Neo-Curzonism: Lord Curzon 2.0

Few Viceregal legacies in India’s 90 years of British Crown domination (the suzerainty of the British Crown over the East India Company’s territories in India was established by the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858, and ended with the India Independence Act of 1947) match that of George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, KG, GCSI, GCIE, PC – popularly known as Lord Curzon, 15th Viceroy of India. Most (in)famous for the Partition of Bengal in 1905 (which was annulled in 1911), Lord Curzon also did the distinguished act of restoring several historical sites and monuments – including the Taj Mahal – within India. However, it is the rediscovery of Curzon’s foreign policy that is now proving to be a revelation for students and experts of Indian Foreign Policy.

Curzon was appointed the Viceroy towards the waning end of the Great Game – one of the most thrilling episodes in the history of man’s imperial aspirations. As a result, he had plenty of reason to be skeptical – one may argue, almost cynical – regarding the threat posed by the colossal Russian empire to the crown jewel in Pax Brittanica – India. Building on the antique and medieval imperial models of the Indian subcontinent, Curzon came up with a novel solution – that of establishing buffer states.

“the master of India, must, under modern conditions, be the greatest power in the Asiatic Continent, and, therefore, it may be added, in the world”.

–          Lord Curzon, 1909

The India referred to here by Curzon consists of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Understanding the key position played by India in controlling the Indian subcontinent and (by virtue of its potential influence over major sea routes in the Indian Ocean) the globe, Curzon sought to protect India proper by the creation of Afghanistan (specifically the NWFP) and Persia to the North and West, Burma to the East and Tibet to the North-East as buffer states.

Neo-Curzonism

A perspective of the Game

Curzon’s two-pronged strategy of protecting Indian interest and extending India’s sphere of interest to the outermost edges of the subcontinent is particularly significant in contemporary times. With the rise of the Indian Ocean as the world’s major sea-route (25% of global petroleum passes through the Straits of Malacca, and 11% through the Gulf of Aden), rise of Asian nations on the global geo-strategic-economic stage, increasing importance of Central Asia (both as an hitherto untapped source of mineral resources and due to the war on terror) and the Indian Ocean nations having the youngest and most dynamic demography in the world, the global focus of power struggle has shifted to this region. Hence, neo-Curzonism becomes of significant interest to Indian interest.

If India were to follow such a policy, it would be well-advised to take the following steps:

  • Develop better ties with (possibly a post-Karzai Taliban) government of Afghanistan, as an effective bulwark against rising Islamic extremism and to keep Pakistan in check (the “Nutcracker” theory).
  • Encourage dialogue with the separatist movements in Sindh and Baluchistan – this would extend Indian hegemony and act as an extremely effective counter-move in the Gwadar port hinderland.
  • Improve ties with the Maoist regime in Nepal. The sustainment of the Maoist regime in Nepal is a reality that India has to come to terms with.
  • Increase support for the rights of the indigenous people of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Tibet has always been India’s most significant buffer state against China.
  • Continue to emphasize India as a soft power in Myanmar. As a counter to a pro-China military Junta in power, Track 2 diplomacy will be much more effective.
  • Reconcile ties with Bangladesh and seek economic development of this region. This would both act as a countermove against extremist movements in the region, and improve ties.

A casual reader would naturally seek to associate neo-Curzonism with either the American policy of neo-conservatism or with the Hindutva Right Wing’s aspiration of a Greater India or Akhanda Bharat (अखंड भारत ). However, there are significant differences among them.

The Uniqueness of Neo-Curzonsm

While Neo-Conservatism can be most effectively understood through the prism of neo-Imperialism – in so far as much as it seeks to (forcefully) endorse “American” ideals of individualism, free market economies and democracy the two seem similar – Neo-Curzonism seeks to come to terms with present-day reality. It does not seek to force unto any neighbor one particular kind of State; rather it seeks to accept the existing system of governance and pursue Indian interest within the confines of that framework. This is of particular real politick importance given the nature of complications in the Indian subcontinent, rising out of the fact that the State of Pakistan is built on an artificial and unattainable notion, the sustainability of the status quo with Tibet, and the strong footing the military Junta enjoys in Myanmar.

In the context of being an expression of Indian imperialism, Neo-Curzonism does indeed reconcile itself with the Hindutvavadi demand of an Akhanda Bharat. However, what differentiates the two concepts is the secular nature of Neo-Curzonism. It does not seek to use religion as a tool for the extension of Indian hegemony. This helps lay the foundations of relations with the Muslim states of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Buddhist state of Myanmar and the region of Tibet, and the largely atheistic China.

Role of the US

A major and vital factor differentiating Neo-Curzonism with the original concepts of Lord Curzon is the fact that while the British Empire enjoyed unmatched supremacy over the Indian Ocean, present-day India is ill-equipped to exercise control over the high seas. This is particular highlighted in view of the status quo with India’s major competitor – China (the “String of Pearls” theory).

Hence, a de-facto India-US alliance will have to be forged to ensure US control over the seas acting as a re-enforcement to India’s expansion on land. This alliance would further have to be reconciled with India’s policy of Non-Alignment, whose (post-USSR-collapse) focus has shifted to balancing relations with China on one hand and the West on the other.

Post Script – The above passage has been largely influenced by Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon – an intellectual treat and must-read for those interested in understanding contemporary times. Although Curzon’s policy can be seen to be simply an extension of imperial design in India since the time of antiquity – indeed, powers from the Mauryas to the Cholas had followed a similar policy – and the naming of this concept after a British Imperial Viceroy can be seen to be an expression of American neo-imperialistic arrogance, what is significant is the concept express. As the Bard would tell us, “What’s in a name?” 

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