An Interesting Take on Sub-Continent Politics


Senior Member
Apr 1, 2009
Who is Kautilya and Why Should You Care?
Written by Kris Millett
Friday, 06 March 2009

Today, it’s impossible to open a newspaper without seeing something on South Asia. I believe that the Western world, including Canada, started paying attention to this region after December 27, 2007: the day Benazir Bhutto – back from exile and poised to become the next Prime Minister of Pakistan – was shot at during a rally. She died soon after, along with any idea of peace and unity in her multiethnic, yet monotheistic country. To the West, Bhutto served the region with a strong and beautiful symbol of moderate Islam, and here she had gained the admiration of many political leaders and journalists.


Now we’ve been drawn to the brutal realities of South Asia: a region containing two nuclear-armed nations that hate each other (India, Pakistan), ethnic-based conflicts and struggles for independence running wild in all eight countries, and a third nuclear-armed behemoth (China) lurking on the region’s border, licking its chops. With respect to the Middle East, South Asia is the most dangerous region in the world. The potential for mass destruction is higher here, as ethnic tensions and national ambitions are ever only a hair away from atomic consequences (the Mumbai bombings from last November caused both India and Pakistan to move their ground forces beyond peacetime positions).

So, what is to be done? If you listen to liberal and constructivist international realations thinkers, India and Pakistan should be able to acknowledge their shared economic and security concerns, and integrate through their regional forum, SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), like Europe did with the European Union: putting historical antagonisms aside for peaceful coexistence, pooling together their human capital and natural resources to become an economic powerhouse. Yet, most political scientists worry that Asia’s future is more likely to resemble Europe's past – the 300 years of bloodshed that precluded the EU. If none of the liberal Western theories of international relations applies, what does?


Kautilya (sometimes known as Chanakya) served as an advisor to the Mauryan Emperor, Chandragupta in 300 B.C., and was the architect of an empire that spanned the entire Indian subcontinent. He is also considered the world’s first economist and political scientist. His ancient text’s title, Arthashastra, literally means “the science of polity”.

Kautilya has been called the "Machiavelli of the East" (a foolish assertion that ignores the fact he predates the Italian thinker by nearly two millennia). George Modelski does note that both Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Machiavelli’s The Prince concentrate on how a prince – for Kautilya it was “Vijigishu”, the ambitious king – can maintain power and enlarge it: “Both value intrigue and adopt on the whole a ruthless and instrumental approach to politics, elevating success in the game above all other considerations. They study the problems of conquering power over other states, and do not really accept the logic and the necessary limitations of a system of states of equal power.”

The Arthashastra presents a six-fold set of foreign policy options for ‘Vijigishu’ to select from, based on its comparative stature to the opposing Kingdom. These options are: Accommodation (sandhi); Hostility (vigraha); Indifference (asana); Attack (yana); Protection (samsraya); and Double Policy (dvaidhibhava).


Kautilya advises the inferior king to pursue Accommodation –which may involve land, military, or monetary concessions to the superior king. He may also opt for Protection through an alliance with the superior, or instead engage in my favorite policy: Double Policy, where Vijigishu agrees to be an attack dog for the superior king, engaging a policy of harassment against an equally lower king, in which profits are shared between Viji and the larger ally.

If Vijigishu happens to be the superior king, Kautilya prescribes Hostility over Attack. Full deployment of an army can be an expensive undertaking, even when used against an inferior kingdom. Cold war and active competition are preferable: employing intrigue and the use of spies and traitors. Kautilya’s last remaining policy option is Indifference: a path taken when a king decides that “neither is my enemy strong enough to destroy my works nor am I strong enough to destroy his”.

Kautilya’s writings also offer insight on international relations, and analyse interstate systems through his concept of the ‘Circle of States’. This philosophy amounts to little more than “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. He classifies Vijigishu’s most immediate neighbor ‘Ari’ as an enemy in a state of constant opposition to the king. A king located beyond Ari would naturally oppose Ari, and be, through mutual enmity, a friend to Vijigishu.


There is evidence linking all South Asian countries to Kautilya’s checkerboard style of international relations. China plays from the periphery, utilizing Pakistan and Bangladesh in Double Policy against India as part of its greater strategy of encirclement and containment. India, of whom we think of Gandhi and non-violent resistance, vies with China for hegemony over its perceived ‘Indian Subcontinent’. It has engaged in a policy of constant Hostility toward Pakistan, and displayed an affinity for Double Policy through its interference and support of the Bangladeshis in their civil war for independence from Pakistan. India’s actions have resulted in alliances with nations that embody the same ethnic and religious differences it claims make relations with Pakistan unworkable. Meanwhile, Pakistan calls for a diplomatic solution to the Kashmir dispute, yet continues its project of encirclement, penetration and subversion of India, publicly decrying attacks on Mumbai and other Indian targets that were planned on its own soil. Pakistan’s opinion toward Afghanistan seems to change based on that country’s relationship with its enemies: offering military assistance in the 1980s to Mujahideen fighting Russian forces (friend of India), and fighting the same Mujahideen when at war against U.S. forces (enemy of India). Sri Lanka nervously battles the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam with an eye on what India might do, with millions of ethnic kin sympathizers in its neighboring province of Tamil Nadu.
The actions described above conform perfectly to Kautilya’s doctrine of foreign affairs, only in Kautilya’s day, kings vying for power and prestige did not have the luxury of completely annihilating an opponent by the push of a button. South Asia now contains the world’s third, sixth and seventh most populous countries. Nations today face a much deeper risk of suffering from, as Modelski has described: ‘not really accepting the logic and the necessary limitations of a system of states of equal power’.


For a nation like Canada, with troops stationed in one of South Asia’s ethnic maladies, and bereft of any definite foreign policy toward the region, reading the Arthashastra might be a good starting point for finding one. We seem to enter these conflict zones, and instead of engaging the region as a whole, pick ‘good guys’, and arm their Kautilyan struggles against their foes. In 1963, Michael Brecher reported on South Asia to an American audience preoccupied in its own global checkerboard contest with Russia. He said: “The subcontinent is a natural military unit. Its security depends on joint defense arrangements. But instead of cooperating, these countries have prepared for war with each other, defying the lessons of history and the realities of the contemporary world.”

If we do in fact wish South Asia’s future to resemble Europe’s present, we must stop defying the lessons learned from Kautilya, address this region as actors with likeminded ambitions, and cease pitting them against each other like British viceroys of generations past.
Who is Kautilya and Why Should You Care? | Politics

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