, outside our institutions. Let me give you a practical example of why I say so. In the last few years, I have received questionnaires from PhD scholars researching one or other aspect of recent Indian foreign policy. It is obvious from the questions that they have been drafted without reading through the available literature, and that they are not part of a thought out or academically rigorous scheme or plan. Instead, they are more in the nature of fishing expeditions, based on a reading of the newspapers, seeking opinions rather than data or facts, and claiming theoretical or methodological merit by using the latest fashionable jargon in IR studies elsewhere. I find this sad because, frankly, it reflects primarily on the quality of the guidance that they are getting, not on the students themselves, who are bright, motivated and first rate.

There are honourable exceptions, as I said. But they are few and far between, and that is why conventions such as this are so necessary and important. This is a chance for us to introspect and to see how we can improve the quality of our understanding and teaching of our subject.

Thirdly, that situation may be changing. For some years before and after independence, there was a body of Indian scholarship, much of it centred in the School for International Studies — that has now become a part of JNU — which contributed to global IR scholarship and that could hold its head up in the academic world. Today again, the work of younger Indian IR scholars is what we turn to if we wish to understand Indian foreign policy and the international relations of India and the subcontinent. We now have a new generation of younger scholars whose PhDs on India and the subcontinent are both methodologically sound and pioneering. Most of them are products of today’s globalised world, and not many trained in Indian institutions, but they have brought their scholarship home and they could represent the beginning of a new wave of Indian IR.

Our goal should be to build Indian IR studies to a level where it measures up to international standards in the discipline. This is the minimum, the first step. If we are to study international relations we must be able to stand the quality test and be world class. This is essential if we are to achieve our real purpose, to devise the concepts and scholarship necessary for an understanding of India’s unique place and role in the world. In other words, ultimately to devise an Indian school of IR studies.

Our goal should be to build Indian IR studies to a level where it measures up to international standards in the discipline.

I find, now that I am teaching and traveling around universities, that my Indian students know a great deal about abstract IR theory, but do not see how it is connected to the life and the headlines around them. It is the reverse when I go to universities abroad. I think we forget when we teach that IR theory, like all theory in the liberal arts, is the product of a very specific, European or American, time and place, and an intellectual expression of a certain economic and political dominance. In the real world that we study, that situation of European or North American hegemony is rapidly changing. If IR theory is to be relevant to us in India, it will need to adapt and change too.

Today we can see that the world which created IR theory as we know it now is rapidly fading. The center of gravity of the world economy and politics is returning to Asia. And that why it is time for us to think afresh and for ourselves again about India and its place in the world. Relevance is critical. What scholars produce in IR studies must be relevant to reality and practice. We are not a fundamental science like theoretical physics. We are not studying the fundamental laws of the universe but how people and their creations behave in international society, which itself is a man-made construct. IR is a social science and its best practitioners, from EH Carr to Robert Jervis to Mearsheimer and Walt all speak to the policy dilemmas and practice of states, leaders and nations of their day.

One other point. Language is not just a tool but the tool. It not only affects your ability to communicate your ideas, and your clarity, but affects the way you think. Many of us seem to think that to be regarded as intelligent we should also be unintelligible. The use of abstract nouns leaves us wondering what is meant.

Language is not just a tool but the tool. It not only affects your ability to communicate your ideas, and your clarity, but affects the way you think. Many of us seem to think that to be regarded as intelligent we should also be unintelligible. The use of abstract nouns leaves us wondering what is meant.

If we are going to use terms like “Ascending India” then we should first have the means to think about them. Understand that implicit in terms like “Ascending India” are ideas of hierarchy and perception, both of which are hardly defined or measurable by agreed metrics or standard. This, in the popular mind, reduces IR to some macho contest between states, nations or leaders of who can throw a shot or missile furthest or can do the most damage to our planet and people.

India is and has been an important player on the world stage with its own interests and will continue to be so. And yet, the purpose of our participation in the international community is not to see how many people we can outdo or do down. It is to uplift our own people, to improve their condition from the abject state that we were left in after two centuries of colonialism. That is not achieved at someone else expense. Instead, it requires us to work with others in international society to achieve and enabling environment for India’s transformation. To my mind Indian IR studies have a significant contribution to make to that goal.

I have taken a great deal of your time telling you what you probably already know. Thank you for your patience.

With these few words, let me wish the convention and all those participating in it success in taking Indian IR studies another step forward.