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From The USSR To SAARC: A History Of India’s Foreign Affairs Since Independence

In the context of foreign affairs and international relations, India has come a long way and evolved over time. The first evidence of cross-border movement of trade and services was during the Harappan civilisation with  other existing civilisations. The latest pragmatic strategy that India has rested in its international relation bed-stones, post-independence was the non-aligned movement that flourished and grew during the Nehruvian era. It could be said that with the famous work of Francis Fukuyama ‘The end of history’, the non-alignment also became redundant as the world moved towards unipolarity and by then, colonialism was at its end.

With a train long history of approximately 1,200 years of colonialism and imperialist forces governing our foundations, India wasn’t willing to open its borders for yet another colonialist or colonial apologist to step forth and snatch our independence that was achieved on the shoulders of many. The world sinking into a Cold war post the Second World War between the superpowers, a young country was expected to choose sides (SEATO, NATO or Warsaw pact).

India got independence on August 15, 1947 (the date was chosen by the last Viceroy because that was the second anniversary of Japan laying its arm in front of the allied forces, and not India as India wanted the date to be on January 26), following which India opened its doors to socialism but not as a monolithic “communist state”. India was also cheerful of the idea of liberty and democracy, but was not supportive of the military alliances of the SEATO and NATO.

The US President John F. Kennedy (R) received India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (L) at the airport in Rhode Island, Washington, November 1961.||via The Economist/Representational image.

Non-alignment was inspired by the movements flagged during the freedom struggle like non-cooperation and non-violence, and our torch-bearing father of the nation Gandhiji. Non-alignment refused any superiority as it baptised the third idea into the world and wanted newly independent and young nations to join it in order to swim out of its depredations and become self-reliant. Non-alignment was a way in which no one joined the superpowers but was always willing to de-escalate and mediate between the US and USSR, and ensure that differences did not become disputes.

Non-alignment also pleaded for NIEO in order to ensure that discrimination and exploitation at the hands of the colonialists were not meted again and provide for confidence, equality, equity and justice. Non-alignment was a thorough success as it began with 25 nations and by 2012, 120 nations became a part of it at Tehran, where the 16th summit was held.

During the stay of non-alignment, India was wounded by its neighbours, Pakistan and China, and we were forced to go at war with them in 1962, 1965 and 1971. As a young nation, we were not only supposed to lift ourselves out of the deliberate abject poverty, we were also left out. But we succumbed to many internal and external crisis. India was facing a food crisis in the 1960s where the green revolution and the USA assistance was sought in the form of PL-480. We also faced multiple financial jerks to which the Breton-woods bodies and the West were always iso-centric, claiming for an ‘open door economy’ in return for help and assistance.

The few failures of non-alignment were: anticipation of the 1962 war with China and seeking aids from both blocks. However, to justify the points mentioned, India as a state took help from either block and not as a country. Hence, our foreign policy was unaffected and had zilch impact on it.

It was not that India was writing an anti-thesis of the Cold war era by being a new democracy. Nehruji (Independent India’s first PM and foreign affairs minister) did visit the USA in 1949, six years before the Bandung conference and 12 years before the Belgrade summit for friendly ties. But USA’s cold attitude and polarised view of being the big elephant in the room never considered India an important state on geopolitics.

They meant chauvinism in return for friendship. The USA could not be seen with confidence then because of its ever isolationist and parting nature, and hence, only after all doors from the USA seemed shut did we make a move for a friendly docent with the USSR, which not only provided aid, but also geo-strategical security, support and assurance.

  1. The USA had always been cynical on the nuclear ground with India.
  2. The USA helped Pakistan by sending its fleet in the 1971 war.
  3. During the PL-480 and several financial crises, the USA was never helpful and gave into rodomontade in offer and return for help.
  4. It supplied arms to Pakistan.
  5. India also was not liking the USA’s presence in the Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean;

and these were the reasons India was compelled to sign an Indo-Soviet friendship treaty in 1971.

Ladakh Indian Army
The non-alignment pact among countries led to the anticipation of the 1962 war with China. Representational image.

At the end of the 1989 Belgrade conference, a consensus was made on six priority sectors:

  1. Nuclear disarmament
  2. Reduction of global economic disparity
  3. Decolonisation
  4. Environmental protection
  5. Human rights
  6. Strengthening the UN;

Had it not been for non-alignment, these issues altogether could not have viewed from a kaleidoscope collectively, but rather individually.

Non-alignment grew out from the historical experiences and mythology of India and was loaded with enthusiasm, a blend of realism and idealism. It aimed towards global peace, anti-colonialism, economic equality, etc. Countries such as Egypt, Afghanistan and Indonesia traced their ancient culture and traditions in it. Hence, it was not India’s suo moto idea but was conceptually, theoretically nd practically relatable to other countries too.

The NIEO led to the establishment of SAARC (a regional group) because countries wanted to economically swipe away the donor-donee relationship as then, only the G7 was financially well-to-do and on the other side, G77 were an amalgam of all the poor economies. It can also be assured that the idea of ‘global village’ was something that was a foetus idea of the NIEO.

Journalist Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) wrote a poem called ‘If’ :

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all mend doubt you
But make allowances for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk to wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master, If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you have spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life too, broken, And stoop and build em up with worn out tools:

This poem acts as an analogy for how India and its foreign policy survived as a brand, an entity, and a new and independent nation over the wrath of times even when there were mouths opened in antagonism and scepticism for its survival (ironically, Kipling himself was not convinced that India could govern itself and favoured British rule for India’s survival as a country and sustenance, while simultaneously writing this enigma).

Featured image credit: Wikipedia
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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