January 2, 2011

An imagined sea

The Mediterranean Sea has a privileged position in western history, from European antiquity down to the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Scholars of diverse persuasions—embracing Weberian (Max Weber himself in the Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations), Marxist (Perry Anderson in Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism) or more ecumenical approaches (French historian Fernand Braudel in Memory and the Mediterranean)—have focused on the geography of the Mediterranean in tracing historical events and narratives.

There is no comparable vision for the Indian Ocean and South Asia, with good reason. There have been studies on the Indian Ocean as a conductor of trade, its linking of communities in historical times, across Asia and the Middle East, if not Rome itself. Now in a bold work, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert Kaplan has tried to bring a Mediterranean unity to South Asian shores. He does not, of course, do so overtly: the dream of unity imposed by the Indian Ocean, however, clearly underpins his vision for this part of the world.

It remains, alas, a dreamy vision. South Asian realities are very different from the unity of the ancient Mediterranean and inherited in the modern times by that part of Europe. Take the subcontinent proper from the middle of the 20th century to the present: there would be few countries and peoples with shared cultures and legacies that are so remote from each other. In terms of people to people exchanges, Pakistanis and Indians face far more formidable barriers than they do with, say, the United States. Indians in its Northeast have a deep fear of Bangladesh and its demographic nightmare. The Indian Ocean has little to do with these closed gates.

Religious fault-lines have had a big role to play in this divide. It does not require elaboration that subcontinental divides owe much to this. This, in turn, has had far-reaching geopolitical consequences. Today, it is much easier for Pakistan to imagine itself as a part of the greater Middle East than India. If anything this separation of universes, as it were, has accentuated as India has progressed and Pakistan rushes towards chaos. It has also had an unfortunate effect on other countries that have other, non-religious, affinities to India. Afghanistan and Bangladesh come to mind. They are, however, hostages to a history of painful, but unavoidable religious divide.

This, however, does not deter Mr Kaplan. He writes that,

“…Neither, for that matter, is it inevitable that the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and between Pakistan and India, will continue to have the same meaning they have today…In fact, for negative reasons like cross-border terrorist attacks as for positive ones like the construction of roads and pipelines, this vast region of the Mughal Empire may achieve a new kind of unity, ultimately bringing Sindh and Gujarat, as well as Central Asia and the Subcontinent, together once again, that is, South Asia to a Greater Middle East.” (page 123)

Roads and pipelines are not a point here. The issue is how these societies have diverged over a period of time and this is affecting their international outlooks and policy options. India, of all the countries in the region, has freed itself of socialist visions and is letting individuals and firms make choices that it denied them for long. This, to an extent, has led it to embrace free markets and the liberal democracies of the West as its natural partners. This, even as it maintains its historical and friendly ties with Russia. Pakistan and Bangladesh, either out of a desire to balance against India or gaining from playing India against China, have aligned with the latter. Their collectivist economic visions, with the government being the creator of economic order, gels well with the Chinese worldview. This and the political affinities between these nations are not mere coincidences.

Mr Kaplan ignores these contemporary realities and their historical roots. For any work that has geopolitics at its core, a historically grounded understanding of how states in a particular region behave is necessary if one is not to go wrong. Unfortunately there are few places in the book where he shows this necessary insight.

A second, perhaps less important point, is about the construction of the book. For any work of travel writing—and Monsoon certainly has a fair bit travel in it—to transcend its travelesque character, if one may call it that, and transmute into a geopolitically grounded work, is always a challenge. There are few, if any instances, of such transitions in a single work. Mr Kaplan has not managed to do this. Then, there is the minor matter of how chapters are organised and written. Often the appearance is that of disorganisation. One does not, for example, understand the role of a chapter on Gujarat (The Troubled Rise of Gujarat, chapter 6) sandwiched between chapters on Baluchistan and India (The View from Delhi, chapter 7). Gujarat, important as it may be from an economic point of view in India, has little role to play in the wider Indian Ocean setting. Those decisions are made in New Delhi.

There are other instances of this disorganisation. In chapter 9, there is a 10-page detour on the history of Robert Clive, the empire builder in India. It is de-linked from the discussion that precedes or follows it. Similarly in chapter 10 there are gratuitous references to “Indian strategic thinkers” being neo-Curzonian in outlook. He is, perhaps, not aware that Indian strategic thinkers (who are they?) are not in awe of Lord Curzon and in fact the last neo-Curzonian around was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (remember the forward policy with China?). Indian strategists, citizens at large and perhaps even some politicians may, unconsciously, have another British statesman as a model to emulate, exasperated as they are with the needless harrowing at the hands of their neighbours: Lord Palmerston.

South Asian history, so far, is solidly anchored in land and the sea is peripheral at best. This may change in the future but this is likely to have an Eastern stimulus, that of China trying to hem India locally. This has, and would have, little to do with unifying countries in the region. A Mediterranean vision, however pleasing its prospect, is not for South Asia.

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