It is common to see some Indians state proudly that their country has never invaded another country in the past <insert multiple of 1000> years. It is one thing to abhor invasions after having experienced centuries of foreign invasion and rule, it is entirely another to take pride in the fact that India never invaded another country.

Invasions do bring a lot of death and destruction but that may be a narrow way of looking at it. It is equally significant that invasions bring contact between different peoples and act as a means for the spread of culture. Alexander is regarded a Great not just because he was a brilliant military strategist and tactician but because of his contributions to the spread of Greek culture and science.

The outpouring of the newly converted from Arabia into Europe, Turkey, Central Asia, Persia and India led to the spread of Islam and Arabic cultural influences, including language, art and architecture, science and technology.

The international power structure today reflects not only the balance of power between nations but also the history behind it. Modern thought, scientific inventions and discoveries helped the European nations conquer the ‘Third World’ through superior strategy, tactics and weaponry. The maintenance and exploitation of the colonies, however violent and brutal, ensured that the forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution were sustained, maintaining Europe’s preeminence in world affairs.

Though Europe is a much diminished power today, the colonization of the ‘Third World’ ensured that European philosophy, political systems, science and languages are mainstream in most former colonies. The Indian political system, for example, is based on the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy and English is our most preferred third language.

Indians recall with sadness a 1000 years of invasions and enslavement but the real tragedy is the 5000 years of missed opportunity during which few Indian rulers ventured outside Bharatavarsha to bring foreign peoples under their rule.

The maximum that any Indian empire could reach in the west was Afghanistan (and parts of Persia), where the relics of the Buddhist culture that Indians brought can still be seen. Ashoka promoted Buddhism actively throughout his empire. On the east, the Cholas went as far as Indonesian island Borneo in the 11th century, and dominated vast stretches of the Bay of Bengal.

Except for these, Indian cultural elements spread outside Bharatavarsha indirectly, through travelers, foreign invaders and colonizers, and trade. When they spread this way, the credit usually goes to those who spread them and not those who originated them. Indians bemoan the fact that the decimal numeral system that they invented is called the Arabic numeral system but the fact remains that it was the Arabs who brought it to the West. Japanese Buddhism is as ‘unIndian’ as Indonesian Hinduism.

Of course, we are no more in the age of invasions and this is not an argument that India must go about invading other countries. But the same mentality that predisposes us to take pride in the fact that we never invaded another country in the past may also affect our decision making in the present.

We are reflexively suspicious about any venture that calls for sending soldiers abroad for offensive duties (curiously, we don’t seem to mind sacrificing hundreds of Indian lives for UN peacekeeping.) It simply does not go with the image. The suggestion that India must send troops to Afghanistan to help fight the Taliban is met with the common disapproval that it will make Afghans hate India, and that Muslims in India and around the world will not approve the ‘invasion’ of a Muslim country. This, even with the knowledge that Indian workers and officials in Afghanistan live amid considerable insecurity, and also that the long term costs of not defeating the Taliban are too great.

One would expect that after suffering centuries of invasion and enslavement, we would realize the importance of taking the battle to the enemy, of being the invader rather than the invaded. However, we absurdly continue to take pride in our historical shortcomings. Faced with two difficult neighbours, frequent terror strikes, and a host of other security challenges, we must be more open to bold suggestions that involve the use of the armed forces overseas.