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At the High Table

August 18, 2017 - 14:23

by Stig Toft Madsen, NIAS

On April 19th India test-fired a long-range ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear bomb. With a range stated to be more than 3.100 miles, the missile would be able to reach not only large Chinese cities beyond the Tibetan plateau.  It could reach even further. The distance from say Srinagar in Kashmir to Vienna in Austria is 3.114 miles or 5.011 kilometer. In other words: Vienna is within its reach.

The missile has been developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and other defense organizations and laboratories often located in science- and IT-cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad.  As the name Agni V indicates the missile is the latest in a series of missiles with progressively longer range.  Already in 1971, Indira Gandhi reportedly directed the defense ministry and the DRDO to start developing long-range ballistic missiles (Kampani 2003). Agni V is the fruit of that labor, but some Indian strategic thinkers are not content with this. They have urged India to develop a missile (called Surya, the Sun) that may reach even further. Some argue that India should develop thermonuclear bombs in the megaton class. India has so far not capitalized much on its powerful weapons through sales to other countries. Some argue that India should do so.

Why, one may wonder, does India persist in developing and buying these and other weapons? Looking at such questions somewhat anthropologically, I will have a closer look at a few commonly used phrases, which say something about how Indians think about themselves and their role in the world today. The test-firing of a missile, the testing  of nuclear or thermonuclear bombs in 1998, and the launching  of a satellite into space are occasions, which lead Indians and others to make statements to the effect that India is now a superpower and that others should recognize it as a superpower. On such occasions three phrases are commonly used:

  • India is now taking its rightful place in the Comity of Nations
  • India is now a member of an Exclusive Club
  • India is now sitting at the High Table

The High Table is an institution found in old British universities or colleges such as Oxford and Cambridge. Senior faculty members or fellows and their guest would sit at the raised table above and separately from the students. By contrast, in other universities (such as Princeton in the US) dining was used as an opportunity for students to interact with the faculty members (www.princeton.edu/~gradcol/perm/hightable.htm).

In India, the partaking of meals has been used since time immemorial to unite and differentiate people, often along caste lines.  Historically, commensal rows or “feeding lines” consisting of people of the same caste or sub-caste have repeatedly defined or objectified group identity (Madsen and Gardella 2012). When Indians say that their weaponry entitles them to sit at the High Table, they thereby evoke notions of superiors sharing a meal. The image does not imply that only Indians may eat under conditions of grandeur. But it indicates that Indians may eat only with their equals and not with others.

Being the member of an “exclusive club” implies an even greater degree of inequality. While students at Oxbridge may not sit at the High Table, they can at least see the table from where they sit. An exclusive club is closed in a more radical manner. Its charmed circle entirely sealed, an outsider cannot even enter the club. Such exclusive clubs have an aura of secrecy. Their members probably wine and dine, but others cannot really tell what they do. The members set their own rules which may not be in conformity with the rules that others follow. Evoking the image of an exclusive club signals power, non-transparency, and even the ability to act with impunity.

In contrast, to achieve one’s rightful place in the comity of nations does not imply exclusivism or secrecy. All countries, big and small, are entitled to a place as equals in the United Nations where, in principle, discussions are held openly and where every nation has a voice. In that sense, India already enjoys its rightful place in the comity of nations. It does not need to lay claim to it by demonstrating its power back-up in terms of weapons of mass destruction. But then the “rightful place” may be understood to mean something more than a place like any other nation. India’s rightful place – taking into consideration it size, it military muscle, its growing economy – then may turn out on closer inspection to be an elevated position. In short, what India claimed it achieved by test-firing the Agni V and similar acts was a rightful place at the High Table in an Exclusive Club for the select among the nations of the world. Not a very democratic vision but more inclusive than the idea of “the peaceful rise of China”, which portrays China’s rise as a form of “reemergence” whereby China is about to regain the all-encompassing hegemonic status that it presumably once possessed.

Gaurav Kampani, “Stakeholders in the Indian Strategic Missile Program”, The Nonproliferation Review, Fall-Winter 2003.

Stig Toft Madsen and Geoffrey Gardella, “Udupi Hotels: Entrepreneurship, Reform and Revival”, in Krishnendu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas (eds.) Curried Cultures, Globalization, Food, and South Asia, Berkeley, Los Angeles London: University of California Press,  2012.

With thanks to Sasikumar Shanmugasundaram for comments.

At the High Table


August 18, 2017