The Indian government’s current behavior of abusing executive power to impose trade restrictions on Chinese goods reflects a worrisome wave of Indian economic nationalism. Scholars often trace this protectionist ideology to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national campaign of “Make in India” launched in 2014 and his most recent slogan “Self-reliant India Mission,” which was announced on May 12. India’s sensitiveness toward alleged “foreign economic threats,” however, is deeply rooted in the historical trauma it experienced with Western imperialism.A nation’s nationalist worldview is based on its collective memories which are shaped by its historical trauma. Some of the largest historical traumas in Indian memory relate to the famines that broke out in 1770, 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897, and 1943. These were caused by the merciless and avaricious exploitation by British colonizers.The great famine of 1770, for example, caused approximately 10 million deaths. The Bengal famine of 1943, which happened in the former Bengal province of British India, caused approximately 3 million refugees to perish.
After the independence of India in 1947, the country still failed to achieve basic agricultural self-reliance until the 1990s. It was largely dependent on food aid granted by the US. India’s dependence on the US, the IMF, and the World Bank gave the latter opportunities to intervene in India’s domestic policies. In the 1960s, the US and the World Bank pressed India to devaluate the rupee and to change its agricultural policy according to US demands.
In 1965, the administration of then US president Lyndon Johnson adopted an even more coercive “short-tether” policy. Johnson threatened to stop the food aid program and the IMF’s loans to India in order to force New Delhi to soften its criticism toward the US invasion of Vietnam. The policy also forced India to adopt liberalized agricultural and economic policies as the US demanded.
The dire memories of being dictated by Western states’ economic interventions have traumatized India. Indeed, this imperialistic and colonialist humiliation by the West impedes India’s grand and proud dreams to become a global power. It overshadows its foreign policy too. In fact, when facing relatively smaller South Asian states, India now is acting exactly like Britain as an imperial actor. It takes advantage of its superior economic status to implement blockades, boycotts, and sanctions with foreign policy agendas against smaller countries like Nepal.
The Nepalese people still vividly remember how often India used economic means to intervene with their sovereign affairs. Nepal was blockaded by India and suffered a horrible humanitarian crisis in 1989 for purchasing military resources from China. In 2015, India attempted to dictate Nepal’s own constitution.
However, when facing economically larger powers like China, India cannot use economic measures to force their will. In fact, India’s historical memories prompt it to be extremely skeptical toward those states’ investment. India has bitter memories of Western economic interventions, yet it enjoys using those same means to dominate smaller South Asian countries. Thus, New Delhi constantly fears that Beijing will use economic means to intervene with India’s domestic politics. It also fears China’s success in the India market, particularly with manufacturing.
This historical trauma and fear underscores why Modi claimed on May 12 that the COVID-19 crisis illustrates how the Indian manufacturing chain is excessively dependent on China. This is also why he urged his country to adopt the concept of “self-reliance” to guide the economic strategy for the rest of his term.
Although the Modi administration’s current boycott of Chinese goods is filled with immature Sinophobic sentiments and nationalist zeal, it should not be too surprising in today’s climate. This is a deliberate protectionist trade policy which is deeply rooted in India’s prolonged sensitiveness toward international trade.
This sensitivity is a legacy of India’s historical trauma caused by Western imperialism. It is certainly understandable. But it is no longer appropriate in a globalized world. The economic interdependence between India and China in a globalized world is already an irrevocable fact that India’s ultranationalists cannot unilaterally ignore. Any populist attempt to challenge objective principles of economics will cause harm to the Indian economy and the livelihood of the Indian people.
India should cooperate with China hand in hand to eventually say farewell to its historical trauma. Together, China and India can embrace a new future with peace, prosperity, and dignity that all the developing states are entitled to enjoy.
The author is a research fellow of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs.