A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, ANTHROPOLOGISTS, led by the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, began documenting ceremonies that marked transitions in the social status of people or groups. These ceremonies, which van Gennep called “rites of passage”, usually represented the transformation of individuals from one status to another—from adolescent to adult, maiden to mother, or living to dead. In van Gennep’s classification, these rituals had three distinct phases: separation, transition and incorporation. First, the individual would break away from her group, by shedding its collective psychosocial characteristics. Then, a series of elaborate rituals would test her “worthiness” to join the destination-group. The final cycle of rites would completely assimilate her identity with that of a new and distinct collective.
Van Gennep’s rites of passage offer a useful analogy to understand the significance of India’s two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, which comes to an end this month. Between 1992, when India last served as a non-permanent member of the Council, and the beginning of the present term in 2011, the country’s rise as an influential voice in international politics presented an opportunity to break with the past.
Despite being a founding member of nearly every multilateral forum of note today—the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) in 1944, the United Nations in 1945, the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1955, the World Trade Organization in 1994—for most of its history, India had largely relegated itself to two functions at these venues: damage control and advocacy. When not defending our claim to Jammu & Kashmir, our aggression in East Pakistan, or our sovereignty against China, we were a vocal representative of the “global South”, a position that required neither muscle nor vision. India rallied against apartheid, advocated nuclear disarmament and promoted non-alignment—all weighty causes that did not require us to deliver concrete results. Meanwhile, we manipulated our neighbours’ politics and policies, imposed a national Emergency, enforced highly protectionist trade measures, and detonated a nuclear bomb.