“For India and Pakistan, in relation to each other, the hallmark of all their politics is the pursuit of sovereignty. The other way to grasp this is to ask the following question: If you take the sovereignty question out, what is left? Substantively nothing. If you try and sequester the sovereignty question, as India has done, then you basically have no relations left.”

That’s Atul Mishra, associate professor at Shiv Nadar University and author of The Sovereign Lives of India and Pakistan: Post-Partition Statehood in South Asia. Mishra’s book covers familiar territory to anyone interested in political science and international relations in South Asia – the fraught, complex politicking and ideological battling that led to the Partition, and the fallout of that dramatic development over the subsequent 75 years.

But The Sovereign Lives of Indian and Pakistan brings a new lens to this story by retracing the steps that led the subcontinent’s religious communities to be “internationalised” – seen as separate nations rather than as groups that fit into an overarching cultural, national framework – over the course of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Mishra demonstrates how the solution drawn up to address this new “internationalised” reading of South Asia, ie, the Partition, resulted in two states that decades later are still pursuing sovereignty and have turned it into “an end in itself rather than a means to address to [the] concerns of their citizens.”

As ongoing debates over the true legacy of Partition and the place that Muslims occupy in the national narrative of India demonstrate, this story of internationalisation and the pursuit of sovereignty is hardly history. Mishra’s book takes a fascinating look at what these choices have meant for the people of the subcontinent and why it is important for us to examine ideas from the period that looked beyond the nation-state as a solution for South Asia.

I spoke to Mishra about how internationalisation of communities eroded what he calls “South Asia’s civilisational resources”, how Jawaharlal Nehru sought to tell a story about the subcontinent’s past that’s different from the one preferred by the religious right in both post-Partition nations, and about the unequal access and resources available to Indian international relations scholars – even when attempting to research their own country. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What brought you into the field of international relations? Did you always know you would be studying it?
The choice of the discipline in general was a result of an undergraduate education as well as a deep interest in politics. I did a Bachelor’s in political science from Mumbai University. And then I applied to Master’s programmes in JNU and got through there too. I chose the one that eventually led to IR as a discipline.

What held me to the discipline and what encouraged me to stay within the field is, first, the quality of professors at JNU. There was an absolute galaxy there. They cleared away a lot of misconceptions about what international relations actually was. The popular conception of IR is that it is about foreign policy and relations between countries – and that exhausts the catalogue rather quickly. But what they ended up doing was opening up this entire world of seeing international relations as a dimension of human affairs, seeing it as an expression of how humanity is organised. They were the first ones to give me a good sense of the riches that lie there.

What has subsequently kept me going is not so much the mundane elements of foreign policy – bilateral relations and so on, which is the bread and butter for all of us in the field – but the sheer opportunity that lies in front of anyone who wants to do international relations in our part of the world. IR is almost like a new field, one that has only just begun to look at the history of this country, the history of the region, and the various problems that the region has confronted over the past 75-plus years.

There are two areas where I think IR has a lot to offer. One is something called “international thought”. There is a very long and rich tradition of thinking about international affairs from an Indian or a South Asian point of view and chipping away at that in terms of scholarship is very important. The second is serious, systematic, IR-oriented examination of the historical patterns of geopolitics in South Asia, especially of the pre-modern period going back two and a half millennia. Relative to the empirical record, very few good accounts currently exist. It’s this potential within IR here that I am very excited about.

Tell me a bit more about this distinction between IR as just foreign policy versus as a way of organising human affairs?
The distinction is slightly academic, but, strictly speaking, foreign policy is about how the domestic interest of a particular country pursued in the international arena. If you reduce all of international relations to multiple instances of foreign policy, then you’re looking at the world from the point of view of the country or the government. But there is so much more going on in this world.

If you look at the way in which human beings have been organised for as long as we have a historical record of, we’ve been divided into what I like to call “Tops”, which are territorially organised political societies. These societies have been interacting and their interactions have produced all kinds of consequences. International relations are essentially a domain produced by the interaction of multiple territorially organised political societies that do not recognise a sovereign authority above them.

It’s an open-ended field, in which societies are mixing and matching and conflicting and cooperating. And all of those things are producing new kinds of reality all the time. If you think through the consequences of what I’ve just said, there is a way in which international relations can inform not just politics, but in fact, culture, literature, our sensibilities, the way in which we conceive of modernity in different forms. It’s in this sense that I say that there is an entire dimension of human affairs to which we do not do enough justice, if we reduce all of that to primarily two or maybe three things: The first is foreign policy, the second is relations between two countries, or if you take a slightly more conventional view, which is increasingly going out of fashion, then the United Nations system and so on.

'The Sovereign Lives of India and Pakistan: Post-Partition Statehood in South Asia', by Atul Mishra, associate professor at Shiv Nadar University.

Do you struggle to make students or even other academics in your institution see this distinction between a country’s foreign policy and this broader idea of IR?
I’ve been doing the IR 101 course at my university for six years. And this is my singular project. Most students who enter the programme say that they think of IR as a subset of political science. It comes from the fact that in any political science textbook you will have two or three chapters towards the end – one would be on Indian foreign policy, one would be on, say, the Cold War or post-Cold War developments, and there’ll be another one on the UN.

What I tell them is that that’s a really bad way of thinking about IR. And in fact, they should completely jettison that understanding. Don’t think of IR as a subset of political science. Just grasp this idea that humanity is divided and it’s actually spread across these multiple interacting societies.

It takes a bit of time to grasp this but it does happen. The problem is that there is so much in our ecosystems, both because of incentives but also conditioning, that pushes us to look at the world from the point of view of your own country. There are good reasons why you might want to do that, but it ends up reducing the remit of the field and you don’t enjoy the riches that it has to offer.

One of the things you’ve written about recently is the idea of working in this field from India. You’ve worked here entirely and you’ve written about how knowledge, even about South Asia, is so dispersed around the world and hard for people to access if they are not in or from Western spaces. Did you make an active choice to work only in India? Has that been something that’s informed the way you think about the field?
It was a combination of multiple things. But the decision to not pursue a PhD abroad was a conscious one. It was greatly inspired by the ideas mooted by Kanti Bajpai and Siddharth Mallavarapu, who noted that the field was very Delhi-centric, in the sense that most scholars in this field as well as training within it were at the time restricted to JNU or to other universities in Delhi, and that we needed to invest massively in a knowledge infrastructure around this area. They believed two things needed to happen: We need to produce good theoretical scholarship. And the field must be practised outside Delhi too so that it doesn’t remain Delhi-centric. To me both these ideas were appealing. So while still doing my PhD, I went to the Central University of Gujarat and taught there for seven years. I did eventually get a PhD though!

The broader question is fundamentally about knowledge asymmetry and privilege. Relative to our peers in the first world, we just don’t have enough time to do the work that we want to do. Research takes time, both in terms of input as well as output. First you have to go into the field, generate and mine data, process it, write your arguments out and so on. And we don’t have that kind of time, because of the way our institutions are designed. The admin work that our peers in the West do not have to do – the daily firefighting – we end up having to do every day.

The second element is financial resources. There’s not enough appreciation of the fact that research requires a lot of money. And sources of funding are rather limited. The most generous body that we have for social sciences funding in India is ICSSR, and I’ve benefited from its grants. But relative to the volume of work that needs to be done, what ICSSR offers is very limited. And what does not help is increasingly this wariness that the establishment has of international funding bodies.

The third and most important one is access. I mean that in multiple ways. Just to talk about my own book – there was no way I would have been allowed to cross over into Pakistan. The possibility of that did not exist. The moment you say you’re working on sovereignty conceptions, they would’ve said, “not happening”. That determines the kind of work that you can do. Put a Western scholar in my place: They’d be able to scoot in and out of India, they’ll be able to scoot in and out of Pakistan, they would have actually been able to do justice to the questions that I would have asked, but wouldn’t have been able to answer.

Also, specifically with regards to international relations, it’s sad that our own security and foreign policy officials – both serving and retired – have been noticeably generous with both their time and insight when it comes to Western scholars and researchers, rather than Indian ones.

Over the past 30 years, on several occasions there have been reports that have made waves within our field. One was about India’s strategic imagination. That work was produced by an American strategic analyst based on interviews given by the entire range of Indian establishment, serving and retired. Another work, published in 2009, about intellectual capacity in India’s foreign policy infrastructure, was again done by an American political scientist based on substantial access to Indian officials. The most voluminous empirical account of India’s nuclear story is written by an American scholar. And when you put these things together you notice there is definitely a knowledge asymmetry and we in our own part of the world have not done enough to address it.

Atul Mishra, associate professor at Shiv Nadar University.

India-Pakistan books are a dime a dozen. At what point did you decide that there’s enough in this subject – the question of sovereignty – for a book in itself, one that hadn’t been covered before?
This is a difficult question to answer. When you’re training in the field, one of the first questions that you encounter is about the emergence of inter-state systems in different parts of the world. The Europeans have given us an answer about their state system – the Treaty of Westphalia – and they’ve basically said that the elements of this system were globalised by colonialism, suggesting that in a lot of ways all states are Westphalian and the global international system is essentially Westphalian

I was not satisfied with that conclusion. If the Treaty of Westphalia was the “Big Bang moment” for European international relations, then I wanted to see if there was a corresponding “Big Bang moment” here. It’s a flawed way of thinking, but I wanted to go looking. So to understand South Asia, I looked at 1857, then at 1947.

When I started looking at the Partition, the thing that struck me was this: If you look at the 1940s as the urgently pertinent period that leads into the Partition, the questions that are being debated there are the ones that are not resolved by Partition. Yet it happens, and those questions mutate. If you think about the politics of the Partition as the politics of sovereignty – will there be one kind of sovereignty or multiple kinds in South Asia?; will there be one sovereign state or multiple? – what you see is that while Partition happens these questions aren’t resolved. So that was interesting.

A bulk of the IR literature on South Asia focuses on bilateral relations. And there are historians who have looked at specific aspects of the Partition. For instance, for a long time just the question of “who caused Partition” was a point of great agitation amongst history people

But I felt that there is a way in which the story of the Partition and India-Pakistan can be told comprising three elements: the inter-capital story, ie, relations between New Delhi and Islamabad-Rawalpindi; the intertwined domestic dynamics – the three aspects I’ve looked at in the book, which are the territorial question, the national identity question and the minority question, you cannot think of them as purely domestic, where one country gets to make decisions entirely independent of the other; the third is the cumulative consequence of these two on the wider regional dynamic.

I tried to produce a synthetic account, which is theoretically sophisticated, which is historically on point and which above all tries to reason its way through a historical record trying to answer one particular question: What has sovereignty meant for these two countries that emerged from a process where the two nationalisms involved were in a sovereignty deadlock.

What does sovereignty mean, or refer to here?
It’s a very slippery concept. So much so that the French philosopher Jacques Maritain at one point said we should stop using this term. At its core it means supreme authority. It’s a term that comes to political philosophy from theology. It first gets attached to land, ie, “supreme authority within a territory”. And then it includes people, so “supreme authority within a territory and over the population resident within that territory”.

Of course, the story is not as simple as this. It also takes meanings according to how it is used and invoked. A lot of times it is a matter of performance. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to the Minar-e-Pakistan in 1999, which commemorates the Lahore Resolution of 1940 calling for Pakistan, what he was doing was acknowledging the sovereignty of Pakistan. It’s a performance, not just on behalf of the country that he is the leader of, but also of his own party and ideology. But this performance is substantive and very deeply meaningful and important.

Sovereignty is also declared and asserted and claimed. When India rightly claims sovereignty over parts that are currently under Pakistani occupation, it becomes a claim. It is also an assertion. Every time you stop someone from entering your territory at a border, it is an assertion.

The book then suggests that sovereignty has become an end in itself for these two countries, India and Pakistan. That the ‘pursuit of sovereignty’ by these two nations tells us something vital about them. Is that not the case elsewhere? What makes these two unique in their continuing ‘pursuit’?
Sovereignty, for states that have been established and recognised, is always a means to a set of ends. There are three ends, at least, that are common to all: economic development, external and internal security and, in varying degrees, recognition of their distinctiveness and contribution to the international arena, ie, status.

For India and Pakistan, the pursuit of sovereignty has itself become an end. With Kashmir, for example, the question is unresolved. Whose sovereignty will hold? Because they have been competing over this question, I don’t think it’s debatable that on all three counts – economic development, security and status – both of them have suffered greatly.

It is generally nationalist movements and projects that pursue sovereignty. It does not make sense for established states to pursue it, because if they get into this business, they end up hurting themselves. A very good example is Brexit. Above everything else Brexit is about taking back sovereignty. It became an end in itself, and look at the toll that it has taken on the country.

What makes India and Pakistan unique seems to be that, through the entirety of the existence of these two states – and unlike the UK or Russia right now – the pursuit of sovereignty has been front and centre, taking up resources, time and effort.
Defending sovereignty is something that all states do. But the pursuit of it, for established states, usually leads to pain.

For India and Pakistan, in relation to each other, the hallmark of all their politics is the pursuit of sovereignty. The other way to grasp this is to ask the following question: If you take the sovereignty question out, what is left? Substantively nothing. If you try and sequester the sovereignty question, as India has done, then you basically have no relations left.

Today, for example, India does not have a Pakistan policy, it has a Pakistan posture. And it has all kinds of interesting moves in the international arena to corner Pakistan. But insofar as a New Delhi policy to address its counterparts in Islamabad or Rawalpindi goes, that is not there, because India does not want to actively, at least in one channel, address the sovereignty question.

But that doesn’t mean the sovereignty question goes away. Every time the minorities of India are brought into play for one reason or another, Pakistan is invariably the subject.

The book claims that the ‘internationalisation process’ that took place in South Asia eroded ‘cultural and maybe even civilisational resources that made inter-community coexistence possible’ in the region. What are you talking about here?
What I mean by internationalisation is a process that has more or less been in place on the subcontinent for about 150 years, whereby communities are conceptualised or have self-conceptualised as nations. This is unprecedented for our part of the world. We did not have nations in the pre-modern period.

What is a nation? It is a community of people that feels they have something in common. A community of common sentiments is one way of thinking about the nation. This is entirely new because the subcontinent had cultural communities. But national communities are necessarily political ones too. In the sense that they claim certain political rights – such as right to self-determination and sovereign statehood – on the basis of the assertion that they are a nation. And as communities have become conceptualised as nations, the differences between them have acquired a greater salience than the similarities between them.

In the four decades prior to 1947, there were at least three different ideas of how many nations there were on the subcontinent. There was the Congress idea that argued that all Indians were members of one nation. There was a trend that crystallises in the late 1930s where one section of Indian Muslims argues that Muslims constitute a separate nation. And then you have the Hindu nationalists, starting in the 1920s, arguing that the Hindus constitute a distinct and singular nation, and that they are the only nation here.

What this has meant is that communities have begun interacting as nations. Once that happened, what you end up with is internationalisation. Even before the Partition. Jinnah is on record as the first major theorist of internationalisation when, in his 1940 speech at Lahore, he says the problem in India is international in character. Not two cultures but two nations have uneasily coexisted on the subcontinent for a millennium.

What that has done is that it has ended up eroding what has been the characteristic feature of South Asia if you think of it as a civilisational area, as opposed to a civilisation. The hallmark of the South Asian civilisational area is that you can either think of it as a mega-federation of cultures or you can think of it as a web or a series of imperfectly overlapping subcultures. Historically, this has given impetus to bridge-building as opposed to wall-erection, which is what internationalisation has done.

If we are slightly reductionist, and it sometimes helps to reduce problems to their bare-bones, the problem of internationalisation of South Asia is the problem of relations between Hindus and Muslims. Let’s for a moment treat them as categories with which we need to work, because they impinge on political imagination and policy questions. What you see is that, once a new political and religious force arrives on the subcontinent, there is a lot of conflict. There’s no question. But that conflict, over a period of time, gives way to some kind of an intercommunal adjustment as well.

By the time you’re dealing with Akbar, you’re seeing the gains of the intercommunal adjustment on the ground, being formalised in everyday life. Think of Akbar’s ideas of Din-e-Ilahi and Sulh-e-Kul. He’s able to do that not just because he’s the emperor, but also because something has changed on the ground. Has it changed across the subcontinent? No. There are areas where contestation continues. But at least in the imperial imagination, the sovereign can go on to declare peace for all and a faith that is non-denominational and non-sectarian.

To me, that is one way in which South Asia as a civilisational area has produced a possibility of coexistence. This is an unpopular opinion, but I do believe that what happens during the latter part of Aurangzeb’s reign very significantly undercuts that process set in place by the early Mughals. In the 18th century again, we have the possibility of some kind of intercommunal adjustment again, because though the Marathas initially move out to take on all other powers, by the end they are the protectors of the Mughal empire. You can see glimpses there of an intercommunal adjustment. But that process is stemmed and reversed once the British arrive on the scene.

Especially after 1857, the Crown is very wary of violence and threats against its rule and it understands how to play communities against each other, and so plays its part in the conversion of community consciousness into national consciousness.

The fact that communities have ceased to be cultural, have increasingly become political in the sense of becoming nations, they have ended up encouraging and being impacted by their differences as opposed to their similarities. This is a long-term corrosion of those resources by which people would live. If you didn’t politicise religion for example, if you allowed local possibilities of coexistence, then the confederated character of South Asian culture would have done its job.

Just to give you an example: Today, the slightest intercommunity conflict in any part of South Asia, say in Bareilly, automatically gets linked to the India-Pakistan question. What is it that has made that scaling up of the imagination a possibility? Internationalisation. It is no longer possible for the local cultural resources to somehow restrict the conflict to that scale, that area and not let it get plugged into a larger national narrative. It is this that I refer to when I talk about internationalisation.

‘Whether there is such a logic inherent to the nation state form when it is established in societies that do not appreciate the value of separating religion from politics is a question worth pondering.’ We’re almost talking about the entirety of South Asia here. What do you mean?
So this is me exercising zamindari rights at the end of a chapter here. Let me draw your attention to two sets of literature. When the Partition was beginning to look like a certainty, there were many people saying that if you do end up creating a unitary Western-style nation-state in primarily religious societies, what you will end up getting are homogenised nation-states. In his book India Divided, Rajendra Prasad extensively discusses this issue.

And there is a quote from his book in the epilogue which warns about the consequences that will follow if one or multiple nation-states were to emerge on the subcontinent:

“We must, therefore, think of a solution which is in keeping with modern thought, which does not cut across the history of centuries, which does not fly in the face of geography, which does not make the defence of the country infinitely more difficult if not impossible in the present-day conditions of the world, which does not place a burden on the separated States that they will not be able to bear, which does not condemn in its result the common man in the new States to a life of misery and squalor or an indefinite period, which does not create the problem of irredentism alike in the Muslim and Hindu states, and which has not been conceived in frenzy and does not prepare the ground for perpetual conflict.”

There are also scholars very sceptical of the fit between the European nation-state idea and societies that for all kinds of reasons do not appreciate the separation of religion and politics.

There are two components of nation-states. One is the emotive component, the nation, which I’ve said is a community of common sentiments. And then there is the state, which is an organisation of power. When you bring those two elements together, what you usually find is this: All states require some resource to sustain themselves, to gain legitimacy.

How do states get legitimacy? In secular states, this can be by allegiance to constitutional principles. Or by providing security to territory to which people owe allegiance. There are other states that derive their legitimacy by patronising culture, in non-religious terms, like language, food habits etc. In societies that do not appreciate secularism, it is easy for those who run the state to link the religion of the majority with the nation. It is the easiest and most cost-effective way to create legitimacy for the state. State legitimacy in the abstract and regime legitimacy in the most concrete.

For all kinds of regimes in South Asia, if they feel legitimacy crises, it’s very easy for them to stoke religious passions and end up encouraging a connect between nationality and the dominant religion. That is what I was pondering in that comment. If you bring the nation-state form to a non-secular society, the likelihood that the regime in power legitimises itself by trying to establish an identity between the dominant religion and nationhood is very high.

There was a time in recent history when it seemed as if the border question regarding Kashmir might be resolved. But your book seems to suggest that even if the border question was decided and trade re-started, the very existence of this history of the Partition and contested nationhood and the presence of sizeable minorities means the question of sovereignty would not go away. That India-Pakistan ties could never become like India-Bangladesh ties.
The two countries are now in a trap produced by the political form that was chosen for them. By virtue of being nation-states, they will find it hard to strike sovereignty bargains, and to have arrangements such as the Manmohan-Musharraf formula seeking to make borders irrelevant. Something like that would mean sequestering a slice of the joint life of India and Pakistan from the larger logic that governs the two countries, and I’m not sure if that would have succeeded.

That said, is there any alternative? You would have to reimagine your politics, your notions of political community in order to make a breakthrough.

The book does tackle some of these other ideas of political community. You’ve written about the work of Radha Kumud Mookerji and others in the 1940s, who encouraged different ideas of relations between communities and nations. Tell us about these ideas.
Those are the questions my next book tackles. What I’ve found in the course of writing this book is a long record of healthy and robust scepticism of the idea that Indians and South Asians were destined to become either a single or multiple nation-states. There is a strong corpus of writing from the early 1900s up until the early 1950s where people are making two kinds of arguments: One, you have to delink sovereignty from nationhood. What that means is that you can have a sovereign state that is either multinational or unnational, and both of these terms come from Prasad’s India Divided.

The other is that sovereignty has to be parcellised and arranged at different levels of government. Like turning the South Asian region into some sort of a confederation where the central government would have power over three or four areas to make sure the union survives and thrives and has relations with the rest of the world, but all other powers would be delegated to different levels and at times to be held simultaneously by different levels.

My next book, tentatively called United States of South Asia, examines the way in which these two notions were considered and how people tried to actively come up with blueprints for how these would work. In the 1940s you had a number of proposals, like constitutional outlines or sketches of governmental infrastructure, others looked at the philosophical problem involved, others still looking at the historical precedents. One example was the Maratha Empire, which was also a confederation. So the idea was that the last Indian “empire” before the British actually gave us a model for how we should organise ourselves once the British left was organised federally.

I’ve just been amazed at the kinds of people I’ve come across who were partaking of this discussion. Including VD Savarkar, who in a book in 1925 called The Maratha Movement, says there was conflict, and the only way to leave it behind is by ensuring that Muslims recognise that the Hindus are a martial people, and once we’ve done that we would treat each other as equals, there will be a lasting unity between the two communities, and that would be a starting point for them to come together in an effort to establish a global commonwealth.

Do I see that imagination of South Asia as a confederation coming back? I don’t know. Do I see it as relevant and pertinent? Yes. For two reasons. One is that the history of South Asia suggests that over time there will be pushback to centralisation. The long-term pattern in the region’s political history is of an interplay of forces of centralisation and decentralisation, of phases of imperial consolidation and political fragmentation. To take recent examples, think of British-ruled India in 1947 and of Pakistan in 1971. We see that in contemporary Indian politics as well. What that tells us is that you need to devise a polity that strikes a fine balance between the units that make up the whole and the unit that represents the whole.

The other reason is that the major challenges on the environmental front require you to devise some regional solutions. For instance, it just makes a lot of sense for New Delhi to give power to the North Eastern states to deal with Bangladesh than for New Delhi to deal directly with Dhaka, insofar as climate change is concerned.

The Maratha comment reminded me of this short story by Jayant Narlikar which imagines someone in an alternative history where the Maratha Empire was not defeated by the British.

In the book, you talk about Nehru making a civilisational argument, rather than a modernising one to argue that India should be secular. Could you expand on this a bit?
I wouldn’t think of the civilisational part as being in tension with modernity. You can say Nehru provided a modernist statement of India’s civilisation. In the 1940s, Nehru is very keenly aware of an intellectual crisis that the nationalists are going to confront – the crisis of what should be the conception of India’s national identity once the British depart. For the preceding four or five decades, the Congress has said that all Indians are a nation because they are held commonly in subjugation. We are a nation because we are opposed to you ruling us. But once the British leave, that formulation would become a weak glue to keep the Indian nation together.

So what you need is a new conception of India’s identity. But if you go looking for a new one, first you have to deal with the existing conceptions that are already dominant. Those are coming from religious nationalists, both Hindu and Muslim. And they are making two versions of the same argument. The Hindu nationalists are saying that India’s identity is civilisational, but that civilisation is Hindu. The Muslim nationalists, with Jinnah as their leading articulator, are arguing that there are at least two nations on the subcontinent, Hindu and Muslim, and the Muslims get their identity from the broader Muslim civilisation.

National identity gets linked to civilisational identity, and civilisation is read in religious terms. What Nehru does, through his writings from the 1940s all the way to the early 1960s, until the end, is to constantly give us a statement of India’s identity keeping India’s civilisation front and centre. He says that India’s identity is civilisational, but this is a civilisation that is not religious, but one that is pluralistic and syncretic. It is a result of interactions between the native genius and the best that the world has to offer.

In this move, what Nehru attempts is a delinking of religion and civilisation. Once you start doing that, you serve the purpose of secularism by weakening its opponents. It’s one thing to say ‘this is my version of secularism’ just in terms of principles. But by reading the Indian civilisation itself in syncretic terms, Nehru seeks to weaken those who would link civilisation and religion.

He then goes on to make another argument. He says that this is a civilisation that has a certain rhythm to its development. This is a civilisation that has grown and become more capacious, generous, imaginative and more all-encompassing as it has grown, as a result of which there is synthesis, there is accommodation but there is no assimilation, and if there is assimilation there is no loss of identity of those parts that come together to make the civilisation. He says this is the common inheritance of all Indians, whether you are Hindus or Muslims.

By doing this, he goes against the argument that Indian civilisation can be read in religious terms. In fact, it is a civilisation that accommodates multiple religions.

Contrary to the popular conception that Nehru was anti-religious, he was actually against the dogmatic and ritualistic aspects of religion, especially if they ended up undercutting the purpose of science and reason. But Nehru was very sensitive and alert to the vital role that religion plays insofar as human affairs are concerned, which is that it provides a balm for the soul.

He calls for us to think about religion in the Indian context in the way that it has been part of our civilisation. Do your yoga, partake of the wisdom that the Vedic and post-Vedic literature has to offer, or become familiar with the story of Indian civilisation. There is a spirit in the Indian civilisation, a spirit of generosity, a spirit of encouraging pluralism, and if you identify yourself with an Indian nation in civilisational terms in this fashion, then your spiritual needs are also addressed.

Going beyond just the principal of secularism, Nehru is recognising the spiritual function of religion and telling us that that function can be served by the civilisational resources that India has to offer.

As to the question of why the Nehruvian project is not in vogue anymore, the first thing to notice is that it was immensely successful. But the sheer sophistication of that construct that he attempted meant that you needed people of equally resourceful imagination to continue that process, you needed to keep theorising India’s civilisation, and I don’t think his successors did a good job there. The second is the ideological demise of the Congress party. It was never able to keep up with the sheer resourcefulness of ideology that Nehru brought to the Congress. It went from the cynicism of the 1970s to the opportunism of the 1980s to the absolute directionless of the 1990s and onwards. So Nehru’s successors have a lot to blame for the failure of the Nehruvian project.

Finally, onto our three set questions for all interviewees. What misconceptions do you find yourself constantly combating against when looking at India-Pakistan relations?
There are two or three ways in which people in India think about Pakistan that I think are mistaken.

One is the notion that people in India have that somehow India can leapfrog or ignore Pakistan on its way to social peace, regional influence and global status. I like to say Pakistan is not going anywhere, but it is also not going anywhere. There are governance and economic challenges that mean that the country is not going anywhere, but if you think this is a country that it is going to implode, it’s not going anywhere in that sense either.

Then there is the fantastical idea that India can go in and divide Pakistan into multiple pieces. Saner minds prevail, and I’m sure that within the establishment there is no such thinking. But the fact that this notion circulates so widely in our public discourse is scary.

And then the whole notion of Akhand Bharat, I find it entirely confusing, not problematic. Are you talking about taking “back” territory? Does that mean bringing all the Muslims of South Asia within the Hindu fold? My antidote to this idea is to go back and read about how the question of Pakistan has been written about in Indian thinking, including right-wing thinking over the years.

That reminds me of how Jinnah was similarly unclear about what Pakistan would actually be until quite late. That the idea for him too was quite nebulous.
And the problem is that a nebulous idea can still produce disastrous consequences, and it’s that that we need to guard against.

Do you have recommendations for younger scholars on tools of research or areas of study that you think are undercovered and deserve more attention?
I would encourage anyone who is interested in IR in this part of the world to take our history very seriously and get cracking on learning Sanskrit and Persian. There is a wealth of material there to be mined. What you get when you have access to these languages is at least 2000+ years of material that will shed light on three things: International thinking in the subcontinent. At the moment what largely goes on in the name of the historical part of international thinking is someone examining the Arthashastra, the Nitisara and the Shukraniti. There is much more there than just these texts.

The second is geopolitical patterns. We have incredible phases in South Asia’s international relations history where multiple powers are locked in a geopolitical conflict and there are patterns that have emerged from this and continued for over 150-200 years, sometimes longer. What we need are good theoretical accounts of these geopolitical patterns.

The third area from Persian and Sanskrit accounts is writing good histories of diplomacy from across the region. Again, some work has been done, including translations of diplomatic texts available in these languages, but you have to go beyond translations and ask IR questions about diplomatic procedures, practices and goals.

Alongside the languages, you have to be trained well in IR. It’s a technical field, a science, and if you train yourself well and learn the languages, then there are riches to be explored.

Three recommendations of works for those who are interested in this subject:
I would encourage your readers to read the material that was produced by actors in the debates of the 1940s. BR Ambedkar’s book, Pakistan, or the Partition of India, and Rajendra Prasad’s book, India Divided, can be read in conversation with each other.

One could also look at the Mohandas Gandhi-MA Jinnah dialogue in 1944, published as Gandhi-Jinnah Talks. And a pamphlet by C Rajagopalachari called The Way Out (1944), to get a sense of how those who are in the thick of the action are thinking about the problems of the period. These texts anticipate what has now come to pass. They are not prophetic so much as analytic.

This interview first appeared on India Inside Out by Rohan Venkat.