Understanding South Asia
The most populated and densely populated region in Asia, South Asia is a sprawling mass of land and sea. It covers around five million square kilometres, or 3.5 percent of the world’s land surface, and houses a quarter of humanity. Within its frontiers, eight countries shelter a dazzling potpourri of ethnicities, faiths, dialects, cultural and behavioural patterns, alternating between conflict and coexistence.
Nations thrive on borders, and borders define their state of being, as they do elsewhere. In South Asia, however, communities define themselves beyond borders. Very few ethnic groups find themselves unable to claim a home in more than one country, and among those exceptions are the Sinhalese. Yet even the Sinhalese are wedded to other ethnic groups, by virtue of the past.
South Asia is defined by a country, the most populous after China, and an ocean that bears its name, the largest after the Pacific and the Atlantic. But South Asia isn’t only India, just as the Indian Ocean isn’t South Asia: occupying 20 percent of the world’s sea surface or a total of 118 million square kilometres, it covers the East African coast to the west and the Arabian Peninsula to the northwest, extending from Thailand to Australia to the east and the fringes of the sea covered by the North Atlantic Treaty to the south. If not the busiest ocean in the world, it is the most contested: the sea, after all, accounts for more than 90 percent of trade and commerce, and it depends on shipping containers and freighters.
The Indian Ocean links West Asia with the South China Sea, and it is there that containers and freighters matter. According to Brookings Institute, no fewer than 36 million oil barrels pass through it every day. That’s 40 percent of global oil supplies, or 64 percent of oil trade.
Oil is big business, though that’s not all there is to the Indian Ocean.
Before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century, the area witnessed several waves of trade and proselytisation, above all from the Arabs. Milo Kearney puts it in his study of the rise of maritime commerce in the region that it was the Sumerians, the first people in history to create a civilisation of their own, who gained control of trade over a significant part of the Indian Ocean somewhere in the third or fourth millennium BC.
When the ox-drawn plough was invented in the fourth millennium BC, the Sumerians harvested a surplus of wheat and barley that they proceeded to trade for other goods. This brought to life an advanced social structure, based on carefully defined hierarchies of power and authority and a flourishing mercantile community. From the links the latter established with the Indus Valley, they spread wide and far through their intermediaries, to Spain to the West, in the Atlantic, and to China to the East, in the Pacific.
By the second millennium BC the Mediterranean was rapidly coming into contact with the Indian Ocean. Then as now, the key to gaining control of trade in the area was the monsoon: the southwest from May to September, the northeast from October to November. Although figuring in the works of early Greek writers, Herodotus included, it isn’t until Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BC that, as Ephraim Lytle puts it, “[m]ore reliable and detailed information begins to emerge.”
However vague and unreliable these may seem to us, they are the precursors to more descriptive accounts of ambassadors, traders, and historians that we get in later times, in particular during the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Hellenistic Egypt. If we are to believe Kosmas Indikopleustes, the Europeans, Chinese, and Persians, and even Ethiopians were vying for access to trade over the sea.
With maritime commerce, however, comes the prospect of piracy; then as now, as the Rig Veda tells us, ships had to be secured from the gaze of seaborne outlaws along the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden. From the Greeks to the Romans to the Arabs, the key to all these attempts to wrest control of the region was the monsoon. Shifting between two cycles or seasons, the monsoon is, as Robert Kaplan notes, “more than just a storm system.”
When the Roman General Gallus sailed up the Nile to the frontiers of Ethiopia, Strabo of Amasia, the geographer accompanying him, heard of more than 120 Western merchant ships setting sail to India from the port of Myos Hormos in the Red Sea using seasonal winds. Constructed by the Ptolemies in the third century BC, it was this port which afforded traders to the West of the Suez a passage to the Indian Ocean. Trade from such places enabled the rise of an entire exchange system that flourished at the time of the Mauryans in India and the Qin Emperors in China. Through commerce, the Indian Ocean “held a central position.”
Roman merchants ramped up trade in spices and luxury goods, with Roman coinage making its way to India. During Claudius’s reign, the monsoon diverted off course a ship belonging to a tax collector, Annius Plocamus, to the port of Sri Lanka; though both the Romans and Greeks had heard of this country, Taprobane, it was a freedman of Plocamus who first came into contact with it. The envoys sent back to Rome by the king of Taprobane at the time — Vasabha, Vankanasika Tissa, or Chandra Mukhasiva — were, as one scholar has averred, not Sinhalese but Tamil, with their leader, Rachias, serving as a chief courtier.
Arab engagement with the Indian Ocean began somewhere in the eighth century AD, peaking in the 11th and 12th before ebbing somewhere in the 14th. It did not die down completely: the Mughals remained in power until the 17th century, and with the patronage of the Kandyan kings, Arabs continued as traders and advisors, and even courtiers, in Sri Lanka, long after Portuguese and Dutch conquest.
The Europeans of these centuries were not like the Greeks and the Romans before them; for them, the Indian Ocean represented “the imaginary treasure house of unlimited wealth.” As Eric Wolf has observed in his Europe and the People Without History, it was their voyages to Asia that really sparked off their voyages to Africa and America.
By the time they sailed to the Indian Ocean in the 15th century AD, power was in the hands of tributary overlords — these were hardly feudal states in the European sense — with far larger populations and population densities and far greater levels of productivity than in Europe. The fate of 400 years of European conquest of this stretch of sea was sealed with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in India in 1497 AD; eight years later, the first Portuguese fleet found its way to Sri Lanka, unleashing three waves of colonialism that ended, on paper at least, towards the second half of the 20th century.
Geography survives history. The littoral states, chokepoints, and sea lines of communication across the Indian Ocean remain as they were when the Arabs came into contact with them a thousand years ago. But the politics governing them has changed, dramatically.
From a peripheral outpost in the Cold War — one which underlay a fundamental imbalance of power between the US and the Soviet Union, as the latter was to learn later on — South Asia has evolved into a hotbed of tension between India and Pakistan to the northeast and India and China to the northwest today. The return of the Taliban has merely exacerbated these tensions to an entirely new level, as events there foretell.
Ved Malik has called South Asia a “unified security zone”, and indeed ever since K. M. Panikkar claimed that the Indian Ocean should remain Indian, the entire area, extending to the corners of the Horn of Africa and the Seychelles, has become trapped in a security quagmire. When Barry Buzan formulated his theory of regional security complexes, he took as his unit of analysis the Indian subcontinent; in his assertion that states fear neighbouring states more than distant ones, he described the existential threat that subcontinent continues to face, even now.
To understand South Asia, we must understand its history before we do its geography. This is essential, not because geography is a secondary concern, but because history can help us understand the geopolitics of the region today. The two great wars of the last century were defined by the Atlantic and the Pacific. Not so the wars of the future, if they are waged at all and if they involve India and China athwart the Indian Ocean.
Someone called Europe an idea; Gandhi called Western civilisation a good idea. But South Asia is more than just an idea, good or bad: it is a tangible reality, playing host to a potpourri of ethnicities that have somehow learnt to live with one another. The problems of the coming decade — the rise of China and the return of the Taliban, to mention two — will be decided in this theatre. It is time we see the players, and start making some decisions.