India Needs Diplomatic Lessons for Afghanistan From the Mahabharata

India should follow in Afghanistan what Sri Krishna told Arjuna before the Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharata.

4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

Due to the imbroglio in Afghanistan where India has limited leverage, a one-size fits all approach will not be fruitful. In such a complex geopolitical situation, can India look back to her own in-house epic, the Mahabharata- to find some answers?

Spanning more than 74000 Sanskrit verses and 18 chapters in total- the Mahabharata is not just an ancient epic detailing the story of two warring factions of a royal family, but also represents a myriad of strategic and ethical choices that States or human beings might be required to make. It is understandable that there can’t be parallels of the Mahabharata with the happenings in the 21st century in toto.


Parallels With the Mahabharata

However, the Taliban takeover of Kabul, mayhem among the civilian population due to the return of a repressive and orthodox regime as the sitting President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan have uncanny similarities with the infamous game of dice in the Mahabharata.

The great powers like the US or Russia either washed their hands of the plight of the common Afghans or actively/tacitly helped the Taliban gaining partial legitimacy just like the Kuru elders, Bhishma and Dhritarashtra.

US’s hasty withdrawal is similar to Bhishma’s agony during the game of dice in more ways than one.

The rival superpower China, aspiring to humiliate the US and support the Pakistan-Taliban nexus for her own strategic and economic interests, played the role of master strategist Shakuni, who had vowed to destroy the Kuru clan.

Pakistan and the Taliban as Duryodhana and Dushasana not just asserted their victory but also ended up bringing dark clouds over the future of Afghan women back, closely resembling the fate of Draupadi.

Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava—who fell prey to his disastrous habit of gambling despite being the upholder of dharma and controversially put stake on his wife even after losing himself already—has close similarity with the Ghani government whose popularity, transparency, and legitimacy were not satisfactory by any standards.

Sri Krishna’s Choice Could be India's Way Forward in Afghanistan 

India finds herself in the position of Sri Krishna today who did not play a direct role in the game of dice. New Delhi was majorly kept out of the Doha Negotiations but had put all her eggs in the basket of the Afghan government under the US security umbrella over the past two decades.

India has invested USD 3 billion in infrastructure, health and education of Afghanistan, which has earned her a genuine goodwill among common Afghan citizens.

However, India has maintained only "mild" contact so far with the Taliban due to which her manoeuvrability has shrunken along with grave concerns over terrorism emanating from the soil of Afghanistan at the behest of Pakistan.

Just like Sri Krishna stood for the honour of Draupadi without necessarily getting into the family feud directly, India’s primary responsibility at this point should be to stand with the minorities and common Afghan citizens including women and children—generations of whom have received education in India and have benefitted from India’s developmental assistance.


India Must Not Display Any Open Hostility

Whether India gains the ability to help alternatives to the Taliban, the way it helped “Lion of Panjshir'' Ahmad Shah Masood—just like Sri Krishna’s help to the Pandavas—or whether probable differences between Pakistan and different faction within the Taliban ever come out in open the way the Kaurava brothers Vikarna and Yuyutsu disagreed with the actions of Duryodhana are at this point only matters of conjectures. India leaning more towards the decisions taken by the US and other western countries is the immediate probability.

Whether the Kauravas ever had any intention to attack Sri Krishna’s Dwarka was never revealed but the island state was never attacked directly by Kauravas. Sri Krishna, despite being known to be the closest counsellor to the Pandavas, never exactly displayed any open hostility towards the Kauravas during the intervening period before the war and had patiently nurtured his long term strategic interests and dharma beyond immediate outcomes of realpolitik of the day.

As of now, New Delhi has stated her intention to engage with all stakeholders in Afghanistan which by default would mean engagement with the Taliban, too, without glossing over the umbilical cord of Rawalpindi. Strategic patience and nuanced actions aimed towards securing own interests in the region would serve India the best in this period as the great game enters a new phase in Afghanistan.

Diplomacy & Pragmatism in the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata contains both didactic and narrative portions. The victory of righteousness or dharma is a consistent theme in the Mahabharata. But the epic has a realist approach when it comes to alliance building and inter-state relationships.

Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata comprises dialogue between Bhishma and Yudhisthira and suggests that a king should be wary of friends, too. Enmity and friendship are not permanent but based on self-interest, which can be interpreted as national interest through exigencies of circumstances according to time cycle. Virtuous, enthusiastic, and righteous are what allies should ideally be, but an alliance can not be made with those who speak like a friend but act like a foe.

However, Bhishma leaves room for alliance, even with the wicked, if the situation demands. Strategic deception is not uncommon in the Mahabharata. This includes dvaidhibhava—the dual policy—if the end goal is utilitarian, as one witnesses in instances like King Shailya—uncle of the Pandavas—fighting from the side of the Kauravas but distracting Karna in the latter’s final battle with Arjuna.


Mahabharata Does Not Advocate Abandoning Old Friends

Abandoning friends is not something the Mahabharata teaches as the Panchala King Dhrupada insulting his childhood friend Drona had led to a chain of events leading to the humiliation and death of both the friends respectively.

The current situation in Afghanistan is not exactly in India’s favour but India shares one of the closest and tangible bonds with the common Afghans, which should drive India’s geopolitical strategy in the country along with her own security considerations.

India should follow what Sri Krishna told Arjuna when the latter was facing a moral dilemma right before the Kurukshetra war— “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be so attached to anything or anyone that it stops you from doing your duty”.

(Subhrangshu is an M.Phil. research scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament(CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. He tweets at @subhrangshusp. He has received assistance in ideation over this article from Kuldeep Goswami, an entrepreneur based in Guwahati. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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