Foreign Policies



  • By 1818 the British had conquered almost the whole of India except Punjab and Sindh and their annexation too was only a question of time.
  • After completing the empire building process, the British followed a two-fold policy for the consolidation of the Raj, namely, the introduction of a suitable administrative system and making arrangements for ensuring security of the newly conquered territories.
  • The latter effort constitutes the frontier and foreign policy.


Did India before 1947 had an independent foreign policy of her own?

  • The following arguments in support explain to a certain extent, India did have one under the British rule:
    • The invasions of Afghanistan and Persia (Iran) and the plundering expeditions of the frontier tribes which had been going on for a long time ended with the consolidation of British rule in India.
    • Being a big and strong component of the Empire India always had some weight in the formulation of British foreign policy.
    • Because of distance between India and England, the British Government of India always had some discretion and a certain degree of initiative in the formulation of foreign policy of India.
    • Moreover, the British imperial interests in some spheres coincided with those of India, such as those involving Russia, Persia and China which gave a fillip to the evolution of India’s foreign policy.
  • Despite these arguments, we must remember India was a colony
    • The foreign political activities of the colonial government even though termed as India’s foreign policy, but these were directed towards the larger interests of British imperialism.


Period of India’s Foreign Policy under British

  • It is generally believed that the British East India Company began to evolve its foreign policy by establishing relations with the Indian states.
  • These states were compelled to surrender their foreign relations to be controlled by the paramount British power.
  • The other starting point is 1818 which inaugurated an era of consolidation of the Raj by the Company.
  • But in terms of international law, it was the transfer of power in 1858-59 from the Company to the British crown that gave to India’s foreign policy an independent character, in form.


The Foreign Policy

This can be assessed under the following sub-headings:

  1. North-West Frontier Policy
    • The annexation of Sindh (1843) and Punjab (1849) brought the British into direct contact with the hill tribes.
    • The hill tribes, however were practically free, owing only nominal allegiance to the Amir of Kabul, and frequently indulged in mass raids and plundering of the British Indian border areas.
    • Since the North-West frontier was under two different provincial governments, namely Punjab and Bombay, there developed two distinct methods of administering the frontier and conducting relations with the tribes:
      • On the Sindh frontier where the valleys were broader and less tortuous than in the Punjab and where the cultivated land was not very close to the tribal areas, the closed frontier system was adopted.
        • Under this system, the frontier was patrolled, and no tribesman from beyond the border was allowed to enter British territory without a pass.
      • The Punjab frontier, on the other hand was kept an ‘open frontier’. For its protection forts and garrisons were built to guard the narrow passes.
    • During the early phase, it was Lord Dalhousie’s policy which served as a grand strategy to keep the frontier under control.
      • Fines were imposed as a punishment for plunder and murder
      • Blockades for keeping crisis within certain limits; and
      • Expeditions were led against the tribes which resorted to mass plunder and rampage.
    • The policy of sending punitive expeditions and blockades was described as ‘butcher and bolt policy’
      • Between 1849 and 1893 as many as forty-two such expeditions were carried

The Durand Line (1893)

    • On Lord Lansdowne’s insistence, Mortimer Durand was appointed to negotiate a boundary agreement with the ‘Amir of Kabul’ settling forever the responsibility of the Kabul government concerning the tribes on the Indus border.
    • This divided the tribal area between Afghans and the British.
    • Further, this agreement proved helpful to the British for developing communications in the region; for collection of taxes, particularly salt tax; and interfering in their customs.
    • Later, Lord Curzon, the Governor-General (1899-1905) proposed the withdrawal of British Indian regular troops and replacing them with bodies of tribal levies.
    • Also, for administrative efficiency and effective control, he carved out a new province known as North-Western Frontier Province.
  1. Persia and Persian Gulf
    • The region consisting of Persia, the coast of Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf was strategically very important to the British as it contained the approach routes through land and sea to India.
    • After two Afghan Wars, Persia by the treaty of 1907 was divided into British and Russian zones
      • However, increasing German influence in the region, Russian Revolution in 1917, Coup in 1921 to restore Persian Independence, resulted in incessant war among super power in the region.
    • On the sea route, the British established control over strategic areas
      • Significant among such places were Mauritius, Zanzibar, Muscat, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman etc.
  1. Tibet
    • Having no threat from Tibet, a state which had given up war-like activities, and China being militarily weak at that time, the British interest in Tibet was purely commercial to begin with.
    • Warren Hastings showed keen commercial interest in the region and sent two missions, one in 1774 and another in 1783
      • But the isolationist and suspicious Dalai Lama, the ruler declined the offer of establishing trade relations.
    • Later, Curzon was determined to bring Tibet under the British control.
      • Though the government in England was reluctant to sanction any interference in the Tibetan affairs, Curzon was however able to extract permission to send Colonel Francis Younghusband to Tibet, in 1904.
    • After the Chinese revolution of 1911, the. Dalai Lama, announced his independence
      • The British instead of recognising Tibet as an independent state, invited representatives of China and Tibet to a tripartite conference in Shimla in 1913, and decided to draw a boundary between Tibet and British India which is named after Henry McMahon.
  1. Nepal
    • Between the North-West frontier and Tibet, there was a chain of small principalities.
      • With the expansion of British Empire in this region, these small principalities came into contact with the British.
      • The first among them from the western side was the Hindu Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal.
    • The Gorkhas conceded the occupation of Kumaon, Garhwal and Shimal Hills region, to the British by the Treaty of Sagauli in 1816.
    • It is important to note that the British did not depend solely on the high ranges of the Himalayas to provide India protection from the North.
      • To them the kingdom of Nepal was a stable and secure buffer between India and Tibet or China.
    • Nepal displayed no signs of entertaining any sentiments against the British
      • Relations between them were of peaceful co-existence and confidence.
      • Further, Without any formal alliance treaty the Nepalese government moulded their foreign policy in accordance with the British interests
  1. Sikkim
    • Civilized by the Tibetan monks and ruled by its aristocratic family, Sikkim was an independent country
    • By the closing decades of the eighteenth century, the Gorkhas temporarily established their control over it.
    • The British, however, restored its independence, and in 1861 declared it their protectorate much against the wishes of Tibet
  1. Bhutan
    • Being poor, the Bhutanese frequently raided the plains for looting wealth
      • When they kidnapped Raja of Cooch-Behar who was a British protectorate, Warren Hastings attacked Bhutan and as a result of the Bhutanese defeat a small strip of land was annexed to the British territories.
    • The British, annoyed with such activities on the border, unleashed the policy of repression and reprisal and established their authority in the Younghusband Expedition (1904-06), the Bhutanese offered full support.
    • Finally, through the efforts of Charles Bell a treaty of friendship was signed at Punakha (1910), which recognized the Bhutanese ruler as sovereign in all matters except foreign relations which were placed under the British control.
  1. North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA)
    • The hill region between Bhutan and Burma was inhabited by the hill tribes.
      • Exhibiting strong and war-like spirit, they raided the plains to mitigate their poverty
      • Their predatory attacks became a matter of great concern for the British administration particularly after 1826 when Assam was incorporated into India.
    • To pacify them, the Government of India adopted the policy of offering them gifts and guaranteed protection.
      • When the British frontier reached the watershed of the mountain ranges, they established a chain of posts and made the Tibetan government recognize the line which is known as the McMahon Line.
    • Burma, the eastern neighbour of India during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was an expanding empire.
      • Though its conquests extended its frontier over Thailand on the east; however on the west over Manipur and Assam and the Burmese encroachments it led to three major wars with Burma (1st in 1824-26, 2nd in 1852 and last in 1885) which resulted in the conquest of the whole of Burma, by the British.



  • The above Foreign policy stances, results in following broad conclusions:
    • The British Indian foreign policy had-been largely shaped by the fact that in Asia, there were two great powers, namely, Russia and China, and their relations at a given time determined the political developments in India
      • In India, the British power was rapidly advancing towards the North-West in search of a natural frontier and to ensure the security of its empire.
      • However, in evolving foreign policy, the ‘Russian Peril‘ was a factor to reckon with throughout the nineteenth century.
  • India’s geographical position was another determining factor in its foreign policy.
    • India was surrounded by small states which in themselves were not a threat to India’s security but being militarily weak they tempted foreign powers like Russia to attack them and consequently pose a danger to India.
    • Moreover, India’s frontier line was inhabited by war-like tribes, who would threaten the peace of the frontier thereby making it vulnerable and a weak line of defence.
  • Careful evaluation of the British Policies in India clearly establishes that the British consolidated the Raj by organizing state administration and by taking deep interest in ensuring that India did not suffer any foreign invasion.
  • On the whole yet, it has to be remembered that the entire foreign policy of the British in India was directed towards safeguarding the world wide imperialist interests of Britain.