Event ReportsPublished on Jul 19, 2014
China uses history in imaginative fashion. This aspect is evident in Chinese expansionism over land and sea. Therefore, the challenge is often to locate South Asia within the broader configurations of land and sea, says Prof. Rila Mukherjee, Head of History of the Hyderabad University.
South Asia on land and sea: Old networks, new Links

China uses history in imaginative fashion. This aspect is evident in Chinese expansionism over land and sea. Therefore, the challenge is often to locate South Asia within the broader configurations of land and sea. These were some of the salient points raised by professor Rila Mukherjee, Head, Department of History, University of Hyderabad, in her lecture on South Asia on Land and Sea: Old Networks New Links organised at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata on July 19, 2014.

Prof. Mukherjee devoted the first part of her lecture in mapping spatial configurations of South Asia. In doing so, she identified a number of repetitive and enduring uses of images through same kind of iconography and symbolism in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal worlds. The Court in Dali, Yunnan (1180 A.D.) bears influence received through North East India. Similarly, Ajanta cave in India and Longman cave in China have synergy in not just their architecture but also in their historical and cultural underpinnings. She also pointed out that the old maritime route ran through the Arabian Sea rather than the Bay of Bengal. The Silk route interestingly ran above the maritime route. In this context, maritime and land routes in ancient times should not be seen in isolation.

Prof. Mukherjee also talked about David Ludden’s work, History outside Civilization and the mobility of South Asia. She referred to the idea of civilization before nation-states have come to existence. This history is about travelers and unsettled peoples. This kind of history particularly finds resonance in the development of old silk route and maritime routes. In mapping Silk Route and the Bay of Bengal routes, she brought in the link of Indo-Roman trade and Indo-Greek contacts. In tracing the civilizational world of the Bay of Bengal, she drew attention to the fact that cultural exchanges were underpinned by commercial exchanges till 1600. There was a continuous circulation of spaces, connections, upstream-downstream links, routes, objects and peoples.

Prof. Mukherjee had delineated the major regions in Indian Ocean and their links with international waters. Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Arabian Sea have significant linkages with Western Indian Ocean. Similarly, Sea of Ceylon and Southern Bay of Bengal are positioned between Central and Eastern Indian Ocean. In Prof. Mukherjee’s view, history of a place cannot be understood properly without taking into account its relation with other places. Also relations between places are contingent upon relations people build in these places, added Prof. Mukherjee.

In analysing the challenges of present century, Prof. Mukherjee emphasized that ’globality’ rather than globalization is the issue here. She said that present West Asia, Eurasia, Central Asia have been parts of Northern Bay of Bengal world. She recalled that there has been a Wool route like Silk route in ancient terrestrial and maritime networks. She also drew attention to the persistent debate on North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and their security dynamics. China has its ambitions set in Asia and particularly Indian Ocean. Chinese expansionism in near seas and far seas is evident through port building, oil drilling, patrolling expeditions as also renewing historical claims through old Maritime route and Silk route. China has pursued the String of Pearls through port building in Hambantota, Sittwe or Gwadar port as a springboard to get access to East African markets. As drug and human trafficking made the horn of Africa a disturbed zone, north of Africa became increasingly lucrative for business and strategic concerns. To get into northern Africa, Indian Ocean region became very important for China.

Prof. Partha Pratim Basu of Jadavpur University presented his ensuing comments on Professor Mukherjee’s lecture. He reiterated the importance of India as Iran’s hinterland and the fact that Pakistan and Iran do not see eye to eye. These equations, according to him, make the Indian Ocean region and its sea routes strategically important. As China started seriously considering its industrialization ambitions, trade became very important in the region. Sea piracy and maritime terrorism securitized sea routes and Indian Ocean region. With securitization , power dynamics changed. Strategists in different countries wondered if India could counter to some extent Chinese expansionism especially in the high seas. Professor Basu recalled way back in 1990s India had started joint naval exercises with US causing worries in China.

Prof. Basu outlined that the call of the hour for India was to adopt a policy through which she could carve out a sphere of influence without threatening China in the Indian Ocean. In present time both India and China are expanding naval power. The challenge lies in identifying mutual reciprocities and areas of convergence.

(The report is being prepared by Swagata Saha, Research Assistant, Observer research Foundation, Kolkata)

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