India and the World: Revisiting the history of the global order in the twentieth century

India and the World: Revisiting the history of the global order in the twentieth century

Post-liberalisation economic growth, its ambitions, and its strategic position have allowed India to emerge as a major actor of international politics in the twenty-first century. In the context of a rebalancing of global power in favour of Asia, this country of more than a billion people has become more visible for Western policy-makers and experts – although still less so in the media. This new international exposure is embodied notably in the expression « emerging power ».

However, since when has India been emerging? Or re-emerging? Some recall the era of the first head of state of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru[1],who, on the international scene, promoted an ambitious foreign policy for a newly decolonized country under the term “non-alignment”.  Others suggest that one should instead refer to the precolonial period in which India assumed a more prominent role in international trade than subsequently under British Empire rule. As useful as it may be to define the country today, the term "emerging power" has an indeterminate temporal dimension that brings us to the heart of a problem common to many non-Western countries: the term “emerging power” refers to an earlier period that historians, and even more so the public, are quite unfamiliar with. Thus, paradoxically, India is a modern political giant whose past, albeit recent, remains obscure. Scant regard has been given to India’s relationship to the world in the history of the 20th century. This brings forth the necessity to substantiate this earlier era of India’s international involvement with historical evidence.

Several factors help explain this lack of knowledge regarding India in the 20th century. First, Indian historians have tended to focus on the pre-independence period, largely leaving analysis of the post-1947 period to political scientists. Furthermore, archives have only gradually, often in a fragmented way, been made available to the public. This has allowed for more advanced historical research only relatively recently. Lastly, Eurocentrism still largely characterizes the study of the 20th century international order and its norms. By Eurocentrism is meant a tendency to focus on the study of Western actors (Europe, United States) and their perspectives, placing them at the center of major historical developments to the detriment of non-Western actors, often formerly colonized, and considered to be on the periphery of the international system. Thus, Eurocentrism has marginalized the study of countries such as India. With regards to the theory of International Relations (IR), Eurocentrism has led to distorted views of the international system. Thus, the historical and global perspective of the international system offered by mainstream IR provides a problematic account of this system. According to the historical narrative of the international system offered by the English School, a system of European states would have gradually expanded into an "international society”, which newly decolonized states would join once independence obtained. This narrative suggests that newly decolonized states would have simply incorporated pre-existing Western norms upon independence. However, new research by historians suggests that we should instead seek to understand the formation of the international order in terms of a co-constitution of European countries and their colonies. Beyond that, we should reconsider the role played by non-Western countries within the international society during the 20th century, as well as their understanding of norms and unique worldviews. Widely unknown to this day is the way in which India has had to negotiate, through its relations to the international sphere, the problems that remained after the end of the British Empire. The challenge is as much to better understand the history of India than that of the international order.

In this regard, India is a major player worth studying. It is not only one of the largest non-Western spaces, but also a colonial and post-colonial space par excellence, having been the largest colony of the British Empire, a hub for nationalist struggle, and the exemplary leader of the Third World’s political claims to self-determination. Partly for these reasons, from the early 20th century, India has been a highly fertile space for the development of new conceptions of the international order. From very early on, India has sought to reflect upon its role in the world.
Following this thread, my research reconstructs India's role in the global history of the last century. Contrary to what is often imagined, as early as the 1920s, Indian elites took on an international role and sought to reflect more systematically on the international sphere as a political issue, in line with their internal demands.  India took part in international debates and forums long before its independence. Signatory to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, it was the only colony to become a founding member of the League of Nations, represented by an official delegation. This exceptional status marked the beginning of India’s participation in the international institutional order. Whilst the Indian delegation was subordinate to the British government, it found room for manoeuvre, which allowed it to articulate its positions within the arena of ​​political struggles embodied by the League. One must imagine for example the Maharaja of Nawanagar’s speech in 1923[2],in which he reiterated the hope that the League represents a 'new order' which may be 'the citadel refuge of small nations'[3].One must also recall Srinivasa Sastri[4],a recognized liberal politician who argued for the protection of Indians working in "C mandates" such as South West Africa (currently Namibia). The discrimination suffered by this population was a central subject of recrimination for the Indian delegation.

Detail, The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919, William Orpen

Detail, The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919, William Orpen
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2856)

The internationalization of India, illustrated by its representation in the League, can partly be explained by the dynamics of the British Empire which allowed the country to obtain an atypical legal status for a colony, situated both on an imperial and international level. As the war effort required a significant Indian contribution in terms of men and resources, the First World War catalyzed the political demands of local elites, and thus contributed decisively to accelerating the evolution of India's hybrid status within the institutional framework of the 20th century. Whilst princes demanded more representation in the Empire and pushed for the institutionalization of colonial politics, politicians lobbied for India to be treated as the Dominions (such as Canada and Australia), which by 1917 had gained a significant degree of autonomy within the imperial system. Concurrently, new internationalist ideas spread throughout Asia, including India, with the development of independence movements. The internationalist ideologies promoted by Soviet Russia and Wilsonian liberalism, though distinct, gained increasing influence in the 1920s colonial world. The Indian Nationalist Congress, until then a moderate party, witnessed the emergence of a new generation of nationalist leaders whose new, more radical goal was complete independence, and who were extremely receptive to emerging internationalist ideas. They  were conscious of the political importance of the international scene. Nationalist leaders attempted to seize opportunities the new order had offered at the end of the First World War, and sought internationalization through participation in alternative fora. For example, in March 1919, the nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak[5]wrote to the French Prime Minister and President of the Paris Peace Conference, Georges Clemenceau, demanding that the principle of self-determination be granted to India. During the interwar period, Jawaharlal Nehru participated in these debates and arenas of parallel discussions, and observed the development of international anti-imperialist networks. In February 1927, he took part in the League Against Imperialism to promote the independence of India.



Jawaharlal Nehru at the UN General Assembly, New York, 1948, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
Jawaharlal Nehru at the UN General Assembly, New York, 1948, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

Therefore, years before the country's independence, the inter-war period was crucial both for India's integration into the international society and its emergence as an international actor. Within this context, India’s place in the world was imagined and articulated by and through a variety of voices. The government of colonial India, as well as intellectuals, nationalist activists, princes and diplomats, all developed and promoted their own agendas and competing visions of the world on the international stage. As seen, at least two groups of actors, institutional ones and activists, sought to transform an international order favorable to the colonial powers by becoming part of the great international debates. Each group did so to position itself vis-à-vis international standards, and often to challenge the imperial and/or international status quo in their own way. In doing so, these actors developed a complex relationship to the idea of nationalism. In this context, Nehru rethought the concept of nationalism, partially discredited by the war, by re-articulating it with an internationalism based on the dual principle of independence and cooperation.

Preceding independence in 1946, India's commitment to, and ambitions expressed within, international fora intensified. The new country fought to promote a distinct political vision and to achieve a more equal status in the international system – an equality that formal independence did not provide. At the United Nations, Indian diplomats actively promoted their own conceptions of international norms. In fact, in June 1946, India was the first country to bring forth a dispute at the United Nations by accusing South Africa of the highly discriminated treatment of Indians in the country. Led by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit[6],Nehru's sister, the Indian delegation sought to transform the role of the international organisation, and obtained a first victory: in December 1946, the General Assembly adopted a resolution in its favor. If anything, this is a revealing episode of India's role within the United Nations.

If this story seems partly known through recollections of former diplomats, much work remains to understand how India has contributed to international organisations in general and, in doing so, to their norms and conceptions of the international order in particular. A new generation of historians has begun to analyze India's role in the world, focusing on its foreign policy. This global history of India, based on archive material scattered across several continents, leads us to reconsider both the genesis of India's foreign policy, the historiography of decolonization, and the life of international organisations. Furthermore, India's experience in defining international norms and standards makes it possible to reconsider the central concepts of IR from a non-Western point of view. Methodologically, history and RI are complementary.

Raphaëlle Khan

Research Fellow
Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM, Paris)


Baghavan, Manu. 2013. The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Khan, Raphaëlle. A paraître. « The Ambiguities of Human Rights: India and the United Nations, 1946-1950 » dans Roland Burke, Marco Duranti et A. Dirk Moses (dir.), Human Rights, Empires, and their Ends: The New History of Human Rights and Decolonization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Khan, Raphaëlle. 2017. « India as a Norm Claimer: Normative struggles and the Assertion of Sovereignty at the San Francisco Conference (1945) » dans Mischa Hansel, Raphaëlle Khan and Mélissa Levaillant (dir.), Theorizing Indian Foreign Policy. New York: Routledge.

Mazower, Mark. 2009. No Enchanted Palace : The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations. Princeton : Princeton University Press.

Raghavan, Srinath. 2017. India’s War : The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945. London : Penguin Books.

For new historical research on India in the world, see also the work of Rakesh Ankit, Rudra Chaudhuri, Bérénice Guyot-Réchard, Harshan Humarasingham, Swapna Kona Nayudu, Claude Markovits, Pallavi Raghavan, Vineet Thakur…



India’s foreign policy; global history; international organizations; international norms; non-Western views of the international order.


[1]Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), Congress leader; Prime Minister of India, 1946-64.
[2]Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji (1872-1933), Maharaja Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, 1907-1933; officer in the British Army, 1914-1952; Indian delegate at the League of Nations, 1920; Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, 1932-1933.
[3]LN, Records of the 4th Assembly, 11th plenary meeting, 22 September 1923, p.64.
[4]Srinivasa Sastri (1869-1946), liberal politician and campaigner for Indians’ rights within the Empire; President of the Servants of India Society, 1915; elected in the Central Legislative Council, 1916; Indian delegate at the League of Nations, 1921; Founder and president of the Indian Liberal Federation, 1922.
[5]Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), early nationalist leader; founded the Indian Home Rule League, 1914; founded the Congress Democratic Party, 1920.

[6]Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1900-1990), Congress member; leader of India’s UN delegation, 1946-48, 1952-53; ambassador to the USSR, 1947-49; ambassador to the US, 1949-51; president of the UNGA, 1953; Indian High-Commissioner in London, 1954-1961.







Detail, The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919, William Orpen