Geography plays an intimate and largely unacknowledged role in shaping Indian thinking on security, defence and foreign policies. While nearly all scholars and analysts who write about India and its place in the world address disputes and problems emanating from geophysical-spaces-made-political-objects – think of Kashmir, Siachen or the Indus River treaty – and confront resilient spatial images and metaphors – for example, homeland, punyabhumi or infiltrators – remarkably few acknowledge the power of spatial concepts and logics in shaping Indian security discourses. Simply put, India has no explicit geopolitical tradition, yet geography is everywhere in its political thought.
For a characteristic example of the ubiquity of spatial thinking in Indian foreign policy, consider Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, bemoaning the breakdown of relations with China in an informal conversation with President Nasser of Egypt in 1960:
Before the Chinese came to Tibet, we had no trouble…The frontier which was dead for thousands of years has now become alive with armies facing each other…Another peculiar feature of the problem [with China] is that from times immemorial, mountains have formed an intimate part of our culture. The Himalayas, for example, occupy [first] place in the minds and hearts of our people. It is inconceivable that a chunk of Himalaya may cease to be a part of India.
This short statement spills over with language joining geography and nation across multiple registers. The physical is made coterminous with the cultural, embodying the nation in the form of a mountain chain. A political geography is animated when the Chinese arrive in Tibet, bringing a ‘dead’ frontier to life and making the Himalayas a living metonym of the Indian nation. For Nehru, the strength of the bond between mountains and the emotions of the Indian people is so strong that losing a ‘chunk’ of the Himalayas becomes an ‘inconceivable’ loss to the Indian nation. Giving up these treasured lands comes to mean the same as giving up a part of the nation: it is beyond imagination. President Nasser could no doubt have reflected similarly on the place of the Nile in shaping the dominant Egyptian self-image.
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