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The Territorial Trap

C. Raja Mohan

By Itty Abraham
Stanford University Press, 2014, pp. 240, Rs. 2570.00


Unresolved territorial disputes with neighbours have been a major part of India’s life since Independence. Nearly seventy years after the great Partition and many wars, India is struggling to find a solution to the Kashmir question with Pakistan. Although Delhi took a big step towards cleaning up the boundary with Bangladesh in 2011 it is finding it hard to get it approved in the Parliament. Although the territories to be exchanged by Delhi and Dhaka are rather small, there is considerable political resistance in the two large states bordering Bangladesh—Assam and West Bengal.  Although the contested border with China has been peaceful since the late 1980s, talks on resolving the dispute have stalled and tensions are rising along the undefined Line of Actual Control. What is it that makes India, China and Pakistan so reluctant to cede territory, even when the costs of a prolonged conflict have been stupendous and the benefits of a pragmatic compromise immense? This is the question that Itty Abraham addresses with much insight and wisdom in How India Became Territorial. In examining India’s historical experience with nation-building, Abraham seeks to explain the deeper sources of endemic territorial conflict among the postcolonial states.  Abraham’s work is divided into two parts. In the first, he deploys critical theory to parse the relationship between territory and foreign policy and puts the story of the modern nation state in perspective. The author argues that the contested process of decolonization is at the root of territorial conflict in the postcolonial world and examines the political consequences of making a spatially defined homeland as the pre-condition for national identity and international acceptance. Abraham concludes that the refusal to cede even small parts of territory is about the presumed national identity and legitimacy rather than about the potential economic gains of holding on to them.  The second part of the book turns out be strikingly innovative as it connects India’s territoriality to its diaspora and geopolitics and dissects India’s foreign policy practice in these domains. These are uncharted waters in the contemporary studies of India’s foreign policy. Abraham’s valuable expedition becomes an exciting one as he navigates us back to the pre-Independence era to get a better sense of India’s foreign policy conundrums. Abraham rightly argues that the contested nature of India’s geopolitics and its approach to overseas Indians can be traced back ...

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