The Legacy of Dr Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Indian Foreign Policy
By Haris Rashid and Anuraag Khaund
DR Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar or B.R. Ambedkar, popularly known as Babasaheb by a significant section of the Indian masses, is widely remembered and respected for his role in drafting the Indian Constitution as well as his life-long crusade for the rights and dignity of the marginalized sections such as lower castes and untouchables through leading movements such as Mahad Satyagraha in 1927. However, less known and often ignored are Dr Ambedkar’s ideas regarding international relations and the path to be followed by India’s foreign policy. As we celebrate this legendary icon’s 131st birth anniversary in 2022, the article is aimed at highlighting Babasaheb’s views on India’s international affairs and their relevance in contemporary times.
Regarding China, Dr Ambedkar was quite critical and even prophetic of the pitfalls of the Nehruvian view of Sino-Indian ties as being marked by brotherly relations and love as encapsulated in the then popular slogan Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai (Indian- Chinese are brothers). He correctly emphasized the strategic value of Tibet as a buffer zone between India and China and the close link between Indian security and Tibet’s independencewhen he stated that “by letting China take control over Lhasa (Tibetan Capital) the Prime Minister has in a way helped the Chinese to bring their armies on the Indian borders. Any victor who annexes Kashmir can directly reach Pathankot, and I know it for sure that he can reach the Prime Minister’s House also.” It is no wonder that conflicts such as the 1962 border war or the recent clashes in Galwan since 2020 have made foreign policy thinkers and the Indian strategic community realise and revisit the value of an independent or de-militarized Tibetan plateau critical for peaceful borders. In addition, the naivety of the Nehruvian approach to China was further highlighted by Dr Ambedkar when he claimed the fallacy of the Panchsheel Agreement of 1954 between India and China by stating that “I am indeed surprised that our Hon’ble Prime Minister is taking this `Panchsheel’ seriously... If Shri Mao had even an iota of faith in Panchsheel (both the agreement as well as the Buddhist code) he would have treated the Buddhists in his country in a different manner”. Related to this criticism was the realisation by Dr Ambedkar of the realist maxim of power triumphing over morality when he stated that “Panchsheel (The Buddhist code of five principles) has no place in politics. The truth inherent in Panchsheel is that Morality is forever changing. There is nothing called Morality. You can abide by your promises in accordance with today’s Morality and by the same propriety you may violate your own promise simply because tomorrow’s morality will have different demands”. Here, Ambedkar was comparing the idealism inherent in Nehruvian policy to Mao’s realpolitik in the sense that while India believed that China would abide by the Panchsheel or the morality of respecting the sentiments of a brotherly nation, the latter’s realist and power-driven and aggressive intentions were made clear by the fact of its assault on Tibetan Buddhist culture which violated a key tenet of the Panchsheel Agreement and earlier assurances of autonomy made to Tibetans as well as to India of respecting Tibet’s unique character and not overtly militarising it (this can also be seen as violation of two principles of the Panchsheel Buddhist code− not telling untruth and abstaining from destruction and stealing). At the same, Dr Ambedkar’s warnings regarding the fragility of morality and agreements in international politics subject to realist calculations came to the fore during the subsequent border skirmishes and the recent standoff in Ladakh since 2020 which were in contravention to earlier border agreements and confidence building measures (CBMs) of 1993, 1996, 2003 and 2013.
Ambedkar was also a strong critic of Nehru’s non-alignment policy. In a statement before the House, explaining his resignation from the Cabinet in 1951, he disclosed that there were two reasons behind his resignation- treatment accorded to Scheduled Castes and the dissatisfaction with the foregin policy of the government. He criticized Nehru’s foreign policy as being detrimental to India’s national interests and bemoaned that in a stark contrast to the eve of independence when every country was India’s friend, in 1951 it was alienated. He went on to say that India was forced to “pursue a lonely furrow with no one even to second our resolutions in the U.N.O.'' He further argued that since India had no friends to help it in case of emergencies, it had to depend entirely on its own resources for defence and as a result it was spending almost half of its annual revenue on defence.
In addition to China, Ambedkar was also worried about Nehru's overt deference towards the USSR. He was worried that given the latter’s expansionist ideology, Nehru was making India vulnerable to a Communist takeover from the Soviet Union. He contended that India’s coexistence between democracy and communism was not only silence over Soviet expansionism but it was also a tacit approval of Soviet’s expansionist endeavours in India and its neigbourhood. Ambedkar warned that India’s policy was that of “feeding the giant every time the giant opens his jaw and wants something to eat”, which would essentially lead the giant turning some day and asking “you are the only person that remains, and I want to consume you.” Further, Ambedkar believed that unlike the USSR, Britain and the US were not looking for expansion, therefore, India should join them against the Communist Bloc. On 8th November, 1952 while addressing the students of Lucknow University he remarked, “Nehru’s foreign policy has remained unsuccessful in strengthening India …. India would now have to make a choice between Pro-Democratic America and Western countries or countries like China or Russia where the system of dictatorship is prevailing.” (Isn’t it similar to the situation faced by India currently regarding the Ukraine crisis whether to stand with the US- led NATO or maintain close ties with Russia and China?). Since India was located next to the two ideologically expansionary communist states, Ambedkar had advised Nehru to “reconsider” his policy on the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and join it in order to place India firmly on the side of democracy. Ambedkar’s anxiety behind this argument for aligning with the US was perhaps also coming from the fact that Pakistan was growing closer to the US and the two countries were cooperating in the defence sector. In 1952, When Ambedkar came back to India after receiving an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Columbia university, he said that the US was more inclined towards Pakistan as the general public in the US was “more impressed by Pakistan and her policies than India.” It was an astute analysis as Pakistan would later join SEATO as well as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1954 and 1955 respectively.
Today India seems to be doing good in international relations because of its legacy of non-alignment. Both the US and Russia take India into their foreign policy equations and India has successfully preserved its strategic autonomy till now. India’s strategic autonomy can be gauged by the fact that India had civil-nuclear agreements with the Soviet Union since the 1960s and when the US sanctioned India after the Operation Smiling Buddha in 1974, Russia agreed to supply heavy water for its nuclear plants. After the 2005 signing of the civil-nuclear agreement with the US, India has pacts with 14 countries in civil-nuclear energy that include Russia as well as the US. Even these days when faced with the question of choosing sides on the Ukraine-Russia issue, India has remained non-aligned and despite sanctions on Russia, it continues to import cheaper oil from the country and maintains healthy relations with the US as well. Even though there has been criticism of India’s non-alignment in this case, it will be seen how much pressure India can resist.
While Ambedkar’s criticism of Nehru’s non-alignment might have been proved wrong till now, his warning on Kashmir becoming a permanent issue for India’s foreign policy has been proved right. On the “quarrel” with Pakistan, Ambedkar argued that it had become a part of India’s foreign policy. He asserted that there were two issues which disturbed relations with Pakistan- East Bengal and Kashmir. He was of the opinion that India should pay more attention to East Bengal than the “unreal issue” of Kashmir. He went on to suggest a solution to the Kashmir problem. He suggested that it should be partitioned along the communal lines just like the rest of India. The Hindu and the Bhuddist majority parts (Jammu and Ladakh) would go to India while the Muslim majority part (Kashmir valley) would go to Pakistan. Alternatively, he suggested that the region should be divided into three parts and plebiscite should only be held in the valley so that the Hindu and the Bhuddist majority parts are not forcibly dragged into Pakistan. Although, in the current context, which has been witness to several significant and historic changes since 1950s Ambedkar’s policy might appear untenable and unimaginable, yet it is worth pondering how India-Pakistan relations vis a vis the situation of Kashmir would have turned about in an alternative universe where Dr Ambedkar’s solution was followed.
Finally, in his last and unfinished work Buddha or Karl Marx Dr Ambedkar highlights the ‘strategic’ nature of Buddhist non-violence (Ahimsa) by quoting Buddha’s advice to Sinha Senapati, the commander of the forces of the kingdom of Vaishali. As per Buddha “A man who fights for justice and safety cannot be accused of Ahimsa. If all the means of maintaining peace have failed then the responsibility for Himsa (violence) falls on him who starts war. One must never surrender to evil powers. War there may be. But it must not be for selfish ends…”. If one observes, since 1947 most of the conventional warfare engaged by India have been defensive in nature and in accordance with Buddha’s advice, it has taken up arms only when other methods of peaceful diplomacy and negotiation had failed to bring about peace. Currently this strategic nature of non-violence or defensive violence is also reflected in its ‘No First Use’ nuclear policy. One can say that it is this adherence to strategic ‘non-violence’ that has played a huge role in defining India’s image as a responsible power and reliable ally for major powers such as the US, EU and Russia- a legacy of Buddha propounded by Dr Ambedkar in the 20th century and practised by Mauryan emperor Ashoka whose jayanti was celebrated on 9 April almost a week before Dr Ambedkar’s.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
- Haris Rashid is student of Political Science at Ashoka University. Anuraag Khaund is doing MA Politics and International Relations (PIR) from Central University of Gujarat (CUG).
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