Foreign Policy

Under the British rule, India developed relations with its neighbours on a new basis. This was the result of two factors. The development of modern means of communication and the political and administrative consolidation of the country impelled the Government of India to reach out to the natural, geographical frontiers of India.

This was essential both for defence and for internal cohesion. Inevitably this tended to lead to some border clashes. Unfortunately, sometimes the Government of India went beyond the natural and traditional frontiers. The other factor was the alien character of the Government of India.

The foreign policy of a free country is basically different from the foreign policy of a country ruled by a foreign power. In the former case it is based on the needs and interests of the people of the country; in the latter, it serves primarily the interests of the ruling country. In India s case, the foreign policy that the Government of India followed was dictated by the British government.

The British government had two major aims in Asia and Africa:

The protection of its invaluable Indian empire and the expansion of British commerce and other economic interests in Africa and Asia. Both these aims led to British expansion and territorial conquests outside India's natural frontiers.

Moreover, these aims brought the British government into conflict with other imperialist nations of Europe who also wanted extension of their territorial possessions and commerce in Afro-Asian lands.

The desire to defend their Indian empire, to promote British economic interests, and to keep the other European powers at arm s length from India often led the British Indian government to commit aggression on India s neighbours.

In other words, during the period of British domination, India's relations with its neighbours were ultimately determined by the needs of British imperialism.

But, while Indian foreign policy served British imperialism, the cost of its implementation was borne by India. In pursuance of British interests, India had to wage many wars against its neighbours; Indian soldiers had to shed their blood and Indian taxpayers had to meet the heavy cost.

War with Nepal, 1814:

The British desire to extend its Indian empire to its natural geographical frontier brought them into conflict, first of all, with the northern Kingdom of Nepal. In October 1814, a border clash between the border police of the two countries led to open war. The British were far superior in men, money and materials. In the end, the Nepal government had to make peace on British terms.

It accepted a British Resident. It ceded the districts of Garhwal and Kumaon and abandoned claims to the Tarai areas. It also withdrew from Sikkim. The agreement held many advantages for the British. Their Indian empire now reached the Himalayas.

They gained greater facilities for trade with central Asia. They also obtained sites for important hill-stations such as Shimla, Mussoorie and Nainital. Moreover, the Gurkhas gave added strength to the British-Indian army by joining it in large numbers.

Conquest of Burma:

Through three successive wars the independent kingdom of Burma was conquered by the British during the nineteenth century. The conflict between Burma and British India was initiated by border clashes. It was fanned by expansionist urges.

The British merchants cast covetous glances on the forest resources of Burma and were keen to promote export of their manufactures among its people. The British authorities also wanted to check the spread of French commercial and political influence in Burma and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Burma and British India developed a common frontier at the close of the eighteenth century when both were expanding powers. After centuries of internal strife, Burma was united by King Alaungpaya between 1752-60.

His successor, Bodawpaya, ruling from Ava on the river Irrawaddy, repeatedly invaded Siam, repelled many Chinese invasions, and conquered the border states of Arakan (1785) and Manipur (1813) bringing Burma s border up to that of British India.

Continuing his westward expansion, he threatened Assam and the Brahmaputra valley. Finally, in 1822, the Burmese conquered Assam. The Burmese occupation of Arakan and Assam led to continuous friction along the ill-defined border between Bengal and Burma.

In 1824, the British-Indian authorities declared war on Burma. After an initial setback, the British forces drove the Burmese out of Assam, Cachar, Manipur and Arakan. The British expeditionary forces by sea occupied Rangoon in May 1824 and reached within 72 km of the capital at Ava. Peace came in February 1826 with the Treaty of Yandabo.

The Government of Burma agreed to the following conditions:

(1) To pay one crore of rupees as war compensation;

(2) To cede its coastal provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim;

(3) To abandon all claims to Assam, Cachar, and Jaintia;

(4) To recognise Manipur as an independent state;

(5) To negotiate a commercial treaty with Britain; and

(6) To accept a British Resident at Ava while posting a Burmese envoy at Calcutta.

By this treaty the British deprived Burma of most of its coastline, and acquired a firm base in Burma for future expansion. The Second Burmese War which broke out in 1852 was almost wholly the result of British commercial greed.

British timber firms had begun to take interest in the timber resources of Upper Burma. Moreover, the large population of Burma appeared to the British to be a vast market for the sale of British cotton goods and other manufactures.

The British, already in occupation of Burma's two coastal provinces, now wanted to dominate commercial relations with the rest of the country. They also wanted to strengthen their hold over Burma by peace or by war before their trade competitors, the French or the Americans, could establish themselves there. A full British expedition was despatched to Burma in April 1852.

This time the war was much shorter than in 1824-26 and the British victory was more decisive. The British annexed Pegu, the only remaining coastal province of Burma. There was, however, a great deal of popular guerrilla resistance for three years before Lower Burma was brought under effective control.

The British now controlled the whole of Burma s coastline and its entire sea-trade. The brunt of fighting the war was borne by Indian soldiers and its expense was wholly met from Indian revenues.

Relations between Burma and the British remained peaceful for several years after the annexation of Pegu. The British, of course, continued their efforts to open up Upper Burma. In particular, the British merchants and industrialists were attracted by the possibility of trade with China through Burma.

In 1885, King Thibaw signed a purely commercial treaty with France providing for trade. The British were intensely jealous of the growing French influence in Burma. The British merchants feared that the rich Burmese market would be captured by their French and American rivals.

The chambers of commerce in Britain and the British merchants in Rangoon now pressed the willing British government for the immediate annexation of Upper Burma. The British invaded Burma on 13 November 1885. King Thibaw surrendered on 28 November 1885 and his dominions were annexed to the Indian empire soon after.

Annexation of Burma

The ease with which Burma had been conquered proved to be deceptive. The patriotic soldiers and officers of the Burmese army refused to surrender and vanished into the thick jungles. From there they carried on widespread guerrilla warfare.

The people of Lower Burma also rose up in rebellion. The British had to employ a 40,000 strong army for nearly five years to suppress the popular revolt. The expenses of the war as well as of the campaign of suppression were once again thrown on the Indian exchequer.

After the First World War, a vigorous modern nationalist movement arose in Burma. A widespread campaign of boycotting British goods and administration was organised and the demand for Home Rule was put forward. The Burmese nationalists soon joined hands with the Indian National Congress.

In 1935 the British separated Burma from India in the hope of weakening the Burmese struggle for freedom. The Burmese nationalists opposed this step. The Burmese nationalist movement reached new heights under the leadership of U Aung San during the Second World War. And, finally, Burma won its independence on 4 January 1948.

Relations with Afghanistan:

The British Indian government fought two wars with Afghanistan before its relations with the government of Afghanistan were stabilized. Afghanistan was placed in a crucial position geographically from the British point of view. It could serve as an advanced post outside India's frontiers for checking Russia's potential military threat as Well as for promoting British commercial interests in central Asia.

If nothing else it could become a convenient buffer between the two hostile powers. The British wanted to weaken and end Russian influence in Afghanistan, but they did not want a strong Afghanistan. They wanted to keep her a weak and divided country which they could easily control.

The British decided to replace the independent ruler of Afghanistan Dost Muhammed with a friendly , i.e. subordinate, ruler. Their gaze fell on Shah Shuja, who had been deposed from the Afghan throne in 1809 and who had been living since then at Ludhiana as a British pensioner, and they decided to put him back on the Afghan throne.

Thus without any reason or excuse the British government decided to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and to commit aggression on this small neighbour. The British launched an attack on Afghanistan in February 1839.

Most of the Afghan tribes had already been won over with bribes. Kabul fell to the English on 7 August 1839, and Shah Shuja was immediately placed on the throne.

But Shah Shuja was detested and despised by the people of Afghanistan, especially as he had come back with the help of foreign bayonets. Many Afghan tribes rose in revolt. Then suddenly, on 2 November 1841, an uprising broke out at Kabul and the sturdy Afghans fell upon the British forces.

On 11 December 1841, the British were compelled to sign a treaty with the Afghan chiefs by which they agreed to evacuate Afghanistan and to restore Dost Muhammed. But the story did not end there. As the British forces withdrew they were attacked all along the way. Out of 16,000 men only one reached the frontier alive, while a few others survived as prisoners. Thus the entire Afghan adventure ended in total failure.

The British Indian government now organised a new expedition. Kabul was reoccupied on 16 September 1842. But it had learnt its lesson well. Having avenged its recent defeat and humiliation, it arrived at a settlement with Dost Muhammed by which the British evacuated Kabul and recognised him as the independent ruler of Afghanistan.

The First Afghan War cost India over one and a half crores of rupees and its army nearly 20,000 men. The British now followed a policy of non-interference in Afghanistan s internal affairs. During the 1860s, as Russia again turned its attention to central Asia after its defeat in the Crimean War, the British followed the policy of strengthening Afghanistan as a powerful buffer.

They gave the Amir of Kabul aid and assistance to help him discipline his rivals internally and maintain his independence from foreign enemies. Thus, by a policy of non-interference and occasional help, the Amir was prevented from aligning himself with Russia.

From 1870 onwards, there was a resurgence of imperialism all over the world. Anglo-Russian rivalry was also intensified. British statesmen once again thought of bringing Afghanistan under direct political control so that it could serve as a base for British expansion in central Asia. To force British terms on Sher Ali, the Afghan ruler, a new attack on Afghanistan was launched in 1878.

This is known as the Second Afghan War. Peace came in May 1879 when Sher Ali's son, Yakub Khan, signed the Treaty of Gandamak by which the British secured all they had desired. They secured certain border districts, the right to keep a Resident at Kabul, and control over Afghanistan s foreign policy.

The British success was short-lived. The national pride of the Afghans had been hurt and once again they rose to defend their independence. On 3 September 1879, the British Resident, Major Cavagnari, and his military escort were attacked and killed by rebellious Afghan troops. Afghanistan was again invaded and occupied.

But the Afghans had made their point. The British reversed their policy and went back to the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of a strong and friendly Afghanistan. Abdur Rahman, a grandson of Dost Muhammed, was recognised as the new ruler of Afghanistan.

Abdur Rahman agreed not to maintain political relations with any power except the British. Thus the Amir of Afghanistan lost control of his foreign policy and, to that extent, became a dependent ruler. At the same time, he retained complete control over his country's internal affairs.

The First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917 created a new situation in Anglo-Afghan relations. The Afghans now demanded full independence from British control.

Habibullah, who had succeeded Abdur Rahman in 1901 as Amir, was assassinated on 20 February 1919 and his son, Amanullah, the new Amir, declared open war on British India. Peace came in 1921 when, by a treaty, Afghanistan recovered its independence in foreign affairs.

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