I attended a talk by the eminent journalist and Minister of State for External Affairs M. J. Akbar. Made some notes:
– On the need to understand Geopolitics. Geography is well studied and so is history. But the marriage of the two is under-appreciated. Iran is closer than Bangalore to Delhi. Indonesia is a mere thirty miles off the Andamans. Are these factoids of any consequence? Of course. They are unobserved truths. West Asia, involved in a bloody conflict, is a mere three miles from the last (Greek) Island of Europe. We have seen how ready Europe was to refugees from these conflict-ridden countries.
– What is this vast landmass called Asia? The word itself was coined by Greeks, the first explorers of Asia. Asia is the wife of the Prometheus, the God of forethought and fire. All the faiths of any significance today have originated in Asia. India in particular, he said, has seen every faith from its roots. While the West used the seas as stages of military conflict, mercantile ships were sailing in the Indian Ocean ever since.
– All empires of the Medieval period fell – and what filled the vacuum? Nation states. Nation states, though far from perfect, gave stability and peace a chance. He referred to Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. I’ve read the preface; the book analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the powers of the day relatively to those of others. For geographical expansion to be sustainable, there has to a commensurate economic and technological progress. [A pirated copy of the book is just a Google search away.]
– On pluralism and the Indian experience: empires had to allow pluralism; they have vast expanses, multiple languages and faiths. Nation states, generally smaller, are built on a single identity. What would a new nation, born out of the crown jewel of a great empire, look like? Indian constitution, he said, is the ideal blueprint for any modern nation, written by our ‘impossibly great’ leaders who were at the fore of the Independence movement.
The success of European colonialism was due to the weaknesses of the colonial states as well as the greed/ruthlessness of the colonising nation. Consider, he said, what Belgium did in Congo and Britain in Bengal to know the extent of the looting. Speaking of famines that were solely due to the British policies, he said the memories of famine unfortunately are not in our collective conscience. ‘Try dying of hunger,’ he said. Our forgetfulness of the horrific past also reflects in the way we treat our poor today, and the middle-class today is too possessive of its escape from poverty to spare a thought for the plight of the poor. “The Irish had one potato famine, and they made sure to not forget it. . . my hope is that the Indian scholarship one day does justice to its past.” Asked for his opinion on political interference hampering research in history, he said, “I can only agree with you.”
– India today, is in a unique position. To its east is a chain of countries which, notwithstanding authoritarian rule and demographic conflicts, are on the path to economic progress. This region has risen from the ashes of destruction following the decline of colonialism, and realised that economic progress is the path to prosperity. This is the phoenix horizon. To the west of India is, with a few exceptions, a vast region embroiled in conflict over faith. This is the toxic horizon. Pointing to the persecution of Yazidis by ISIS, he said previous regimes, as recent as the Baath’s, allowed multiple faiths to coexist. He went on to say that Islam, broadly faith, has never been a tool for political consolidation.
– Returning to geopolitics, Mr Akbar said that nations like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Singapore are looking up to India, a major economy and a thriving democracy, for ways to tackle the terrorism menace. Indeed, the Muslim population of India, Bangladesh and South East Asia is more than half of the world’s – another unnoticed truth. Reiterating the thesis of Kennedy’s book, he said that the answer to terrorism – primarily a military problem – must include ways to achieve prosperity and equity. And the populace of India seeks transformation in this generation. The future of Asia, he said, hinges on the future of India.
I think that ought to be the narrative of our nation in the coming years.