How did South Asia come to be what it is?
There is this amazing guy called Ollie Rye who lives in the UK. He has been making history-based animations, and for a few years, has been putting them on Youtube as videos which are watched by hundreds of thousands of people.
There I came across an animation video on the history of what is now vaguely called South Asia. It starts roughly with the Harappan era and ends with the 21st century.
The video shows the changing political landscape in that period by showing political boundaries of all autonomous and semi-autonomous entities.
Thus, it tries to give a very fine-grained idea about political entities — spanning small, medium, and large-sized kingdoms, empires, semi-independent governorates, colonial empires, princely states, and contemporary entities like Indian Union, Pakistan, etc including erstwhile semi-independent countries like Sikkim.
It does all of this in about 10 minutes. In those 10 minutes, orders changed, countries vanished and appeared, far away things joined up and then split up and joined up with something else and so on. It was dynamic.
Change is the only constant
That’s how the past is. Dynamic. So is the present. So will be the future. Change is the only constant of the human condition.
Now what struck me in seeing this, and I have had this thought before, is that our imaginations of what is our homeland, what is far, what is near, is so much shaped in a top-down manner by present political ideologies which we as citizens are expected to accept as our own identities.
Thus, Indian Union constructs the “Indian” with an increasingly not-so-subtle Hindu overtone, whereas a West Bengali is expected to feel more at one with a Tamil or a Haryanvi than an East Bengali. Pakistan started as a “Muslim India” of sorts and still carries on a schizophrenic existence torn between that idea and an idea that uses the Indus river as the civilisational binding axis.
In the former imaginary, as a “Pakistani,” a Pathan was supposed to feel closer to an East Bengali Muslim and less close to a Pathan across the Durand line. Even the idea of South Asia presents such a problem — is Pakistan western South Asia or eastern Middle East?
And these questions are not merely geographical, but ideological. And one needs to look deep into questions like why are these binaries presented, how did we acquire them, why did earlier identities change, how is even this sense of “earlier” constructed, what kind of anxieties of both the citizen and the state animate such anxieties of identity, whose purpose does each imaginary serve, what is the relationship of each of those many imaginaries with the person and, most importantly, the mother of all questions — how did we come to be the way we are?
That’s how the past is. Dynamic. So is the present. So will be the future. Change is the only constant of the human condition
Such imaginations also change distances — distances in the real world, distances of the mind. Thus, in a certain kind of imaginary that Delhi inherits from London and also wants to push as part of its geo-politics, Isfahan is farther from Lucknow than London, and Nanjing is farther from Chennai than New York or even more ridiculously, Dhaka is farther from Kolkata than Delhi.
Such distances serve power. Such distances destroy parts of our culturally-inherited multi-faceted selfhoods. They do create new facets also, in line with power.
Thus, in these times, when one starts measuring distances differently from what your state authorities want you to do, it is deemed bizarre at best, seditious at worst.
For Islamabad wants you to think that Pakistan has natural and ideological coherence and concocts it daily. So does Delhi. The whole imaginary Himalayan barrier and the seas around the peninsula with what lies within being a “natural” unit is a concept that is in the service of integrity.
Anxieties about this integrity make power drive in such concepts of coherence every moment into the heads of its citizenry — media, schools, universities, textbooks, official narratives, allowed histories, foundational myths, monuments, plaques, remembrances, creation of figures who are beyond critique and so on.
But still, memories persist, other imaginaries persist, and even the state cannot control every aspect of every dynamic that shapes human beings. And in that space that power can’t control, in that crack, lies hope.
In the 15th century with contemporary transport technologies, the so-called “natural” barrier of the Himalayas did not stop 12 diplomatic missions from the independent country of Bengal to the court of the Ming emperor of China in Nanjing. After Bengal’s Hindu king Ganesh installed his son Jadu (who later converted to Islam and became Jalaluddin as a truce between the Muslim Pathan nobility, Muslim clergy and the Hindu king Ganesh), a section of the clergy was not happy with the sham “Islamic” arrangement where Ganesh remained the power behind the throne.
Surely, many non-spiritual interests of this section of the Muslim clergy were also affected. They banded together to invite the Sultan of Jaunpur to invade Bengal. Who does Bengal call to avert this crisis? Well, the Ming emperor of China. The emperor sends a senior government functionary as well as forces under a senior admiral by sea. The invasion does not happen due to China mediated negotiations. Delhi was not part of this picture at all.
What is India?
Where, then, was India or even South Asia for that matter? How did Bengal then imagine its neighbourhood? Did it have Jaunpur, Bengal, China, and what’s now Burma? Whatever it was, it wasn’t Bharatmata for sure.
Areas, closeness, and alliance were very differently imagined not too long ago before the British acquired Bengal and went on to add things to this “Bengal” so much so that at one point of time it was the whole Gangetic plain and even Punjab.
That even west Punjab was nominally under the administrative unit called Bengal as late as 1858 was reversed in 1971 when East Bengal fought to be free from West Punjab rule. The British grabbed lands, joined them together, and the result was called India.
Our contemporary imagination of East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, South-East Asia, and our ideas of them as distinct politico-cultural spheres are the result of European colonialism in Asia.
Distances were different earlier. Bengal sent the same gift to China twice in the first half of the 15th century and it reflected Bengal’s international trade links then — the imaginary of near and far.
The gifts were imported to Bengal and then exported to China. It was not muslin. They were giraffes from Africa.
Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on Twitter @gargac.