Modern Indian diplomacy didn’t begin in 1947. Indians have been thinking about how to deal with the outside world since well before the country achieved independence (as Rahul Sagar details in his new book). And, as more Indians began to participate in institutions of governance under the British at the turn of the 20th century, international relations too became a sphere involving “natives”.

VS Srinivasa Sastri – a scholar, teacher, politician, leading member of Indian National Liberal Federation and Indian representative at the League of Nations – was one such “native diplomat”, who spent the decade between 1919 and 1929 becoming India’s “most authoritative voice abroad”, primarily in pushing the cause of racial equality within the various arms of the British Empire.

In his book, India’s First Diplomat: V.S. Srinivasa Sastri and the Making of Liberal Internationalism (Bristol University Press, 2021), Leiden University lecturer Vineet Thakur shines a spotlight on this under-appreciated figure of Indian history.

I spoke to Thakur over e-mail about Sastri’s liberalism, in the classic European sense of the term, and in opposition to Gandhi’s non-cooperation, his tremendous success at oration and diplomacy, which made him welcome in imperial spaces to which “coloured” people might otherwise have been barred, how this success in some ways worked against his underlying efforts towards racial equality, and what Sastri’s “performative Brahminness” has meant for his legacy.

Tell us a little bit about your background as a historian and academic? How did you come to this position?

I am actually not a historian – or at least not trained as one. I did my MA and PhD in International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Coming from the hills in Himachal, JNU was an entirely new intellectual space for me, quite daunting in the beginning. But over time, it shapes the idea of a certain kind of university in your mind – a space where what happens outside the classrooms teaches you equally, or perhaps more so, than what you learn inside them. Since one learns so much from conversations, debates, and dialogues from peers from all sorts of disciplines, “disciplinarity” has less of a hold.

In addition – and this is perhaps a criticism of my education at JNU – our academic training was quite deficient in methods. Without serious investment in methodological training, we ended up drawing from everywhere, so in a way it worked in my favour. I was also lucky to have two incredible mentors to guide me through my PhD: Siddharth Mallavarapu and Varun Sahni.

After a point, IR theory – what I was interested in then – stops saying anything interesting. Its imposing abstractions and painful jargon work essentially as gatekeeping practices. The other option is to be a foreign policy analyst, which at least in India plays on the politics of access. You need access to policy makers – with elevated egos and all – and I didn’t have the chops for it. History seemed like a more fruitful way to approach the discipline and its questions. In many ways, it’s simple – go to the archives, read interesting stuff and a story will come your way. Although archives generate their own silences and untruths, and one needs to be attentive to that.

It wasn’t until I moved to South Africa for my postdoc that I found an intellectual path. There, I worked with Peter Vale who is really a provocative thinker and a supremely generous person. He also didn’t care much for disciplinary boundaries and pushed me to follow questions rather than disciplinary rituals. Ian Sanjay Patel and Melissa Nefdt were two other great influences on me, both on my ideas and their articulation. I now work in the Institute for History at Leiden University, although the people whose scholarship shapes my views here – Beatrix Futak-Campbell, Karen Smith, Maxine David, Nicolas Blarel, to name a few – are mostly non-historians.

Where do historians of international relations fit into the world today? I’ve spoken in the past to Pallavi Raghavan and Jabin Jacob about this point, and both have brought up the question – particularly in India – of the need to research and write more IR histories. But do policymakers pay attention?

Both Pallavi and Jabin are right, of course. My own interest in IR histories was sparked by something that my professor at JNU, Rajesh Rajagopalan, once said in a seminar. He asked us to take any episode in India’s diplomatic history and bet his money on there being little or nothing on it. He obviously didn’t go bankrupt – I hope not, but that provocation sent some of us – or at least me – straight to the archives.

We read a lot of generalisations about India’s foreign policy. Everyone’s favourite flogging horse then was: was Nehru an idealist or realist? So much stuff was written on it. But most scholars had never visited the archives to see actually how the foreign policy was made. They had based their analyses mostly on speeches, interviews, and previous works. Unfortunately, even in the works of those who were sympathetic to him, Nehru emerged as a caricature. It was just at that moment that people like Itty Abraham, Srinath Raghavan and Manu Bhagavan produced some excellent histories of India’s past. So, it was quite clear to me that the future of IR research in India was in its past.

Although academics are often asked this question, I as a historian do not think much about whether policymakers pay attention. They probably need us as much as we need them. My primary duty is to contribute to knowledge and write in a way that is accessible to audiences outside my field. Beyond that, it’s up to the policymaker whether they want to use that knowledge or not.

India’s First Diplomat: V.S. Srinivasa Sastri and the Making of Liberal Internationalism, by Vineet Thakur. [Bristol University Press, 2021]

A lot of your work has focused on the birth of international relations. Is it just that this ended up being your topic, or was it something that you explicitly wanted to pursue?

It was quite serendipitous. One day, Peter Vale and I talked about a picture frame that hung on his office wall. It was an intriguing cover from a journal called De Staat, or The State in English, which ran in South Africa from 1908 to 1912. I went into the journal’s archives in Johannesburg and came back to him with a sense that this was connected to one of the founding IR journals. That seemed like a good story to pursue further, and eventually with more research we ended up making an argument about how one of the origin stories of International Relations as a discipline linked back to Johannesburg. This was counter-intuitive for IR because its “birth” is assumed to be in England. But more than that, we linked the story explicitly to questions around the racial anxieties of the white settler world.

You write that there aren’t many critical histories of liberal internationalism that centre non-western actors as co-creators. Could you explain that a bit more? Can you tell us about ones that do centre them (not necessarily from India or South Asia, but elsewhere too)?

Liberal internationalism is often also referred to as Wilsonian Liberalism – the idea being that it started with Woodrow Wilson’s recasting of the global order at the end of the First World War. Most histories of this period end up crediting primary agency to western actors. Often, critical histories then take the opposite stance: they expose the hypocrisy of western actors, quite justifiably, but then also dismiss liberal internationalism as nothing but illiberal at best and imperialism at worst. Non-western actors enter these histories primarily as critics of liberalism.

But, as always, the histories ought to be more complex. Why is it impossible to imagine that non-western actors may have been contributing to the shaping of this liberal order, not as the sidekicks of western actors, but as protagonists? There are some excellent histories: I can think of Manu Bhagavan’s The Peacemakers, Steven Jensen’s The Making of International Human Rights and, a book that has had the greatest influence on me, Vijay Prasad’s The Darker Nations.

So set the scene for us a little bit on VS Srinivasa Sastri. Who was he, why was he so important, and when did you decide that his life was going to be a book?

Again, this was quite serendipitous. I had never heard of Sastri until I went on a visit to Durban where I saw Gandhi’s Phoenix Ashram. However in Durban, there is another great monument to the struggle of Indians in South Africa. It is a school called Sastri College. When I followed up a bit more, I figured it was started by Sastri when he was India’s first Agent, or what we would today call High Commissioner, to South Africa. His name then came up more prominently as I was researching a short book on South Africa’s leader Jan Smuts. Sastri had led an impressive and successful diplomatic assault on Smuts at the Imperial Conference of 1921. Sastri was supremely eloquent in his speeches there but also unexpectedly deft in his diplomatic skills. That encounter spurred me to explore his diplomatic life further.

Sastri was a leader of the little-remembered National Liberal Federation. It was the party of the moderates that split from the Congress after Gandhi’s entry, because they disagreed with Gandhi’s methods of non-cooperation. They emphasised constitutional politics, and in their dealings with the government, both in India and England, followed the credo “take what you get and fight for more”. Sastri and Gandhi shared a special relationship because they both were disciples of Gokhale. Nevertheless, the key reason for my interest in Sastri was that in the decade after 1919 he functioned as India’s roving ambassador.

I was obviously interested in his diplomacy largely because even as a diplomatic historian it is almost counter-intuitive to imagine that Indians conducted diplomacy before 1947. However, I wanted to know more about the party-version of Indian liberalism. Curiously, intellectual histories of Indian liberalism, even those produced by someone as astute as Chris Bayly, have written out Indians who self-identified as liberals. In these histories, a prioritisation of intellectuals over practitioners produces a liberalism without liberals.

Vineet Thakur, author of 'India’s First Diplomat: V.S. Srinivasa Sastri and the Making of Liberal Internationalism'

What were the contours of a liberal international order that Sastri was pursuing?

After the First World War, India, the British Empire and the world entered a new phase of political development. In global political terms, two simultaneous but contradictory struggles took root. Empires crumbled into smaller nations as self-determination took on an altogether new meaning. At the same time, countries pledged to come together in larger organisational formations, such as the League of Nations, partly to subvert the ill-effects of national sovereignty.

These developments were also mirrored in the developments that took place in India after the end of World War I. A movement for Swaraj, the Indian term for self-determination although it often took on polysemic meanings, took stronger hold in India, and to some extent the British dispensation addressed these concerns through political reforms. The nature, the scope and the pace of these reforms varied in the course of the subsequent three decades, but between 1917 and 1947, British policy in India changed from identifying ‘responsible government’ as the end goal to granting India full freedom.

In this period, the form of the British Empire also changed considerably. Britain had entered the First World War as an Empire, and came out of it as supremely interested in becoming a more decentralised Commonwealth. Eventually it would be the independence of India that would turn the “British world” – to use Leo Amery’s term – into a meaningful commonwealth.

Finally, the India of 1910s was in fact two Indias – British India and the Indian states. It was only in the late 1920s that ideas of them coming together into a single India were formulated. The idea of federation took shape more concretely in the 1930s, mostly during the Round Table Conferences. Federation also – in a way that relates directly to some of Sastri’s concerns – usurped and delayed the granting of dominion status to India.

So, in terms of the contours of internationalism one can see parallels between the changes in political architecture that were simultaneously taking shape in India, the Commonwealth, and the world. Questions of sovereignty, self-determination, and order were being addressed at all these sites of political order. Sastri was involved at all these levels, but primarily in the changes affecting India and the Commonwealth.

One key feature of ‘liberal’ internationalism in the 1920s is what WEB Du Bois famously called the global colour line. White settler states around the world from America to Australia and Canada to Kenya are hardening their borders for non-whites. Within the British Empire, Sastri calls out this racial discrimination and pushes for a racially inclusive commonwealth.

You write, Sastri’s “liberalism is ‘neither Kantian nor laissez faire’”. What do you mean?

Kantian liberalism sees the role of the state to raise the moral worth of the individual. A libertarian, or laissez faire, approach has a strong disdain for the state. But Sastri was neither. He was writing and speaking in the context of Gandhi’s non-cooperation and civil disobedience which withholds cooperation with the State. As Sastri would often say, Gandhi equated the state with satan. He would agree with Gandhi that the colonial state had no moral purpose. It was not designed to be benign to Indians, much less to be accountable to them. But he would add, it could not wage a permanent war against its people. It had to appear liberal, if for nothing else than, to appear liberal to the public in England.

So even the colonial state had to vicariously apply the logics of liberal statecraft. Every time the British Indian government had to use oppressive measures it had to bring ordinances or invoke emergency provisions. But they couldn’t be used permanently. Even the draconian Rowlatt Acts, for instance, were never actually used.

So even as the colonial state was oppressive and discriminating, such acts could only be rationalised through recourses to the arguments of emergency and exception. Governance by executive orders could be legitimized only so long as the Indian government could justify to the British public that such measures were brought forth by exceptional conditions. Sastri took a pragmatic view and argued that the more the situation was normalised in the colony and the less the state was threatened through unconstitutional means, the more difficult it became for the colonial state to withhold rights from individuals and invoke emergency provisions. It would also need to increasingly adopt reforms.

It really sounds like Sastri was a brilliant orator, debater, negotiator, really someone who ought to be better remembered in India. Do you get a sense of this oratory from the documents that you read? Or does this come through from other’s comments – and could that just be flattery?

Oh, absolutely. When a young GS Bajpai, later independent India’s first secretary general of external affairs, first heard Sastri, he was left in absolute thrall and said no matter how much one had heard praises of Sastri’s speeches they barely did justice to his actual delivery. Sastri delivered them without any theatrics, so he depended almost entirely on his words, which means that to some extent one can really assess his oratory from the text itself.

Considering that most of his speeches were delivered extempore or with minimal notes, they are really quite remarkable. In fact, I still get goosebumps just reading some of his speeches. They are constructed like an architect constructs a building, with supreme care for the layering of each word and sentence and its impact. The praise for his speeches is universal, and a good measure to evaluate his speeches are the crowds that attended them. He could fill large halls in provincial towns across America, Australia, Canada and South Africa – where most of his audience was quite racist and thought of Indians primarily as “coolies?. I have read glowing newspaper testimonies of his speeches from such white attendees.

It is fascinating to me how India’s first diplomat in effect set out to change the racial legislation of other countries – granted primarily other British colonies – but in a much larger, more direct appeal to ‘internal politics of other nations’ than might be acceptable today?

True. Today, in the day and age of the internet where news travels so widely, our politicians and our foreign ministry are so quick to ridicule and dismiss anyone who criticises India abroad. Yet here was a case in which an Indian was invited by the governments of extremely racist settler colonial states to speak to their publics – indeed, lecture them – on their “internal matters”!

Today we are in a situation where our government blitzkriegs bills in the parliament – without discussions and without referring them to committees. In contrast, in the period I discuss in the book, one of the ways in which the Indian government was able to influence legislation in these countries was by pushing Indians to present evidence in the parliamentary committees of those countries. Even racist white policymakers, believe it or not, didn’t call it “meddling in their internal affairs”.

How did Sastri’s ‘own personality end up sabotaging his mission and agenda’?

His mission was often to expose racial discrimination against Indians and to make sure that Indians were granted admission into spaces reserved for whites. But as he was celebrated and feted across the white settler world and readily granted admission into white spaces, he was exceptionalised. In other words, the white governments used Sastri as a proof that they did not discriminate racially since they had granted him entry readily.

Sastri played to the image of an oriental learned Brahmin. Newspaper articles about him regularly wrote that he came from the Brahmin caste. Most Indians in these colonies – coming from indenture and trade backgrounds – were not from Sastri’s caste. So allowing Sastri his platform was also used as a case for blocking the participation of the majority who were quite unlike him in caste and demeanour.

What was the pushback from home like? How did he deal with it? He seemed to be hated by sections of those calling for independence, wasn’t loved by figures like Nehru, and often described as ‘dictatorial.’ Why did this image take hold?

He was nearly always heckled by supporters of the Indian National Congress, in India and abroad. In the book I tell the story of how Syud Hossain, who later became India’s ambassador to Cairo, literally followed Sastri to every meeting to heckle him. In Canada, Sastri and Bajpai were once almost taken hostage in a gurudwara, and in New York he had to be escorted out of a venue by police. He and the liberals in general are remembered as empire’s apologists. In a way, it is understandable. Congress stood for independence, liberals for continued association with the British through dominion status. Liberals cooperated with the colonial government when Congress issued calls for boycott and non-cooperation.

But no one opposed this caricaturing and unjustified criticism of liberals more than Gandhi. For Gandhi, liberals followed a different method but one that did not make them lesser patriots. In fact, Gandhi would shut down people, including his own son, who criticised Sastri for the latter’s politics. After all, liberals followed Gandhi’s own guru, Gokhale.

As an aside, I had no idea about this brief dalliance with an idea for an ‘America of the Hindu’ [i.e. Indian colonies] in East Africa. It sounds like a book of its own.

Yes, an underappreciated aspect of the Indian case for responsible government is the role East Africa plays in it. People like Aga Khan made the case that successful colonisation was a pre-requisite for dominion status. After all, white settler states had showed their genius at colonisation to prove their capacity for governance before being granted self-governance. Aga Khan appealed for East Africa to be made an Indian colony, so that by colonising and civilising Africans, Indians could prove their worthiness for self-governance. Sana Aiyar’s book Indians in Kenya is a fantastic place to start on this.

Eventually Sastri gets quite unhappy with the direction of the British empire, and even moves away from his traditional liberal approach. What led him there?

On the question of Kenyan Indians, Sastri had camped for months in London and despite his laborious efforts, the British government eventually declared a racial policy for Kenya which was a Crown Colony. Indians may have faced racial discrimination in other parts of the empire, but the British cabinet had not approved an outwardly racially discriminatory policy before this. That decision was therefore a personal blow to Sastri; it shattered his faith in the ideals of equality and justice in the empire.

He advocated, for the first time in his life, non-cooperation with the British at the imperial level. He demanded that the Indian government withdraw from all voluntary and semi-voluntary imperial gatherings, such as the forthcoming Empire Exhibition. He himself resigned from the organising committee of the exhibition. He asked that Indian leaders should refuse to participate in the League of Nations unless they were allowed to vote on India’s interests alone, and not as members of the British group.

Tell us about the Smuts vs Sastri face-offs.

In many ways Sastri was David to Smuts’s Goliath. Sastri, a political nobody at the imperial conference of 1921, squared off against South Africa’s Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Smuts was an internationally feted statesman by then, a Boer War general who had fought for the British on two fronts in the First World War. He was a former member of the British War Cabinet and was used by Prime Minister David Lloyd George as a troubleshooter – whether it was sending him to speak with the striking miners in Wales or offering him the command of Palestine or negotiating with the Irish. He is a founder of the League of Nations as well as the Royal Air Force, and a man who nearly got a country of his own, when the British considered renaming German East Africa, “Smutsland”. The journalist-politician CP Scott called him in that period “the most popular man” in Britain.

Yet Sastri sucessfully brings a resolution to the 1921 imperial conference that is primarily against the ill-treatment of Indians in Smuts’ country. In the book I detail how there is a lot of back and forth on the issue during the conference, but also how Sastri, with able assistance from Edwin Montagu, diplomatically engineered a resolution on which white settler colonies voted against a fellow white settler colony, South Africa, and in the process outsmarted two shrewd men, Smuts and his admirer at the conference, Winston Churchill.

VS Srinivasa Sastri (in white Turban) at the Washington Naval Conference. Creator(s): Harris & Ewing, photographer. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C

What is Satri’s legacy in South Africa today?

Since Sastri was India’s first Agent, there is a diplomatic and political legacy which connects Indians in South Africa to India. But the effect of all of that today is quite limited frankly.

But one legacy that has been the most enduring, and one that I imagine Sastri as a teacher by profession would be proud of, is the Sastri College. The College, still functioning, remained the centerpiece of Indian education in South Africa for several decades and provided quality education to generations of South African Indians.

“His authorial claims on conceptualising the British Commonwealth are as strong as those of Curtis and Smuts.” Could you broaden this a bit for the reader?

In the book, I argue that Sastri sparred with two commonly known authors of the Commonwealth idea – Jan Smuts and Lionel Curtis – and exposed the racism of their ideas and pushed for a more equal commonwealth. As he put it, there were two ideas of the British Commonwealth – the British Commonwealth and the Boer Commonwealth. The former was inclusive and based on ideals of equality and justice. The latter on racial exclusion and hierarchy. In a piece in 1970, Hugh Tinker, perhaps one of the greatest historians of the Commonwealth, argued that it was Sastri’s vision of the British Commonwealth which stood the test of time.

Tell us a little bit about how you dealt with the question of performative Brahminness in this book?

Yes, while I am obviously interested in exploring Sastri’s agency, I am also not blind to his own racism and casteism in the book. In this regard, I look at this “performative Brahminness” in his diplomacy, especially in South Africa. Essentially, he focusses on “uplifting” South African Indians through an emphasis on education, health and sanitation. His diplomacy is very much about purifying Indians in order that they might enter the white spaces. This “entry”, he thought, ought to be performed by Indians’ displaying culture, learning and purity of conduct and bearing. Indeed, he himself – as a learned Brahmin who easily enters these white spaces – becomes a model to be followed. His own elevation is projected as a sign and a model of uplift for the socially outcast, ‘coolie’, Indian.

The South African historian Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie did some fantastic work in the late-1980s showing how Indian diplomats in South Africa, long after Sastri, continued to emphaise their own elevation as a model of the uplift of the Indian community. Although this idea of uplift may have had some symbolic import in Sastri’s time – as the first ever Indian to do xyz on many occasions – but in the 1930s and beyond it came at the cost of the South African Indian struggle for tangible political rights. From Sastri onwards, Indian Agents also aligned themselves with the commercial Indian elite, and kept a studied distance from political groups comprised of “colonial born” Indians, i.e. the descendants of indenture.

Sastri’s diplomacy, then, came at the cost of weakening movements for political rights. Perfomative brahminness guards against pollution of all kinds, most of all messy subaltern politics. Sastri’s successors followed his template and prevented South African Indians from participating in passive resistance campaigns, and outwardly asking for political rights.

“This is quite ironic, sadly so, considering that the origins of Indian diplomacy are in fact in precisely the opposite: in protesting the disenfranchisement of Indians abroad and mounting an often nuanced and laboured diplomatic effort towards securing their rights. Between Srinivasa Sastri and his nemesis Jan Smuts, as we will discover, it is not difficult to guess who would be more pleased. However, this is also exactly the reason why this book and Sastri’s life assume increased importance. India’s diplomatic future is unlikely to be guided by its past, but the story helps us contextualise its present. If nothing else, it shows us a stunningly naked emperor.”

What brought you to make this point in the book?

If we are to consider these as the early years of Indian diplomacy, this chronology tells us that expanding political and civic rights and ensuring equality of Indians around the world was its very founding idea. “Chronology” today of course has a different connotation. Indian diplomacy today goes on a propagandist overdrive to defend the contraction of civil liberties and the government’s intent towards depriving fellow Indians of their political rights. The irony couldn’t be starker.

What are the misconceptions about India’s diplomatic past, or Sastri, or your field of study that you find yourself having to correct all the time?

In general, I think we need to become more aware of India’s pre-1947 history, especially of the first half of the twentieth century. Our current obsession with Savarkar – from both the right and the left – has reduced tons of complicated questions, such as the often right-wing and socially conservative nature of our nationalist movement, the process of reforms, the necessity of the Quit India Movement, debates about partition, and other such, to simplistic rehearsals of the past.

On Indian diplomacy, there is a great deal of exciting new scholarship that is really exploring all facets of India’s diplomatic past, so I am less concerned about misconceptions there.

What areas of research, or tools of research, do you wish other scholars and younger students ought to take up?

I can only speak from my own experience from being a research student in India. We don’t place enough importance on writing, I think. In our degrees, we are required to read a lot but little emphasis is placed on writing as a skill. Although Amartya Sen would have us believe that we are “argumentative”, we are scarcely so in our theses. We are taught to be almost reverential to previous scholarship. Most of our theses tend to become long literature reviews. We could ideate more and be more provocative.

What three recommendations (books, podcasts, papers, videos) can you offer on those who are interested in Sastri and India’s IR past?

The only substantive works on Sastri are two biographies written by P Kodanda Rao and T Jagadisan, both in late 1960s. Both were Sastri’s disciples so don’t go looking for critiques there! But I would highly recommend reading Sastri’s own speeches, writings, and letters. Most of them are easily available through the online repository of Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics.

On Indian diplomacy, I would suggest Amit Das Gupta’s recent book, The Indian Civil Service and Indian Foreign Policy, 1923-1961.