Map of the Indian Ocean Littoral - the rim of the Indian Ocean (Image from www.indiaculture.nic.in)
Snapshot
  • By inviting representatives from BIMSTEC and SCO countries for the swearing-in ceremony, Narendra Modi was fulfilling the “Look East” and “Neighbourhood First” policies.

    It makes sense politically, diplomatically, economically and socially and builds on deep historical links.

Take a look at the map of the Indian ocean littoral — the rim of the Indian Ocean (the image above). This is the theatre where the drama of human life and civilisation originated and played out in the ancient world. The oldest centres of human excellence — in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China — are all around this rim. The great rivers Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Saraswati, Sindhu , Ganga and the Yangtze nurtured human populations that made significant improvements to the human condition throughout prehistory and history.

The Indian Ocean was the locus and centre for success in the economic and social arena for a very very long period after the emergence of civilisation. It was only much later, in the 2nd millennium CE, that the theatre of action shifted to the Atlantic Ocean. This shift occurred during the Eurocentric period of colonisation and the later rise of Europe and North America as political and economic powerhouses.

Now take another look at the map and consider the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) countries and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) countries. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand for the former and Kyrgyzstan, China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India and Pakistan for the latter. Add to the mix the tiny but significant country of Mauritius.

The invitation to the BIMSTEC countries, the President of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as well as the Prime Minister of Mauritius to the swearing-in ceremony of the new Prime Minister of India on the 30th of May now comes into sharp focus. That same Indian Ocean rim which has long been a centre of social and economic activity comes on to centre stage occupying its natural space vis a vis India.

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Some background

Let us consider some background here. The world has always been connected through trade and travel routes, through sea and land. India, at the centre of the Indian Ocean littoral, was in the enviable position of being at the centre of both the land and sea routes.

The map below gives an overall view of the trade routes and connections in the ancient world.

Map  showing ancient trade routes along the Indian Ocean littoral Map showing ancient trade routes along the Indian Ocean littoral

This sea route was combined with the land route for movement of people, ideas, trade and commerce. In this trade and exchange there were some countries such as India that dominated the scene. There is archaeological evidence from 500 BCE onwards of trade with Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. This increased by 200 BCE and with the emergence of kingdoms in South-East Asia after the first century CE, this process accelerated manifold.

In the first millennium CE India was in the forefront of exporting not only goods but ideas too. One look at the spread of the story of Shri Ram, the cult of the Buddha, stories from the Kathasaritasagar, Jaataka tales and the precepts of art and architecture, science, technology and mathematics will bear this out. From Angkor Wat to the Cambodian zero inscription at the Sambor Temple on the Mekong River or a shared cultural palimpsest of the Ramayana and Mahabharata from Myanmar to Khotan, Indonesia and Vietnam, the examples can fill volumes on their own.

After the seventh century, the Islamic religious influence formed a layer over this Indic base in some areas. The cultural influence, however, did not wane, nor did the trade, commerce and economic exchanges. This was the Indic sphere of influence that found its apogee during the Chola period. A glance at the map below offers a clear look at this.

Map showing the extent of the Chola empire c. 1030 Map showing the extent of the Chola empire c. 1030

Our history books and mainstream narrative prefer to talk of the Ghurids and the Mamluks and ignore the fact that India consolidated its position economically, socially and culturally in south and south-east Asia at the turn of the first millenium between the 9th and the 13th centuries under the leadership of the Chola Dynasty.

Use of the sea links also mandated the use of India’s own seaports on the west coast for linking towards Europe and Africa and on the east coast for linking towards the south and south-east Asia. The current Indian Departments of Inland Waterways and Rivers have been reviving these pathways in the past two years.

It is this sphere of influence that had been covered by the dust of ages. Islamic invaders focused attention towards the north and northwest. Equally, and naturally, the European colonialists looked towards their own continent.

What BIMSTEC and SCO entail

“Look East” and “Neighbourhood First” — the two policies on which this invitation to the swearing-in ceremony are founded on — makes sense politically, diplomatically, economically and socially and builds on deep historical links. It can even be said that India’s natural strategic compass had been restricted to half of the circle, and the east is now truly being rediscovered.

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BIMSTEC brings together 1.5 billion people, 21 per cent of the world’s population and a GDP of 2.7 trillion dollars. Add the SCO countries with the behemoths of China and Russia and the possibilities are indeed limitless.

The geography of BIMSTEC is such that distances from India to some southeast Asian centres are less than the distances between the northern and the southern tips of the country. Trade and commerce from some of the landlocked centres of the northeast will be facilitated by deepening the extension of trade with southeast Asia.

A strategic bonus is the engagement with China’s ambitions in the Bay of Bengal — all BIMSTEC countries, except India and Bhutan, have been entangled in the One Belt and One Road initiative. This is India’s natural sphere of international politics and diplomacy, a part of its field in the “Great Game” so to speak — to drag a colonial term into the modern age.

To sum up therefore, the 21st century is not the age of Eurocentrism. The wheel of time has turned and the Indian Ocean is regaining its position as the centre of world affairs. India is stepping up to a seat at the ‘High Table’ and reviving its traditional spheres of influence — a welcome step at a moment when Prime Minister Modi has been sworn in for his second term with a fantastic majority.

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