“There was a colonial history behind the India-Switzerland Friendship Treaty that the Swiss public is not aware or doesn’t want to talk about.”
Newly independent India and Switzerland entered into a Friendship Treatyexternal link on August 14, 1948 that was signed by the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Swiss ambassador to India Armin Daeniker.
Besides promising “perpetual peace and unalterable friendship” the treaty also granted Swiss citizens and businesses the right to ply their trade in India at an uncertain time. Today, the Treaty has become a talisman of historically good ties between the two nations. Opinion is divided over whether it is a gesture of friendship or made to appear as one to serve the needs of diplomats, politicians and businesses.
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For me the Friendship Treaty from 1948 and the celebration of it in 2008 and now in 2018 has been a platform for different political and economic actors to serve their interests. In 1948, the Treaty helped Switzerland and especially its colonially complicit enterprises to re-position themselves in a decolonising India. After the liberalisation of the Indian market in the 90s, Switzerland had to accept that India had become a global player. Surprisingly, it was quite late in realising this. The celebration of 60 years of the Friendship treaty offered a possibility to catch up and so will the 70th anniversary.
In order to understand what is happening now, we have to understand the past. There was a colonial history behind the India-Switzerland Friendship Treaty that the Swiss public is not aware or doesn’t want to talk about. There is an amnesia around the fact that Switzerland was very keen to be a part of the colonial race in the 19th century. Parliament decided in the 1880s that it was not viable for Switzerland to have colonies as the country was too small, the endeavour was too expensive, and the military force needed was lacking. The economic way was chosen as the strategy.
For example, the Swiss trading company called Volkart Brothers that started off in Winterthur in 1851 was able to become one of the big players in the Indian – and even global – cotton trade. Around 1900, most of the Swiss companies like Rieter or Nestlé had already established a base in India. These Swiss companies were the junior partners of the British in their colonial free trade activities. The Volkart company even served as the first Swiss consul in India. There was a very close connection between business and politics.
The First World War threatened this strategy. The companies realised they couldn’t partner with the British as that could mean problems with the Germans. They started to fashion the idea of neutrality that was not so important before. The Indian boycott in the 1920s was also another threat as Switzerland was one of the biggest European exporters to the Orient at the time. They used neutrality to position themselves between the Indian Independence movement and the British. It was a very fragile position to be in. This insecurity was even enhanced in the Second World War and with Indian Independence. How could business be continued?
Thus, the offer of the Friendship Treaty by the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948 was a great relief for the Swiss. It gave the Swiss companies the right to stay in India after independence provided they had licenced partnerships with Indian companies. India also became one of the main focus countries for development cooperation and overseas aid is always connected to economic deals.
Through the Friendship Treaty, Switzerland could redefine its role as one of a paternal partner of India: we are in charge, we know how things work, we can help you develop. Further, the Treaty allowed Switzerland to step out of the unfashionable role of a colonial mini power and cleanse its moral burden of complicity.
Today, people and actors in Switzerland are quite confused how to handle this ambivalence of India as a poor country and as a growing capitalist super power. There is still a lot of exoticism and sympathy towards India: they are spiritual, they are poor and need help, they are always smiling, etc. From the Indian side, there is the Bollywood angle with Indians coming to Switzerland on their honeymoons to recapture the romance of the Indian films shot here. However, when it comes to real interactions, the people of the Swiss mountain resort of Engelberg did not want Indian tourists when they first came as they felt they did not know how to behave. There is lot of “not knowing each other” on the ground. But, it is not about intercultural difference, but about postcolonial relations on different levels.
There are many questions on post-colonial relations with India like how to interact on the same level. Switzerland has to first acknowledge that they have a colonial history, which is part of the national identity and expressed through ways like humanitarian aid. It creates this perception of “we are the good guys” without understanding the perspective of others. There is still the idea that Europe is the cultural and economic navel of the world. This attitude might not easily allow the two countries to be real friends in a globalising world.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.