The Geopolitics Of South Asia By Graham P. Chapman

Graham Chapman gives a comprehensive account of the geopolitics of the South Asian region and its changes, covering its almost entire history in a chronological order. Although the author emphasizes the introductory nature of his work, it shows how geological movements moulded the land of this major cultural cradle of the world, its characteristic features and their consequences, and how the great Hindu, Mogul and British empires impacted on the geography, culture and political structures of the region. In four major parts, supplemented by several figures, maps and contemporaneous quotations, the author shows how the organization of territory of various states, empires and democracies affected the cultural and economic development of the region. It is the third edition of the book, further regions have been added, reflecting the political changes of our times.  

Part I – Introduction

The first part consists of three chapters. Chapter 1 recalls how the Deccan Peninsula was formed throughout millions of years, and the significance of the mountains and rivers that have emerged – suffice it to remember such names as the Himalayas, the Rives Indus in the west, or the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in the east. Then the peoples and empires living or having migrated here are introduced: from the Veddoid and the Dravidian peoples and tribal groups to the Indus Valley civilisation, Asoka and various Hindu empires. The next two chapters dwell on Hinduism and the Islam in the context of the subcontinent. These chapters provide a detailed description of the Hindu caste system and civilisation the Islamist conquerors encountered, exploring in relevant chapters the various Muslim empires and the Mogul Empire founded by Babur – a descendant of Timur the Lame and Ghengis khan – and its heydays and decline. Finally, the author covers the Islamic tradition and the characteristics of Hindu-Muslim relationships, including the potential sources of risks. Rulers and politicians have often taken advantage of the gravest problem, communal conflicts, as the author remarks.

Part II – The British Raj

The fourth chapters of Part 2 present the long years of British rule, starting from the appearance of the British East India Company until the dependence and dissolution of India. The first chapter shows how the “British” notion of nation was formed, and the expansion of the empire, then gives a short account of early merchants and adventurers appearing in India. After that, we can follow how the Company was expanding on the subcontinent, and, with the diffusion of trade, becoming, deliberately or not, a political and military factor. It is followed by the history and the consequences of the Sepoy Mutiny, when the British Crown took over direct control from a heavily regulated Company deprived of many of its privileges. Then – in accordance with historical events – the author guides the reader through the geography of the “North-West frontier” of India, its geopolitical role, and the events of the Afghan Wars, paying special attention from a geopolitical perspective to the changes of the frontier. This effort was based on the British attempt to establish borders considered to be the best – for them – “on scientific grounds”, as a result of which they engaged in conflicts with several local tribes and ethnic groups and intervened in local politics, the contemporary implications of which are also discussed in the context of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the later war against terrorism. The author illustrates the significance of the North-West frontier by a quotation by geographer Halford Mackinder,

‘In all the British Empire there is but one land frontier on which war-like preparation must ever be ready. It is the north-west frontier of India.’

The next chapter describes how people mould nature and its impact on the subcontinent. In that age, it means the infrastructure developments of the British, from new railway networks and cities to the telegraph network and the vast irrigation system, which has become a sensitive issue between India and Pakistan in the twentieth century, giving a detailed account of economic and political implications in the background and their subsequent impact not only on India’s economy or administration but also on society, taking the emergence of a new caste engaged in operating railways as an example. On the closing pages of the chapter, the author sums up the effects of changes, such as the new regional economic hubs ignoring cultural or linguistic regions, the linguistic changes brought about by the appearance of the English language, or the characteristics of the emerging middle class of India, but in a self-reflective chapter he dwells on – as a criticism of the mainly British-centred narrative of the book – India’s civilisation impact, which almost unavoidably affected European expatriates. Finally, Chapter 3 of Part II (number 7 in number) gives a comprehensive picture of the Hindus’ and Muslims’ independence movements on the subcontinent, paying special attention to the dynamics of these two large communities, the impact of World War II, and the role of the British in establishing constitutional functions and in the partition of India.

Part III – The Successors States

Part III starts with a parallel by introducing the self-determination efforts of post-war Europe, for a better understanding of South Asian events. Then the author reviews the processes leading to independence and the partition, and the people and groups influencing it. In addition, the chapter gives a detailed account of the circumstances under which power was transferred, the role of Mountbatten and his balancing between Nehru and Jinnah. After Jinnah had achieved his goal, and the decision on dividing India had been made, there was only one more task left: to draw borders.  This, however, – as history has shown – was not completely successful, because of different interest groups, the short period of time available and the economic intertwining of various ethnic and religious groups.

Chapter 9 describes this process, giving a detailed account of the operations and challenges of Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s Boundary Commission, and the history of the division of specific areas, the nominally independent princely states in particular. It is not surprising that the chapter also pays special attention to the issue of Kashmir, as it is still a relevant one today. Not completely independently from the British political aspirations in the 19th century, which were fundamentally determined by rivalry with the Russians, Kashmir had become a part of the Empire, but, from the point of view of the later division, not without ambiguity. In addition, the ruling Maharaja and the elite were Hindus, while the majority of the population were Muslims. In this difficult situation, the Maharaja sought to achieve independence, but both states intervened again, due to conflicts and ethnic cleansing flaring up during the partition, establishing the still existing conflict-ridden situation.

Chapter 10 presents the partition of Pakistan in 1972 and the birth of Bangladesh, adding all the causes and social-economic conflicts that have led to the present situation despite their shared religiousness, which also has a role in how these states are organised. Chapter 11 focusses on the internal organisation of successor states, in which regionalism has had a prominent role. In the context of India, the – often military – integration of theoretically independent princely states and areas is presented, as well as the effects of linguistic tensions moulding provinces. In relation to Pakistan, the author focusses on the negative effects of the Centre-Province conflict, adding the consequences of the resolute founder of the state, Jinnah’s untimely death, which, beside other reasons, has contributed to the now traditional, excessive political influence of the military.

The next chapter, number twelve in number, which forms a new part of the third edition, gives an overview on the history, role and geopolitical significance of the north-eastern (frontier) areas. Assam and the north-eastern region, which had not been incorporated into any South Asian empires until the arrival of the British thanks to its barren mountains and the countless, diverse tribes living here, first became important because of the production of tea, but have been home to numerous conflicts since the beginning of the twentieth century, including Japan’s invasion attempts into India during World War II, the China-India War in the Cold War years, the origins of which go back to the border arbitration attempts of the British and still determines the relationship between the two countries, but the separatists movement in Nagaland also cause a  recurring problem to the Indian government.

Then the author returns to the issue of irrigation and river training systems, which has caused problems to both Pakistan, and Bangladesh and India after its dissolution. The water management debate between India and Bangladesh is described here as well, as the Farakka barrage built near the Bangladesh border has an adverse effect on the water quality and quantity of the River Ganges arriving in the country, exacerbating floods in the flood-prone country, as some experts claim.

Chapter 14, entitled as Greater Game by the author, is a summary of post-war South Asian relations in geopolitical terms. Here, in sub-chapters, the author gives an account of the foreign policy situation, goals, existing or potential challenges of the countries he believes to be relevant, introducing the Soviet Union/Russia, the USA, the China-Tibet issue with the Himalayan War in 1962, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh, India, and briefly dwells on Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, and regional organisations. He places them into the same geopolitical background, regarding the subcontinent as an independent geopolitical region like Mackinder and Cohen did, but questions their relevance with a view to the changes brought about by the war against terrorism. After an introduction into the relations of specific countries, recognizing their entanglement, he attempts to interpret these relationships and alliances with a triangular method, with the analysis of the politics of triangles, examining their possible future changes. In the conclusion to the chapter, Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations is referred to as it is considered to be relevant in the context of India-Pakistan relations and their internal political developments.

Part IV – Conclusions

The closing chapter of the book gives an overview of the history, the present and the future of South Asia. Drawing on the work of previous researchers, the author identifies the traditional subunits or core areas of the subcontinent and points out that the history of South Asia can be best described by the unification attempts of various depth and extension by these core areas, until the appearance of the British, whose integrating and nature-moulding activities eliminated the relevance of traditional historical-geographical regions. In this respect, he draws a parallel between the post-independence history of South Asia and the European Union; while in Europe, the latter half of the twentieth century was the history of integration, in South Asia it was the history of disintegration. On these grounds, it should be noted that the secession of the South Deccan, despite historical events, would have been more likely than the division of Bengal and Punjab. The next subchapter covers the issue of an all-Indian identity, the emergence of the idea of self-determination, regional-pan-South-Asian issues and problems that still exist despite new borders.  The author gives a short account of the economy and population of the major states, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, in the last seven decades, and tells a few words on possible civilisational differences, referring to Huntington again.

Finally, the last subchapter of the book sums up the theory of politics of reactions, which often explains the history of the region after the Sepoy Mutiny, and which basically states that the power has always yielded too late and too little (the British to Nationalists, the Indian Congress to Jinnah and the Muslim League, West Pakistan to East Pakistan) but he does not see this alternative interpretation of history underpinned. Although he is laconic about the future of the region, he highlights the risks of the Pakistan-India opposition, which he contrasts with the cohesion of the South Asian civilisation, and the potential of the organisation symbolizing it, SAARC (South-Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).

Closing Remarks

The book reviewed above counts as essential both for professionals and laymen interested in the region or geopolitics. On the one hand, the book is a coherent overview, but the narrative, encompassing great historical eras, does not compromise minor details; on the one hand, it is done in a form that is rare today, by integrating several perspectives, approaches and methodologies. The book draws parallels at several points between the empire-building efforts of various eras, adopting an interdisciplinary approach, using, among others, geographical, hydrographical, economic and theological viewpoints. As a criticism, the relative neglect of Sri Lanka, Tibet and Bhutan should be highlighted, which is, unfortunately, not  a characteristic of this book only; the role of Nepal and Bangladesh, however, receives more emphasis than usual, which is definitely a positive point.

Author: Ádám Róma

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