The Case for Embracing Heritage in Foreign Policy

-MAYANK SHANDILYA, 2nd Year Student at SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Mumbai University.

The World taking cognizance of China’s aggression in Asia Pacific seemed to be a welcome news for many South Asian countries, including India. India and China have been at the crossroads for a while owing to the ambitious Belt and road initiative, an indispensable element of the Chinese aspiration to be a superpower in “middle earth” like the seventeenth century. This irredentist aspiration has posed a threat to India’s territorial sovereignty, souring the relations of the two countries.

A refreshed impetus by the QUAD countries gives the impression that India has effectively deployed her soft power to counter the seemingly ever increasing Sino threat, however a closer inspection reveals this might not be the case. India has long attempted to position herself as a leading player in the Indo- Pacific. For realization of this ideal, it is indispensable for India to strive for long lasting peace with each of its neighbours. Untethering the country from domestic imbroglios and allowing India to focus and allocate her military, diplomatic, intellectual and other resources towards other stakeholders in the region which are not necessarily contiguous. 

Pursuant to this policy of striving to foster peace in her neighborhood, India’s relations with her immediate neighbours have been shepherded under the Gujral doctrine.  The doctrine propounds the ascendancy of cordial relations, and enumerates a five pronged strategy to achieve it. The essence of the doctrine lies in India not asking for reciprocity but giving all that it can in good faith and trust.

However, India’s goodwill has slumped in recent times. If these developments are not arrested with a sense of urgency, India risks getting alienated in her neighbourhood. Hence, we shall accord a deeper thought to the growing discontent amongst India’s neighbours individually.

  1. Pakistan and India have been at loggerheads ever since their inception. The bone of contention is Kashmir. An amicable settlement between the two is jeopardized by the internalization of antagonism towards the other in the domestic political spheres of the countries. Kashmir, rather than being conceived as a territorial dispute, is portrayed as the yardstick of the nation’s pride. In such a scenario, negotiations through deliberations become an almost unworkable avenue for the politicians in power.  Negotiations, by their very nature, involve both the parties making certain concessions to the each other, however, when the cause of dispute is extolled and equated to the very pride of a nation, any concession would be perceived as a sign of meekness and will be overwhelmingly unwelcomed by the native populace. It is hence, in interest of foreign policy that external relations are not enmeshed with domestic politics to the extent that any prudent alteration in the foreign policy is debilitated by the fear of electoral backlash and sensitive issues cannot be perceived and resolved objectively.
  1. Bangladesh is developing at unprecedented levels and beats India and Pakistan in several key social indicators, lately there has been much hubbub about the Bangladesh’s per capita GDP eclipsing India’s.  Having witnessed economic growth and development, Bangladesh’s political atmosphere is not the same as it was five decades back. It is thus naive on India’s part to still expect Bangladesh to have a degree of subservience for India, as the ‘big brother’. Undoubtedly, India and Bangladesh have enjoyed amicable relations throughout their history but the recent developments would be the cause of some uneasiness in New Delhi.  Bangladesh reaching out to China for funding worth $4.6 Billion for nine new infrastructure projects[i], most importantly, seeking funding for the management and restoration of the Teesta river in order to address the issue of paucity of water, an issue over which India and Bangladesh have been on the brink of working out an arrangement, which never worked out owing to the reluctance of West Bengal to comply. The political scenario in aftermath of the NRC further accentuated  Bangladesh’s apprehensions to sustain ties with India, with notable names of the upper echelons of the Indian politics using inappropriate monikers[ii] for the Bangladeshi diaspora residing in India inadvertently leads to enkindling a sense of an anti-India feeling amongst the Bangladeshis, which reaped tangible ramifications for India, when the Indian foreign secretary,  on a visit to restore cordiality with Bangladesh was made to wait by the Bangladeshi premier.[iii]
  1. Nepal has shown a perceptible pro-China tilt in recent times. Although India and Nepal’s border are largely settled, some parts of it are still in contention and the governments of the two countries have long engaged in deliberations in order to settle the border in entirety. These territories, which were still being negotiated upon, were unilaterally claimed by India when it released a new political map in the aftermath of scraping off of Article 370. Nepal felt a sense of patronization and a cold shoulder from India when it’s qualms over territorial intricacies over unsettled borders were left unresolved. China emerged as an avenue to act as a counterpoise in the contingency of any tiff with India. However Nepal’s peculiar geography gives India a greater leverage vis-a-vis China. The small country is manned by the Himalayas to the North, making the emigration of unskilled to China a herculean task. Albeit Nepal’s dependence on the Indian economy has slowly been decreasing over the years thanks to the Middle East, India still provides employment to a considerable chunk of the Nepali populace and facilitates import of essential commodities in the landlocked nation. Having played an indispensable role in Nepal’s volatile political history of establishment of a constitutional republic and subsequently in restoration of democracy, India has a network of reliable interlocutors and commendable institutional memory to tide over the sudden setback.
  1. China did not shy away from harassing India’s traditional ally, Bhutan, a nation that China has not yet established diplomatic relations with and communicates through New Delhi. By laying claim over the Trashigang district[iv], a territory that is not contiguous with China but is of extreme strategic importance, the message was clear: join China’s side or get ready to pay the price.

The author has already touched upon the advantage that India enjoys over China in several of these countries by virtue of geography, topography and historical connections long manifested between the nations but India cannot rest on this goodwill that it has garnered over the years. To prevent these countries from feeling alienated and ignored it is essential that; the matters propounded in the Gujral doctrine are followed in all sincerity. India does not boast of deep coffers like China and hence cannot oblige its neighboring countries by virtue of sanctioning titanic loans. However, she can express her munificence in other ways, by respecting the social and cultural pluralism of these countries and delineating mutually beneficial strategies.

Yet, it is China that seems to have pipped India in efficacious utilization of soft power. China has persistently worked towards encasing its Buddhist legacy to effectuate closer ties with other nations.  Buddhism softens China’s image in the eyes of local populations of countries affected by BRI, and convinces other nations that its rise as a global power is a peaceful one.

Furthermore, China has deployed Buddhism to insinuate common heritage in Tibet, Thailand and Hong Kong with hopes of rendering credence to their claims of territorial sovereignty in these nations.

In its most fine-spun form, it has led to what has come to be known as relic diplomacy[v], sending holy relics for display in other countries. A quintessential example of which would be in 2011, when protests over the Myitsone Dam project unleashed a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, in response China dispatched a Buddha’s tooth relic on a 48-day tour of Myanmar. This paved the way for establishment of ties between Lingguang Temple in China[vi] where the Buddha’s tooth relic resides, and the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

India, the birthplace of Buddha has failed to capitalize in such a similar manner. On the other hand, India has, arguably counterintuitively, used his holiness Dalai Lama as a counterpoise to the Chinese use of Buddhism. It is argued by people like Mr. Stobdan that adopting such a stance inhibits India from exploring the full extent[vii] of her potential in such cultural diplomacy.

Nevertheless, India has started expanding the space for religious diplomacy in her foreign policy in recent times. This is evident from the increasing frequency of visits to major sacred sites[viii] especially since 2017, particularly towards Indic religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in official visits of the prime minister.  This was largely abstained from, by preceding prime ministers. India’s relentless lobbying which successfully led to 21 June being declared as International Yoga Day is a fruit of her efforts to promote Yoga as a soft power tool beyond the subcontinent.

The world has awoken to the nefarious debt entrapment of China and even India’s neighbours are not oblivious to it. Sri Lanka has sought to undo its port deals[ix] with China. Nepal too, has adopted a more docile stance to prevent ties with India from straining further. It is evident that India has definitely not lost its footing and needs to act expeditiously in order to consolidate her position. It is imperative that India, in consonance with its perennial ethos, respects the cultural and political diversity in its neighbourhood to emerge as a possible counterpoise to the growing Chinese menace. One hopes that India continues to meticulously embrace and deploy her syncretic culture and heritage to her benefit in the field of foreign policy.


[i] Rahman, M., 2020. BD Seeks $6.4B Chinese Fund For New Projects. [online] The Financial Express. Available at: <; [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[ii] Illegal Immigrants Are Like Termites, Will Throw Them Out If BJP Comes Back To Power: Amit Shah. [online] India Today. Available at: <; [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[iii] Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s Visit and India-Bangladesh Relations by Pattnaik, D | IPCS. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[iv] China Lays Claim To Wildlife Area In Third Border Dispute With Bhutan. [online] The Straits Times. Available at: <; [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[v]  Rivalries and Relics: Examining China’s Buddhist Public Diplomacy – Jamestown. [online] Jamestown. Available at: <,power%20is%20a%20peaceful%20one.&gt; [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[vi] 2012. China, Myanmar Sign Mou On Setting Up Friendly Religious Relations – People’s Daily Online. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[vii] As China Pushes for A ‘Buddhist’ Globalization, India Isn’t Making the Most of Its Legacy. [online] The Wire. Available at: <; [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[viii] In Pics: Prime Minister Narendra Modi Visited These Temples During Foreign Tours – News Nation English. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[ix] Sri Lanka Wants To Undo Deal To Lease Port To China For 99 Years. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 5 November 2020].

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